Sub-national transport bodies (STBs) must pass a 'high threshold' to secure statutory status as ministers want the regional bodies focused on 'what they do well', a senior Department for Transport (DfT) official has said.
Local transport director at the DfT, Stephen Fidler was speaking at ADEPT's autumn conference after transport secretary Grant Shapps blocked Transport for the South East's (TfSE) request to become a statutory body.
The secretary of state was also forced to backtrack over an assertion by a junior minister Baroness Vere that the Government 'would not approve' any such proposals.
Mr Shapps argued that she 'did not mean that any proposal would not be considered'.
Responding to a question from Transport Network on the issue, Mr Fidler said: 'Ministers want to see STBs focussed on what they do really really well. One of those things is prioritisation of schemes; that work on the major road network and the large local majors and the prioritisation there was fantastic. Really helpful and made a massive difference to us as a team.
'That is the sort of thing ministers are keen to see STBs do in the future, alongside sharing best practice and that wider [work] bringing everyone together from the local authorities, the LEPs, mayors, and really have that sense of direction.
Ministers view is that [work] doesn't really need statutory status that is working pretty well. It provides us with flexibility.
'Formally they will look at any proposals coming in. It is not a complete bar on it happening, but I would describe it as a high threshold for the benefits that statutory status would achieve.'
One of the areas, STBs had come to the fore was on the major road network.
As initially conceived, the concept would have created a coherent network of important roads with the local road network.
This network would have been joined with the strategic road network managed by Highways England - though without any changes in the existing split of responsibilities between Highways England and local authorities.
The bridge between the two would have been the STBs. However, the DfT changed this concept to one which provided a rolling fund of investment for a set of specific prioritised schemes within each STB area.
The programme appears to have run aground, with little progress even on the handful of major road schemes, earmarked for funding by the DfT.
Mr Fidler said that the DfT' very much' wants to continue the programme, and while conceding it had lost momentum hinted there could be a funding announcement coming shortly - perhaps in the Comprehensive Spending Review on 25 November.
'Our original vision of having rolling investment decisions cracking forward and moving on a quarterly basis has been slightly disrupted by moving people into COVID response work and other things. But that is still really the vision. Watch this space for the next few schemes in that programme going to the next stage of development in the next few weeks.'