Traffic congestion is being seen as a real barrier to economic growth. Demands for urgent action are unlikely to be met if transport remains so far down the government pecking order. By Jack Semple.
One of the best episodes of the television series, Yes, Minister, featured a beleagured Jim Hacker, trying in vain to make progress - any progress - towards the goal, enshrined in the Treaty of Rome, of devising an integrated transport policy for Europe. He eventually learned what every civil servant knows - that transport is one of the most intractable, thankless subjects in government.
There are few achievements in which a politician may glory. There are only brickbats to face or, worse still, media indifference. Like a secular purgatory, transport secretaries have an uncomfortable existence in what is sometimes a station on the way up but more often a period of turmoil for those going down.
Pity, them, John MacGregor, the ninth transport secretary to go through the revolving doors at No 2 Marsham Street since the Conservatives came to power in 1979. Transport looks less appealing than ever. Unrest is growing over the increasingly acute failure of the country's transport system, especially in the South East. The dissatisfaction comes from both the general public and from businessmen who already see traffic congestion, caused overwhelmingly by cars, as a very real barrier to economic growth. They are demanding urgent action.
"The Government has not planned the transport needed to keep UK industry competitive," says David Yeomans, chairman of the Confederation of British Industry's transport policy committee. The CBI calculated the cost of congestion in the UK to be around £15 billion a year - £10 billion of it in the South East.
The free-market Institute of Directors is so concerned this year it demanded that the Government set up "a strategic national authority charged with drawing up a transport map for the year 2000 that meets the needs of the 21st century". It wants the new body to "provide the leadership and co-ordination to achieve its implementation". The IoD's call for an integrated transport policy urges encouragement of private sector investment - including privatisation of motorways - but stops short of demanding a substantial increase in spending by government.
The CBI and the Freight Transport Association have no such qualms. They believe that encouraging the private sector is not enough: they want more money to be spent on roads; they want more motorways; and a major boost in spending on public transport, as part of an integrated policy. Specifically, they want a strengthening of road links to the east and south coast ports to reflect the growing importance of EC trade to the UK economy. That would include the extension of the A1, as a motorway, to Edinburgh, and better east/west links.
The trouble with all this is that the economic, political and environmental pressures against greater government action remain as strong as ever. Financially, the Department of Transport is pretty low down the pecking order at the Treasury and the Government has a strong aversion to investment in public transport.
Politically, every positive decision in transport seems to upset more people than it pleases, usually for environmental reasons - the department has always been the poor relation of the Department of the Environment, of which it was once a division. The M3 extension has brought the wrath of Brussels and caused demonstrations in Hampshire, for example. Even the red route scene in London which was thought to be an innoccuous vote-winner has brought trouble. It imposes heavy penalties on any car owner who stops, even for a minute, on specified roads and has brought demonstrations from shop-owners afraid of losing passing custom.
Transport's planning cycle of at least 20 years means government must think ahead; yet there is little immediate incentive to do so. With major transport spending programmes, there is little short-term, political pay-back, nothing a minister can point to and hail as a triumph. There is rarely the danger of imminent disaster, just creeping deterioration, and this encourages procrastination and long-term complacency.
Not only are expenditure levels inadequate, they lack consistency from one year to the next, says CBI transport researcher, Michael Roberts. He argues that only a radical improvement in the Department's status will provide the platform needed for an adequate transport policy.
It should be able to take a clear lead over the DoE, British Rail, the Civil Aviation Authority and so on, and have a much stronger position with the Treasury.
The CBI wants the Transport Secretary to present an integrated transport plan to the Commons. It would lay out objectives for a national system, with a schedule for implementation. It would be debated and agreed and therefore carry a commitment to action. But there is little sign of the changes the CBI is looking for, Roberts concedes.
The lack of strategic planning is shown most vividly in the Channel Tunnel project. Admittedly, the M20 has been completed to Folkestone, but most cars and lorries at present want to go to Dover by using the M2, and it still stops well short of the port. Much worse, however, is the lack of a rapid link through London to the North. Investment here is essential, if the Tunnel is to achieve anything like its freight potential. "The Channel Tunnel is in danger of becoming little more than an expensive hole in the ground," says James Watson, chairman of NFC, Britain's biggest distribution group.
All the funds in the City are of little use, without planning permission. The heavy hand of government is needed for major transport improvements, but the recent record is far from promising. Work on the Tunnel got started after the Government pushed a Bill through Parliament, but it has proved unwilling to tackle the tougher issue of planning of the Channel link.
