On Thursday 20th May, the Department for Transport unveiled their much-anticipated Shapps-Williams Plan for Rail which outlines their strategic ambitions for the sector. The plan includes the creation of a new public body titled Great British Railways to own the infrastructure and propose the delivery of all network services.
Despite falling passenger numbers and an uncertain recovery, the plan’s promise of an ‘existential change’ to the management and delivery of UK rail projects is welcomed and represents an acknowledgement towards the scale of action required to secure recovery from the pandemic. The question remains, however, on what this means for the future of community engagement for the sector.
Throughout the plan, there is a clear ambition to leverage the positive potential for rail to connect communities, foster a sense of placemaking and act as a “catalyst for regeneration across [the UK’s] towns and cities.” The promise of greater control for local people through new Community rail partnerships highlights the potential for communities to take a more active role in guiding and implementing social value. Reforms to Transport Focus, the independent watchdog committed to shaping positive outcomes for users, meanwhile, will enable operators to align ongoing investment more closely with local and regional needs. Yet, with most of these reforms representing minor changes to existing programmes, there is clearly a scope for the Department for Transport to consider additional measures if it hopes to deliver the existential change it has committed to for communities and regions across the country.
To achieve this, the industry needs to consider a robust approach towards community engagement and consultation during planning and project delivery. The new government mandate for Great British Railways to set out its business plans in five-year intervals promises to provide a more integrated planning framework, but it is less clear how the new Project Speed initiative and the Department for Transport’s newly-created Acceleration Unit will deliver effective forms of engagement for communities at all stages of the project lifecycle.
Building an enlightened framework for community and stakeholder engagement during the planning process means understanding local priorities. Copper’s recent Public Attitudes to Rail Report found that 48% of passengers expect strong connection to their local transport network as a first priority for rail stations, with a majority of participants citing that it was more important for the government to invest in local rail projects rather than major regional rail projects. Fostering this sense of ownership and placemaking early in the planning process will be important for Project Speed to succeed, and with new digital engagement tools from solutions specialists such as Costain now able to monitor public opinion more accurately and consistently at programme level, industry can better keep track of shifting attitudes that will inevitably emerge as we recover from the pandemic.
Understanding public priorities for rail infrastructure can also drive positive community engagement toward existing infrastructure. Our Public Attitudes to Rail Report found that investing in rail to enable the transition to a low carbon economy was an important priority for future growth, with 58% of participants supporting investment in rail because it could help take private vehicles off the road. Empowering communities to make these positive changes through Community rail partnerships can therefore help to deliver sustainable regeneration and give local people a vested interest in the positive potential of new and existing projects. As the wider industry seeks new ways to innovate in decarbonising existing infrastructure, understanding public attitudes throughout the planning process is a paramount factor and can ultimately help win support of local communities towards new and existing projects.
This is a watershed moment for the future of the UK’s rail industry, and one that Great British Railways should capitalise on. New digital engagement tools will continue to expand the industry’s capabilities around early community engagement, and there is a clear public appetite to ensure our infrastructure can deliver for the UK’s net zero agenda. As the industry starts to get more visibility around sector growth through proposed updates to the Department for Transport’s Rail Network Enhancements Pipeline review, building consensus early and engaging at all stages of the project lifecycle to accurately and consistently track public opinion will help create firm and lasting foundations for future Community rail partnerships and secure the success of Transport Focus. Only these measures can offer the ‘existential change’ the Department for Transport is looking to deliver on.