CiTTi Awards 2023 finalist Solent Transport reveals how cross-council collaboration can improve sub-regional transport networks…
In 2007, the four local authorities of the Isle of Wight, Portsmouth, Southampton and Hampshire formed a consortium with the intention of improving sub-regional transport services.
Named Transport for South Hampshire (TfSH) and later evolving to become Solent Transport, the group was set up in the hope that combined resources and expertise would lead to better connected and more reliable sub-regional transport planning, while also creating opportunities for innovative projects that the councils’ might not be able to pursue on an individual basis. Schemes delivered by Solent Transport have ranged from a new sustainable logistics centre to bus and active travel infrastructure, to future-facing drone pilots, to name a few.
Speaking to CiTTi Magazine, Conrad Haigh, Solent Transport manager and councillor Eamonn Keogh, cabinet member for environment and transport for Southampton (Southampton’s representative on the Solent Transport Joint Committee), discussed the history of the partnership and how it has helped shape improvements to transport across the Solent area.
Pushing the boundaries
Joint mayoral combined authorities formed across England in recent years have shown the strength of connected local transport planning. Benefits include improved chances in government funding bids, the sharing of resources to more effectively implement schemes and reducing barriers created by local authority boundaries.
For Solent Transport, each of the four councils have a lead councillor for transport that sits on the committee, with Solent Transport manager Haigh adding that, “we don’t physically exist, we exist by legal agreement between all four authorities”. There is also a senior management board comprised of the head of transport or their deputy for each council.
One of the key opportunities created by Solent Transport has been developing schemes that aren’t necessarily within the boundaries of a single local authority’s area. Haigh explains that the idea to cooperate with other councils came from the recognition “of the need to combine some deliveries around transport because… commuting takes place across the area and is not necessarily contained within the council boundaries”. This means there was “a need to understand and work closely together… across those borders”. Keogh builds on this, saying that there is huge potential for devolution in terms of transport, as it “doesn’t necessarily recognise political boundaries… [and that commuters] don’t think about the geographical boundaries that they’re crossing, they just want to get from A to B as efficiently as possible”.
“No one would be able to lobby the powers that be to get the same sort of traction as we can together,” – Conrad Haigh, Solent Transport manager
Four heads are better than one
This cross-boundary approach has been helpful in both the early-stage development and the actual delivery of schemes. Haigh offers the example of Solent Transport’s work with its transportation partner, National Highways, to develop the bid for a travel demand management programme for the M27 smart motorway. He elucidates: “So when National Highways did all the roadworks [on] the smart motorways, we delivered a package of measures across Portsmouth, Southampton and some parts of Hampshire in partnership, with delivery being done mainly through Southampton… but at some of the other authorities as well, [which we did] to create behavioural change management and reduce the amount of traffic impact.
“There are a number of these things that just as one authority [you can’t do]. No one would be able to necessarily lobby the powers that be to get the same sort of traction as we can together. And I think that’s allowed us to access more funding and be more ambitious about the projects that we’re building and be better at delivering them, because we’ve got cooperation across all four authorities.” He adds that there are a lot of projects that either wouldn’t be taking place or wouldn’t be operating in the same way if Solent Transport had never been formed.
“To me, Solent Transport is the future really, because it’s the only way I think we can deliver affordable, sustainable and deliverable transport solutions to our communities,” – Councillor Eamonn Keogh, cabinet member for environment and transport for Southampton and Southampton’s representative on the Solent Transport Joint Committee
The future of transport?
One of the major tranches of Solent Transport’s work has been the Future Transport Zone (FTZ), which was one of four areas across the UK selected for funding by the Department for Transport (Df T) to trial new forms of public transport. It allows companies to use a real-world testbed for more innovative modes of transporting people or goods. What’s more, Haigh adds that “the cooperative way in which [Solent has delivered the FTZ] has been phenomenal and could only happen across a region – you couldn’t do it in a single city, it wouldn’t be justified”. The delivery of more experimental schemes is supported by the involvement of multiple local authorities, as projects don’t need to be justified within the budget or locality of a single council.
One of the major innovations the FTZ has delivered is Breeze: a Mobility-as-a-Service (MaaS) app that allows users to plan their journey and buy tickets. It also encompasses “all forms of transport, not just public transport, but shared transport, with the potential to include car clubs, taxis and all sort of things”, as Haigh explains. This is just one of the projects coming out of the FTZ he hopes to have “go beyond the trial period to embed as ongoing services”.
The app enables journey planning throughout the Solent Transport region, with Haigh believing that it is a good example of one of the projects that couldn’t work without inter-council collaboration, as there wouldn’t be enough demand unless cross-boundary travel was incorporated. This project, he adds, “is a perfect example of where we’ve managed to convince the Df T to make a nearly £30m investment in the region”, using a business case that benefits multiple local authority areas.
Leave politics out of it
One of the lynchpins of the successful operation of the scheme, as highlighted by Keogh, is that the group represents members from a range of the UK’s major political parties. Keogh, as a councillor himself, has witnessed the benefits of this cross-party approach first-hand, saying: “[When] you’re within your own local authority, and you’re in the chamber, it can become very heated. And you often think that if we were all rational, surely we’d all agree and support this. But sometimes the politics gets in the way. I’ve always found it interesting, whenever I’ve gone along to Solent Transport, and also Transport for Southeast of England, you’re sitting with Conservative members or whoever. And then you realise there’s a significant amount of agreement.”
By providing a space for members of a cross-section of political groups to express their views and opinions, Keogh sees Solent Transport as transformational, adding that he “[doesn’t] think [Southampton] would ever have delivered the benefits of the Future Transport Zone on our own.”
Many of the key projects delivered by Solent Transport have had their business cases tested using something called the Sub-Regional Transport Model. This model, which Haigh describes as “absolutely imperative”, was designed to generate outputs that can support the development of transport strategies and schemes. Haigh adds that, “since 2017, it’s been a key part of bids that have brought more than £300m of investment to the region”. The tool is also useful for when Solent Transport is in dialogue with DfT, as it helps the body speak in a manner that “the Treasury understands”. Continuing, Haigh says: “And that’s set out in something called the Green Book, which is translated by the DfT into something called TAG. Our model is compliant with those mechanisms and that allows us to justify and create business cases that are fundable by national government.”
Evolution or Devolution?
To Keogh, the empowerment of local authorities has been integral to the success of the Solent Transport project. In his opinion, “there has been a real appetite for devolution, and that transport naturally lends itself to that. If you look at Transport for London, you can see all the benefits that’s brought to London, and it’s because all of the London boroughs operate together. To me, Solent Transport is the future really, because it’s the only way I think we can deliver truly affordable, sustainable and deliverable transport solutions to our communities.”
By enabling improved collaboration between bordering local authorities, Solent Transport has shown the value of connected transport planning. Moreover, it has shown the utility of this approach for the development of travel networks that work practically for multiple local communities.