Select Committee on Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence


Memorandum by the Institution of Civil Engineers (IT 33)

A NEW DEAL FOR TRANSPORT—BETTER FOR EVERYONE (CM 3950)

FOREWORD

  The Institution is the qualifying body for the civil engineering profession. Founded in 1818 and granted a Royal Charter in 1828, the Institution has over 80,000 members, a fifth of whom are based overseas. The Institution is a registered charity and non-profit making organisation.

  The Institution's Transport Board is active in furthering knowledge and promoting advances in transport engineering and represent civil engineers working in this field.

1. Introduction

  1.1 Transportation is a core discipline for civil engineers who plan, design, construct and maintain the physical infrastructure which underpins all transport operations. The road network in Great Britain, which is at the heart of the nation's transport system, has come under increasing strain from vehicle growth and an increase in the length of trips, both arising from long-term structural changes in our society, economy and changes to established patterns of land use.

  1.2 Over the past decade traffic has grown by 20 per cent in response to increases in average journey length whilst road length has grown by barely 5 per cent. The result has been to worsen congestion, imposing a cost equal to several billions of pounds on the nation as a whole, and generating mounting pressures on the environment from noise, poor air quality and other forms of environmental damage. This established trend of vehicle growth is not going to diminish. Demand for private car ownership is so strong that official forecasts of road traffic published by government suggest that over the next 20 years car traffic could grow by more than a third, with van and lorry traffic increasing still further. The impact on the quality of life and economic competitiveness of Great Britain will be severe without a change in policy to enable these traffic pressures to be accommodated. It is not a sensible option to do nothing at all.

2. Overview

  2.1 Over the past decade the Institution has published a number of reports, which have had as their theme the need for a radical appraisal and reform of the system of planning, organising and financing transport provision in Great Britain. The Institution has long advocated the creation of an integrated transport policy and therefore the Institution strongly endorses the fundamental shift in transport policy represented by the White Paper.

  2.2 Compared with previous official statements of transport policy, the White Paper represents a fundamental change of direction and policy. It explicitly endorses and defines (1.22) the concept of an integrated transport policy which in past years has either been paid cursory "lip service" to by official policy or, more commonly, has been rejected outright in favour of more politically acceptable alternatives, such as de-regulated competition, which underlay much of the transport policy of the previous administration. The importance of what the White Paper acknowledges as its "comprehensive agenda for change" (Foreword) should not be understated. It is equivalent, in terms of its repudiation of previous policy, to the enormous changes which have taken place in official policy on school teaching over the past decade. The White Paper is a document of radical intent.

  2.3 Whether it will succeed in becoming a document of radical effect depends upon the success with which the many proposals it contains, and which form the framework of an integrated transport policy, can function in practice. A great deal depends, as it should, on political will: legislation will have to be enacted in parliament, the Treasury must continue to show goodwill to the principle of hypothecation of road user and parking charges, the crucial role which local authorities will have in the development of the integrated transport policy must be nurtured and supported by government, Ministers must dare to implement policies (like road pricing) which might in the short-term at least have negative political returns. These factors are still in varying degrees uncertain but they are essential to the White Paper's success. The White Paper reflects in many ways the Deputy Prime Minister's intense interest and involvement in transport and there is a risk that with a less politically powerful Secretary of State, transport policy might once again be sidelined. The uncertainty attached to the implementation of many of the WP's recommendations constitutes our strongest criticism: it is not the content of the WP but how, when, or even whether, some of the key measures (e.g., creation of Strategic Rail Authority) which depend on primary legislation for their enactment will come about, which is our concern. These are crucial building blocks and early resolution of the legislative timetable is essential.

  2.4 Considerable progress, however, can be made without legislation providing that the necessary political will is sustained. Pending resolution of the legislative uncertainty the possibility could be explored of establishing the new institutions (such as Strategic Rail Authority) on a non-statutory basis to enable them to start planning and minimise the delay involved in endowing them with the necessary statutory powers enshrined in legislation. It must also be borne in mind that Local Transport Plans (the planning measure at the heart of the White Paper) do not depend upon legislation for their creation. Every effort should be made to enable local authorities to produce them in a timely manner.

