Commons Gate

The major road network (HC 533-iv)

Transport Committee 20 Jul 2009

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Evidence given by:
3.20 p.m. CPRE (Campaign to Protect Rural England) Ralph Smyth; NECTAR (North-East Combined Transport Activists' Roundtable) Cynthia Games
3.50 p.m. Department for Transport Chris Mole, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State, Martin Jones, Head of Strategic Roads Division

Q242 Mr. David Clelland: I was wondering on what scientific basis this statement from the CPRE that the road network is "adequate" and from NECTAR that the major road network is "too large" is formed? When did the road network become "adequate"?

Mr Smyth: I think you are looking at our evidence. We said that it is better to see how the network is used rather than simply whether the network itself is adequate. I do not think there can be a scientific judgement either way because there are various different subjective values involved, various trade-offs between growth in different areas, between different public goods, be they environmental, economic or social. I do not think you can simply have a scientific objective answer to that, there are politics and different views involved.

Q243 Mr. David Clelland: As far as NECTAR is concerned, if the current major road network is "too large", which roads would you close down? Which parts of the country are going to lose roads under your proposals?

Ms Games: I think the feeling of NECTAR as a whole, and I have got to say that I am not the person who put this particular argument forward, although I would concur with it, is that ---

Q244 Chairman: Do you agree with it?

Ms Games: In some places we have a lot of major roads which are not used effectively at the moment. I would not dare to state one particular road because I am not a road expert myself.

Q245 Mr. David Clelland: As far as the North-East is concerned, which you are principally concerned about, you know about the debate that has been going on for some time in the North-East about the adequacy or otherwise of the road network. We are not talking about building new roads necessarily, but certainly the adequacy of the network we have to cater for the amount of traffic it has, but here you are saying in the face of all the evidence from everyone else I know in the region that the road network is "too large", so which roads would you close?

Ms Games: I am not going to risk saying the wrong thing there. What I would say is that I would agree with Ralph that it is very difficult to say what enough is, what is adequate. If you expand for demand there will always be more demand, whereas there is an argument which Robert Cervero came up with which said that "congestion is a sign of economic growth without over-investment in heavy roads". I think we need to be very careful about how we invest in the near future with climate change and changes in requirements for fossil fuels in the next 20 years when we may see a significant change, and it is that on which NECTAR's argument is based.


Q286 Mr. David Clelland: Does that not bring us back to the argument that CPRE were using before, that if the reduction in traffic volumes as a result of the Darlington experiment mean that it is easier to move about the roads, more people will just come onto the roads so the experiment is self-defeating, is it not?

Ms Games: The impression I have is that more people are continuing to use public transport. Let us face it, if we have a little bit of capacity at the moment, considering population growth we need some capacity, why should we not reduce now in order to make sure that the capacity is filled without having to over-invest in roads.

Mr Smyth: That is a very good point you make there, that if you free up capacity, whether by building roads or persuading people to get out of their cars, whether by congestion charge like in London or the measures Cynthia has just mentioned, you need to lock in that space otherwise it will fill with traffic again, particularly in urban areas where demand is highest and that means reallocating space to wider pavements, bus lanes, cycle lanes and so on.

Q287 Mr. David Clelland: How much additional public transport capacity would be required to make a significantly noticeable difference to congestion in the urban areas in particular?

Ms Games: It is difficult to quantify. However, if you consider a regular service so that people are able to travel after six at night, which in many areas of the North-East they cannot do, and even in Middlesbrough, for example, buses stop after half past six to certain areas within a very small distance, if we could have reliable, and that means not arriving early but arriving on time or a few moments later, public transport across many of the road networks we would see an increase. However, it is impossible to quantify exactly because it is a soft target and that is always very difficult to calculate.

Q288 Mr. David Clelland: I presume that as you cannot quantify that you will not be able to quantify the cost either. We can only assume if the buses stop after half past six it is because the bus companies are not making any profit and, therefore, if you are going to run buses after that period somebody is going to have to pay for it. Where will that money come from?

