Time for a Capital Region Transport Body?

This is a time of change for transport planning, with a move to breaking down the artificial barriers created by local authority boundaries. The creation of bodies such as Transport for the North has generated impetus to improve transport links and enable economic growth.

Amongst all this change, the elephant in the room is London. The 2011 Census shows that 18 percent of London workers (nearly 800,000 people) live outside of the Greater London Authority (GLA) area, and a very high percentage of these people are in highly-skilled jobs. The London Plan acknowledges that the capital is "inextricably linked" with a wider south-east England, and commuting is predicted to grow sharply as London's economy outstrips its housing supply. However, while the new Sub Regional Transport Bodies have boundaries related to journey-to-work and other travel patterns, Transport for London's (TfL) remit is firmly linked to the Greater London Authority boundary.

The result for the commuter (and theatre-goer, shopper, and business-tripper) is marked disparity in the ease of journey depending on whether your starting point is within or without the GLA boundary. The 'withouters' are deprived of the benefit of zonal fare systems and have patchy access to Oyster. My own county town has the absurdity of Oyster to Hertford East but not to Hertford North, creating confusion and chaos for those using these alternative routes, especially in times of disruption.

The current transport planning arrangements fail to acknowledge the wider picture. Clearly, there is a requirement to meet London's need to draw in workers and other visitors as befits its World City status. But this must not be at the expense of meeting the local transport needs of those authorities in the 'doughnut' around London. At present authorities such as Hertfordshire have no say in the rail franchise process and little influence over strategic transport schemes.

TfL has little incentive to prioritise cross-boundary schemes where the benefits are in favour of its neighbours. A case in point is the Metropolitan Line Extension which will bring significant economic development and transport opportunities to Hertfordshire, but is not a game-changer for the capital. The result is a scheme that is caught in a funding ping-pong between TfL and DfT. Any coordinated transport planning system would recognise the wider benefits to the country.

The irony is that the current system does not fully meet London's needs. DfT's rejection of further rail devolution to London, despite clear support from many of its surrounding authorities, demonstrates that sensible transport planning decisions are in short supply.

So what is the answer? A geographical extension to London as an administrative body would be seen in many parts of the country as fuelling the capital's dominance. So the solution would seem to a new transport body which works with existing authorities but provides the desperately needed coordination. My plan is for a Capital Region Transport Body which would cover all public transport in the capital and its hinterland, coordinating day to day services and fares, and providing the framework for long-term transport planning. This body would ensure that the capital has an efficient commuting network, and also crucially that all parts of the region (including London) have public transport that meets its local needs.

I can't claim that this is an original idea. The London Passenger Transport Board set up in 1933 had a remit for buses, trams and underground far greater than the then London County Council boundary, stretching to Baldock in the north, east to Shenfield, south to Horsham and to High Wycombe in the west. A modern version may well need to be larger to reflect modern commuting patterns, but the LPTB boundaries would be a good starting point.

There are plenty of details still to be debated as to how the new Capital Region Transport Body would work with existing local authorities and emerging transport bodies, but the time has come to re-think how public transport is planned in the London and the south-east.