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Infrastructure blog

Does England need a national transport strategy?

30 March 2023

The ICE welcomes responses to a consultation on strengthening strategic transport planning.

Does England need a national transport strategy?
There's a risk of public transport becoming less attractive at a time when increasing usage is vital. Image credit: Shutterstock

An accessible, reliable and low carbon transport network is essential for the UK to achieve its long-term strategic objectives.

Transport has a key role in delivering net zero and adapting to climate change, meeting the Sustainable Development Goals and levelling up the economy.

However, decisions about transport investment in England too often seem disconnected from those objectives.

A patchwork of strategies

England is the UK’s largest nation. Yet, unlike Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, it doesn’t have its own national transport strategy.

Nor does the UK as a whole have an overarching vision for how its transport network should meet the needs of users.

Transport is a system, but in England it’s planned across a fragmented landscape of strategies and responsibilities for different modes, themes, and regions.

Siloed thinking doesn’t reflect the multi-modal way in which people and businesses want to use the transport network.

It can lead to policies and investments that are incoherent and counter to the UK’s strategic goals.

A network under strain

England’s transport network is struggling after decades of comparative underinvestment in some regions and overly centralised decision-making.

This has caused wide differences in service levels, particularly between London and the South East and many of England’s other regions.

The difficulties have been exacerbated by the continued impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on transport operators and government priorities.

Public transport usage has started recovering from the impact of lockdowns, but travel patterns have not returned to pre-2020 levels.

Funding cuts, staff shortages and industrial action have further impacted performance. The risk is public transport becomes less attractive to the public at a time when increasing usage is vital.

Too much uncertainty

At the same time, high inflation is affecting capital investment. The government will freeze capital budgets in cash terms from 2025/26 rather than raising them in line with inflation – effectively a cut.

In this difficult context, maximising investment is vital. But this requires certainty about future interventions in the transport network.

The supply chain needs certainty to develop the resources and capacity required to deliver projects.

Subnational governments need to plan linked projects that will unlock the wider benefits of major infrastructure investment.

Businesses need the confidence to make investments in regional economies that will create new jobs and opportunities.

However, that certainty is missing.

The Integrated Rail Plan (IRP), for example, is a potentially transformative transport investment for the North and Midlands. But its scope and timeframe have for too long been unclear.

Making the right decisions

The current framework for planning transport in England makes it difficult for decision-makers to provide that certainty.

In challenging circumstances, they need to prioritise the right projects.

That doesn’t just mean assessing projects based solely on cost, but as investments in our future.

It requires linking investment to outcomes that will accelerate progress towards achieving strategic goals.

Those outcomes – and how transport will help achieve them – need to be better defined.

Only then can decision-makers fully assess the benefits and trade-offs between different infrastructure projects and decide which should move forward.

Is a national transport strategy the answer?

Last year, the ICE and All-Party Parliamentary Group on Infrastructure published a policy paper on accelerating delivery of the IRP.

We recommended developing a national transport strategy for England to help reduce the uncertainty delaying many major infrastructure projects.

The ICE’s recent presidential roundtable invited industry experts to weigh-in on whether England needs a national transport strategy.

There was broad support for a new strategy, but questions around what it should look like, how it should be developed and how it could be made effective.

Other countries – including New Zealand, Norway and the Netherlands – have national transport strategies that could provide useful insight on those questions.

What are the other options?

On the other hand, there are existing mechanisms in England that could be evolved into a new strategic framework.

For example, Network Rail’s Control Periods and the Department for Transport’s Road Investment Strategies each have their own objectives and delivery periods.

Better alignment between these and overarching frameworks, such as the National Infrastructure Strategy, could enable more joined-up thinking across modes.

At a UK level, Sir Peter Hendy conducted the Union Connectivity Review two years ago.

It recommended a new strategic transport network for the whole of the UK. However, the government hasn’t responded to its recommendations yet.

The need to change how we plan transport in England is clear. We need to hear your views about whether a national transport strategy is the answer.

How can we make stronger decisions, maximise value for money and deliver better outcomes for the public?

Have your say

Read and respond to the ICE’s green paper on a national transport strategy for England.

Responses should be sent to the ICE policy team by 12 May 2023.

  • David McNaught, policy manager at ICE