Councils across the country are leading a step-change to cut air pollution and work towards Net Zero transport emissions. However local delivery is often perilous, provoking strong reactions and even death threats to policymakers. At our recent ‘Lunchtime Learnings’ webinar, we explored the good, the bad and the ugly of transport interventions, with five steps discussed to smooth the delivery path.
Local authorities face the unenviable task of identifying, prioritising, funding, and implementing the combination of both soft and hard interventions that decarbonise local transport systems. Since 1990, our collective actions have resulted in a 3% reduction in transport emissions. Compared with the way we generate energy (reductions of 59% since 2012), this paltry progress shows that what we’ve been doing up until now hasn’t worked. Transport emissions are now the largest contributor (28%) of greenhouse gas emissions in the UK (excluding international aviation and shipping).
Although we’ve seen some welcome announcements and funding from Government, they are currently planning to spend five times as much on our motorways than on clean transport. But bold councils like Leicester and Oxford are rising to the challenge with Clean Air/Zero Emission zones, workplace parking levies and significant bus investment. At our recent webinar, we asked our members in a poll which transport intervention would cause their council the biggest headache in terms of delivery? The overwhelming majority, at 46%, voted for the reallocation of road space for active travel, including walking and cycling.
So what lessons can we learn from our most ambitious councils who’ve been able to make Net Zero Transport interventions less of a headache:
- Collect good baseline data and rigorously monitor.
Robust and detailed data will ensure that schemes are configured in the best way to achieve the most related benefits that demonstrate the most compelling case for change.
The more contentious the scheme, the more likely that this data set will be examined and challenged by politicians and the public. So ensure that respective seasonality, temperature, impacts on air quality, ongoing trends such as fleet composition changes, national policy change, socio-economic activity flux (e.g. due to the pandemic) are considered. Simple before and after comparisons are not sufficient without taking account of these factors.
- Create a compelling story
Historically and across cultures the telling of stories has been the most powerful way of spreading understanding and creating meanings. We use stories to understand concepts, our history, and the future. Certain messages resonate more powerfully with different groups, so consider the demographics of the communities that the transport intervention will affect. Preaching about saving the planet by your council’s Net Zero target in twenty years will feel abstract to families who can’t afford to put their heating on today.
It is easy to pick apart a singular scheme in isolation from the context. All schemes must relate to their specific context. Why here? Why now? Won’t this make things worse? It’s important to explain the reasons and be clear on why these interventions are necessary and how they relate to a wider direction of travel for the county, city, town or village. This scheme as part of the compelling story for communities will resonate more widely.
- Engage the Politicians
Don’t take anyone’s support for granted. Just because Councillors may be in the ruling group or even in the Cabinet, it doesn’t mean they won’t break ranks and oppose ward schemes. Opposition to transport interventions is a bit like Brexit – it crosses party lines, splits loyalties in groups and can be weaponised to suit other agendas.
Take time to ensure adequate briefings are held, that expectations are managed and remind politicians what strategies they’ve already voted on and what commitments they’ve made that has brought you to this point.
Opposition parties of all colours find these schemes too tempting a target and will cause mischief if they see some short-term advantage in doing so. Involve MPs in the area whose email inboxes will no doubt swell when schemes go live. Try to build a consensus on the interventions required and steps needed.
- Engage early, engage often, engage authentically
Interventions won’t be welcomed by everyone. Most Councils engage with the standard consultation process, but this dry online survey provides little comfort to anyone involved when the trench warfare begins.
Councils that have made the most effective changes mobilised and took the case for change early and directly to residents’ associations, community groups, youth forums and virtual engagement channels. These meetings aren’t always easy, but presenting the case, letting people express their opinion and being clear about the timeline, helps to take some of the heat out of the opposition. By not building support for interventions, the only voices that will be heard will be the negative ones
- Listen and adapt
Even the best-laid plans can go awry. There will be scenarios that would’ve been difficult to foresee or personal circumstances that are hard to ignore. Some might admire ideological purity, but this inflexibility runs the risk of breaking the support needed to make further changes.
By setting clear parameters during the engagement and listening to views, councils can improve schemes, making them more likely to stay. Thankfully local politicians are not crucified as much as their national counterparts when they change schemes. Listening, adapting and compromise are signs of strength, not weakness
The data collected by councils can be shared throughout the engagement process, if people see the benefits evolving and statistics that back up the improvements, then it can help to influence dialogue. Evaluation is a key stage that often gets under-played. Officers and Politicians should sense check progress as the interventions embed to know if they are delivering the outcomes they envisaged. Evidence and evaluation are the essential requirements that ensure better implementation plans and future priorities.
Locally, there are no silver bullets for successful transport interventions. These reflections from our members can helpfully steer you clear of the common pitfalls that councils experience. In the social media age, the distance between local politicians and the communities they serve has contracted significantly. Transport and Communications Teams need to take the time to plan effective engagement to give themselves, the schemes, and our politicians every chance of success – enabling us to deliver the clean air and Net Zero neighbourhoods we desire.