  2.5 Despite these uncertainties, the Institution's overall appraisal of the White Paper is very positive. The shift towards an integrated transport policy as its rationale has been keenly awaited as awareness of the fundamental lack of "sustainability" of the old transport policy framework has become apparent. The White Paper contains a wealth of innovative and long overdue proposals in furtherance of its goal of greater transport integration. Rather than being a definitive document rigidly mapping out transport policy in Great Britain for the foreseeable future, the White Paper is very much the start of a process and the framework it proposes will have to be further defined and filled in the years to come. In some key areas there is uncertainty and one or two of the proposals in the White Paper appear to be unsound but the White Paper overall is judged in a very positive light and its strengths significantly outweigh any weaknesses it may contain. This is why the Institution attaches such importance to this document.

ISSUES

  A number of the main issues in the White Paper are analysed and commented upon below.

3. Funding

  3.1 There is a widespread belief that the levels of expenditure on transport infrastructure investment in Great Britain over the past decade have been insufficient. This is supported by statistical evidence on actual levels of spending2, studies which have demonstrated the extent of traffic congestion in Great Britain compared with other European countries2, and growing awareness of maintenance shortfalls on road and railway networks3. There is a consensus view that investment in transport infrastructure in Great Britain should be increased by at least 50 per cent.

  3.2 The current Government has introduced fundamental reforms of the public expenditure process: setting expenditure limits for three years ahead, introducing greater differentiation between capital and current spending and other measures to safeguard capital expenditure. In principle, these reforms will be beneficial for publicly funded transport infrastructure, providing greater certainty and a higher volume of funding.

  3.3 The results of its Comprehensive Spending Review (CSR) were announced a week before publication of the White Paper and define government spending on transport for the next three years. The CSR's projections over this time period for public sector capital spending on transport are disappointing, promising not the step change that is needed but merely a 25 per cent increase to compensate for a similar decline over the last Parliament.

  3.4 However, a much more optimistic conclusion is reached once the impact of private finance and the new revenue streams hypothecated to local authority transport spending are allowed for. The chart on page 26 of the CSR shows that, providing that local authorities and others "respond positively to the new powers announced in the Transport White Paper" and private sector investment continues to be sustained at a high level, then by 2005-06 transport investment spending (both public and private) is projected to reach approximately £8 billion, nearly double the present level of just over £4.5 billion. This is a satisfactory increase in the level of spending: however, achieving it is depending primarily upon the private sector and, most significantly, on the enthusiasm with which local authorities adopt the new powers the WP promises them on hypothecation of revenue streams derived from user charging. This is dependent on three conditions:

    —  recognition by HM Treasury that such revenue streams will be genuinely additional to existing local authority expenditure on transport;

    —  local authority implementation of user charging schemes will be fully supported by central Government;

    —  the necessary legislation will be enacted by Parliament.

  3.5 Uncertainty attaches to all these conditions. If this is not resolved progress will be limited.

4. Hypothecation

  4.1 The White Paper's proposal for allowing local authorities to use hypothecated revenue streams derived from user charges is a breakthrough, one for which the Institution has been pressing for many years, most recently in the report "Paying for Transport" (1997).1 It is obviously quite essential that such hypothecated funds will be treated as additional to other sources of funding local authorities receive through Standard Spending Assessment and DETR capital support for transport programmes. Without the promise that hypothecated funds will be additional, local authorities will have no motivation to introduce user charging. Ideally, there should be a public assurance that such funds will not in any way lead to a reduction in the level of local authority transport funding by the Treasury. Alternatively, there might be an assurance that such funds will be removed entirely from the public expenditure control system. However, the Treasury are unlikely to agree to such an assurance and local authorities will face uncertainty about the financial benefits of hypothecating revenue streams from user charging.

  4.2 It is disappointing that the use at national level for transport investment purposes of dedicated streams of taxation income from road users (e.g., from vehicle exercise duty) has been ruled out. Use of income from these sources would have provided greater security and stability in funding.

5. Role of local authorities

  5.1 Local authorities are seen in the White Paper as the key organisation for implementing an integrated transport policy. They will do this through the preparation of Local Transport Plans which will be introduced next year in England. Later, the White Paper promises that legislation will be enacted to empower local authorities to introduce congestion charging and parking charges at the workplace, although there is no timescale for this. Hypothecation of revenue streams is important if the necessary step change increase in expenditure is to be achieved and user charges are a useful "stick" to achieve the necessary degree of switch from cars to public transport.