All industry lobby groups agree that there is an urgent need for planning reform to avoid the interminable delays associated with transport projects, such as the M40 extension to Birmingham. The CBI has set up what it calls a task force to come up with specific proposals.
MacGregor's agenda is likely to be dominated by the privatisation of BR, however. As far as the freight transport industry is concerned, it cannot happen fast enough. Railfreight Distribution is seen as under funded, poorly managed and lacking in strategic focus. Far from developing, it is continuing to contract - last year the wagon-load Speedlink network was closed.
The full train-load division, hauling oils and aggregates, is relatively healthy, runs substantially on dedicated track and is likely to be sold off intact. There is likely to be a scramble to acquire the Freightliner deep-sea container operation, however. Private haulier Russell Davies, which has had a commercial partnership called Masterhaul for many years is likely to bid, but so, too, is deep sea operator, P and O.
However rail develops, it will not make much of a dent in the dominant position of road haulage within Britain. The distances between major UK centres of population and manufacturing are too short. Industry is pressing hard for an increase in lorry weights, to raise the payload and therefore efficiency of vehicles. But an increase in juggernaut weights is seen as a sure vote loser. Officially, weights will remain at 38 tonnes until 1999, under a derogation from the 40-tonne European standard. The official reason for this is the existence of weak bridges but such an argument is widely seen as an excuse for avoiding an unpopular decision.
The first chink in the Government's position became apparent at an environmental seminar this year when transport minister Roger Freeman suggested 44-tonnes could bring environment benefits by reducing the number of heavy lorries on the road and therefore benefiting rail. Rail wagons can carry higher payloads, and a 44-tonne lorry weight limit would mean that rail containers could be delivered at either end of their journey on a single lorry. The possibility of an increase in weights is prompting many transport companies to hold off investment in new heavy trucks; those needed for use at 44 tonnes will need a third axle, and more power than those used at 38 tonnes.
The recent appointment of a minister for transport in London - Steven Norris - recognised the degree to which congestion in the capital is now a serious political issue. It follows the emergence of road pricing in the debate over how to reduce urban congestion. This issue has been pushed to the forefront by a unusual combination of the green lobby - which wants to see cars off the road - and free marketeers such as the IoD and the Adam Smith Institute - who want to see the free market applied to roads. The Government has no philosophical objections to the idea of road pricing, nor will it have, predicts IoD researcher Scott Fowler. In fact last October, the government appointed MVA Consultancy to undertake a three-year research programme on road pricing in London as a means of reducing congestion. It will look at the impact on traffic and road users, and the effects on the property market, business cost and public transport.
The concept of urban road pricing is bitterly attacked by the British Road Federation (BRF) which regards it as fundamentally elitist and socially diverse, because it would reduce the ability of people other than the rich to use their cars. London's roads are clogged throughout the day, and not only by commuters. If road pricing has any effect, it will be to further drive people out of London, stretching the urban sprawl and undermining the London economy. An improved public transport system would be a pre-requisite to road pricing. In fact, argues BRF assistant director Paul Everitt, could well do away with much of the congestion that road pricing is meant to solve.
The opponents of road pricing see it simply as a means by which free marketeers can attack congestion without spending any money. "Road pricing is basically a last resort," says Everitt. But he sees the appeal it could hold for the Treasury. It is likely to remain a political hot potato with the free market lobbyists advocating the use of pricing not only in busy city areas but also on motorways.
Liberalisation, rather than harmonisation, continues to dominate the government's contribution in Brussels, in road, air and sea transport. In haulage, this is annoying for UK transport which has substantially higher levels of both vehicle excise duty and diesel taxes than any EC country - apart from Germany - and lower lorry weights than the rest of the EC.
The UK is being "most supportive" of EC plans to liberalise air transport, says the British Shippers' Council (BSC). But the UK should be more strident in attacking maritime cartels which still operate legally on some deep-sea routes. With P and O just about the last big UK line, we are now, in effect, only protecting foreign ship owners, many of which are not even European, the BSC argues.
MacGregor has an advantage over his predecessors - assuming he stays at transport for long enough. In the BR sell-off he has a difficult but achievable goal: privatisation is a political imperative. By injecting competition into this area of the market, he may bring marginal improvements. Strong doubts remain, however, about the Government's will and ability to bring desperately needed improvements to the transport system.