TAPAS.network | 17 October 2022 | Editorial Opinion | Peter Stonham

So is this the end of the Growth Plan - and what is transport’s role in the economy anyway?

Peter Stonham

CHANCELLOR KWASI KWARTENG has gone - after a record short stay at 11 Downing Street. But has his Growth Plan, hatched with his neighbour at number 10, gone with him? Either way, it is worth reflecting on what lay behind it, and even if it made any kind of sense against the stated objectives of boosting the country’s economic growth, particularly in relation to transport. Its core content of more than 100 transport schemes on a fast build hit list – dominated by road building – might have seemed superficially ‘good for transport’, but criticism has been strong in some quarters, as our editorial in the previous issue anticipated. 

The approach would do little to improve the quality of life across communities, with its focus on large road infrastructure, locking the country into a car-based and carbon intensive future, the Transport Planning Society (TPS) quickly warned.

Of the 114 projects named, 86 relate to new or improved roads. Recent studies have shown that public investments in road infrastructure have non-significant effects on economic growth, TPS pointed out.

A smarter focus on smaller local-led projects would be more likely to deliver a low carbon future, healthier communities, and stimulate growth by invigorating local economies, it added.

In his ‘Mini Budget’ last month, Kwarteng also signalled an agenda of streamlining the assessment, approval and planning process, another cause of concern to many, and something again as yet unclear if it will survive his departure and the wider policy rethink that now must be going on at the heart of government.

The Truss administration had also suggested it would accelerate roads delivery, including by consenting more through the Highways Act 1980 and by considering options for changing the Judicial Review system to avoid claims which “cause unnecessary delays to delivery”. But, as TPS say: given road transport’s contribution to greenhouse gas emissions, road expansion needs to remain carefully scrutinized, and its business case always reflect that increased road capacity generates additional traffic.

TPS also challenged the chancellor’s suggestion that environmental assessments and consultations are an unnecessary burden or excessively bureaucratic. “Low traffic neighbourhoods, the heated debates on their pros and cons, associated vandalism and legal wranglings following their introduction illustrate the importance and value of considered consultation,” it said.

It is not clear anyway what the rationale or logic was for the transport schemes appearing in the Growth List. As Chris Todd of the Transport Action Network told LTT, amongst the 10 road schemes from RIS2 [Road Investment Strategy 2 2020 - 2025], that are listed, some have already been approved, such as the M54-M6 link road and M25 Junction 10, so construction was likely to start soon anyway.

Other schemes, such as the Stonehenge A303 plans seem premature and must suggest the Government has already decided to approve them, despite claims otherwise, and successful legal challenges. Overwhelming opposition from UNESCO, planning inspectors and the public, the poor economic case and the failure to properly examine alternatives, was one of the reasons for the successful High Court challenge to the Stonehenge plans earlier this year. The new alternative proposals recently suggested by National Highways have not had proper public scrutiny, and a reopened Examination should surely be a minimum requirement, given what is at stake. And what exactly are the expected Economic Growth outcomes to justify such haste?

Of the remaining 76 road schemes, Todd points out that 44 of them are called ‘Safer Road Schemes’ in the Growth Plan list. “They seem potentially a fine idea, but the problem is no one knows what they are,” said Todd. “Some have taken local authorities or combined authorities by surprise, or if they know something about them, it’s as something identified by the DfT, but with no other details.”

Previous investment in road safety schemes have been relatively modest, so hardly likely to deliver significantly towards the Government’s Growth Agenda, says Todd. “This gives the impression that these have been included as padding: to show how the Government is delivering on infrastructure investment that will boost the UK economy. Except that it probably won’t by much, and could actually hold back growth compared to more sustainable transport investment.”

Whatever your view on the 114-scheme list, there is a very strong case for greater detailed research and post-opening scheme monitoring to examine the real links between transport and economic growth, going beyond a simple enthusiasm for ‘investment in infrastructure’, and embracing the benefits of spending on active travel and local public transport, for example, too. This could both potentially boost growth, and meanwhile be tackling inequality and levelling up, giving people travel choice while reducing carbon emissions and pollution. In contrast, the current policy looks set to drive up traffic and congestion, potentially undermining productivity, while also causing significant harm to the environment. 

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There is a very strong case for greater detailed research and post-opening scheme monitoring to examine the real links between transport and economic growth, going beyond a simple enthusiasm for ‘investment in infrastructure’.

As pointed out in the last issue, the Growth Plan 2022 was in danger of becoming a transport emissions growth plan, contradicting the Government’s intentions set out in 2021 in Decarbonising transport: a better, greener Britain.

Whilst (if?) she survives as prime minister, Liz Truss seems determined to pursue the ‘dash for growth’ agenda. But it needs to be balanced against net zero commitments in the Transport Decarbonisation Plan and a more thoughtful take on which transport projects are best placed to promote both economic and social levelling up, so that everybody benefits.

As the TPS point out, only 35% of UK households in the lowest income decile have access to at least one car, whereas this figure is 90% or higher for the richest four deciles. And as our contributor Kris Beuret explains in her feature in this issue exploring Transport Related Social Exclusion, the interests of those hard to identify and difficult to reach people suffering from this condition frequently get overlooked.

More haste, less speed, might be the best critique to apply to the dash for growth, the implied transport implications for which are arguably one of the most important claims that there is now the chance to much more carefully think through. 

Peter Stonham is the Editorial Director of TAPAS Network

This article was first published in LTT magazine, LTT855, 17 October 2022.

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