The “big idea”
New Labour’s obsession with the “big idea” has destroyed any chance they might have had of developing a credible transport policy.
First it was get people out of their cars and onto public transport. When that failed, it was vastly ambitious national road pricing, forcing people out of their cars through their wallets – as if Gordon Brown hadn’t been trying to do that all along.
Meanwhile, I am researching a Conservative Party Green Paper on roads and road transport, travelling throughout the UK, North America and Europe to look at different ideas, meeting dozens of leading experts and studying many different projects.
Although my thinking has not yet crystallised, I am now convinced that the only “big idea” that will ever work is to commit to not having a “big idea”. We need a wide range of different measures which combined together will radically improve road transport.
Having gone from 26.3 million vehicles in 1996 to 33.4 million in 2006, with further growth expected, it is evident that some additional road capacity will be needed, even though we remain committed to expanding public transport.
However, there is no point in building new roads unless they are managed effectively. I have seen privately financed roads, where variable pricing has doubled capacity, while cutting journey times by two-thirds. I believe, therefore, that intelligently designed local road pricing schemes are one tool which can help achieve better road management.
Any such schemes, however, must offer real benefits to road users, and must not simply be revenue raising devices. There must be alternatives for people who do not wish to pay extra charges. Any revenue surplus must go towards transport improvements and enforcement must be seen to be fair.
Next, Sir Rod Eddington made a good argument for addressing “pinch points” in the road system, with small, relatively cheap schemes, which could yield disproportionately high benefits to the road system as a whole. But it will take the Conservative Party’s commitment to localism to make it happen. Local experimentation in the United States has led to interesting developments in junction management; the Dutch province of Vriesland has led the way on shared space.
Another tool which needs to be exploited is in-car information technology, to enable drivers to avoid congestion and improve route planning. Also, we need a new approach to safety, to reduce accidents which, themselves are a major cause of congestion. This would include a more rational approach to speed management, better driver training, skill enhancement incentives, and life-long learning.
Central to my thinking is that any road transport strategy must also reduce the environmental impact of road transport, and make a contribution to improving local environments. Price incentives can dramatically improve vehicle technologies.
I am also looking at strategies to reduce demand, such as encouraging in a systematic way more home working, and other ways of reducing the need for people to travel to work.
In conclusion, I have to emphasise that nothing is cast in stone and I am wide open to any ideas which might help bring our road transport system into the 21st Century, after the decade of neglect by New Labour and Gordon Brown.
This website will be going interactive soon and I would very much welcome your comments and suggestions. In the meantime, please e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Owen Paterson, MP for North Shropshire and Shadow Minister of State for Transport