Smart Transport

The role of devolution in decarbonising transport

Keith Dunham

By Keith Dunham, regional lead for local transport in the North of England, AtkinsRéalis

Transport remains the main contributor to domestic greenhouse gas emissions in the UK, generating 24% of emissions in 2020.

To reach net zero by 2050, the UK must deliver a step change in the scale of our ambition to decarbonise the sector.

In 2022, in partnership with Durham University and the Northern Powerhouse Partnership, AtkinsRéalis commissioned research exploring the regional rebalancing challenges facing local decision makers across the north of England. 89% recognised transport as integral to levelling up.

Similar research conducted this year among young people in the north, reinforced its importance. From college bus to work commute: the need for reliable public transport was by far the biggest issue cited.

Transport is clearly high on the agenda, but local authorities face significant (and very different) challenges in delivering sustainable transport improvements.

In recent years, a range of funding pots have been announced by Government to support transport decarbonisation, including active and public transport. However, most require significant bidding investment ,undertaken at risk and in competition.

Funding streams can overlap and often come with onerous conditions, which must be negotiated. Even after funding is agreed, the process for reporting to multiple Whitehall departments is often considered unclear and disproportionate.

While some authorities do well from this system, many do not. Most believe it to be unfair, especially for smaller authorities representing less affluent areas, who are often most in need of support.

In response to campaigns for a fairer system, the Government enacted The Cities and Local Government Devolution Act 2016 to provide local areas with the powers and budget needed to boost productivity in their local economies and improve public services, including transport decarbonisation.  

And it is through devolution, that we can help solve the UK’s transport net zero challenge, but it needs to be done faster and more effectively.

Making progress

In 2021, the UK Government established the City Region Sustainable Transport Settlements (CRSTS) programme – a £5.7 billion investment in local transport networks. It aims to provide consolidated, long-term capital funding to eight devolved city regions through 5-year settlements from 2022 to 2027.

The CRSTS is intended to be the first in a series of transport settlements designed to support growth, productivity, decarbonisation, and levelling up, while building long-term fiscal sustainability locally. In addition to funding specific active travel projects, most of these deals include the power to introduce bus franchising, adult education budgets, and local revenue raising powers– all of which play a role in decarbonising transport systems.

As of January 2023, devolution deals have been agreed with 14 areas, with bids or expressions of interest submitted by several others. Negotiations are also underway to agree expanded ‘trailblazer’ deals with Greater Manchester and the West Midlands. Both areas will now have more influence over local railway services, enabling greater integration with other modes of public transport. Other areas are expected to commence negotiations for deeper devolution deals in 2023.

This is great progress, providing devolved areas with many of the tools they need to implement their own transport decarbonisation strategies. However, are devolution deals providing equal opportunities for all areas?

Levelling the playing field

For devolution to be fully effective, deals must be available for all areas to enable decarbonisation. Although the Government has committed to agreeing on deals with every part of England that wants one by 2030, the current policy seems to favour Mayoral Combined Authorities (MCAs), with non-MCA areas such as Cheshire and Warrington struggling to engage with Whitehall.

Some areas are forming city regions, and Mayoral Authorities are likely to benefit from the existing templates, but many areas will not structure themselves in this way. It would be unfair to penalise them.

The devolution framework aims to accommodate this within Level 1 deals, which do not require a Directly Elected Mayor. Yet no significant Level 1 deals have been reached and no precedent set. This will continue to delay progress in many areas.

Level 1 trailblazer deals are therefore required to enable a fully inclusive approach and avoid a scattered ‘patchwork quilt’ of decarbonisation solutions within MCAs, which is unlikely to deliver our national target.

The apparent predisposition towards MCAs seems to arise from the need for a single point of responsibility, but why does this need to be a mayor? Could this role be taken by another elected representative, such as a governor or assembly, with regular rotation to ensure a balanced approach?

There’s also challenges for many two-tier authorities, such as Lancashire and Hampshire, who must align with several district, borough, and city councils within their areas. These authorities are often represented by different political parties so achieving alignment across these areas is can be challenging.

Could such areas be divided into administrative sub-areas to facilitate this?

Work is clearly required at the local level to propose Level 1 deals that address these challenges, and provide appropriate governance and political accountability.

Future outlook

There’s a lot to do over the coming years to decarbonise our transport systems. Numerous measures must be implemented, including infrastructure improvements, incentives to use public transport, and the use of low-emission vehicles. Skill gaps must also be addressed.

For areas that have agreed to a devolution deal, they must now focus on delivery. For areas that have not agreed to a deal, long-term funding combined with local autonomy must be sought. Devolution is currently the most efficient way to obtain this.

For all areas, funding comes with conditions: failure to deliver can result in funding being withdrawn and jeopardise future applications. As such, the Institute for Government recommends funding settlements be awarded on the condition that devolved authorities meet agreed emissions targets – all overseen by a Government Net Zero Delivery Board to drive progress, unblock issues, and share lessons.

The stakes are high, but so is the prize. A net zero carbon transport system will improve air quality, health and wellbeing, congestion, and noise pollution and leave a legacy for future generations.

Devolution is a key enabler on this journey.


Transport and environment statistics (DfT, October 2022).

 Devolution to Local Government in England dated (House of Commons Library, January 2023)

 Net Zero and Devolution – The role of England’s Mayors in the climate transition (Institute for Government, 2023)

About the author:

Keith Dunham is a regional lead for Atkins’ Local Transport Business and a Fellow of the Institution of Civil Engineers. He has over 20 years’ experience delivering transportation projects in the UK, Middle East and Australia.


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