HS2 is dead - Green Party leader's transport speech at Green Economics Institute

19 July 2013


HS2 is dead, but how do we decide what our transport policy should be?

There’s been one flagship leading the way in English transport policy in recent years -  High Speed Two.

Yet it is increasingly clear that HS2 not only should not be built, but will not be built.

What I want to address today is how we got to this point, and where we should go from here.

When Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin is reduced to writing in a whole column in the  Observer, as he did last weekend, proclaiming the benefits of a long-approved scheme, this the equivalent to the Premier League Football chairman swearing that he really, really has full confidence in his manager.

When a Conservative Secretary of State comes out like this, you know a U-turn is in the offing.

If it doesn’t come in this parliament, it is surely going to come at the start of a next when a (probably) new Chancellor takes a look at the books.

This is a moment after we’ve seen a colossal leap in the putative costs of HS2, to £42.6bn in the space of a Chancellor’s breath, while everyone knows that Boris Johnson’s £70bn would certainly be closer to the mark.

From the other side of politics, Lord Mandelson, has had a sudden epiphany, and drawn back the veil on the former Labour government’s backing for the plan, admitting the decision was  “partly politically driven”. He’s acknowledged that the Labour government did not consider alternative ways of spending the then £30bn cost.

That’s a truly astonishing confession. Yet there’s no evidence that the Tories, the original proponents of the scheme, considered the alternatives either.

Green Party Conference in February 2011 carefully considered the HS2 proposal, and came down firmly against it. Professor John Whitelegg said at that time that the proposals would serve neither social nor environmental justice. It’s good to see the others catching up in the conclusion.

But it’s been left to an independent thinktank, the New Economics Foundation, to come up with a report proposing alternative ways of spending what was then £33bn, demonstrating clearly that much quicker-to-deliver schemes would produce far higher economic and social returns, and (particularly) far more regionally distributed benefits.

At the launch of that report in the Commons, we heard transport expert after transport expert highlight how HS2, while notable in its figures, is entirely typical in its conception.

And they stressed about how it is all about drawing economic development, money even further into London.

The fact that it has got this far, and so much has been wasted on developing a clearly uneconomic project, is a symptom of a broader problem - that this government has failed to develop a plan for transport, to ask what kind of transport will we need in future, where, and how that can and should be provided within economic and environmental limits.

The fact is, we do not have in England a transport policy.

Scotland has one, Wales has one, but for England, well we were expecting one last September. We are still waiting, and no one is expecting the new arrival any time soon. The gestation period feels longer than that of a royal baby from twinkle in the Daily Mail’s eye to actual birth.

The Campaign for Better Transport was looking forward to the transport plan’s launch last year, setting out in an excellent report some ideas of what this might look like. And setting out a useful critique of the current fragmented approach. It explains how the current policy operates in silos, roads in that tube, rail in this one, with the focus on producing lists of individual schemes in each silo. In each silo, economic growth provides a skewed motivation for funding, ignoring the idea of local transport as a way of building healthier communities, and leaving local democratic control floating out lonely in the ether, an unwanted orphan.

The Select Committee on Transport has also been begging for a Transport Strategy, saying at the start of 2012 that it had “real concern” about how projects were chosen for funding. “A project's readiness to proceed does not necessarily demonstrate that it is the best way of using public money,” it said.

Nothing’s changed since. Two examples spell this out: the Bexhill-Hastings Link Road and a planned dual carriageway through the green belt to Manchester Airport. On the former, there’s evidence that the Department for Transport was determined against giving £56 million towards this road due to the poor economic case. The road barely showed benefits even using their own assessment methods that fixate on small time savings for drivers while taking no account of social impacts or the real cost to the environment. But Treasury ministers pushed it through last March, in order for it to be announced alongside the omnishambles Budget.

In Manchester, due process was even further bent – it was added to the Department for Transport local major schemes funding programme after it was officially closed, under pressure from Treasury mininsters and completely bypassing the relatively open and public-facing Development Pool competition for the final round of funding that was being run at the same time by the DfT.

