The Economic Development and Infrastructure Scrutiny Panel had agreed to investigate the proposed Tees Valley Strategic Transport Plan and in particular bus franchising as a topic selected from the Panels Work Programme for 2016-2017. The Head of Transport, Tees Valley Combined Authority (TVCA) and the Planning and Delivery Manager, were in attendance at the meeting to provide an overview of the proposals with regard to the Tees Valley Strategic Transport Plan and bus franchising.
The Head of Transport, TVCA, gave a detailed presentation and provided an overview of the Tees Valley Strategic Transport Plan as well as information in relation to the provisions of the Bus Services Act 2017. The Strategic Transport Plan would set a framework for all five Boroughs within the Combined Authority and the direction of travel on strategic transport issues.
The Government had recently announced an Industrial Strategy for the United Kingdom and as part of that Strategy the Department for Transport (DoT) published a Transport Investment Strategy. The TVCA intended to examine the key aims of that Transport Investment Strategy to assess how best to access funding. As a Combined Authority, the TVCA was also a member of Transport for the North, a sub national transport body which would have some influence on how transport in the north could been improved with better rail and road connectivity. Transport for the North was also developing a Strategic Transport Plan into which the TVCA would have some input.
At regional level, within the Tees Valley, the Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP) had produced a Strategic Economic Plan and an associated Investment Plan and the TVCAs intention was to align its own Strategic Transport Plan with this. The Strategy was not just about economic growth but access to opportunity and improved services wherever transport made a contribution.
The TVCA was developing a strong relationship with each of the Tees Valley Local Authorities. Whilst TVCA was a Transport Authority, it was not a Highways Authority. Each individual Local Authority had control over its services and bodies and the aim of the TVCA was to align strategic thinking with local planning rather than taking control. Each of the Local Authorities would produce its own Local Implementation Plans (LIPs) which would in turn feed into the TVCA Strategic Transport Plan.
It was highlighted that each Local Authority had its own Local Plan for housing growth. Whilst the TVCA was not a planning authority, the Head of Housing was proactively working with local authorities to understand what would be coming forward in terms of planning and the impact on infrastructure. The TVCA was able to bid for funding from the Homes and Community Agencys Housing Infrastructure Fund to work in partnership with Local Authorities but it did not have a statutory function in terms of having planning powers.
The TVCA had developed a transport framework which was structured around the key headings of National Rail, Major Roads, Connecting Centres, Supporting Economic Growth and Local Journeys. The Connecting the Tees Valley Strategic Transport Plan was the overarching document with a series of strategy documents - Rail, Strategic Road, Bus, Freight and Sustainable Modes - linking into it. Rather than having one large plan, the supporting strategy documents allowed more detailed on a given mode or subject to be provided. These individual strategies could also be updated as necessary to keep them current, rather than having to re-write the whole Strategic Transport Plan. In addition, a whole series of Action Plans could be developed in consultation with the Local Authorities Officer Groups.
The structure of the individual strategies tried to put context to the issues and personalise this to the Tees Valley. Each strategy contained a summary of existing conditions and current issues. Future planning was included which included detail on interventions and potential funding opportunities as well as links to local schemes. The rationale was to produce strategies that had a role or purpose, rather than an essay on the project, and identified what funding was available within the Local Authorities and what funding could be sourced from elsewhere.
A brief outline of each strategy was provided. The Rail Strategy included work at Darlington Station in preparation for HS2 and Northern Powerhouse Rail (NPR). The NPR was a major strategic rail programme to transform connectivity between the key economic centres in the north. The current line between Northallerton and Middlesbrough needed upgrading to enable the largest shipping containers to be transported to Teesport. The TVCA was also working on a Masterplan for Middlesbrough Station, which played an important role in the local and national network. The TVCA was also a member of the North East Rail Management Unit in partnership with the North East Combined Authority and also Cumbria and North Yorkshire. In response to a query regarding the development of a Tees Valley Metro system, it was explained that research into this project had evidenced that it would be very expensive to introduce and the cost would be prohibitive in the current economic climate.
The Strategic Road Strategy covered the TVCAs aspirations more generally for the road network. Work had been undertaken on investigating options for a new tees crossing to try and alleviate the traffic problems around the A19 flyover and information and engagement exercises had been carried out. Further work was ongoing giving consideration to either an eastern crossing or a central crossing and a summary document - Connecting Tees Valley - Improving Roads, Improving Lives - providing the details had been produced. A final proposal to the Transport Committee on the best option was due to be reported by December 2017.
It was clarified that whilst the Tees was a working river, most of the shipping traffic was further to the east of the flyover and any new crossing would not necessarily require the same clearance height.
Improvements to the A66 East/West road connections were also included in the strategy. A great deal of traffic used the A66 to the east of the A19 which was essentially a local road network. The potential of a by-pass and improvements to the A66 were being explored. In addition many heavy goods vehicles were using local routes through Darlington to join the A1. The TVCA was working closely with Local Authorities to identify the main traffic flows and key routes. As with the rail strategy, a business case to consider the options was due by December 2017.
