Why is light rail still in the sidings? The case for trams

Nottingham Express Transit. Image: Elliott Brown/Flickr/creative commons.

Transport has been the Cinderella department of almost every government since the Second World War. No minister of any party has ever been in office for long enough to address the challenges of growing mobility, the funding and provision of public transport and the increase in cars on the road.

Tram schemes have been promised, and then disappeared with depressing regularity. Green Light for Light Rail, was published by the Department for Transport in 2011. Several similar reports have been written, usually about every decade or so, and nothing is ever learned by the government of the day

Letting trams disappear from our city streets was a terrible error. Failing to build new schemes compounds the mistake. Trams fit neatly between buses and metro systems or conventional railways. Yes, they are more expensive to build but, in the long term are cheaper to operate for a given capacity, have lower whole-life costs, offer higher commercial speeds, reduce pollution, and are more successful in attracting motorists to public transport.

In the UK, in almost every city where tram systems have been built, usage has massively exceeded original forecasts. Since Croydon introduced trams in 1995, public transport usage has increased by 30 per cent and car use has dropped by nearly 19 per cent. In Nottingham, public transport usage in the tram corridor is up by 20 per cent in the peak periods and road congestion has been reduced by as much as 9 per cent. Some 30 per cent of Nottingham tram passengers have directly transferred from car or Use Park and ride.

Buses are not a cheaper alternative as much as an inadequate short -term fix. Where there is high demand (at least 2,500 passengers per hour in each direction) trams are cheaper than buses. Large numbers of buses are needed to provide equivalent capacity, leading to high staffing and vehicle costs, and roads becoming congested with (empty) buses, as anyone who has travelled along Oxford Street in London will recognise.

We might usefully look across the Channel to mainland Europe where light rail schemes abound and where engagement with utilities does not create the same problems. This is partly down to legislation, partly to culture, but also to less demanding standards, such as the depth required to excavate before laying new lines.

Across Europe – especially in France, with Grenoble, Strasbourg and Nantes, to name but three schemes – high frequency tram services have been combined with car park and ride sites on city outskirts, integrated ticketing and strictly controlled traffic and parking restrictions in city centres. This, plus an overarching belief in the value of an attractive “urban realm”, has had a revolutionary effect on transport use and made the cities much more pleasant to live and work in.

Several studies looked at the lessons we can learn from the French approach to planning new trams. They all concluded that integration, regeneration and secure funding are keys as to why France has more light rail systems than the UK. (It is interesting to note that more recent comparative studies are hard to find – perhaps repeated examples of why other countries have built new networks and the UK has not become a little galling after the first few).

This means there is an opportunity. As the 2019 Conservative manifesto said, Leeds, with its population of 700,000, is the biggest city in Europe without a tram. Perhaps the party forgot that it had been in government for the last 10 years. At any rate, the government should be encouraging of these and other revenue raising possibilities for local authorities. It should allow local authorities to issue bonds so that they can invest in transport infrastructure

If the government is serious about devolution, localism and “levelling up the North”, it should give local authorities more freedom to develop funding packages and new sources of local revenue. 

Equally, devolution means that the Government must take local views seriously when making decisions about Government funding for trams. Where local authorities and local people believe that a tram is the best solution for their area, the government’s role is to help build the tram, not to try to persuade them that the bus is always best. 

People won’t leave their cars at home until there is an efficient, reliable and comfortable alternative. Trams provide that alternative. No other form of public transport allows you to travel about town smoothly and quietly, doesn’t emit noxious exhaust fumes, doesn’t need a parking space, runs so frequently that you don’t even need a timetable – and actually enhances the urban environment.


The British government wants more mayors and fewer councils in England

York Minster, York: could this city soon be the capital of a single local district 100 miles across? Image: Oli Scarff/AFP/Getty

As the UK's Covid-19 situation gradually recedes from “all-consuming crisis” levels, the government is beginning to think about other things again – among them, how to reform local governance in England.

It's a subject that has popped up periodically since the late 1960s, with national leaders occasionally seeking to reduce the layers of local government and standardise their duties. For most of recent history, local government in most of England has had a two-tier structure: county councils control services including education, transport and social care; while smaller district councils handle issues including planning, waste, leisure and libraries. 

Now, this autumn, national government is set to release a long-awaited report documenting ministers' plans for "unitarisation", the process by which areas with two tiers of government become areas with one tier. This promises to be quite a big deal – the biggest reform to English local government in 35 years, according to the Financial Times.