Ms Games: There are other issues to do with the way that is calculated by private companies. Now that people are able to use their bus passes, 11 o'clock is the peak time in the Tyne & Wear area for using the bus, no longer 9 o'clock in the morning. That is because people are able to use the buses but, of course, that does not mean the bus companies are getting more money at 11 o'clock in the morning. We need to find a fairer way of making sure that bus tickets are paid for to make sure that the bus services are reliable and regular.

Q289 Mr. David Clelland: You say we need to find a way, but all this is going to cost money. If we are going to have the kind of transport system which is going to make a noticeable difference to traffic moving about our roads that is going to take an awful lot of public money, is it not?

Mr Smyth: Can I suggest an alternative, the example of Freiburg in south-west Germany where they have a pretty much perfect transport system and there are far lower levels of subsidy there because the public transport is so good that lots of people have a weekly or monthly card and there is much less public subsidy needed for a much, much better public transport system. Hopefully the Local Transport Act 2008 will allow partnership arrangements to make that more of a reality in this country.

Q290 Chairman: Are you optimistic that will be achieved?

Mr Smyth: It is difficult because public money is being cut just at the time when new measures could be trialled, and that is very worrying, that the Act will not be given the time or the money to flourish.

Q291 Chairman: What criteria should be used for allocating transport funding?

Mr Smyth: It is difficult because if you are trying out new pilots you are going to have to put some money in that does not necessarily produce good results just so that you can innovate. Carbon reduction is obviously a key goal and so is equality of opportunity and economic benefits, but there will be a tension between them.

Q292 Mr. David Clelland: Can we just move on to freight. I presume that you, like most people, would like to see more freight moved off the roads and onto rail, but I come back to the point how much freight could realistically be moved off the road onto rail given the capacity of the railway system to take it? What real difference would that make to the overall movement of traffic around our roads?

Mr Smyth: It is difficult because there are so many different freight paths across the country. Certainly if we had more wagon loads rather than just long trains and more sidings, and also more smaller rail lines rather than just focusing on the main East Coast and West Coast, there would be great potential. Also, trying to reduce the distance that food travels, for example - CPRE is very keen on local food - is part of the problem rather than just having more freight travelling more miles every year.


Q320 Mr. David Clelland: Do you think the funding for the major road network is sufficient and is it distributed evenly across the country?

Chris Mole: We have got some reasonable evidence that the investment across the country is a fair reflection of where the population is, although what we primarily do is seek to respond to the hotspots that I was referring to just now in my answer to Mr Wilshire.

Q321 Mr. David Clelland: We had a recent debate in Westminster Hall, which albeit was about regional rail systems, and statistics were produced there to show that transport funding in the south of England is many, many times more per head than it is in the north of England. Is that fair?

Chris Mole: I am aware that some figures were produced during that debate, but if you were to look at the current six year period the national roads which could be broadly considered to be in the north are getting some £2.47 billion of investment compared to the national roads in the south which are getting some £3.95 billion of investment. Given some weighting for population, I do not think that looks too out of kilter.

Q322 Mr. David Clelland: Do you think the regional transport allocation system is really adequate and an appropriate mechanism to meet the priorities of the regions that it serves?

Chris Mole: Looking at what is going into regional funding allocation over the next period of some £10.6 billion we think that the RFA mechanism is the most robust way of informing ministers in the Department of the priorities that exist within a region, whether that is between roads, rail or public transport schemes. At the end of the day we feel that the people in the region have a better view of what those priorities should be than we can, so we are happy to take their advice on those.

Q323 Mr. David Clelland: As you might be aware, the system can lead ministers to an incorrect conclusion. Let us take the North-East, for example, where one of the big priorities that everybody agrees on in the North-East is the dualling of the A1 from Newcastle to Scotland. That is a road that is within the regional transport allocation funding regime. If the local authorities were to decide that was their number one priority, as indeed it probably is, that would take up the whole of their allocation and they would have no money left to spend on anything else, therefore they do not make that their number one priority, they have to be able to distribute money across the region so ministers, therefore, get the impression that is not a priority because they have not said it is. It is only because of the inadequacy of the funds, so you are not getting the true view by looking at it in that way.

