An alternative Mid-Term Review – the next 2 and a bit years

David Cameron and Nick CleggLast time, I posted my thoughts on the some varying success of the transport strategy of the Coalition Government to date. However, this only told half the story – we know how well (or not) the Coaltion has done with transport in the last few years, but what are its plans for the future of transport?

Two documents are key to understanding the Coalition’s transport strategy and how it fits into the wider approach of this Government, and neither of them are transport documents. The Coalition Mid-Term Review and the revised National Infrastructure Plan are the ones you want to read.

From these documents, the role of transport is very clear – its an economic one. Expanding and improving infrastructure, particularly ‘national-critical’ infrastructure, will not only stimulate growth in itself, but it will tackle inhibitors to economic and business performance – congestion, journey times, reliability. Many billions have been allocated to such improvements, with railways and highway improvements being the biggest winners with the highest national government priority.

The role of Government, in transport’s case through the Department for Transport, is to set out the overall national strategy and outlook – how the Government sees the country being in the future. In this sense, it is good that there is a National Infrastructure Plan at all – a strategy with a clear vision for how transport is seen and its future role, with measurable deliverables. The last half-decent stab at such a strategy for transport was the infamous 10 Year Plan – undone by fuel protests and the rather spectacular post-Hatfield collapse of Railtrack.

Looking at the strategy in terms of how transport is seen, economics, a key weakness of any transport strategy or plan is that at the national level, the national economy is often seen as a single entity with a number of drivers. In Delivering a Sustainable Transport System, whilst much was made of the 5 ‘goals’, at the document’s core were the transport economic drivers; the ‘international gateways’ (airports and ports to you and me), and the ‘strategic national corridors’ (roads and railways) linking these gateways and the largest urban areas together. Or, in economic terms, ‘markets’. And collectively, ‘the economy’.

In reality, the national economy is much more complex than that. Probably the best, and most simple, way of thinking of the economy is a collection of thousands of different local markets related to one another through a complex web of communication and transactions. No doubt economists out there will howl with derision at that explanation, but the point is that local markets – while little in their own right – collectively are extremely important. And it is here where the Coalition’s plans for transport begin to falter.

It is within the context of local markets that local trips are a fundamental importance – indeed trips of less than 5 miles account for 66% of all trips according to the National Travel Survey 2011. On these, both documents say little. Don’t get me wrong, connectivity to national and international networks is important and improvements to the national network will have local benefits, but when markets do much of their travel, and subsequently spend, in a local area, it is somewhat depressing that little is said about how Government will invest in it. And this is before we even consider the sustainable travel aspects of local travel.

What is equally as important in this respect is ensuring that, assuming transport is seen as an economic good (and I certainly don’t believe it should be seen solely as that), then decision-making on it should be taken at a market-relevant level. Here, the Mid-Term Review does well. The expansion of city deals see economic decision making powers and funding further devolved from Whitehall to our largest markets – the cities. City regions are, under these powers, able to take and fund decisions that will most benefit their markets, with subsequent impacts on the wider economy.

Heseltine Review

Greatest cover to a Government report, ever

For the rest of us not in a city, rolling out the recommendations of the Heseltine Review will be of greatest importance. His recommendations of a single growth ‘pot’ allocated towards Local Enterprise Partnerships (I will critique them in a future post) based on sound economic areas, combined with power and even manpower delegation offer intriguing possibilities. The Mid-Term Review commits to implementing Lord Heseltine’s recommendations. Following years of seeing decision-making powers centralised to Whitehall, I remain to be convinced that this will happen.

For transport, these decision-making frameworks are important. They provide context for how transport decisions are made, a framework for consistent decision-making. That has been one of the biggest challenges facing Local Transport Bodies who will decide Major Scheme funding – how to ensure that decision making is consistent not only between schemes, but with other LTBs as well. For me, National Government needs to be about overall strategy, national links development, and common standards. Then local decision makers be tasked with investing in transport to meet these goals, and to support their own economies and to deliver livable cities and sustainable travel.

Sadly, i fear that it will take much of the next 2 and a half years to sort out this decision-making malaise of City Deals, Local Enterprise Partnerships, Local Transport Bodies and countless other complications that hinder effective transport investment. Until then, the economic potential of transport will be unrealised, and it will be up to local authorities to continue to push the case for transport investment. In addition to the minor thing of doing the day job.

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