Yesterday, something happened in transport planning that, whilst not uncommon, is still such a rarity so as to be noteworthy to us professionals. The Transport Planning Society, the Royal Town Planning Institute, and 32 learned academics sent a letter to the Secretary of State for Transport highlighting the concern of many of the direction of transport strategy in the UK. (As an interesting aside, two of the signatories taught me transport as part of my University education – a prize of a pint for the first person to guess who they are correctly).
So you’re probably thinking “A letter?!? Stone the flipping crows, James, that’s hardly going to be on the News at Ten is it?” Well, quite apart from the fact that this letter has been in the news – the Telegraph reported on the road charging elements of the letter, while it was also reported on by the Daily Mail and Financial Times – this letter is important because it succinctly and almost poetically highlights the flaws behind the pure economic approach to transport investment:
- The increasing disconnect between traffic forecasts from models and reality showing overall traffic and trips levels levelling off. Related to this is the need for smart demand management, as many routes in our towns and cities simply do not have capacity for further growth. (To be fair to my transport modelling colleagues, they are increasingly accepting this evidence and looking at population growth as the primary agent by which demand on the network will grow)
- Questioning the stimulus effect of major transport investment which has little connectivity benefit. The anti-HS2 brigade have already had a field day with this one.
- The consistency and sources of funding, including the – if you’ll excuse my language – frankly batshit mental idea of using Vehicle Excise Duty to provide a source of payment to pension funds to build new highways. No doubt I will come back to how we pay for transport improvements in a later blog.
But one of the most important recommendations, and a particular bug-bear of mine, is integration of transport into wider decision-making, particularly planning. As professionals we realise the importance of joined-up working, and I like to think that the majority of us work our hardest at this. But our structures and ways of working do not aid in this. I speak from years of experience of writing and delivering policy. I could write you a load of local transport objectives tomorrow with the help of my planning and economic development colleagues. They could also be fully consistent with our Development Strategy, Regeneration Plans, Leisure Strategy, Medium Term Plan and any other plan you care to think of. But I know for certain they will be interpreted in lots of ways to justify schemes, even within my own authority. Writing an integrated policy is one thing, communicating its meaning in an integrated way is quite another.
But i realise we are all busy people – integration of transport into other areas is difficult in practice, particularly when we have to do the day job. So ensure we are all on the same wavelength and pushing the same ideas, what we should be pushing for is making integrated policy part of our everyday working experience. Perhaps instead of separate departments for transport, planning, and economic policy – how about single policy units within responsible authorities developing policy in an integrated fashion? We already have those sorts of things for delivery of transport services, so why not development of policy? Not to mention abolishing two-tier local governance in most of England, where County and District Councils are responsible for transport and local planning respectively.
Of course we should be looking to national government to lead on this working, partly for best practice, but also as a warning of what happens when there is not joined up thinking. The dissonance between the Department for Communities and Local Government (responsible for planning) and the Department for Transport on joined-up policy is striking in the development of policy that calls for more roads and housing in any location that will build it to support growth on the one hand, and sustainable transport on the other to deal with the inevitable fall-out. As I have noted before, the only common thread underpinning investment – and even plans where they exist – is the growth at any cost mantra A dangerous one, and one that we as professionals must challenge rigorously.
But, ultimately, what will come of this letter? In case you hadn’t already guessed, it contains many messages and priorities that I fully support. I am sure that there are many in the Department for Transport that support them also, and I commend the Transport Planning Society and all the learned professors for not just making the effort to encourage the Secretary of State to change direction not just by this letter, but through all their tireless work over the years. However, as ever with transport, I fear that the integrated and coherent approach that transport needs will get bogged down in political short-termism, and the almost blind belief (not to mention politicial kudos) in the economic case for building more major transport schemes. I dearly hope that I am wrong.