The role of government should be to work with the private sector to plan and deliver the fast and reliable transport networks around Britain on which business depends. It should also take the decisions, however difficult, that ensure we have the international connectivity that is vital for trade and tourism.
Over the past two years, the government has failed on both counts. More than a billion pounds has been cut from investment in rail and a further billion axed from investment in maintaining the road network. There has been a complete absence of urgency over major projects such as the High Speed 2 (HS2) rail line. A major train procurement contract has been awarded to a company that will use the investment from British taxpayers to create jobs in Germany. The Department for Transport has been plunged into crisis, with rail franchising on hold and private companies left counting the cost. The divide between investment in London and the rest of the country has grown wider. And we have seen delay over aviation capacity, and a final decision kicked into the long grass.
A new deal on transport infrastructure requires three outcomes: a long-term strategy that no longer deals with modes of transport separately; investment to be maintained as part of a plan for jobs and growth and a real drive to turn investment pledges into schemes delivered; and cross-party support to make long-term projects a reality.
The government will say that it has published the National Infrastructure Plan, yet this is simply a wish list of projects with no overarching economic or social aims. Only a coherent plan can break down the barriers between each area of transport. Investors find it extraordinary that we are taking decisions over high-speed rail and aviation in isolation. One of the clear consequences is the lack of a serious national strategy for logistics, and specifically for getting more freight off the roads.
Second, it is vital to maintain investment in transport as part of a wider plan for jobs and growth. The government’s decision to cut planned investment in rail and road maintenance too far and too fast is economically illiterate. It has cost jobs and contributed to sluggish growth. The deficit has increased and the government has had to borrow an extra £158bn to cover soaring benefits and lost tax. The National Audit Office has warned that the failure to maintain Britain’s roads will cost more in the longer term.
Even where ministers have kept inherited investment plans, little progress has been made in translating commitments into jobs. Prime minister David Cameron said that his government would go on “an all-out mission to unblock the system and get projects under way”. Yet, a year on, not a single road scheme announced in the chancellor’s autumn statement has seen a spade in the ground. None of the £9bn investment in rail announced before the summer will be spent before 2014. Nowhere is this lack of urgency more evident than HS2, where ministers have rejected Labour’s offer of cross-party support to legislate for the entire scheme between London, Manchester and Leeds in this parliament.
Finally, we need to do better at seeking political consensus on decisions for the long term, such as delivering additional aviation capacity.
The Tories in opposition saw political advantage in switching their position to oppose the third runway, to demonstrate Mr Cameron’s detoxification of the party, and to shore up vital support in west London. Yet that left the country without an aviation policy. A year of delay followed Labour’s proposal of an independent commission on aviation before the government took up the suggestion.
Boris Johnson is right to back Labour’s call for the independent commission led by Sir Howard Davies to be allowed to report by the end of next year. A faster timetable would enable the final decisions on HS2 to be taken in step with decisions on aviation capacity.
We know Britain can do better at planning, funding and delivering the vital transport infrastructure on which business and the economy depends. With the pressures on the public finances, we have to think innovatively about how we can draw on the private sector and long-term pension savings to finance the vital projects the country needs.
To help achieve this, Ed Miliband, the leader of the Labour party, and Ed Balls, the shadow chancellor, have asked Sir John Armitt to look at how long-term infrastructure decision making, planning, delivery and finance can be radically improved. He will draw on his experience as the chairman of the Olympic Delivery Authority, and make proposals for a commission or process, independent of government, that does not just look at our infrastructure needs for the decades ahead but at how to build a consensus to ensure they become a reality. It is time the country had a comprehensive long-term plan to rebuild Britain’s transport infrastructure for the 21st century, and the cross-party support to deliver it.
Maria Eagle MP is shadow secretary of state for transport