Why we need a national transport strategy

We need a proper debate and evaluation of how to join up Britain’s key growth areas. That national direction is essential if large elements of transport powers are to be transferred under the Devolution Bill.

Road and rail strategies need to be tied together with other modes to ensure that they complement each other.
Road and rail strategies need to be tied together with other modes to ensure that they complement each other.

To quote Sir Rod Eddington, "transport corridors are the arteries of domestic and international trade".

Nearly ten years ago ICE provided evidence to the Eddington study recommending the development of a comprehensive National Transport Strategy (NTS) for England. We have continued to do this through our State of the Nation reports.

Although there are current road and rail strategies, these need to be tied together with other modes to ensure that they complement each other. The relative absence of discussions about the context in which decisions facing the next Government, including HS2 and aviation capacity, is a concern, with no overarching strategy supporting the investment case, or allowing an effective appraisal of options.

Ongoing investment in transport infrastructure is essential. Quite rightly, each city-region or functional economic area is bringing forward plans to grow their economies through Local Growth Deals. But at a national level, who is joining up the economic growth dots to mean that we get the most social and economic growth that we can?

To use an analogy more akin to engineering, who is ensuring that we wire up the locations across the UK that we think will drive our social economic growth to make the light shine brightly? ICE’s recent work on devolution suggested that the answer to this question is unclear and fragmented.

Many question the need for a NTS.

One of the arguments against is that it will take a long time to produce and be out-of-date as soon as it is published. This need not be the case.

Much of the work being led by Local Authorities and Enterprise Partnerships mean that many elements of a NTS already exist – the task for Government is to:

  • direct and enable city regions to join these up
  • fill the gaps between them
  • reconcile the conflicting elements in ways that best suit their areas.

Such a process would add to the devolutionary process, not detract from it.

There is also a perceived fear amongst politicians that a NTS becomes a stick with which to beat them over lack of progress or policy failures. Again, this need not be the case if a NTS looks at high level principles and objectives, such as connecting our core areas of growth with multi-modal transport corridors allowing enhanced movement of people and goods.

And if we do nothing it could result in:

  • piecemeal investment,
  • delays in implementation
  • a lack of clear strategic evidence as to why we should invest in projects.

It is because we have too long looked at transformational projects in isolation that much of the early discussion about HS2 focused on absolute time savings rather than its impact on connectivity, and why even after the General Election, we may still be some way from a clear conclusion as to how to deliver the much-needed aviation capacity in the future.

In its first year the new Government should commit to develop a NTS which:

  • provides a strong link to the spatial framework that will drive our economy for the next 20 years
  • gives stability to invest in the schemes needed and a clear context for that investment and option appraisal
  • ensures that we put our critical transport infrastructure in the right place
  • helps speed up the delivery process for some of the large scale projects needed.

More importantly, as a more recent report from another antipodean Knight of the Realm notes, the principal reason why we need a NTS is actually quite obvious:

“Connectivity equals jobs. In my view, it is that simple.”
Sir David Higgins, 2014

About the author

Jonathan Spruce is a Director of Fore Consulting Limited and a vice chair of ICE's Transport Panel.