A good start: now delivery is the key
In his expenditure statement, Gordon Brown said: 'Anyone who travels on our roads and railways knows that after years of neglect and under investment, Britain suffers from an over-crowded, under-financed, under- planned and under-maintained transport system.'
He could also have added the unreliability of the public transport system to his list. But what an indictment it is! We have neglected to maintain our transport assets over the decades, and have no one to blame for this state of affairs but ourselves. It is only recently that the Government's transport portfolio has been amalgamated with those of the environment and regions, so giving us the opportunity of examining transport on an integrated basis. It is only with this present Government that we have a political heavyweight responsible for transport. In the Deputy Prime Minister, we at last have a politician who is passionately interested in developing integrated transport. And we have a Chancellor who is proposing a different investment strategy, involving new public-private partnerships, a commitment to integrated planning, and 'a spend' of an additional £2bn over the next three years. It seems, therefore, that we may actually now have a basis for moving forward.
The development of an integrated transport policy for the UK reflects this Government's manifesto commitment and its concern that transport should be central to a range of economic, social and environmental challenges.
There are a number of issues which are central to Government thinking on transport. These include subsidiarity and the devolution of power to the local and regional level; regulation that protects the consumer while allowing for economic growth and competitive transport provision; pricing and fiscal measures that are designed to promote and encourage the development and use of public transport; the harnessing of technology both to reduce the need to travel and to improve travel itself; measures to increase investment in transport (and public transport in particular), with an emphasis on public-private partnerships; and strategic planning with a special emphasis on how transport and environmental considerations relate to land use planning.
It is against this background that the consultation process, initiated last year, generated expectations of a concerted and sustained attempt to tackle not only the symptoms of transport-related problems but also their root causes. A great belief has thus built up that the Government's White Paper on the future of transport will be the great panacea. It is hoped that it will foresee and sort out all transport problems and issues although the delays incurred in the White Paper's publication have probably watered down John Prescott's undoubted radicalism.
But we need to put all this aside now. There is no immediate solution to our under-investment or to the lack of strategic planning in the past. But hopefully the implementation of government policy will be a huge step forward.
With the rhetoric now in place and in perspective, the emphasis has to be on delivery. But this is something on which the White Paper seems to be silent and we may have to wait until the daughter papers are published before coming to a hard view. There is a proliferation of institutions dealing with various aspects of transport, each with its own agenda and accountability. The White Paper is silent on this confusion as well. The offer by the Chancellor of a fresh investment strategy, involving new public-private partnerships, has to be developed within the context of a deliverable public sector framework which has still to be established, and a realistic risk allocation. Only if this happens will it be possible to harness the innovative skills of the private sector to deliver their part of the partnership.
The delivery of a rational and achievable integrated transport policy is now an urgent and pressing issue in London and the south east and in the regions.
Mark Bostock is a director at Ove Arup & Partners.