Monday, 1 July 2013

UK Spending Review :Transport Sector gets a boost,- or does it?

At first sight the British Government's 2015-2020 spending review announced by Chancellor George Osborne on Wednesday and the subsequent more detailed , if cliche ridden, statement on Thursday by Danny Alexander looked like reasonable ,if not spectacular, news for at least the country's surface transport sector. In intention it is . Delivery in a reasonable timescale is less certain. On the plus side the transport budget has at least held its own at a time when other areas of public sector spending are being cut back. £70 bn is earmarked for transport infrastructure spending over the period. It's not an increase .It is much the same as in the previous five years but at least it's not a cut.

The Government is to press ahead with HS 2,originally a Lord Adonis Labour project. This is the much needed boost to already squeezed track capacity to the north of England and ultimately Scotland (although it is less squeezed north of Preston in the west and Newcastle in the east). It is proceeding with approximately 900 track miles of electrification of existing lines to the west (Bath and Bristol), South Wales, and the the Midlands (Derby, Nottingham and Sheffield) as well as Lord Adonis' northern triangle covering Liverpool,Manchester,Preston and Blackpool and the trans pennine route between Manchester, Leeds and York. A few other assosciated connecting lines will also be wired up. On the roads there will be be an upgrading of the seriously limited A14 which links the large and growing port of Felixstowe to the midlands, although it seems that just going for it and making it into a strategic east-west motorway is not the plan, an indication that much thinking just isn't yet big enough,-and may never be.

Costwise,10 billion has been added to HS2 as a contingency fund. This is music to the "Say no to.." campaigners, one of whose largely unspoken objectives has been to drive its costs up by demanding very expensive additional tunneling and digging of cuttings for both real and ostensible environmental reasons.  Their thinking is that the higher they can push the costs the more they can excite public resistance and thereby eventually secure a loss of political nerve. Fortunately currently the leaders of all three parties agree that it is essential to push this capacity building project forward, albeit at a relatively slow pace. The construction timing is designed to mean that the start of the £2 bn a year building costs dovetails with the end of a similar current annual spend on London's Crossrail project. Life will never be easy for the scheme as it is too easy to set it up against arguments of  "Why don't we spend the money on other things" and the ongoing fashionable ones around " Videoconferencing etc will reduce travel." That one has been around for years ever since telephones or even morse code transmitters were invented. It will run and run and always sound like the future. It isn't. Nothing will replace person to person, face to face contact for either business or pleasure. Not for the winners anyway.

There was no mention of aviation in either statement. That is partly because normal airport development itself is a private, not public, sector activity and partly because the question of adding more capacity to London's airports is a political hot potato needlessly self made by the Conservative Party prior to the 2010 General Election. The location of development is at this stage a planning rather than government spending policy issue and  has been kicked into the very long grass by Mr Cameron. It could be resolved quite quickly but the initial interim report of the Davies Airport Commission is not due until later this year. After that the brief for the final submission is that it MUST NOT be made before the 2015 General Election. It is expected that in his interim statement Davies will do not much more than produce a list of options, something that a half intelligent undergraduate armed with an atlas could probably do in an afternoon. We certainly could. On the list will be an assortment of Thames Estuary Boris,Olsen and other islands, all on the wrong side of the capital and hugely expensive in required supporting infrastructure including new towns. Unlike the airport itself these would require huge public investment. £100bn would be a realisitic start point. There will also be mention of Heathrow itself,  probably in a sort of "We know we don't want to do that" way, along with  possible expansion of Gatwick and/or Stansted and a few other green field sites. White Waltham and Haddenham have been mentioned but allegedly dismissed. Back in 1973 Roskill pinpointed Wing, north of Aylesbury . Wing hasn't moved geographical location since then and the case for it if there were to be an entirely new airport on an entirely new site is as valid now as it was then. It originally died a death due to the upheld objections of one local (Conservative) Commission member. The choice moved on to the bleak wastelands of Maplin Sands on the basis that if nowhere else will have it there's always Essex. Even this featureless and remote site far from everything and everybody was eventually ditched in favour of "Do Nothing". This time around, the money is probably on "Do Not Very Much" which would  probably mean an additional runway at Gatwick and /or maybe one at Stansted. Given a decision in 2016/17 actual concrete is unlikely to be laid and operational before 2023/4. By that time Heathrow and indeed London's global aviation hub status will have long gone and moved both across the Channel and to the Middle East  and Turkey. Already Heathrow is meaning less and less both to provincial UK, increasingly well served through other and more user friendly hubs, and to long haul leisure travellers deterred by the UK's very high and ever increasing Air Passenger Duty and visa fees.

Possibly the airport debate will eventually get back to where it started. The reason why we have all this trouble finding an better alternative to Heathrow is that there isn't one. It has been the right place all along, and still is. Those canny folk back in the early 1940s spotted the obvious, had Heathrow built without any great scrutiny as being for essential military purposes when they knew it wasn't and then turned it into London's civil airport with an eventual  plan (in 1947/8) for six runways plus 3 more between the A4 and where the M4 is now. They were true visionaries, got it right and went for it. Very un-British. That's why the big vision was scrapped in favour of "Make Do" in 1953. After all, air traffic was never going to grow that much.

While infrastructure projects are trumpeted as the quickest way out of recession ,in reality they take a lot of time to get started. Only road repairs and electrifying existing railways are relatively easy to get under way and even some of the latter have their problems and objectors. The UK's approvals and planning processes ensure that very little is "shovel ready" . Major road, rail and airport projects, even if already planned and designed, face a good five years to go through the laborious planning processes and appeals. Most of those on the 2012 go-ahead list and whose orgins go back well before that, are still grinding through further evaluations, design, and other processes.  Essential developments to the sclerotic road system need big bold strokes, not endless micro analysis by endless civil service departments (who must surely be bored senseless).

For roads, take a map and the big answers are obvious. The areas of congestion and depression are clear. There is congestion in and up the middle of England ,depression around the edges and especially in the poorly served coastal towns. East to west communications are generally dire. Take a pen and draw some big bold strokes. Make the A14 a motorway from Felixstowe right through to the M1 where it joins the M6. Ditto Newcastle to Carlisle( A69) and Newcastle to Edinburgh( A1) Build a south coast motorway from Portsmouth to Margate. Convert the A roads to Hastings,Eastbourne, Lowestoft, Gt Yarmouth, Cheltenham into dual carriageways. There are other candidates but that would be a good start and certainly keep at least the planners going until the end of the decade.

The reaction to last week's announcements, mainly restatements and repackaging of previously announced schemes has to be one of relief that capital spending on transport is not being cut back but disappointment that there is no action at all and only time wasting delay on airport runways, very little yet on roads and just a bit on the railways (wiring going up on the northern triangle and around Reading station). The government has expressed some good intentions but it hasn't broken out of the Whitehall/Westminster culture of lethargy. Maybe it doesn't understand the delaying effects of the machinery around it.  It and UK Plc urgently need to break out and go for it.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.