Alun Thorne looks at the region’s transport plan for the next two decades and discovers a new era of collaboration.
Ever since Eric Pickles announced that regional development agencies would be replaced by Local Enterprise Partnerships there has been much debate as to what that would actually mean. Looking at Centro’s new Vision for Movement report on the region’s transport strategy for the next 20 years, we may just have found the answer.
The report follows a unique collaboration between business and the public sector to the point where a concept first mooted by the private sector now forms the main plank of Centro’s transport strategy for the region.
It was Gary Taylor, wearing his hat as joint managing director of Argent (UK developments) which is working with the city on the redevelopment of Paradise Circus and as chair of the Broad Street Business Improvement District, who first suggested the potential of a Rapid Transport Vehicle system to improve the intra-city transport offer in Birmingham.
The initial plan unveiled by the Broad St BID – which was developed using private sector cash – aspired to a series of circular routes around the city centre serviced by new modern tram-like buses which would have dedicated lanes and priority at busy junctions and run regularly between places like New Street Station, the ICC and Five Ways.
A year later and this concept has been adopted and expanded by Centro and the new Birmingham Sprint system will now be developed along the main arterial routes into Birmingham as an affordable short to medium term alternative to the Midland Metro in these more austere times.
“We started out some time ago looking at a solution for the transport issues facing the Broad Street area and came up with the Rapid Transport Vehicle proposal,” said Mr Taylor.
“What happened pretty quickly was we started talking to the Retail and Colmore BIDs about their needs and we soon came together to sit down with Centro to try and bring all these plans together.”
“From a Broad Street BID point of view we are really pleased with the report. What we couldn’t do is something in isolation and what we have is a comprehensive plan for the whole city and while they haven’t gone with the ‘clover leaf’ circular routes we had initially put forward, what is clear is that the guys at Centro are committed to delivering a step change in the how people get into the city and how they move around when they are in it. In the last year they have come around to the idea of the RTVs and there are strong reasons for the proposed routes but we couldn’t initially think that way because it’s outside the city.
“The planned route from Walsall can be delivered at the fraction of the cost of the alternatives and on that basis who wouldn’t grab it.
“Because it is relatively modest, there is a confidence that they can find funding for 2015.
“The beauty of this plan is that it costs a fraction of a Metro line and you certainly get more bang for your buck.”
Mr Taylor said the first route would also act as an economic generator in some areas with the highest rates of unemployment in the city. With Birmingham City University still looking to develop a new campus in Eastside despite the HS2 debacle that robbed them of their earlier site, the route also passes a potentially significant development site for either business or residential if the university moves completely from its current Perry Barr campus.
“I’m sure much will be measured on job creation so now that everybody is signed up it is time to start chasing the money,” he said. “There was once a time when a transport plan said give us a billion pounds and we’ll sort out our problems but that’s just not realistic anymore.
“These are exciting times as for the first time there is a Big City Plan in existence that talks spatially and a transport plan that links it all together. There is not so much money around but there are other ways of doing things.”
But as well as the end result of a new coherent transport plan, Mr Taylor said he was also heartened by the increasingly strong voice of the private sector in the region’s decision-making.
“The BID involvement is really encouraging,” he said. “The Broad Street BID is the oldest of the three and there is certainly an ambition to move beyond street wardens and nice flowers, as important as these are. The next step is to help set the agenda and help realise some real change.”
Gary Cardin is head of office at Drivers Jonas Deloitte in Birmingham and chair of the Colmore BID where he represents more than 500 businesses and he felt it was crucial that the BID movement punched its weight when dealing with the biggest issues facing the city.
He said: “This is the first time the three BIDs have come together with quite a powerful voice and responded on behalf of the private sector to the challenging issue of transport and movement in the city centre and worked with the other stakeholders like Centro and the city council to develop a workable strategy.
“Our BID’s involvement was important as roughly 24,000 people come into the area every working day and the majority of those are on public transport and we want to help create a better public transport system that is not just the choice of last resort.”
As well as the Birmingham Sprint project, the new report has also committed Centro to upgrading the existing bus service as well as punching on with the Snow Hill to Stephenson Street Metro link and a new link between New Street Station and Moor Street Station. There will also be significant investment is making the city centre more user friendly for shoppers and workers with new signage and pedestrian priority schemes - much of which has come through consultation with the private sector.
Jerry Blackett, who as chief executive of the Birmingham Chamber Group played a key role in putting together the successful Greater Birmingham Local Enterprise Partnership, said the transport plan could not only work for the city, but gave him hope that the well-trodden concerns that LEPs would be toothless talking shops may actually be unfounded.
He said: “Too often our transport aspirations fall into the ‘‘too difficult to do’’ box because the levers we need to pull from the various different budgets can be hard to access.
“The really encouraging part of the Birmingham Sprint initiative is that it’s deliverable.
“Because the cost is significantly less than some alternatives means we can just get on with it and we don’t need to ask anybody and I certainly don’t think the overall strategy lacks ambition.
“We have HS2 on the table, the airport extension, the Metro extension, New Street Station and the traffic management work on the motorway.
“This project is about something else that we can get on with ourselves.
“This is a really good example of a mini-LEP in action, a successful use of the LEP ethos and this is how things could and should work in the future.
“The private sector put money in and public sector has to listen. It’s a great example of business-led localism.”