The Bickerstaffe Record
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Being Labour, Cotterill on the Council

Full council review (4): Disintegrated transport, no authority

12.20.10 | Comment?

After a slight snow-based hiatus, here’s my continuing review of last week’s Full Council.

On the agenda was  a response to Labour’s July 2009 motion, approved by Full council (i.e. even the Tories couldn’t turn this one down), asking the County Council to bring forward a report on the possibility of developing an Integrated Transport Authority.

I’ll cover this review of the agenda item in two parts – process  of getting the response from the County Council, and the content of the report.

Process

You might think eighteen months is quite a long time to get a response to a request made by a duly constituted, democratically elected body.

And you’d be right, especially as we repeated the request formally at the April 2010 council meeting(though this motion was refused, because the Tories told us everything was in hand and there was no need for us to worry).  This fact was conveniently omitted from the report to this council meeting.

Frankly, the length of time taken to provide a response is a disgrace, and an insult not just to the formal opposition, who put the motion, but to anyone in West Lancashire interested in transport issues.  

It is perfectly clear that West Lancashire Borough Council simply didn’t do what council had instructed them to do, for a very long period.  Even when Lancashire County Council officers offered a meeting about the issue in late 2009, it still took another seven months (to July 2010) for that meeting to be held.

This is not the performance of a council interested in public transport for its citizens.

Finally in terms of the process – for I must press on to the substantive issue of the actual response from Lancashire County Council, I must cover the apparent disconnect between the report from borough officers, which suggested that a formal response was finally received from the County Council in August 2010, and the response to our October 2010 council meeting question (recorded in the minutes) from the council leader, who indicated that a formal response was still being awaited.

We did question this, and following up on our transport spokeperson’s initial question I firmed this up by asking the Tory portfolio holder whether he thought his leader might have misled council at the October meeting.

Understandably enough, the portfolio holder deferred to the leader himself, who explained that he had not thought the matter totally closed when he answered the question, or some such.  

Now, the leader of the Tories is actually quite an honourable bloke, and his explanation seemed genuine enough – indeed I can see where the confusion might have arisen given that the actual final, formal response from the County Council in August 2010 was so inadequate (see below)   

In any event, our spokesperson indicated that she accepted the leaders explanation, and we moved on.  I now consider this matter closed.

Content

The actual reponse from the County Council, which took eighteen months to get to us, is a one page letter, which makes reference to a twenty page consultancy report (by transport experts WS Atkins) on transport governance, written in September 2009. 

The WS Atkins report was not attached with the agenda papers, and I had to ask for a copy (hard copy only, I’m afraid, so no link, but I’ll send it on to interested parties).

It tells us nothing, other than that WS Atkins wrote this report and that the County’s not interested in doing anything about an Integrated Transport Authority.  This is why we put the following amendment to the Tory recommendations (that we simply be good boys and girls, no rock the boat, accept the report and keep quiet):

A.      That Council note the inadequacy of the response from Lancashire County Council.

B.      That Council note especially that the matter of whether or not to seek the establishment of an Integrated Transport Authority has not been before members at  Lancashire County Council.

C.      That the Acting Executive Manager Planning write back to Lancashire County Council setting out disappointment that this process has taken so long, and the need for a fuller report than has been made available, detailing the opportunities and risks associated with an Integrated Transport Authority, along with a proper monitoring framework for judging the ongoing adequacy of arrangements.

The WS Atkins report, on which the report to council is based, spends less than a page on the idea of an Integrated Transport Authority, and is clear that what it presents is its “initial view”. 

The consultants did not actually consult anyone about whether an ITA would help the county move forward its transport infrastructure agenda; they simply scribbled down a list of “strengths and weaknesses”.  They really must have laughed all the way to the bank.

But the most laughable part of the WS Atkins report, which is then taken up as a recommendation in the report to West Lancashire Borough Council comes at recommendation 12:

Should there be any evidence that the committed changes are inadequate, and the Lancashire partners agree as inappropriate and worthwhile, a formal Governance Review should be initiated to explore the potential for further structural reforms on a statutory basis.

Frankly, this is mealy-mouthed n0nsense.  It tells us nothing about how governance arrangements should be monitored, and what the measure of ‘adequacy’ might be.  Yet it finds its way straight into the recommendation to council:

That the Acting Executive Manager Planning continues to monitor the adequacy of the current working arrangements.

That’s a charter to do nothing, because the manager in question has no benchmark against which to monitor adequacy.

It is thus in keeping with the council’s whole approach to transport; it’ll happen when it happens.  No responsibility taken, nothing pushed forward.

That’s why, even though the report to council talks about the Skelmersdale Rail feasibility study as evidence that things are going along nicely without an ITA, that very feasibility study is running six months late – too late for its findings to coincide with the 25th November announcementof the electrification (by 2013) of the Chat Moss line between Manchester and Liverpool, which creates the potential for a 20 minutes non-stop service between Wigan and central Manchester, and therefore strengthens the case for a Skem station linking the whole area into the Manchester economy. 

As it stands, the continued lack of urgency may end up costing Skelmersdale and West Lancashire more than a station. 

It may cost it a whole economic future – there are plenty of other, more capable councils, competing for scarce capital resources, and looking to argue their case in the context of the Manchester infrastructure developments and how they can link their economies (both ways) to that.

None of this is hard to see, but it takes management capacity and political will to make these things happen.

Similarly, the fact that the Merseyside Local Transport Plan consultation response by the council was kept from members, and the response signed off by the transport portfolio holder is weaker than what should have gone, reflects the council’s whole attitude to public transport – it’s for someone else to worry about.

No sense of transport. No sense of responsibility.  That our Tory council, and I think this agenda item proved it.

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