Transport minister Norman Baker has promised more support for cash-strapped local authorities including a review of bus funding and support for light rail projects.
The minister was speaking at the Liberal Democrat conference in Birmingham the day before the Department for Transport published a report examining ways to make tram projects more affordable for local authorities.
Mr Baker said: “I recognise that the recent local government settlement has been challenging for councils. So we want to do out bit at the DfT to help,” he said.
The department had already provided additional funding for councils, he said, including through the £560m Local Sustainable Transport Fund which had received applications from every eligible council in England bar one and a £10m to kick-start community transport services.
“But we are doing more”, he said. “I am looking at the way Bus Service Operators Grant is delivered to see if it can be improved.”
The Local Government Association has argued for bus funding to be consolidated in a single subsidy to allow local authorities to spend the money as they saw fit and the organisation has welcomed Mr Baker’s willingness to review the current funding structure.
Cllr Peter Box (Lab), chair of the LGA’s economy and transport programme board, said: “It is a step in the right direction. What we need now is some action.”
The department is also to launch a consultation to look at ways to eliminate the high costs associated with diverting utilities for new light rail and tram lines, identified in today’s report as a major contributor to the high cost of such projects. Edinburgh City Council’s tram project, currently £250m over budget and four years late, is cited in the research after the cost of diverting 50,000 metres of utilities added £67m to the cost of the project.
Mr Baker, left, said there would be “a high-level tram summit to take forward the report’s recommendations”, which also include examining lower cost schemes from overseas, implementing a uniform project design across the industry and setting up a procurement centre of excellence to advise local authorities of the best options.
“Light rail presses many of the right buttons - it is popular with the public, clean and low in carbon,” Mr Baker said. “But in recent years scheme costs have spiralled out of control.
“I want light rail to grow. That’s why I have commissioned work to examine how the capital costs of light rail could both be reduced and made more predictable.”
Mr Baker said: “I am initiating a consultation on the thorny issue of the interface between utilities and light rail,” he said in Birmingham yesterday. “If we can crack that, we can make some real progress.”