These examples give away the lack of proper broader process and strategy. That £56 million given to Hastings and Bexhill, might it be better spent on walking, cycling, rail, buses for local people ….. And it isn’t just the DfT’s money that’s being wasted. East Sussex County Council is picking up the rest of the tab – another £57 million, with £13 million added just in the last month as costs have spiralled. That could be spent on better transport projects or it could be used for other council services – saving the six day care centres for older people that are under threat to name just one example. (see http://combehavendefenders.wordpress.com/2013/07/09/link-road-spend-rises-by-13m-as-council-considers-closure-of-care-homes-and-day-centres/)

On top of the HS2 debacle, the government is now talking about a £28bn road-building spree, to be carried out by a Highways Agency hived off as a Network Rail-style public company.

Its ‘Action for Roads’ command paper published this week – sets out prospective roadbuilding including 221 extra lane miles of motorways. A massive bypass of the A14, will be brought forward again, having been scrapped by the coalition in 2010. That’s a U-turn on a U-turn, poor driving even by the coalition’s usual standards. And what we’re talking about are in many cases projects abandoned in the Eighties as uneconomic – now, when we’ve passed “peak car”, and the internet is changing the way many companies do business.

Furthermore, as pointed out by the Campaign for the Protection of Rural England, RSPB, Wildlife Trusts, the Woodland Trust, Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth this week,  Action for Roads includes a plan to make all of the Highways Agency roads into dual carriageways, which would stomp all over our national parks and areas of outstanding natural beauty. Has this really been weighed in the balance – the evidence been taken?

This week an extra £500m was pledged to encourage take-up of electric vehicles on top of a similar sum promised last week by Vince Cable – has evidence emerged in the past week to suddenly make this plan twice as valuable? Maybe there has, but as my old maths teacher used to say, “show evidence of your working”.

What we need are some general criteria that answers the question “what is our transport spending, planning and organisation trying to achieve?”, then some testable criteria against which any proposal can be laid on the basis of its progress towards those objectives.

So what should a proper national, integrated transport policy be looking to achieve?

Here’s a start: we need to get people around between homes, jobs, schools and leisure facilities, which should all be as close together as possible, in a way that fits with other social and environmental goals such as reduced greenhouse gas emissions, human health, protection of valuable natural ecosystems and farmland, clean air and unblighted homes. (You can knock out Heathrow expansion on that last point, not to mention greenhouse gas emissions taking out any new airport in the South East.) And we need to encourage localised freighting of essential goods – food, clothing, building materials, and broader trade, national and international, of those products that it’s sensible to move further.

There’s a strong hint in there that transport policy needs to be integrated with other policies – economic policy, building strong local economies that create jobs and business opportunities; housing policies, not assuming that distant commuter suburbs on greenfield sites, based around two-or-more-car households without meaningful provision of public transport, are what our essential new homes will be.

We can make some general assumptions about what the outcome of such a transport policy would look like. A lot of infrastructure spending would go on rail, on the “Low Speed Ones” up and down the country, the lack of which is forcing people into their cars and preventing local movement of people and goods. Electrification of the Lowestoft- Norwich line, upgrading the Huddersfield to Sheffield route, restoring the Oxford to Cambridge line and other East-West links. Critically, all of these would be links between regions, or links within regions – they would not be focused on London.

More, we’d be restructuring the railways. Keeping the East Coast Mainline in public hands – our most efficient, financially successful line (I joined the RMT protests calling for just that yesterday) – and returning all of the others into public ownership, as set out in Caroline Lucas’s private members bill now before the House of Commons. That would save us at least £1.2 billion a year – to put that to scale that could mean 16% off all fares instead of endless above inflation increases pushing people into cars. Next January, commuters face another increase in their – regulated – fares of 1% above inflation. If RPI is the same next month as it was in July, then this rise will be 4.3% - nearly four times the average rise in wages.

What we also need is a much fairer system of rail fares, so that you don’t have to be a millionaire to walk up and buy a train ticket when you decide you make a journey – and you don’t have to worry about whether your booked ticket is valid on this train but not that train leaving from the same station 15 minutes apart. Perhaps if our prime minster caught the train more often, instead of choosing the option of a RAF helicopter, he’d be paying more attention to this issue.