Chris Mole: It is true that we have been told their regional priority is investment in the Tyne & Wear Metro where some £230 million is going in the next funding period. We understand that is the regional priority and we are happy, therefore, to support that. I would not have thought there would be anything to have stopped the regional partners from parcelling up schemes on the A1 if they wanted to put something forward that might fit in with the resource that was available to them.

Q324 Mr. David Clelland: I accept that, but all I am pointing out is they have to decide their priorities not on what they think is more important but what is affordable and, therefore, what you are getting is not a view of their priorities so much as what they can afford.

Chris Mole: I can only take your assertion on that, Mr Clelland. We can only go with the guidance and advice that the regional partners give us.

Q325 Mr. David Clelland: Does the recession mean there are going to be cuts in the transport budget?

Chris Mole: I do not think the recession as such means that. To an extent this is the same as the question we have already had about forward public expenditure which will be a matter for a Comprehensive Spending Review at some stage.

Q326 Chairman: Does that mean that at the moment you just do not know what the cuts might be?

Chris Mole: At the moment we have to work with the figures that we have available to us which are in forward published Treasury publications.

Q327 Chairman: Have there been any discussions about possible cuts?

Chris Mole: Between the Department and the Treasury?

Q328 Chairman: Yes, or within the Department.

Chris Mole: Not significantly. We all know there are going to be challenging times ahead.

Q329 Chairman: Have you discussed what those challenges might be?

Chris Mole: We know what the Pre-Budget Report has done in terms of shaping the forward spend and we know where that looks in comparison with our previous long-term expectations and we know we will have to begin to manage within the new envelope.

Q330 Chairman: What is the difference between the two?

Chris Mole: I cannot give you a cash figure on that over a number of years, but clearly there is a difference.

Q331 Chairman: A significant one?

Chris Mole: I think it will be challenging but manageable.

Q332 Mr. David Clelland: The tightening of the purse strings would then put you in the same position as the regional transport authorities in having to allocate your priorities on the basis of what funding you have. In those circumstances, would road spending be curbed in order to protect funding for high profile projects such as Crossrail, the Olympic transport corridors and High Speed 2?

Chris Mole: Those are judgements that we are nowhere near making yet. Ministers will make those judgements on a mixture of what information we have about the business case for different projects and other views that might help us in that prioritisation.


Q356 Mr. David Clelland: How much of the 2050 target for an 80% reduction in carbon emissions is going to come from road transport?

Chris Mole: We know currently that something like 20% of C02 emissions come from transport and half of that is car journeys.

Q357 Mr. David Clelland: Will we see an 80% reduction in emissions from road transport by 2050? Do you think that is achievable?

Chris Mole: That is what the Government's carbon budgeting targets are all about and we have our obligations to make our contributions within that across the gamut of transport. Just last week we published Low Carbon Transport; a Greener Future which anticipates as a first step a 14% reduction by 2020 in carbon emissions.

Q358 Chairman: How much was that?

Chris Mole: 14%.

Q359 Chairman: A 14% reduction from transport?

Chris Mole: From transport, yes, across all modes.

Q360 Mr. David Clelland: That is 14% of the current emissions from transport?

Chris Mole: Yes, from the 2008 figures.

Q361 Mr. David Clelland: And going back to road transport in particular, how is the reduction going to be achieved? Is it going to come through better technology? You will have heard of the welcome announcement today in Sunderland that Nissan is going to produce batteries for electric cars and the recent announcement by Toyota in Derby to produce hybrid cars. Is this how we are going to reduce emissions from road transport or is it going to be done through reducing traffic movements and travel patterns?

Chris Mole: I think we see some significant gains to be made from the switch to clean technology vehicles and, as you say, there have been a number of announcements this week and over the last few weeks from Nissan, from Toyota, and I think from Honda as well, about their intentions with regards to clean technology and the Government is also putting £250 million into the promotion of clean technology vehicles to try and ensure that Britain can become a leading nation in terms of these technologies and hopefully an exporter of the best vehicle technology in the world.

This is an uncorrected transcript of evidence taken in public and reported to the House. The transcript has been placed on the internet on the authority of the Committee. Neither witnesses nor Members have had the opportunity to correct the record. The transcript is not yet an approved formal record of these proceedings.

The full transcript may be read here.

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