It may be a while before the full implications of the change of administration at County Hall become apparent, but what is already clear is the scale of change which is required in transport policy. As reported by the BBC in April the government accepted the advice of the Climate Change Committee, and the targets of the Sixth Carbon Budget, published in December, will become law. We now have a commitment to cut UK emissions 78% by 2035. Emissions from surface transport, which accounted for 22% of total UK emissions in 2019, have remained largely flat since 1990. We now have to cut emissions by between six and ten percent per year every year, and because there is a budget, a limit to the total amount of CO2 which can be emitted if we are to avoid substantial planetary warming, if we start cutting slowly we will quickly fail.
At the Westminster Energy, Environment & Transport Forum policy conference on 30 April the opening talk was given by Professor Greg Marsden of the University of Leeds, Director of DecarboN8, a research group of academics at northern universities including Durham. Durham County Council is listed as one of the project partners. Professor Marsden placed the emissions targets into context. The whole 15 minute talk is worth watching on YouTube. Some matters, such as fuel duty and public transport costs, are beyond the influence of local government, but key points for us to consider locally include:
Moving to electric cars will only provide 36% of the reductions we need up to 2029. A further 30% of the savings are proposed to be found through demand reduction.
We ought to use light electric mobility, not cars, for a lot of journeys.
Putting new developments in car dependent locations will make matters worse.
Local transport spending has halved in the last 20 years.
Professor Marsden said that this has to be a transition like none we have ever attempted before and “if it’s not uncomfortable, then it probably isn’t going far enough or fast enough”.
What does this mean for Durham County Council?
The need for demand reduction of about 3% every year for the next decade means that virtually any proposals that involve accommodating additional motor traffic are counterproductive. Proposals for increasing the number of lanes on the A167 between Neville’s Cross and Sniperley, for example, will not only encourage additional traffic, but the costs will eat into the very limited local transport budgets that we desperately need to spend on enabling people to find alternatives to car travel. No doubt there will be readers of this article who will find their journeys a little quicker if road widening is carried through, but such “improvements” are clearly unsustainable.
To allow those who genuinely need to drive to continue to make their journeys, we need to ensure that the majority of shorter journeys, perhaps as many as 1 in 3 in urban areas, switch to less polluting forms of travel. To do this we have to invest in sustainable transport, not roads. The improvements in public health, air quality, and the quality of our public spaces that will result will benefit us all.
The County Council may hope to obtain some funding towards transport infrastructure, via Section 106 contributions, from the housing developers of the Sniperley and Bent House Lane sites. These sites were released from the green belt on the understanding that they were more sustainable than the alternative of building houses beyond the green belt.
The Council must ensure that these contributions go towards improving walking, cycling and public transport links to the surrounding neighbourhoods and the city centre, so that the proportion of the new residents travelling by car is lower than the current averages.
Making best use of limited resources
With local transport funding at such low levels, every penny that the Council spends has to contribute to a positive change. We cannot afford to spend money on transport projects which do not actively reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The time and money being spent on the Sands Public Inquiry in order to defend appropriation of ancient common land in order to build a car park for councillors, in what is said to be one of the most accessible locations in the county, is a sorry example of the Council’s wrongheadedness.
Officer time is also a vital resource. The County Council has spent most of the last decade preparing and promoting two iterations of the County Plan which were predicated on green belt release for housing yielding funding for the Western and Northern Relief Roads. Each time, at the Examination in Public, the appointed Planning Inspectors accepted the evidence of the City of Durham Trust and other local campaigners and deleted the relief roads from the plans. Highways officers who have habitually looked for solutions to accommodate increased motor traffic must now be redirected to designing schemes for bus and cycle lanes, and improving the streets for pedestrians. If traffic levels are going to reduce, and reduce they must, there will be more scope to reallocate roadspace to sustainable transport. Where there is insufficient space to provide dedicated lanes, the Council should consider restricting access to through traffic or reducing speeds.
High in the Council’s priorities must be the creation of Local Cycling and Walking Infrastructure Plans (LCWIPs) which will help the Council bid for central government funding. Two Trustees took part in the stakeholder event for the Durham City LCWIP in January 2020, but we have not yet seen the resulting plan. It is due to be presented to Cabinet in June along with LCWIPs for Chester-le-Street and Newton Aycliffe. Those for the other main towns must be accelerated.
Durham County Council declared a climate emergency in February 2019. The Sixth Carbon Budget sets out demanding reductions in both emissions and in traffic levels which have to be achieved. As the Trust pointed out in its response to the Parking and Accessibility SPD consultation, “to achieve changes of such magnitude, Durham County Council will need to use every tool available. Most interventions will take time to produce results and we have no time to waste”.
Let us hope that the new administration which emerges from the recent elections has the energy and political will to see through changes which, to use Professor Marsden’s phrasing, may be uncomfortable, but which go both far enough and fast enough.
In further articles we intend to look in more detail at recent planning applications and consultations which illustrate the change in mindset which will be required to meet this challenge.