Buses too in many areas are a critical, failing part of transport infrastructure. They need to be affordable, they need to be regular and at sensible times, and they need to be coordinated. If the last bus to a major village leaves the nearby town at 5.35pm, what are the workers finishing after that to do? If, as I found recently on a visit to Skipton, the bus out one way to a village is run by one company, and back by another, so no return tickets possible – this is no way to run a bus service, or a transport system.  

Buses are critical for many low income individuals, yet central government funding to local authorities for buses has been cut by 28% and bus service operator grants, going directly to providers, by 20%. The Citizens Advice Bureaux have highlighted the impact of high fares and irregular services on job-seekers in particular – signing on can swallow a significant portion of the Employment Support Allowance, and jobseekers have been sanctioned for not taking jobs that they were physically unable to reach.

More on the general view of an effective transport policy: a lot more investment would go into cycling and walking around the country. Twenty-four per cent of journeys now undertaken by car are under two  miles, seven per cent  under five miles – creating the infrastructure, reshaping our streets to be people friendly, could greatly reduce those trips, which would make our streets more people-friendly, encouraging more to walk and cycling … etc etc.

As a resident of London, I’ve spent far too long in the past couple of weeks at vigils and protests marking the danger of our roads. The toll has been horrific, three cyclists and two pedestrians in three weeks – 41-year-old father Paul Hutcheson, 20-year-old French student Philippine De Gerin-Ricard, 54-year-old Alan Neave in Holborn on Monday morning, a 91-year-old pedestrian, John Goudling,  in Fulham, three-year-old Mohamed Mohamed in Northolt.

Those are huge tragedies for the families and friends of the victims, but there’s also a huge further cost – the danger of our roads has a heath impact in discouraging walking and cycling, trapping vulnerable people in their homes and encouraging others to use cars for many unnecessary journeys.

As for the roads – well we need them for buses, for cyclists, for necessary car and lorry journeys, and for pedestrians, and when we’re talking about quiet suburban backstreets for children to once again play on. They need to be much better maintained, much better thought out, and that needs to be funded. A road pricing scheme is clearly the way forward so that users truly pay for the cost of provision for them and the damage they do – even the RAC has acknowledged this as inevitable.

The general need for a serious effort and funding to support walking and cycling is clear, but there will also be a lot of highly local development of a national plan needed. In some places we will need to go back to thinking about canals and rivers for transporting people and freight – our Green London Assembly members did a lot of work on getting Olympics freight traffic off the roads and on to far more environmentally and locally sensitive canal transport. In some hilly places encouraging” normal” cycling might be tough – perhaps an electric bicycle scheme would be a good way forward. Light rail transit systems would be the way forward for some cities and big towns.

That highlights a broader point, that we need a national transport strategy, but we also need local and regional strategies, with clear, strong, local democratic oversight – not, as the Government is planning, to hand over funding, strategy and decision making for local transport infrastructure to unelected Local Enterprise Partnerships.

And as the NEF report on the HS2 cash made clear, we need to think beyond a simple “transport” policy, and think more broadly about a “communications policy”. It made a strong case for a significant investment in “to the door” high-speed broadband, which would have economic benefits and reduce the need for business travel.

We currently have a government where decisionmaking isn’t so much opaque as clearly random. In 2012 we had a baccalaureate replacing the GCSEs for four months; then we didn’t. As part of the ‘omnishambles’ budget we had a pastie tax and a caravan tax, and then we didn’t.  Tax relief for the video games industry, planned under Labour, was scrapped by the Coalition, then returned. This is a list that could go on and on…

Now I’m not one of those who wants to reflexively attack U-turns. If a decision was a bad one, it is good news when it is reversed. But this government has a track record of random decisions followed by random reversals. The idea of actually collecting evidence (as Caroline Lucas is for example calling for over drug laws), judging it carefully, and _then_ making a considered choice, is clearly not in the government’s decisionmaking toolkit. That toolkit seems to consist most commonly of the back of an envelope, and a minister saying “well I like the idea of …”

But before we even think about spending tens of billions of pounds on infrastructure that should be in use for a century or more, that will affect the lives of millions, it really isn’t too much to ask that decisionmaking be based on evidence, subject to serious cost-benefit analysis and comparison with alternative spending options, and integrated with other policies.

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