Give communities a chance to lead services

Connectivity is a widely stated goal, but not everyone is clear what connection they want. Electronic broadband connectivity is defined as anything from a 2MB/s connection upwards, since this allows practical internet use. Similarly transport connectivity is only meaningful if it makes possible some opportunity that would not otherwise have been accessible.

In January, the Jimmy Reid Foundation published a report by Dave Watson, head of policy and public affairs at Unison Scotland that gets to grips with many of the most important barriers faced. The new report explains why many worthwhile connections depend on both socially and commercially funded elements. However, there is a need for a stronger focus on serving the public to overcome the current barriers to progress.

The new report cites the recent example of the Bo'ness commuter bus service to Edinburgh as an example of transport delivery failure. Bo'ness has many attractive yet undervalued homes less than 20 miles from Edinburgh, but the residents lack attractive transport options to commute to the city. The local people are therefore working together to start up a community transport commuter bus service. The voluntary social inputs of the local community combined with the fare income could make the service viable.

Across the country there are many places like this, where potential services are not quite commercial, and not quite the highest social priorities, so are missed as opportunities. Yet towns like Bo'ness receive far less transport investment than wealthier towns with rail stations. The leadership seems to be lacking to tackle problems of poor access to opportunities.

The new report shows that the transport services are often provided despite the investment decisions of transport authorities, rather than because of them. Mr Watson calls for root and branch reform of the public sector to allow delivery from the bottom up, with the needs of people and places determining how public funds are spent.

What sort of business model would work? Few would disagree with the report that public sector reform is both vital and urgent for effective democratic governance for places and communities across the country.

On the west of Scotland, the Dunoon-Gourock ferry service was due for retendering, but transport minister Humza Yousaf has suspended the process while he seeks to extend the franchise with publicly-owned company Argyll Ferries. Local MSP Alan Reid published a recent survey of the people of Dunoon, showing much higher satisfaction on the unsubsidised commercial Western FerriesĀ services on this crossing than for the subsidised public services.

Perhaps the minister realises that competition is not the best way to fix the current problems. In practice, mechanisms for sharper accountability on service performance might be a better way to improve services by both Argyll Ferries and Western Ferries. Time and money spent creating performance improvement partnerships would be a more fruitful approach.

Current transport governance has highly optimised systems for passing problems around, such as between Transport Scotland and the EU, yet only weak processes for ensuring that legitimate partnership delivery models succeed. Successive reports on public sector reform have sought a stronger ethos of service provision and joint working, but progress continues to be disappointing. The evidence is not of emerging new business models, but of growing bureaucracy.

Underpinning new governance approaches must be payment for results. Competent social governance systems should be capable of enabling people in towns like Dunoon and Bo'ness to have better and more accountable transport services. Across the country there are under-performing towns where better connections would transform economic prospects. Rail is highly supported to provide wide network coverage, but much more needs to be done to offer similar support for connections by bus, taxi and community transport.

In repeated attempts at legislative reform for transport, the desire to control top down by politicians and transport operators has trumped a focus on service. Any success achieved has often come through rebuilding governance systems from the bottom up. As new technologies transform transport, the need is growing for governance capable of connecting communities through more collaborative and accountable delivery.

The Jimmy Reid Foundation report is another reminder that battling for control of transport rather than providing connections ultimately serves nobody. In a fast changing world, transport operators and authorities which champion the interests of the communities they serve will be the winners.

Reference: Transport Times March 2017 Issue

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