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Half-baked and underwhelming

BryanDavies.jpgBryan Davies on the governement's latest ideas for transport planning 

Today is first day of Lords Committee on the Infrastructure Bill, and it promises to be a challenging experience for the Minister. After several decades at Westminster, I have rarely seen a measure that is so under prepared and lacking any clear definition of how it purports to realise its objectives. At Second Reading, Peers gave their customary general assent to the Bill but all parts of the House expressed unease about many of the measures.

On that part of the Bill we are dealing with today – on a new model for the UK’s strategic road network – the Minister could not answer key questions. While Labour supports longer term transport planning, we’re not convinced the government’s proposed new model is the best way forward. Currently, the Bill envisages more than one strategic highways company. This is a source of much uncertainty and has led some to believe that the ultimate objective is privatisation. Ministers meanwhile, are trying to justify their plans in terms of greater freedom from the constraints of civil service pay. 

Even if the government’s weak case is to be accepted, there is a substantial obligation on the Committee to explore how the new Government Company (GoCo) will work. The new arrangements are meant to save £2.6bn over time but that figure could be overshadowed by the £4bn in VAT that the GoCo could be asked to pay in its first decade (£400m annually). Moreover, the apparent increased independence of the body raises the acute issue of accountability. Will the Transport Secretary be able to direct the GoCo in the course of its running? If so, where are the gains in the new structure? If not, what mechanism exists for the public to hold it to account? Our road system is a key feature for most – if not all – communities and MPs will not readily warm to a concept which restricts their ability to challenge major decisions affecting their constituencies.

The Bill is vague on the extent to which the Strategic Highway Authority coordinates with other crucial parts of the transport infrastructure. Labour has tabled amendments to probe the anticipated relationship between the Road Investment Strategy and the National Networks Policy. 

As things stand, the government’s proposals for more powers for the Passenger Council only focuses on users of strategic highways. But evidently, a wider range of people will be affected in those communities, and many will have a considerable interest in the quality of the road service provided. For example, can cyclists and pedestrians expect their interests to be taken seriously? We will also press for a clear definition of the process of cooperation between the GoCo and local transport authorities. After all, significant though it may be, the new company will account for only 2% of the road network and carry a third of all traffic. The rest is the responsibility of the local road network. 

In addition, it is unclear whether the GoCo will be obliged to incorporate an estimate of the impact on UK carbon emissions, as a result of building more roads. Environmental issues must clearly form part of the performance requirements. 

With the Bill’s Committee stage taken place in Grand Committee, there will be no votes on the major contentious issues until we get to Report stage. That said, we have an excellent opportunity today to start probing Ministers on what to me looks like limited thinking and half-baked policy-making.

Lord Bryan Davies is a Shadow Transport Minister in the House of Lords

Published 3rd July 2014 

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