Transport secretary Grant Shapps has blocked Transport for the South East's (TfSE) request to become a statutory body, while at the same time backtracking over an assertion by a junior minister that the Government ‘would not approve' any such proposals.
Mr Shapps claimed in a letter to Cllr Keith Glazer, chairman of TfSE, that the written comment from Baroness Vere ‘did not mean that any proposal would not be considered’.
Despite this, the transport secretary still refused the STB’s application for statutory status.
While Baroness Vere did not say statutory status would not be considered, she did state explicitly that the outcome of such consideration would be a refusal.
Baroness Vere of Norbiton, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State
Under an amendment to Part 5 of the Local Transport Act 2008 brought in by the Cities and Local Government Devolution Act 2016, ‘the Secretary of State [for Transport] may by regulations establish a sub-national transport body for any area in England outside Greater London’.
This represents a discretionary power and therefore requires each case to be treated on its merits. A blanket decision to refuse all applications could be viewed as an unlawful refusal to exercise such discretion.
In his letter, Mr Shapps claimed that he had ‘given careful consideration to your proposal’ but added: ‘I do not believe that overall the proposal makes a convincing case for me to take forward legislation to give statutory status for Transport for the South East at this time.’
Mr Shapps went further, suggesting that he disagrees in principle with the devolution of powers to all STBs through statutory status.
He wrote: ‘I believe that rather than a transfer of powers, economic growth in the region and the country as a whole is best served by concentrating our efforts on continued partnership work with Sub-national Transport Bodies, including Transport for the South East.’
TfSE put a brave face on Mr Shapps’ refusal, highlighting a statement by Baroness Vere, ‘that she has instructed Department for Transport officials to have regard to Transport for the South East’s transport strategy when developing government policy’.
Cllr Glazier said: ‘Transport for the South East has emerged as a powerful and effective partnership for our region.
‘We have shown what can be achieved through a focus on collaboration and consensus, with the result that we now have a transport strategy for our region which carries real weight and influence and will shape government decisions about where, when and how to invest in our region.
‘Now may not be the time for government to give us the tools we will need to deliver our transport strategy. But I’m confident that our case will only continue to strengthen as we develop our strategic investment plan and set out our priorities for the future.’
However, TfSE indicated that it was not prepared to give up on statutory status, indicating that its board ‘remain clear that getting the right tools from Government will be critical to delivering that investment’.
In July another STB, England’s Economic Heartland (EEH), launched a consultation on its draft transport strategy, while also seeking views on whether to apply for statutory status. It received a similar letter from Baroness Vere.
EEH Programme director Martin Tugwell told Transport Network: ‘We welcome Baroness Vere’s clear recognition of the importance of sub-national transport bodies and have taken on board her position regarding statutory status.
‘We are currently analysing responses to our consultation to understand the outcomes our partners and wider stakeholders would like us to deliver, and are considering how this can be achieved. Our focus remains on producing and implementing our Transport Strategy, due to be published at the turn of the year.’