Tag Archives: Devon County Council

Scrutiny can work

Surveys are not always reliable.  Yet if you asked the usual representative sample how they liked to spend time, attending local authority committee meetings is unlikely to score highly.

This is understandable.  Public participation is strictly controlled.  In Exeter, members of the public can submit questions (3 days in advance) to be asked at any of the three City Council scrutiny committees; and interested parties are given speaking rights at Planning Committee meetings.  Exercising the self-discipline of sitting in silence while councillors say things you disagree with is not for the passionate.  Attempts to increase public participation in Council meetings have failed on the circular-argument grounds that people just aren’t interested [1].

Devon County Council operates with fewer constraints.  Unlike Exeter, members of the public can ask questions at full Council meetings or Cabinet meetings.

Exeter City Council’s attitude to openness is schizophrenic.  It claims to be open and transparent, and often is.  Conversely, there are some major issues on which it clams up, such as the Greater Exeter Visioning Board or the Leisure Complex business case (the latter is still in front of an adjourned Information Tribunal, and the whole project has stalled because the tenders received don’t match the budget for its construction).

So it was with no expectation of receiving anything more than a defensive brush-off that I submitted a question for response at the People Scrutiny Committee on 1 June.  The question was: “As none of the tenders for the construction of the leisure complex was within the budget for the scheme, will the Council explain why they did not estimate realistic costs for its construction before inviting tenders?”  The rules of procedure prevent supplementary questions, but do allow the questioner to speak for up to two minutes in response.  Naturally, I had prepared my response in advance.

I bowled up at the meeting, and was shown the seat to sit in when asking the question.  I read it out carefully, since the rules say that deviation from the submitted question may be penalised.  Councillor Bialyk, who is in charge of the leisure complex project and a man not known for mincing his words, launched into his response.

It was surprisingly informative.  Yes, the tenders were not in line with budget expectations.  But circumstances had changed since the invitation to tender was prepared, many due to Brexit.  Sterling was weaker.  The RICS building costs guidelines had changed several times.  There were uncertainties over labour supply in the construction industry.  In addition, one of the firms advising on the project had given poor advice, and had their contract terminated.  Other councils around the country were facing similar problems.

This is genuinely helpful information and makes the Council’s position understandable, far more so than the cryptic statement on their website: “But due to the nature of the tender returns submitted by contractors bidding for the contract, the council has announced that it needs more time to conclude the procurement process” [2].  It made my prepared response – which was critical in tone – largely redundant, and I abandoned most of it.

The City’s only Green Party councillor, Chris Musgrave, also used questioning to elicit the information that the Council planned to appoint a single operator for the Leisure Complex and all the other Council-owned leisure facilities in the city.

The lesson I draw from this is that openness works.  There will continue to be a small number of issues that need to be discussed behind closed doors, but these should be very few indeed.  Openness helps understanding, and understanding improves the quality of political debate.  We just need more people to break through the participation barrier, and start asking [3].

NOTES:

[1] See for example the minutes of the Exeter City Council Corporate Services Scrutiny Committee on 23 March 2017, item 16, available at http://committees.exeter.gov.uk/mgAi.aspx?ID=37916

[2] Exeter City Council statement dated 2 March 2017 at https://exeter.gov.uk/people-and-communities/major-projects/a-new-bus-station/

[3] Guidance for members of the public on submitting questions is available as follows:  Exeter City Council at http://committees.exeter.gov.uk/ieListDocuments.aspx?CId=444&MId=3295&Ver=4&Info=1 item 7.  Devon County Council at https://new.devon.gov.uk/democracy/guide/public-participation-at-committee-meetings/

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Think before you Park – and Ride

There’s a long-running stink about building a fourth Park-and-Ride facility on the edge of Exeter, this time near Alphington at the junction of the A30 and A377 roads.  Devon County Council has just withdrawn its second planning application, partly because of furious local objections but also because the goals originally claimed for the scheme seems to have evaporated.

That’s not entirely surprising.  Despite P&R as a “solution” to urban traffic congestion becoming something of a no-brainer in the popular psyche, its benefits are not always realisable and there are some serious downsides.  This post looks at the evidence.

Central government policy

Government policy on P&R schemes has fluctuated over time.  Initially left as a matter entirely for local authorities, central government up to 1997 recognised their role in reducing congestion but noted that there were potential disbenefits, particularly by encouraging additional car journeys.  From 1997, central government policy actively promoted P&R schemes, though with a much greater emphasis on them as part of a coordinated package of measures to achieve modal shift aligned to local circumstances.

Following the change of government in 2010 and the replacement of previous planning guidance with the National Planning Policy Framework, references to P&R schemes disappeared.  A sole reference in Planning Practice Guidance merely suggests that existing P&R schemes should form part of the evidence base for developing local transport plans [1].

Exeter commitments

The Devon Implementation Plan for the Devon & Torbay Local Transport Strategy 2011-2016 [2] envisages a new Park and Ride (P&R) facility to serve the Alphington Road corridor, for which a planning application has been submitted.  The Plan also envisages a P&R to the north of Exeter, though no detail is available.

