Chris Peat looks at the transport implications
Highlights of last week’s Budget include the announcements that Fuel Duty is to be frozen and the Severn Crossing toll is to be reduced. Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, announced the Budget on 18 March. It is the final one before the general election in May. Osborne claimed the nation is ‘walking tall again’ after recent austerity, but critics warn of austerity measures to come.
In the Budget, the economy was forecast to grow 2.3% next year, before reaching 2.4% in 2019. Inflation has been forecast at 0.2% this year and for the next three years. For businesses, one of the most salient decisions was to abolish annual tax returns. Also to be abolished are national insurance contributions for the self employed. In terms of personal tax, the allowance is to be raised to £10,800 (from £10,600) and to £11,000 the following year. The higher rate threshold has been raised above the inflation rate to £43,300. There are also changes to pensions arrangements.
Fuel duty frozen
Fuel duty has been frozen for another year. The fuel duty increase by RPI planned for 1 September 2015, due to be 0.54 pence per litre, will be cancelled. By the end of 2015-16, fuel duty will have been frozen for five years, the longest freeze for over two decades.
Howard Cox, Founder of the FairFuelUK Campaign, which is fighting for lower petrol and diesel prices, said, ‘Today’s Budget is very welcome that fuel duty has been frozen again. FairFuelUK has campaigned relentlessly to show that lower pump prices and in particular cutting duty stimulates GDP, generates new jobs and lowers inflation. But why doesn’t the Government go further and drive the UK economy continually upwards by cutting duty. It’s proven that will happen.’
‘We give Mr Osborne six out of ten for endeavour and will continue to campaign that duty should be frozen for the lifetime of the next Parliament with more pressure on a real cut in the Autumn Statement. The Treasury takes nearly 70% in tax and still has not called for a pump pricing inquiry. The Chancellor has been extremely lucky because oil prices have fallen dramatically and consequential lower pump prices have hidden the huge amount of tax still being paid by 32m voting drivers. This means the Government can take credit and hide behind a continual freeze in this levy. Oil companies get tax relief for their shareholders to benefit from future dividends whereas motorists continue to be fleeced by retailers, speculators and the Government. UK motorists will decide at the ballot box in May which party is best for them.’
Severn Crossing toll reductions
The Severn Crossings were described as a ‘vital link’ for Wales. The government is to reduce the toll rates from 2018, abolishing the higher band for small vans and buses. These vehicles fall under the current Category 2, which includes small buses up to 17 seats. These vehicles have to pay £13.10 to cross at the moment, but the change would see them having to pay £6.50.
Although the announcement is good news for smaller vehicle operators, the Freight Transport Association (FTA) was disappointed the Government has ‘disregarded’ category 3 tolls (lorries, large buses and coaches) and that it does nothing to address the ‘punitive level of the toll’.
FTA Head of Policy South West and Wales, Ian Gallagher, said, ‘The Chancellor’s announcement today is the first confirmation from UK Government that charging will continue after 2018 when the bridge comes into public ownership. Whilst the change to the tolls is seen good news for van and minibus operators, FTA considers it is a kick in the teeth for the logistics industry as a whole. There are three years of toll increases still to come. By 2018 we anticipate that the toll will be in excess of £20 for HGVs.’
FTA cited an ARUP survey in 2012 that stated that Welsh GDP would increase by £107m per annum if the charges were scrapped, which is far in excess of what they would receive by continuing the tolls. The FTA has long campaigned for the tolls to be abolished and is now calling on Government to provide clear visibility of what it now intends to charge once the Severn Bridge comes into public ownership.
Ian Gallagher added, ‘FTA sees this as a bitter blow for businesses in the south west and Wales which have campaigned for an end to the tolls once the concession ceases. For too long freight operators have had to pay high charges to use the Severn Crossings, which are a vital artery between Wales and England. The money that business spends on paying these tolls could be better invested on driver training or on greener fleets.’
Further transport related announcements include plans to work with Transport for the North. The government intends to look at rolling out better roads, quicker journeys and improved rail connections between the major cities of the north, as part of the government’s plan to build a ‘northern powerhouse’.
The government is also giving even more powers to local areas, with a new devolution deal for matters including transport, as well as more planning powers for London.
