Scotland’s independent think tank
Scotland’s independent think tank

Reform of Transport Governance: From Passing the Buck to Consensus for Change – Derek Halden

The governance structures for the organisations that run transport in Scotland have not changed very much for more than 15 years and a gap is also growing between ambitious transport policy aims and weak delivery of transport change. Transport policy changes reflect growing needs for better connections, lower emissions and more equitable opportunities. Nuanced changes to bus regulation, rail ownership, road tolls, transport prices and a host of other initiatives have not altered the fundamentals of transport governance.

At the same time, changes to transport and logistics have been instrumental in enabling the economy and society to transform over the last 50 years from relatively fixed patterns of activity to a system of highly flexible connections. Labour and housing markets, and growing service industries, rely on staff and customers having growing flexibility about how and when they travel. Online retail platforms such as Amazon are now amongst Scotland’s largest transport operators, and the value of transport data often exceeds the cost of providing transport, but transport data governance is weak, and the fastest growing transport businesses are poorly engaged with Scotland’s transport policy challenges.

Clearer accountability for transport performance and better engagement with users is needed. Scotland’s national transport strategy recognises the need for governance change, but progress is currently too slow to meet the fast-growing challenges of net-zero transport and technology change. The new dawn for local government envisaged by Christie Commission in 2011, for collaborations and joint working, have not materialised at scale. Far from being locally democratic enablers of social change, local government still prioritises legacy service delivery functions, even as traditional funding sources run dry. This means that even the basics of transport delivery, like comprehensive bus network coverage, fair parking charges and efficient road maintenance are struggling to remain viable. Given the prevailing weak accountability for poor performance, the only highly developed part of transport governance in Scotland is the blame game

No systematic review of governance has been published for some time, but the ideas below build from the debates in the early 1990s leading up to the 1996 local government reform, and the subsequent reforms in the 2005 Transport (Scotland) Act that established the Regional Transport Partnerships and the national agency Transport Scotland. Much has changed since the early years of the century in how transport is funded, the technologies being used, and changing social attitudes as the economy restructures to face growing global challenges.

To improve the opportunities for making more viable and sustainable connections, transport governance can be devolved to lower levels. Community capacity varies across Scotland and many of the most innovative improvements are currently being delivered within communities. Accelerating the implementation of the Community Empowerment Act, with greater support from Local Government and specialist enterprises, could lead to many more participation requests for managing and maintaining streets, paths and shared local services. Expanding community led transport delivery can build on the growing success of transport initiatives undertaken by Development Trusts, the success of national initiatives such as Scotrail’s adopt a station programme, the growth of community transport, and exploiting the potential for locally run collaborative transport provision such as for shared cars and bikes.

Regional Transport Partnerships each currently have strategic visions for the future of transport in their areas, set within the national transport frameworks, but also reflecting the very different challenges in each part of Scotland. Although some progress has been made by these partnerships delivering transport projects, such as on new technologies for transport information and ticketing, most transport project management remains with Local and National Government. Three separate tiers of public bodies for transport governance makes clear accountability difficult, separates management of local roads from trunk roads, splits the development of comprehensive transport network coverage between locally managed bus services and national managed rail services, and greatly increases the complexity of all attempts to integrate transport services.

Pooling transport skills that are currently dispersed across separate tiers of government could help to create more accountable transport bodies for all modes of transport. Local and National Government could delegate agency on many more functions to Regional Partnerships and other joint ventures helping to: simplify accountability, implement the joint working recommendations of the Christie Commission, realise the more ambitious visions for Regional Partnerships envisaged over 20 years ago, and build on the successes with community empowerment already led by the Regional Partnerships.

Some national contracts such as for ScotRail and trunk road maintenance would require to be jointly overseen by the Regional Partnerships and Transport Scotland.  These contracts and other transport functions managed by the regional bodies could be held to account far better: politically by local and national elected members; and financially through viable business models. The revenue streams for integrated transport are complex, particularly as the value of transport data and technology in the transport economy grows. Greater flexibility achieving new financing mechanisms have been demonstrated by the Regional Partnerships and City Deals than within Local and Central Government. Creating more integrated procurement frameworks could make far better use of available resources from user charges, fares and parking charges, in addition to funding from National and Local Government linked to specific social goals.

Current legislation enables elected bodies to delegate the delivery of their statutory functions, and seeks to empower communities. The above reforms can largely take place within current political democratic structures, and broadly follow the stated objectives of the Scottish Government.

Real power in government is the ability to delegate to those best equipped to deliver. Rather than continue with the current stalemate that divides society by transport modes, tiers of government and sources of funding, it is time to deliver the consensus for change through the people best able to shape it.

A longer version of this article is available here.

Derek Halden is Secretary of Scotland’s transport think tank, and runs a transport consultancy, data and technology business. In the 1990s as a Scottish Office civil servant he was involved with planning the 1996 reorganisation of local government and after 1996 setting up Scotland’s first regional transport partnership SESTRAN. Since then he has undertaken many projects on transport governance including the legislation and administration of the Making the Connections initiative for the Cabinet Office and DfT. He is a former Chair of the Chartered Institute of Logistics and Transport in Scotland and a Fellow of the Institution of Civil Engineers

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