The Plan assumes – though no evidence is cited in support – that P&R schemes provide benefits [3], specifically:

  • Enabling increased demands for access to Exeter City Centre from surrounding areas, alongside improved inter-urban bus services and the rail-based Devon Metro.
  • Reducing congestion
  • Reducing air pollution.

The Plan states that there is strong public support for new P&R schemes.

The research evidence on P&R schemes

There is relatively little evidence about the effectiveness of P&R schemes.  A few studies were carried out in the 1990s, and these are still cited in more recent work.

There does appear to be a consensus among those who have undertaken studies that:

  • There are downsides as well as upsides to P&R schemes
  • Any P&R scheme should be developed as part of an overall package of strategic proposals, and not in isolation.
  • There is sufficient evidence to cast doubt on the orthodoxy that P&R schemes lead to reductions in car use and the associate environmental benefits.

The most recent readily available review of the evidence on P&R schemes was published in 2008[4].  Drawing heavily on earlier work in the 1990s, the study identifies three broad policy goals for P&R schemes: transport, environmental and economic.

Transport

Do P&R schemes divert people from public transport, and with what consequences?

P&R schemes are targeted at intercepting car users from routes into city centres so removing cars and reducing traffic flow between the P&R and the centre.  But the incentives – eg fares [5], frequency, comfort – to use P&R can draw people away from existing public transport services, with consequences for their continuing viability.  Research shows significant numbers of P&R users are people have switched from other public transport in this way.  Reinforcing this from the other angle, Brighton does not have a P&R system and some councilors believe this accounts for the high use of buses from surrounding areas [6].

Do P&R schemes reduce congestion?

The evidence is weak, though interception rates between 17% and 25% have been reported for Oxford’s (well-established) P&R schemes.  Devon County Council has no information about interception rates at the existing P&R sites in Exeter, and so has no firm basis with which to justify further schemes.   It seems likely that P&R will only contribute to reducing congestion levels if backed up by other stronger methods, such as reducing city centre car parking (or charging punitively for it).  Otherwise the city centre space freed up by drivers diverting to P&R will fill up with other drivers.  Road pricing or congestion charges may also be needed.

Do P&R schemes lead to more car journeys?

There is evidence that people who might once have made their entire journey by public transport switched to driving from home to the P&R site, then continuing by P&R bus.  The perceived attractiveness of P&R can also lead people to undertake journeys they would not have done in the absence of P&R.

Environmental

Broadly, reducing emissions as a goal of P&R policy depends on reducing the number of car journeys (see above).  In addition, it is necessary for the additional buses introduced for P&R services to be low-emitting if the emissions savings from car journeys are not simply cancelled out by bus emissions.

Construction of P&R sites and localised emissions concentrations from cars using the P&R can also have adverse environmental effects.

Economic

There is a general consensus that P&R can bring economic benefits to city centres.  Local authorities often cite this as a justification for introducing the schemes.   However, there can be competition implications for surrounding centres.  If people divert to the city centre from other areas, this can be beneficial if it reduces demand for out-of-town shopping centres (which in turn leads to car mileage reductions); but it can also damage the viability of district centres and smaller surrounding towns/villages.  Again, there is insufficient evidence to draw clear conclusions.

There is no clear correlation between the introduction of P&R parking places and the number of reductions in city centre parking spaces.  Where city centre parking spaces are reduced there is potential to find a more economically buoyant use for the land.

An overall conclusion

It is difficult to improve on the following statement in a 1998 briefing from the Campaign to Protect Rural England [7].  Despite being nearly 20 years old, it has not been invalidated by subsequent evidence.

Ultimately, Park and Ride schemes are probably best viewed as an interim solution. They do not eliminate car dependency and once they reach saturation point, local authorities are left with the prospect of surrounding our towns and cities with an ever increasing number of car parks. In the end, the root causes of traffic growth have to be tackled. This requires the long term process of integrating land use planning with the need to reduce dependence on the car.

 

NOTES

[1]  See http://planningguidance.communities.gov.uk/blog/guidance/transport-evidence-bases-in-plan-making/transport-evidence-bases-in-plan-making-guidance/ para 006.

[2]  Both documents available at https://new.devon.gov.uk/roadsandtransport/traffic-information/transport-planning/devon-and-torbay-local-transport-plan-3-2011-2026/

[3]  See para 4.5.3 of the Implementation Plan

[4]  Role of Bus-Based Park and Ride in the UK: A Temporal and Evaluative Review: Stuart Meek, Stephen Ison and Marcus Enoch, Transport Reviews, Vol. 28, No. 6, 781–803, November 2008

[5] For example, a 7-day P&R-only megarider ticket in Exeter costs £10 whereas the general 7-day megarider costs £14.

[6]  Quoted on p191 of Urban Transport without the Hot Air, vol 1, Steve Melia, UIT Cambridge, 2015.

[7]  Park and Ride – Its role in local transport policy, CPRE, 1998.