Much of the sentiment within today’s transport infrastructure speech by David Cameron has been said close to a million times before – not just by the 25+ transport ministers the last Labour Government went through as referenced by the PM but the 25+ ones of the previous Conservative Government as well. As David Cameron has proved in the past, transport isn’t a strong point for him – the last time it was raised in Prime Minister’s Questions by Ed Miliband wasn’t a roaring success for the PM.
There is very little to disagree with in much of the top line analysis, with lines such as: ‘infrastructure is the key to a country’s growth’, ‘infrastructure improvement needs to be cheaper’, ‘more deliverable and environmentally conscious’. Sweating infrastructure assets is likely to lead to longer term investment needs and will not put this country on a stronger footing for future challenges.
Indeed the Prime Minister boldly stated: ‘Without world class transport we will not get growth, people won’t invest here and regions in decline will be further left behind.’
These are largely self-evident facts and the Prime Minister stated them well in front of a very shiny new sign and slogan. He even managed to include the pretty soul destroying idea which ends any policy brainstorm – the need for an ‘audit’… presumably this is just in case we are not sure what we have in this country already.
The Prime Minister wanted social and environmental sustainability to be core criteria for his brave new world rather than an afterthought. Great – so why then has his Government left out environment objectives in the CAA Bill currently going through its Parliamentary passage? This Bill sets out how we will regulate our aviation industry for decades to come. Aviation after all is one of the key areas the Prime Minister picked up on so seamlessly but the joined up thinking he claims to seek looks set to join the piles of left luggage on the blue skies thinking carousel.
It’s ok though, because he did mention the need to get goods off the roads and on to the railways. Great – but why then is there no talk of the infrastructure and political capital expenditure requirement to genuinely make this happen? Audit the rail access at ports around the country then build more of it, audit the strategic rail/road freight hubs and build more of them in the places where rail freight customers need them. Otherwise these fine words will just be that – fine words.
It was interesting that there was so much criticism of the passenger railway industry…’our railways are crowded and expensive – compared to the French, Dutch and Swiss railways our fares are 30% higher, our running costs 40% higher and our public subsidy is double’. Maybe the Coalition is starting to find someone less popular than themselves. Like many, including this author, before him the Prime Minister mentions other European countries as definitive proof of our lack of skill – it is interesting to note that the Dutch State railway (following the award of the Greater Anglia franchise) runs as many trains a day in the UK as it does in the Netherlands.
Fares and running costs are high and subsidy is not likely to reduce markedly. This government’s current public plans will do little to improve this situation; it is up to Labour and other interested bodies to provide bold answers as the Prime Minister didn’t offer any today.
The rail figures that David Cameron cited are a bit ‘dodgy’. Regrettably, the 40% additional running costs cannot be absolutely buttoned down because the UK infrastructure manager has not allowed the regulator (the ORR) to set up much needed cost benchmarks. The rail regulator is set to get increased powers because it has proved not to be an effective regulator of the industry thus far. This makes the Prime Minister’s claim that ‘Britain already has a long and successful track record of regulating infrastructure providers’ look a little thin.
This is all the more worrying when this is a justification for the Blue-ist parts of the Blue Party promoting what they reckon is the best solution to anything ever; namely, as the Prime Minister outlined today, ‘…when it comes to the question of financing, we need to use the power of the state to unlock the dynamism of the market,’ whether it be hospitals, railways, job creation or now roads.
It is clear that congestion does hurt the economy and the environment. It is also clear that, like a hole, we cannot simply dig our way out of congestion by building as many roads as we guess we need now and into the future. This isn’t sustainable for our country or the wider environment. There will be new roads required and they will get built. However, it is not the answer to allow private infrastructure to be built and tolled by those whose only motivation will be profit. Someone needs to accountably plan our roads of what is needed where and what our environment can bear.
We have to suspect that the Prime Minister’s desire for our infrastructure to be environmentally sustainable is not high up on the Australian fund managers Macquarie’s agenda when they come to discuss their profitable M6 Toll road.
It may well be the case that new road infrastructure needs to be tolled – indeed the last Labour Government came close to saying so itself. However we must develop better answers than the money dropped in to the toll buckets servicing large shareholder remuneration packages around the world. The Mersey tunnel toll money directly subsidises trains and buses on Merseyside; maybe there is a lesson for us here.
The communities which are expected to use, benefit and pay for road infrastructure must see a direct correlation between the level of payment and the level of service and benefit they receive or this Government risks recreating the unhappy situation of the rail industry. It will not just be complaints about the railways which MPs feel helpless to do anything about in their post bags. Sentences such as the one below may well be being cut and pasted in to constituency letters well in to the future:
“I am sorry to hear of the poor service and undue cost you have faced using XXX ring road. I understand your compliant and I have written to OFF-Road and XXX ring road operator in Australia for comment.”
Joe Fortune is Transport Coordinator at SERA – the Labour Environment & Transport Campaign, and Parliamentary Officer at the Co-operative Party.