The Campaign for Better Transport welcomed the Budget commitments to a northern transport strategy, but wanted further help for rail and bus users, especially through freezing rail fares and stopping local bus cuts.
Commenting on the northern transport strategy, Campaign Director, James MacColl, said, ‘The north of England needs a modern, integrated and sustainable transport network and so we welcome the announcement that Transport for the North will shortly publish an interim report, which must set out how the city regions will be working with local authorities and others to develop the rail network across the region, get the most out of investments being made in electrification and new high speed lines, and develop smart ticketing.’
On what the Budget means for buses, James said, ‘As bus services are being cut all over the country, it is disappointing that yet again there is nothing here to solve the crisis in buses. Since 2010, local authority funding for bus services has been slashed by 15% with more than 2000 routes being reduced or withdrawn entirely, severely hampering many people’s ability to get around particularly in isolated areas. While we welcome the Total Transport pilot scheme which is helping local authorities improve local transport, we urgently need the Treasury to step in to provide emergency funding for buses.’
The third and final section of Bristol’s proposed bus rapid transit scheme, the MetroBus Network, running from the North Fringe to Hengrove, has been granted full approval by the DfT and HM Treasury.
This completes the scheme development process for the 50km MetroBus Network. The project is to provide a new reliable public transport service from Long Ashton Park and Ride to the city centre via Temple Meads, with an alternative route via Hengrove and Bedminster. There will also be a direct service through the city centre to UWE and Parkway station then on to Cribbs Causeway, or Emersons Green, where a new Park and Ride is already waiting. The MetroBus direct routes with fewer stops are expected to result in quicker journeys. It is predicted to save 27 minutes on the journey from Hengrove in south Bristol to UWE, using a new bus only junction on the M32.
South Gloucestershire representative and Chair of the Joint Transport Board, Cllr Brian Allinson, said, ‘This is terrific news, MetroBus is a significant part of a £400million programme of sustainable transport improvements in the West of England until 2020 which will link areas of housing and economic growth, provide greener and better alternatives to travelling by car and as a result reduce traffic congestion and air pollution levels.’
Bristol representative and Vice Chair of the Joint Transport Board, Cllr Mark Bradshaw, said, ‘It was Bristol’s commitment to face up to congestion and air quality issues which saw us being awarded European Green Capital for 2015. If motorists used buses for just 1 in 25 of their local car trips, in three years government carbon emission reduction targets would be exceeded by 50%. MetroBus will help to encourage fewer car journeys, with new cycling and walking facilities, and the low emission buses will interchange with rail, existing bus and other routes.’
North Somerset Joint Transport Board representative, Cllr Elfan Ap Rees, said, ‘MetroBus type systems are found in Germany, Holland and Australia, and are planned or in operation in Manchester, Leeds and Dublin. It’s an express bus service with a combination of segregated busways and bus lanes, providing rapid and reliable journeys. And more people travel to work by bus than by all other forms of public transport combined.’
James Durie, the Executive Director of Bristol Chamber of Commerce at Business West, and Robert Sinclair, Chief Executive of Bristol Airport, both LEP representatives on the Joint Transport Board, added, ‘The new MetroBus network and our planned MetroWest improvements send a clear signal to Government and potential investors that the West of England is serious about working together to improve our local public transport. This investment will bring new jobs and business to the area creating a brighter future for us all.’
Guide Dogs’ Talking Buses campaign will continue to be supported by the Transport Systems Catapult, according to the Budget. The charity is campaigning for all new buses to be fitted with audio-visual technology to enable people living with sight loss to use buses safely and with confidence.
Campaigns Manager at Guide Dogs, James White, said, ‘This commitment from the Government is a welcome recognition of how important talking buses are to people with sight loss and others. However, we need the Government to go further and give a deadline for when all new buses will be talking buses. Much of the bus network is not fit for purpose for passengers living with sight loss. Too many people are still struggling to use the network and travelling with uncertainty, because technology that provides next stop and final destination information hasn’t been installed in their area. Buses are not currently accessible to people with sight loss as nearly two thirds of passengers with sight loss have missed their stop in the last six months.’
‘For someone who is blind or partially sighted, missing their bus stop can be a truly terrifying experience, and finding their way home when lost can be extremely dangerous. Technology that provides final destination and next stop information on buses is essential and will help millions of people use buses with renewed confidence.’
The full Budget can be viewed here