We at Newcycling want to support the council in their plans to turn Newcastle into a city fit for the 21st century with a transport system to boot. A city that we can be proud of and which enables everyone to travel safely and sustainably. However, there are some big barriers to our lending this support. We describe one of the most important ones here.
Following the money
You often hear “simply follow the money” when trying to analyse root causes, motivations or decisions taken on policy – and perhaps politics more generally. Following the money on local transport matters has proved very difficult, as a recent Freedom of Information request to Newcastle council demonstrated. So, what does it mean when the system does not even allow you to follow the money and should something be done about it?
It’s important to recognise that Newcastle council have been bidding successfully for transport monies, resulting in a reasonably sized transport kitty for the city and the region. That is good news and we congratulate Newcastle council for their pro-activeness. Consequently, money availability is not the concern – it’s the management of that money that is.
With budget comes responsibility
A civic budget typically comes with grave responsibilities. It also should come with useful procedures: reporting, monitoring, checking and planning the expenditure. If run well and managed effectively, it should result in a transparent system.
Budget, policy and structure
We also believe that the management of a budget can be structured intelligently, especially by visibly linking the budget to desired policy goals and specific outcomes.
Budget must be intimately linked to policy outcomes. Doing that democratises and legitimises the council’s actions and processes. The important thing is that the budget, and how it flows through the organisation, makes good logical sense. This ensures that the public participant, resident and concerned citizen can understand and engage with it. Their resultant action can then turn to commenting on policy, seeking to change or support it, by lobbying elected representatives, petitioning the council or by exercising their voting rights. It prompts civic engagement and strengthens democratic political process.
If the budget is unclear, however, the organisation risks being similarly unclear in their structure and the responsibilities they hold towards that budget. We have seen that happening in Newcastle council where the transport budget turned out to be somewhat ‘unknown’ (see reference 1, below, and make up your own mind). We think this is quite an unfortunate situation for a council that wishes to transition the city’s transport system to a more sustainable and resilient one. A big task, a big ask and a big responsibility. But so worth doing.
The council is missing out and are also making life more difficult for themselves: policy partners supporting the planned transport transition currently find it hard to connect with the authority, as basic technical information and clarity of procedure is lacking.
Dear Pat Ritchie
Over the last five years, Newcycling has asked the council on several occasions to produce a hierarchical chart. We want to understand how transport responsibilities and budgets are managed by the council so that we can provide constructive support when our interests are aligned. We are still waiting for this, and our general view and outlook should come as no surprise to the council (see our budget consultation reply, listed as reference 2, below).
In order to overcome these seeming structural deficiencies, clearer reporting lines should be established for council’s transport function and we ask the chief executive to urgently do so, and communicate the changes to the public. We believe this is important, for the following reason:
Becoming accountable gives you policy partners
It’s great to see Newcastle council successfully bidding for transport monies. Can you please see to your organisation providing the structure and management to support the transport budget? Getting organised, throwing open the organisational doors and becoming accountable, would enable policy partners to cooperate with the council more easily and readily, and even amplify council’s voice in support of common goals. Council, we suggest, need all the help they can get as they are embarking on these big changes for our transport system.
Structure and budgets should be explainable, transparent and open to public scrutiny. Above that, policies, outcomes and resulting actions should be clear too. It’s for the council leaders to ensure this is happening. We need an accountable transport authority so we can really get behind it and support it when we agree with its actions and plans.
We have a long way to go in Newcastle. The things we are describing above – responsibility, openness and transparency and ultimately accountability – necessitate a more civic-minded approach by the council. Ultimately, it would be worth it for the council and the city.
Chair newcycling.org on behalf of Committee