Time to shake up transport policies

Allister Heath
BRITAIN’S transport policy needs fixing; last week’s appointment of Justine Greening as the new transport secretary is an opportunity for change in a difficult area. Her first move ought to be to scrap the high-speed rail (HS2) project. The crippling costs of the proposal, which would see a £32bn ultra-fast railway line built from London to Manchester and Leeds via Birmingham, are much greater than the benefits – and that is assuming that the final bill is not massively greater, as it surely would be. It would make more sense to concentrate on smaller, less grandiose projects that reduce journey times on roads and railways across the UK, rather than on this deeply flawed white elephant which would do nothing to boost the North of England’s economy.

The second big change is that London’s airport capacity must be increased. In the short-term, building an ultra-fast underground rail link between Gatwick and Heathrow (creating a new Heathwick super airport) to cut the journey time between the two hubs to 15 minutes might help (though for a contrary view, see the Forum on page 25). Eventually, however, we will either need a new runway – perhaps at Gatwick – or another major international airport or both. One option is a new airport on the Thames Gateway, as proposed by Boris Johnson; but there are other possibilities. They must all be debated without hysteria. The details matter hugely, not least for locals, but the bottom line is that the coalition must acknowledge the need for increased capacity. Visitors from China, India, Brazil and the emerging markets could transform the UK’s tourism industry and create hundreds of thousands of jobs; total numbers of tourists to these shores could double over the next few decades thanks to the emergence of a global middle class willing and able to travel. It would be madness to miss out on this. London will not remain a world financial hub without better access.

Because commuters into London mostly use trains, one often forgets that most work journeys in the UK take place by car. The road network remains essential; Greening has a great opportunity to halt the war on motorists. New projects are required across the UK. London desperately needs another, proper road bridge or tunnel across the Thames between the Blackwall tunnel and the Dartford Crossing, linking East London to South East London. That part of the capital is woefully underserved with river crossings, a problem that is crippling economic development. Just like with airports, this is not a new issue: the East London River Crossing was approved by two public inquiries during the 1970s–1990s but blocked by the government. The most recent version of the plan was killed off by Britain’s ridiculous planning process in the noughties. If Boris Johnson really cares about the economic development of that part of London, he needs to relaunch the idea of a Thames Gateway bridge or a variant of the project – and work closely with Greening to deliver it.

The trick with all of these projects must be to harness private financing. We urgently need a new version of the private finance initiative that allows private firms to build and run infrastructure without the taxpayer being ripped off. What is clear is that the coalition’s transport policy is in a mess. Let’s hope the new secretary of state shakes it up.

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