The upcoming white paper will “set out our ambitious plans for more mayors, greater powers and financial incentives to be given to local councils who embrace reform, and set out the important role we want local councils to play in economic growth in the future", communities secretary Robert Jenrick, the Cabinet minister in charge of the report, said in mid-July. (It's worth noting, however, that these plans don't apply to London or other big metropolitan areas, which are moving toward two-tier systems, with councils sitting below combined authorities that have elected mayors.)

The idea is to better control the costs of local administration, but there are few signs that reform will bring the sort of tax-raising powers and fiscal independence enjoyed by city governments in much of the rest of the democratic world.

England's local councils only have the money and powers that are granted to them by national government, and having an elected mayor doesn't automatically change this. A mayor can point to a popular mandate, but the main reason this reform might lead to more powerful local government is simply because national government has promised to give councils more powers if they adopt mayors. Exactly what powers will be on offer, and whether they will live up to this billing, remains to be seen.

For councils themselves, it's a bit of a mixed bag. They probably will get more money and powers. Still, many don’t want to adopt a mayoral system, partly because it represents a radical upheaval to the system councillors are used to – and partly, if cynically, because it means more power for voters and less for local parties.

Radical reform efforts of this kind have repeatedly been abandoned but, since 1992, a growing area of the country has transitioned to governance under unitary authorities.

The areas covered by unitary councils are in red. Image: Gwdihŵ/Wikimedia Commons.

The government has repeatedly reassured councils that it won’t mandate unitarisation: instead, it plans to offer extra money and powers for those areas that adopt it, in the hope that reform will then come from the bottom up.  But two weeks ago, Britain's regional growth minister, and one of Jenrick’s deputies, Simon Clarke told a conference that any area that wanted a mayor, with the “resulting funding and freedoms”, would need to move ahead with it. Details about the exact money and powers on the table have so far stayed surprisingly hazy (the devolution deals passed so far have all been individually negoiated, and consequently all differed). Nonetheless, the message is clear: if an area wants to stay two-tier, then don’t come crying to us when you don’t get the powers your neighbours do.

The arguments in favour of unitarisation are simple. Firstly, it’s more comprehensible: If your rubbish bin wasn't emptied, you no longer need to remember whether that was a failure of your district or your county. With only one council, it must be that council's job – and by the same token, there's less room for buck-passing from the councils themselves.

Secondly, and more pressingly, it’s more sustainable, simply because it’s cheaper to run one council than half a dozen. Even before the pandemic there was a growing gap between the amount of money local governments have and the amount they need, as the cost of providing social care for the elderly ballooned even as council budgets were repeatedly slashed by austerity. Now that gap looks set to run into the billions. Not surprising, then, that the national government wants its reforms to cut costs.

Against that, though, there are two problems. One is that unitarisation risks increasing the distance between councils and the public. The combined authorities would cover larger populations and swathes of land, with most expected to represent between 300,000 and 700,000 residents.

The earliest unitary councils generally covered district-sized urban or suburban areas. More recently, though, they’ve started covering entire counties, including Cornwall (which is relatively small) and Northumberland (which isn’t). The areas now in talks about becoming unitaries reportedly include Cumbria, the East Riding of Yorkshire, and North Yorkshire. The last of these is around a hundred miles across. Some proposed mergers are already receiving pushback from the public: a petition has already attracted nearly 9,000 signatures opposing Blackburn With Darwen council swallowing its neighbours.

The other problem is that abolishing certain councils will mean putting a bunch of councillors out of a job. Those same councillors are also the activist bases of the nation's political parties. This is one reason reform has often proved difficult in the past: whichever party is in government, local government reform risks hobbling it at the next election. It remains to be seen whether an 80-seat majority in Parliament will make that any easier. 

The government's white paper, of course, is merely one stage in the policy-making process. If the plans move forward, the government will still need to turn them into legislation, and get it passed by Parliament. The bottom-up process it favours points to a lengthy period of talks among councils, too, as they agree on the boundaries of new local authorities, as well as more prosaic matters like which offices to retain. And then, the government will need to pass statutory instruments to create the new councils. 

The recent reorganisation of nine councils in Dorset into just two is, in many ways, a model for the new proposal. That process took over three years. Even if the plans aren't derailed, it will likely be some time before these proposals result in large-scale reform.

Jonn Elledge was founding editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.