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What lessons can Covid-19 teach us about transport in the future?

17 July 2020

What does Covid-19 mean for future transport requirements, and what lessons can we learn? Speaking at ICE's Presidential Roundtable breakfast, Huw Merriman MP, Chair of the Transport Select Committee, discusses current and future priorities.

What lessons can Covid-19 teach us about transport in the future?
Huw Merriman MP and Chair of the Transport Select Committee

The Coronavirus pandemic has inevitably affected governmental priorities to some extent, but it is reassuring to see that the need for investment in infrastructure remains high on the agenda. In the March 2020 Budget, the Government announced around £640 billion of gross capital investment for roads, railways, communications, schools, hospitals and power networks across the UK by 2024-25. This included the largest ever investment in English strategic roads. Some of this investment was accelerated in the Prime Minister’s ‘New Deal’ announcement on 30 June in order to fuel economic recovery from the pandemic.

A focus on transport investment

The current focus on transport infrastructure investment is much welcomed. The Transport Committee has held a close interest in infrastructure projects throughout my time on the Committee, first as a member for five years from 2015, and since having had the privilege to be elected Chair in January 2020. In 2018, the Committee examined the Airports National Policy Statement (NPS) on expansion at Heathrow. We accepted the case for additional runway capacity and particularly hub capacity—but on the condition that any expansion was sustainable, consistent with legal obligations, and included suitable mitigations to offset the impact on local communities. The recent legal ruling and coronavirus pandemic have further complicated the issue of Heathrow expansion.

While extra investment in infrastructure will be welcomed news to many, policymakers need to think carefully about how this money is phased and allocated. Trying to do too much too soon can cause problems. Our report on rail infrastructure in 2018 noted that the scale of the schemes in Control Period 5 were over-ambitious and that eventually spending would need to be curtailed. We concluded that electrification should be delivered through a long-term rolling programme, in which the Department for Transport, Network Rail and the wider industry learn the lessons of earlier schemes and strive to reduce the costs. I want to see these lessons learnt. We do not want to see another boom and bust approach to rail investment.

We also heard about the regional disparities in transport infrastructure investment. We urged the Department to work with the Treasury to ensure that economic rebalancing become an intrinsic consideration in transport scheme appraisals. This is all the more pertinent in the context of the current Government’s 'levelling-up' agenda.

Scrutinising the delivery of HS2

Since being elected Chair in early 2020, the Committee’s work programme has inevitably been dominated by the implications of coronavirus on transport. Nevertheless, we have continued to examine major infrastructure projects such as HS2, which are clearly of long-term strategic importance to the nation. One of our first hearings was with the new dedicated HS2 minister Andrew Stephenson MP who set out his plans for the project, particularly his intention to improve the transparency that has been sadly lacking in the past. We intend to work with the Department for Transport to determine the content of the new six-monthly progress reports to Parliament.

This session was the first in a rolling programme of sessions we will hold over the next five years to scrutinise the delivery of HS2. We intend to hold public hearings every six months, either at Westminster or at different destinations along the route. Getting out of Westminster is important to ensure we can hear directly from local communities—both about their concerns and also the benefits that HS2 can bring to cities, towns and villages across the country.

I have no doubt that infrastructure investment has an important role as a stimulus to help recover from the economic impact of the pandemic. The publication of the National Infrastructure Strategy in the autumn—which has been delayed due to the pandemic—will be an important milestone. The Committee will be examining the transport elements of the strategy closely.

The Committee will keep a watching brief on critical decisions, including on HS2, Heathrow, and major road building, and we are ready to intervene as new challenges and questions arise. As infrastructure experts, the views of the Institution of Civil Engineers can help us constructively scrutinise these decisions.

  • Huw Merriman MP, Chair of the Transport Select Committee