  5.2 Thus, local authorities will have to bear the brunt of the risks of these high-risk, high-return policies. They will be offered some support by the Government, which will not relinquish "responsibility for what happens locally" (1.26), but it is not clear at all how Government proposes to persuade local authorities to introduce user charges like the ones set out above. Too active a role by central Government risks undermining local democracy and accountability, but too limited a role risks failing to provide local authorities with the support and help needed to implement technologically complex and politically risky policies. Such support is important; standards must be defined and enforced to ensure that there is consistency in the way that charging schemes are implemented across the country; this is especially important in transport catchment areas administered by more than one local authority. These are areas where more detail about Government plans is required.

  5.3 There is also the concern about whether some local authorities have the necessary technical resources and capability to design and implement an integrated transport policy and Local Transport Plan.

6. Absence of targets for vehicle use at national level

  6.1 The White Paper's proposals for local transport plans represent a "bottom-up" approach to national transport planning. However, local authorities will need to be supported and guided when drawing up these plans, and a framework of indicative targets at national level for traffic, modal-split, vehicle emissions, etc. It is essential to provide the necessary guidance.

  6.2 The introduction of traffic targets at national level is not without risks. There is the question of how they will be achieved and the role of congestion charging and other unpopular policies is immediately raised. It is necessary to provide local authorities with the necessary information to produce their own traffic targets and ensure that the DETR continues to have the necessary political will to tackle congestion and other problems. The absence of national traffic targets exemplifies one of the main criticisms of the White Paper, that it transfers too many risks to local authorities, leaving the burden on central Government relatively light. A more equal partnership between central and local Government would be preferred.

  6.3 The Government agency which could supply local authorities with the necessary guidance is the proposed Commission for Integrated Transport, although it would have to assume a stronger more executive role than the essentially advisory role envisaged in the White Paper.

7. Institutional change

  7.1 The Institution welcomes the establishment of the new institutions proposed in the White Paper: Strategic Rail Authority and Commission for Integrated Transport. The role of each should, however, be carefully defined to avoid overlapping function and a "turf war" breaking out.

8. New methods of appraising transport investment projects

  8.1 The White Paper's introduction of a new system of appraisal, based on five-fold criteria (integration, safety, economy, environment and accessibility), is a positive development because the previous system was too narrow and inconsistent since it used different methods of appraisal for different modes. Thus, road schemes were evaluated using cost-benefit analysis whilst narrower commercial criteria were often (but not always) used to evaluate public transport projects. The result was to introduce a bias against the latter. The use of multi-criteria investment appraisal across the board should substantially "level the playing field" and produce a greater volume of public transport investment which an integrated transport policy needs.

9. Emphasis on highway maintenance

  9.1 The importance accorded to maintenance by the White Paper (3.125, 4.38, 4.39) is strongly endorsed. Backlogs of maintenance work on the local and trunk road systems are unacceptably high and represent a waste of investment. Deferring maintenance leads to greater costs in the future. An institution survey3, last year estimated the value of the road maintenance backlog for local authorities in Great Britain as £4.1 billion alone.

10. Regional transport and land use planning

  10.1 The transport system is an integral part of the economy, essential for everyday living and has a unique influence on the pattern of spatial development. It should not be treated in isolation from the planning process and the White Paper's proposal to incorporate strategic transport considerations into Regional Planning Guidance is therefore sensible and supported.

11. "De-trunking" of selected roads

  11.1 In its "Which Way Roads" report (1996), the Institution argued that roads should be classified according to their transport function. At the centre of the classification should be a first class national network avoiding the uncertainties of regional policies and local priorities. This has been conceded in the WP's proposals (3.131) to change the classification of some existing trunk roads which mainly cater for regional and local traffic. This "de-trunking" is, in principle, supported.

12. Parking charges

  12.1 The proposed powers to impose charges for workplace parking should be extended to cover all private non-residential parking.

References

  1. Managing the Highways Network, 1994, Which Way Roads, 1996; Paying for Transport, 1997.

  2. The State of European Infrastructure, ECIS (Rotterdam, 1996).

  3. e.g., ICE—Local Transport Survey, 1997.

R S Dobson

Director General and Secretary

24 September 1998


 
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