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Grinding to a poisonous halt

Cover story More investment in roads and public transport is needed to beat congestion, says the ICE's State of the Nation report.

Pollution and the continued rise in the number of cars is damaging our environment. There will always be essential car journeys, but with a quarter of car trips in the UK being less than two miles, the majority of these should be made by public transport, walking or cycling, ' says ICE president Colin Clinton.

Ripping into the UK's couch potato dependency on the car, Clinton's comment underscores a damning appraisal of road and rail performance offered by the ICE's latest State of the Nation report, published this week.

State of the Nation is an annual report card-style review of UK infrastructure intended to alert politicians and decision makers to the condition and performance of the nation's built environment. The 2005 report reveals that transport comes bottom of the class, having slipped from a grade C last year to D+ this year.

Explaining why there has been such phenomenal growth in car use, the ICE has drawn on statistics set out by the Department for Transport last year: In 2003 bus and coach fares in the UK were 34% higher and rail fares 36% higher in real terms than in 1980. Yet over the same period, the cost of motoring decreased by 9%, despite a 7% increase in fuel costs.

Now it is time for a reversal of trends, the report urges.

Increased congestion on the road network is a danger economically, socially and environmentally - it represents £10bn a year in lost productivity and, in 2002, 3,431 people were killed and 299,174 injured in road accidents. Greenhouse gas emissions from road transport rose 13% to 125.3Mt between 1990 and 2002, and now constitute 18% of total UK greenhouse gas pollution.

State of the Nation advocates the adoption of a dual strategy of imposing financial penalties for car use offset by incentives to use public transport.

Roads: Maintenance spending on motorways and trunk roads is static and the ICE fears that a defects backlog could build up, compounding the £8.3bn maintenance underspend on local roads reported in 2003.

The report calls for 'increased and consistent levels of funding for the national road network from the government'.

In 2004/5 planned Highways Agency spending fell by £200M.

Although it promises to increase major projects spending to £1.9bn in 2005/6 and to £2.2bn in the following two, but no additional investment in maintenance is in prospect.

The transfer of roads of national strategic importance to regional control earlier this year is a major cause for concern.

'Roads will now have to compete with housing and economic development for funding from a single pot of money in each region, ' says the report. 'Road congestion is the biggest issue on the public's minds, ' confirms ICE roads spokesman Adrian Shepherd. 'Although improved public transport won't solve all the problems of congestion on roads, it will probably improve traffic flow on the local road network, ' he says.

Rail: 'Things are improving on [the physical condition of] the railways. But there's no strategic direction or promotion of rail use, ' says ICE rail spokesman Graeme Montieth. The ICE is concerned about the lengthy gestation for new rail projects, and is still pushing for research into a new north-south rail link which could remove the need for airport expansion in the south east.

Airports and ports: Recent investment in airport and sea port expansion has not been matched by local expansion of road and rail infrastructure.

Transport scores the worst grades, but waste and energy are not far behind.

'To meet [European Union] Landfill Directive targets for diverting biodegradable waste from landfill sites, the UK will need to invest more than £10bn in waste facilities, ' says the report. At the same time, the UK is poised on the brink of an energy supply abyss as most of the UK's nuclear power plants will be switched off by the end of the decade. 'It may not yet be a case of the lights going out, but they are certainly beginning to flicker, ' says the report.

State of the Nation proposes to resolve the pressing challenges of waste management and power provision by investing in waste-to-energy facilities.

'We have a choice. We can either spend that money on processing plants that partly tackle the waste issue, or it can be invested in efficient regional facilities. Investing part of the £10bn needed to treat our waste to create energy would help meet national targets for renewable energy, reduce the amount of carbon dioxide produced, and reduce landfill, as well as increasing the capacity, security and delivery of our electricity supply, ' says the report.

The ICE says that by 2020 energy from waste could make up 17% of Britain's energy mix. A realistic target would be 10%.

The government should support the establishment of an energy to waste industry through a mechanism similar to the Renewables Obligation. This requires generators to provide a quotient of their power from renewable sources. Penalties for non compliance are ploughed back into the renewables sector and at the moment subsidise the green energy sector to the tune of £300M per year.

Growing reliance on imported gas raises the prospect of uncontrollable energy price increases and soaring carbon emissions, the report warns.

Diversification of the energy supply mix is needed 'very soon', bringing back nuclear as a mainstay of UK power generation alongside new 'clean' coal technology and renewables.

The ICE came down in favour of new nuclear power some time ago. State of the Nation 2005 reiterates this and calls for a programme to encourage the public to accept nuclear power.

This requires a long-term solution for nuclear waste, and for the energy market to fund any future nuclear building programme.

Water, wastewater and flooding The UK is, ironically, vulnerable to both flooding and water shortages.

Although the revised planning policy guidance (PPG) note 25 cracked down on building on flood plains, further improvements to the planning system are needed. Even though the government has increased flood defence spending year on year, 320,000 properties will be at risk of flooding by 2008.

Drinking water standards are more than 99% compliant with European quality requirements thanks to record investment by water companies, but planning policies, traffic management plans and increasing community involvement are all making projects more difficult, and costs are increasing. 'Poor planning of major developments means that utilities can't meet the requirements needed for water and wastewater, ' the report states.

There is a looming water shortage in the south east as the pace of development outstrips supply capacity. Streamlined planning processes are needed to enable construction of new storage capacity, the report says.

A rapid decision should be reached on construction of a major new collector sewer tunnel beneath the Thames in London to prevent combined sewer overflows into the river.

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