torsdag 1 november 2007

Not coming soon to a street near you

The Department for Transport has published a new 90 page document setting out long term strategy, Towards a Sustainable Transport System, which builds upon the Eddington and Stern reports published earlier this year.

The topic has been sliced up into five sets of policy aims: Gross Domestic Product growth; Health and Safety; Preventing Climate Change; Quality of Life; and Social Equity. This is perhaps a reasonable way of assessing policies but it seems an odd approach to developing those policies.

Achieving GDP growth has been an important target of government for many years, the assumption being that it is the only way of lifting the poor out of poverty. But there are two fallacies here. The first is to equate GDP with well-being, when experience is that some growth has a negative effect on quality of life, and present means of measurement do not attach the necessary minus sign to such "growth". The second fallacy is the assumption of the famous trickle-down effect to bring the benefits to those who are less well-off.

There is discussion of a broad range of transport-related issues. Although it claims to be opposed to continuing with the old predict-and-provide policies, it assumes that investment needs to be focussed where the pressure is greatest. This would not in itself be unreasonable if the present pattern of settlement and industry in Britain were a natural thing, as seems to be the prevailing assumption. But it is not. Over 85% of the population of Britain is concentrated into a corridor which includes London, Birmingham, Bristol, Liverpool, Manchester and Leeds, less than a quarter of the land area. Within that area, however, people are quite dispersed, to the extent that they have become dependent on road transport. Yet in principle, there is no reason why many more people could not be living in fairly compact cities outside this corridor. An important reason why it does not happen is the tax system, which inhibits economic activity in otherwise marginal locations, thereby making them sub-marginal.

The document refers to persistent regional differences in income and productivity, without considering the possibility that these could be a simple effect of geography about which nothing can be done. The notion is reasonable enough; anyone operating their business in, say, Tyneside, will inevitably have additional transport and other costs. This difference in desirability between regions is reflected in differences in land values, but it is not recognised by the tax system which does not distinguish between thriving productive enterprises in the most favourable locations in the country - the City of London, for instance - and outfits struggling to survive in remote Caithness. Until this issue is dealt with, nobody can tell what the natural pattern of settlement in Britain might be.

There are suggestions of possible schemes, such as a new railway between London, Birmingham and Manchester, but with all the references to end-to-end journeys and quality of life, one might have expected to see an emphasis on local travel. It is good that the authors of the report have acknowledged the importance of those parts of the journey from, for example, home to the railway station, because one people have got into their cars, they are likely to want to make the entire journey in them. But there is little said about how to ease people out of this dependence on cars, through, for instance, the relatively low cost investment to improve conditions for pedestrians, cyclists and people trying to move about inside towns and cities. In this context, and bearing in mind the desire to reduce carbon emissions, there is clearly a role for electric trams, which receive just one mention in the entire report. They are unlikely to be coming soon to a street near you.

There are some good things said, such as the need to avoid expensive flagship schemes, to focus on the whole journey and to consider all the external effects. Important things are left unsaid, however. Transport infrastructure is one of the major elements that goes to creating and sustaining land value, but in the absence of any coherent mechanism for capturing land value, the benefits of infrastructure investment are pocketed by landowners. The Treasury is presumably aware of this and it may be one reason why it is reluctant to put up the cash for new schemes.

As a whole, then, the report does not convey the sense that much of value will come out of it, partly because it is a difficult text to read, clumsily phrased and loaded with jargon and managementspeak. The document is constructed of sentences containing thirty or forty long words apiece. Writing of this kind is not conducive to clear thinking, and what became of plain English? Before things like this are published, they ought to be read out aloud and revised by a group of three or four people. There is no better way of making sure that the result is readable and jargon replaced by proper English words and sentences. If the government is serious about promoting an informed discussion on this or any other topic, it needs to communicate better than this.

Apart from the obvious uncertainties about the future, perhaps the most serious difficulty for long term planning of the kind envisaged is that the decisions are being made for people who are themselves makers of decisions, and what they decide depends on the options that have been made available to them. To that extent, government remains in a leadership role, where responding to the views and preferences thrown up in focus group discussions is an abdication of the responsibilities that go with government. Where government lacks a vision for the future, it has no option but to go along with the prejudices of focus groups and to push out surveys with loaded questions. If, on the other hand, it presented a picture of what kind of a transport system we might have in thirty years' time, it would give people something less vague to talk about and it would be possible to have a debate that the public could involve itself in. If the vision that emerged from such a debate was something that captured the imagination, support would be forthcoming and there would be a definite aim to move towards. If there was no support, the government would have to look in another direction. As it is, things will continue to drift.

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