Skip to content
Infrastructure blog

UK transport planning: like trying to solve a jigsaw without the picture on the box

05 December 2023

ICE trustee Jonathan Spruce recently gave evidence to the UK Transport Select Committee. Here, he outlines his key arguments.

UK transport planning: like trying to solve a jigsaw without the picture on the box
ICE trustee for policy and external affairs, Jonathan Spruce.

Transport plays a huge role in improving people’s lives and meeting the UK’s long-term objectives – net zero, climate adaptation, social and economic equality, sustainable development, and more.

But too often, transport investment isn’t aligned with those goals. Poor connectivity limits opportunities in many parts of the country. Net zero and climate adaptation are off-track.

Furthermore, uncertainty about the government’s long-term objectives for transport causes stop-start delivery of major projects.

This drives up costs and prevents from people and businesses from seeing the benefits of investment.

Informing the government’s transport strategy

In June 2023, the Transport Select Committee launched an inquiry into how the government sets its strategic transport objectives.

The ICE has already submitted written evidence to the committee, drawing on our consultation and policy position statement on a national transport strategy for England.

This evidence formed the backdrop to a recent oral evidence session in Parliament, at which I gave evidence on behalf of the ICE.

How does the government set transport objectives?

One of the committee’s main questions is how the government articulates its strategic transport objectives, and whether they’re the right ones.

When responding to that question, my first thought was: where are these strategic transport objectives set out?

Are they in the (now defunct) Integrated Rail Plan? The recent Plan for Drivers? The Cycling and Walking Strategy? Bus Back Better? The Transport Decarbonisation Plan?

And these are just the transport policy documents. If we think about some of the biggest challenges we face today, what about the Levelling Up White Paper? The Net Zero Strategy? The old Industrial Strategy, anyone?

What we have is a load of different policies and strategies, driven by different Whitehall departments with different objectives, but no clarity on what core objectives any transport system should achieve.

We have the pieces of the jigsaw, but not the picture on the box

It’s a bit like a jigsaw.

Many of the documents I’ve listed are corner or edge pieces. They help define the overall shape and structure of the finished product.

Beyond that, the series of interventions, schemes, and initiatives remain in a pile that we need to sort through and shuffle around to find the right one.

What we’re missing is the picture on the front of the box.

A clear definition of the outcomes that we’re trying to achieve: cross-government outcomes that address the big challenges around decarbonisation and economic inequality.

So, how can we change this?

There are examples of strategies that have the ‘picture on the box’ in mind.

Wales has linked its transport strategy to the seven goals in the Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015.

This approach ensures that planning considers a wider range of transport users, journey types, and outcomes – including the needs of future generations.

In its first strategic transport plan, Transport for the North clearly set out the economic, social, and environmental objectives it wished to deliver up until 2050, before going on to review how transport could support those objectives.

Setting out the picture on the front of the box

Setting out the picture on the front of the box gives strategic clarity and long-term certainty. A national transport strategy would do this.

It would align the efforts of engineers, policymakers, and other stakeholders in supporting sustainable rail and road delivery.

It would end the cycle of transport investment decisions that are blinkered, short-term, and disconnected from wider outcomes.

It would allow us to view infrastructure as an investment, not a cost. Not spending more – but spending wisely, by making the right strategic decisions and committing to delivering them.

As Christmas approaches, many of us will gather with family and, maybe, a jigsaw will appear.

Imagine having to try to do that jigsaw without the picture on the front of the box. That’s how transport policy often works now.

With the picture, it’s more fun, more harmonious, and moves towards a good outcome. And who doesn’t love doing a jigsaw at Christmas?

*The ICE welcomes guests to share their views about infrastructure policy issues on the Infrastructure Blog. These views are the views of the individual.

If you’re interested in writing for the Infrastructure Blog, please email [email protected]. The ICE reserves the right not to publish articles that have been submitted.

  • Jonathan Spruce, director at Fore Consulting