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So, what exactly is the plan for UK transport?

13 June 2023

The UK needs an overarching transport strategy, writes former National Highways CEO and Scottish Water director Graham Dalton.

So, what exactly is the plan for UK transport?
The problems of a disjointed approach to transport – such as costly delays to projects like HS2 – are plain to see. Image credit: Shutterstock

Transport matters.

Whether it’s the movement of goods or people, the ability to travel and to trade relies solely on good transport networks – and it has done for millennia.

Some of us travel widely around the UK. Some don't.

But we all rely on the transport system every day to bring us the food we eat and the clothes we wear.

While much is changing in our world, there's no indication that this reliance will lessen.

There's huge pressure on transport networks to adapt

And so much is changing.

The big shift, of course, is the drive towards net zero and the welcome aim to reduce our impact on the natural environment.

Then there's the digital revolution, which is changing what we do, and what we expect to be able to do.

There's a steadily growing population to serve.

Add to this the government’s aim to share economic prosperity across the UK, the growing need for climate-resilient infrastructure, and our continuing demand for greater levels of safety.

Then you'll see the real pressure on our networks to adapt.

The UK needs to take a strategic approach to transport.

What’s not working?

The problems of a disjointed approach to transport are plain to see.

There’s no concrete plan to exploit HS2 to improve transport to the north, with costly delays piling up.

There’s no plan to replace the recently scrapped smart motorway rollout, which evidence suggested were easing congestion and improving traffic flow.

There’s no vision for road transport once car, van, and truck fleets are zero emission.

Devolution is great – to a point

Successive UK governments have made good progress in recent years to devolve responsibility for Scottish, Northern Irish, and Welsh road and rail networks to their respective national governments.

And they've increasingly empowered local and regional governments in England to do the same.

The opening this month of the Edinburgh tram extension to Leith and Newhaven is just one example of devolution working for communities.

But none of that works unless we also develop the networks and rural connections that link the devolved nations and English regions.

The Union Connectivity Review is a start

Published in November 2021, Lord Peter Hendy’s Union Connectivity Review (UCR) makes 19 recommendations that together would address many of the pressures on the UK’s strategic transport networks.

The government committed in May 2022 to publish a full response. We're still waiting for that response.

We do at least have a draft update to the Department for Transport’s national policy statement for national networks.

That document is a sign of progress – but it falls far short of a plan to meet the UK's strategic transport needs.

England needs a national transport strategy

The problem statement is clear.

Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland all have strategies for their respective national transport systems.

But England doesn’t, and there’s no overarching policy to glue the UK together.

The UK needs to develop and manage its strategic transport infrastructure to accommodate the rapidly changing demands on it.

In England, it's imperative to have a strategy for properly connecting the regions.

The ICE will soon publish a policy position statement on a national transport strategy for England. That document will be a good place to start.

Combined with the UCR’s core recommendation for a UK strategic transport network (UKNet), there’s the making of a cohesive strategy.

This isn’t about an appeal for money.

It’s about the transport network owners and operators having a clear plan to work to. It’s about coordination between UK governments. And it’s about coherence between public and private sectors.

We need a transport strategy for England – one that reflects the government’s responsibility to support the needs of the United Kingdom as a whole. And we need it soon.

The ICE will publish its policy position statement on a national transport strategy for England later this month. Subscribe to ICE Informs for the latest ICE policy and advocacy news straight to your inbox.

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  • Graham Dalton, non-executive director at Scottish Water