TAPAS.network | 24 January 2023 | Editorial Opinion | Peter Stonham

Time to examine Faults in the Machine

Peter Stonham

CONCERN AT THE WAY decisions are being made on transport priorities and projects, as much as of the actual plans themselves, has been a growing topic of discussion amongst both professionals and beyond. And the start of this year has seen that conversation cranked up to a new level.

Detailed examination of the DfT’s approach to transport scheme appraisal and justification, and its policies to address climate change and achieve the Government’s net zero commitments, must surely increase further with the release of more information about the background to its traffic forecasts, alongside new critiques of its road investment principles and methodologies.

Academics and campaigners are now examining the batch of information that has been tenaciously, and now successfully, sought to be released by Professor Greg Marsden through a Freedom of Information (FOI) request originally resisted by DfT, but then rather unexpectedly now conceded.

The newly released DfT information covers the approach to calculating decarbonising transport and greenhouse gas projections; policy assumptions and the ingredients of high and low demand scenarios analysed in the National Transport Model.

Meanwhile, a group of eight UK transport professors calling themselves the Road Investment Scrutiny Panel, led by Glenn Lyons, have published a report raising seven key questions for decision-making on future roads spending in terms of economic, social, environmental and safety outcomes at what they call “a critical moment for decisions on road investment and transport expenditure more generally”.

And in a separate analysis in this issue of TAPAS, Professor David Metz questions the use of an outdated version of the National Transport Model in both the recently published new National Road Traffic Projections and in the DfT’s Decarbonisation pathway calculations, as he argues that when the facts change, we should change our thinking.

Decarbonising transport: a better, greener Britain, was published in July 2021, with apparent government commitment to achieving Net Zero in Transport by 2050, though a key graph in the document compares the trajectory of a reduced level of carbon from the transport sector against existing projections without indicating how that would be achieved. 

Now, it seems, we know the answer: some heroic, and widely regarded as erroneous or unachievable, assumptions.

The new critiques of the current methodologies all particularly focus on the implications for the roads system, and work currently underway on the third National Highways Road Investment Strategy, determining the spending plans for England’s major highways network from 2025, and to revise National Policy Statement for National Networks, which is a key input to planning decisions.

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It all suggests that the various mechanics that drive forward roads investment as necessary, desirable and justified as some kind of enduring reality are in definite need of a very close re-examination.

Regular TAPAS contributor Phil Goodwin, a member of the Professors’ Review Panel, has of late carefully honed his argument that major road building projects are controversial because the process used for designing and approving them is faulty as much as for the impacts they will have, and the objections of dedicated anti-roads campaigners. Appraising, scrutinising, giving approval and finally deciding often leads to increasing division, not a build-up of consensus he observes. “I think the reason for this cannot be dismissed as nimbyism,” he writes in this issue.

“It is because the process itself does not give voice to the seriousness of genuine scientific and public concern about the environmental and economic impacts of the growth in traffic and the schemes to provide for it.”

Appraisal, only carried out after schemes have already been given political approval, is controlled by the Scheme Promoter, he points out. This is the far from disinterested agent who submits to public examination masses of highly technical and expensive argument that the scheme is a good one, while local residents, professionals, local authorities and others - although they have the right to object - are not allowed access to the models behind them developed with public funds. This is a point also made in his contribution this time by Professor Metz regarding the suitability and reliability of the National Transport Model which plays a fundamental part in making the propositions.

There is very limited regulation and independent scrutiny of technical methods, Goodwin points out. And the promoter-led process means it is just one proposition that the public inquiry or Development Consent process is asked to look at, with no ability to consider suitable alternatives, such as land use changes, public transport or walking and cycling improvements, management of demand, or indeed the significance of alternative futures for travel demand or the climate. Nor can there be a look at what is now called the ‘Transformational’ impacts of alternative future shapes, sizes and designs of the road network as a whole, or of the potential benefits of improved wider mobility and accessibility systems that could deliver the need for less traffic.

As both Goodwin (in his last contribution on TAPAS, and Metz, this one) comment about the publication of the DfT’s new National Road Traffic Projections, all eight of a range of future Scenarios predict continuing traffic growth though to 2060. And all but one anticipate that required carbon reductions from transport will not be met. In challenging the fitness for purpose of the NTM behind these outcomes, Metz believes that the significance of downward demand trends revealed in recent National Travel Survey data have been overlooked or dismissed.

It all suggests that the various mechanics that drive forward roads investment as necessary, desirable and justified as some kind of enduring reality are in definite need of a very close re-examination.

One of the Professors’ panel, Steve Gooding, a former senior Civil servant at The DfT is particularly well qualified to spot how the wider landscape looks from a public policy point of view. Nor can he be labelled, in any sense, an anti-roads man. In his comments we publish in this issue Gooding says what persuaded him to take part in the review, and sign up to its recommendations, was “the coming together of slew of pressures and a set of opportunities that make this a sensible moment to draw breath and reflect on whether we are headed in the right direction”.

Let us hope that there is proper attention given to these issues in Government. And in that regard, it would be good to hear from His Majesty’s Opposition about the approaches it would adopt if given the opportunity to do things differently - as it might well soon have. Little has been said so far on this subject, by Sir Keir Starmer or his colleagues.

A great deal of noise has been made in the past week or so in Parliament about the way the funding for a £2billion batch of ‘Levelling Up’ projects around the country has been decided upon, and indeed no clear formula appears to have been used to make the selection. It is surely time to expect some similar attention amongst MPs to the deployment of a much bigger roads budget based on mysterious, non-transparent and seemingly time-expired calculations.

Peter Stonham is the Editorial Director of TAPAS Network

This article was first published in LTT magazine, LTT861, 24 January 2023.

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