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The concept of an integrated national transport strategy has been promoted by many in the industry, but what would this strategy actually involve and how would it be implemented?
For as long as I have worked in the industry there have been calls from various quarters for an integrated transport strategy for the UK. In any walk of life, having a vision and a strategy makes perfect sense. Business cannot make investment without a clear idea about what the long term objective is. Investment in transport should be no different although it does present a unique set of challenges which I will attempt to highlight in this blog.
The first challenge is time horizons. Major transport infrastructure is being designed for 100 or more years, but is it realistic for us to be thinking even 50 years ahead? The Beeching Report is often criticised for recommending heavy cuts to rail infrastructure which are now being reversed just 50 years later. But what is interesting is that Beeching's report reflected on a rail network that had grown over the preceding 100 years to reduce haulage distances by horse and cart. In this context, was it realistic for him to forecast the growth in car usage, a rail resurgence and the rise of low cost airlines?
Similarly, is it realistic for us to really imagine what the impact of the digital economy, delivery drones and autonomous vehicles will be over the next 50 years?
The second challenge is politics. Previous long term plans have not survived short term political challenge and change. John Prescott's 10-year plan in 2000 and Sir Rod Eddington's Transport Study in 2006 are two examples that have gone to the wind. Transport spending is very susceptible to the political climate and changing political leadership as both Heathrow expansion and road congestion charging testify. It is a simple fact that politically it is easier to cut spending on a new, controversial road than it is to reduce spending on healthcare or education. Frequent changes in leadership also present difficulties, with eight different Secretaries of State for Transport in the last 10 years. As a consequence, major schemes are notoriously delayed. Maybe this is where Sir John Armitt's proposals to establish a National Infrastructure Commission to hold Government to account on Infrastructure investment would bring some real value.
The third challenge is how we value transport investment, looking at longer term direct and indirect benefits. Strategy should be multi-modal and go beyond the direct benefits of improved journey times and reduced congestion.
When High Speed 2 (HS2) was viewed as a transport scheme that would shave 20 minutes off the journey time between London and Birmingham, many people questioned the value. The central argument became whether people could effectively work on train journeys and so offsetting the need for shorter journey times.
However, HS2 then began to focus on the wider economic benefits of transport. At this point, a number of moons came into alignment. With so much of our infrastructure being at capacity, the shift towards regional devolution and the growing economic gap between London and the North, the arguments for high speed rail began to form a national picture for the future of our transport network.
In my view, the HS2 report Rebalancing Britain is the biggest step towards a national transport strategy in recent years. It seeks to set out the economic value of improved journey times across the UK regions and presents a clear challenge to those regions to configure their local plans to align with the national strategy. Coupled with the One North report and the work by the City Growth Commission there is very much a national conversation developing over the strategic value on national transport infrastructure.
So I believe that it is not just about producing a transport strategy but about producing a national infrastructure strategy that properly links investment to long term economic benefits. And then critically it is about empowering regions to deliver on those economic benefits as the strategic investments are made.
That needs leadership from both government and industry. There is now significant public interest and awareness of the transport debate and this is coupled with high levels of investment, particularly in highways and rail. While coming elections cast some shadow of uncertainty over future investments and commitments, the opportunity is for us in industry to maintain this focus and momentum to develop an increasingly meaningful strategic narrative.