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Britain needs French polish

When it comes to transport systems, Britain could learn a thing or two from France.

Over the last 20 years, France has taken its transport system into a different league. It has built an entire network of high speed TGV railway lines linking Paris with the regions, and continues to expand its motorways and urban metro systems.

In Britain investment has largely concentrated on a fitful roads programme with the odd public transport scheme thrown in. Development of modern high speed rail is largely non-existent, with the exception of the half built Channel Tunnel Rail Link.

This contrast is something Chancellor Gordon Brown would do well to ponder as he prepares to announce the results of his comprehensive spending review this summer.

The difference appears to be that France has traditionally emphasised rail investment ahead of roads. The tone was set in the first half of the last century. 'In the 1930s road spending was blocked. The idea was to restrict transport capacity in favour of the railways, ' explains Philippe Maler, the French transport ministry's deputy director of land transport.

This pro-rail approach has persisted, and probably provided some of the impetus behind the TGV programme which had its roots in the 1960s but came to fruition with the first high speed line in the early 1980s.

In contrast, successive British governments have focused more on road spending, with the Conservatives in particular seeing the car as an expression of a citizen's freedom. This perhaps explains why it has taken so long for us to get our only high speed railway - the Channel Tunnel Rail Link - to the construction phase, while plans for other high speed lines, like the London to Scotland link, remain stuck in the sidings.

But there are other factors.

France takes a longer term approach than even the current Labour administration to transport planning, ensuring that projects are prioritised early and then delivered within a recognisable timescale. While we have a rather woolly 10 year transport plan, France has a 25 year plan which includes 50 priority projects to focus the minds of politicians and civil servants and alike.

Unlike the British plan, which is drawn up by ministers and officials, the French one was devised through consultation between ministers, MPs and regional politicians and officials. By the time the current plan was published last December, there was general agreement across the political parties and right up to President Jacques Chirac about what needed to be built and how it should be funded, making it more likely that the aims of the 25 year plan could be achieved.

Developing cross party consensus on how priority projects will be financed helps to head off the kind of last minute decisionmaking delays which have hit UK projects like Crossrail and the East London Line extension.

So while Gordon Brown considers his spending plans, he should bear in mind the lessons that could be learned from across the Channel. Now more than ever there is increasing consensus that transport spending must be protected if Britain is to retain its status as one of the main drivers of the European Union economy.

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