A Panel Member raised the issue of pollution and whether traffic could be re-routed to alleviate this issue. The Councils Planning and Delivery Manager, who was present at the meeting, explained that pollution levels on some parts of the A66 were close to the permitted limit. A feasibility study had been undertaken to look at various options as to how this could best be addressed. A road scheme had been designed to improve traffic flow around the Cargo Fleet roundabout area which would alleviate pollution from queuing vehicles. Middlesbrough Council was currently bidding for funding to implement this scheme.
The TVCA was also developing a 'pipeline' which was a scheme of proposals suggested by local authorities and the Combined Authority that were ready for funding opportunities. Rather than just preparing a list, the TVCA anticipated having a co-ordination role to provide extra resources and be more proactive in bidding for funding when it became available. There were a lot of local issues that the TVCA was keen to help local authorities address and whilst Central Government funding was available it was often at relatively short notice.
Pipeline schemes could also be used as an evidence base to lobby for funding.
The Freight Strategy included support for improvements at Darlington Rail Station, developing a second rail gateway at Middlesbrough Station to provide increased capacity for passenger and freight traffic, securing upgrades for the A19/A168 corridor and complete dualling of the A66 between A1(M) and M6, as well as other measures included in the Road and Rail Strategies.
The Sustainable Modes of Transport Strategy included understanding the role of walking and cycling in the transport mix. The positive impact on health was high as well as the potential for a reduction in casualty rates and on the traffic impact on the road network. Key to promoting and increasing the use of sustainable modes of transport was encouraging the next generation to adopt different behaviours with regard to travel.
Reference was made to the Healthy Town Scheme which was developed by Middlesbrough Council in partnership with Middlesbrough Environment City. The Scheme was subsidised by the Government and had been very successful. Employees were offered the opportunity to purchase a bike via a twelve month loan and to cycle to work. It was explained that such schemes required revenue funding rather than capital funding. The TVCAs funding was aimed at capital investment. However, as mentioned previously, development of the five strategies would provide an evidence base to bid for any national funding that became available.
A timescale for the TVCA Strategic Transport Plan had been approved by the Transport Committee and if it was agreed on schedule, external consultation would commence in February 2018. This timescale aligned with the production of Transport For The Norths Strategic Plan.
The Bus Services Act 2017 received Royal Assent on 27 April 2017 and was essentially an enabling Act, extending the ability of the Combined Authority to introduce franchising or various partnership arrangements.
The TVCA Transport Committee had specified that all options provided for in the Act would be investigated before deciding on which was the best route for the Tees Valley. Guidance on the rules had been awaited and a draft had been published within the last week. The proposal from the Transport Committee was to develop a vision for bus services.
Discussions with local bus operators were underway as to what was required from the bus network in order to develop a Bus Strategy. Two main themes had been identified: 1) to support the local economy through better integration, faster journeys, new routes, rural and evening services and affordable fares; and 2) to provide a service that was attractive and easy to use through punctuality, accessibility, waiting facilities, vehicles, information and simple fares.
Information gleaned from general public surveys suggested that punctuality and reliability were key, as well as better waiting facilities, accessibility and real-time information.
A Panel Member referred to a system in New Zealand that provided real time information on electronic boards at every bus stop. However, this was a costly system and the TVCA had been exploring alternatives such as providing this information via smartphone APPs. It was confirmed that some bus stops in Middlesbrough did have the electronic boards and these had been provided through capital investment, however technology changed rapidly.
It was highlighted that if a bus franchise system was created, bus fares would provide revenue that the Combined Authority could re-invest back into the service. The Head of Transport explained that the TVCA needed to understand fully how the current bus network operated in the Tees Valley before deciding which option was best. A dedicated Officer had recently been appointed to carry out this work. The TVCA estimated that the bus networks turnover in the Tees Valley was currently circa £48 million per annum. Most franchise agreements would operate for a ten year period and if the network did not perform to the estimated income, local authorities might then be left to fund any shortfall.
Reference was made to two examples of franchising, in London and Merseyside, where it had led to a doubling of bus usage due to better service provision. It was also noted that franchising provided a level of accountability from the bus operators. The TVCA was examining various franchising/partnership models not just in the UK but around the world.
Whilst discussions with bus operators had commenced the intention was to gather their views and ascertain what they might be prepared to offer rather than promote any recommendations. Examples of offers provided by some bus operators such as free bus tickets for foodbank users and free emergency tickets were highlighted. There was potential to deliver the services required without a franchise. Longer term projects around ticketing for example, also formed part of the conversations. Transport For the North had a project underway to look the use of integrated ticketing across different modes of transport including local and regional bus and rail operators.
It was emphasised that all options would need to be explored before identifying the best strategy including feasibility work on the profitability of the network to fully understand the risks as well as the opportunities.
The Chair thanked the Head of Transport, TVCA for his presentation and for attending the meeting.
AGREED as follows:
1. The information provided was received and noted.
2. Draft Terms of Reference for the scrutiny review would be presented for approval at the next Panel Meeting.
3. Arrangements would be made for representatives from Combined Authorities that had already implemented bus franchising or partnerships to attend the next Panel Meeting.