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Road to nowhere

Published in Blueprint (London), April 2008

Britain is proud to be a rich country with a modern and dynamic economy. But unfortunately Britain’s transport infrastructure is, quite simply, not fit for purpose. Whether it is airports, roads or rail, the UK’s transport infrastructure does not live up to the expectations of a developed economy.

Heathrow is perhaps the best case in point. Whether the new Terminal 5 will eventually make a difference once it has sorted out its “teething problems” remains to be seen. But the startling fact remains that it took nearly 20 years to plan and build Terminal 5, while Beijing Airport’s new terminal (which incidentally is twice the size of ours) took only 4 years from start to finish. To have one of the world’s largest airports operating on only two runways is an oddity in any case.

Ground transport on Britain’s roads and railways is equally substandard. In no other European country will you find so few roads per person. On average, for every Briton there are six metres of road. Even in the much more densely populated Netherlands, and in Japan, they have seven and nine metres per person respectively. Britain also has fewer kilometres of motorway when compared with countries of a similar size and population. The two German federal states of Lower Saxony and North Rhine-Westphalia alone have a motorway network the length of the UK’s. Unsurprisingly, Britain only tops the international league tables in one respect: congestion. Statistics show that on every kilometre of Britain’s road network more than 1.6 million passenger kilometres are travelled every year – more than twice the European average.

It is quite obvious that Britain’s transport problem is a result of decades of underinvestment. So the real question is: what can be done to make more funding available to solve it? Simply putting another tax on road users is not an option. Motorists have always been the cash cows of government. To tax them now while only vaguely promising them some better transport experience in the faraway future is unlikely to be met with great enthusiasm. Road users would be sceptical of such promises, and rightly so.

So why not turn things around; deliver the vitally important upgrades to the country’s transport infrastructure now, and  start paying for them only when they have been delivered? The investment can ultimately be financed through user charges which, as opinion polls have frequently shown, would be acceptable to the wider public if they were linked to clearly identifiable transport improvements.

The final piece of the puzzle is the question of how to fund the gap between future funding and present infrastructure delivery. Under current circumstances, with the budget deficit hovering around 3 per cent of GDP, it is virtually inconceivable that the public sector would become  involved. That means any serious attempt to deliver the much needed infrastructure within the foreseeable future will have to involve the private sector. The Private Finance sector, despite some much-publicised difficulties, is competitive and serious enough to make the capital available from which to build a transport infrastructure that’s fit for purpose – an infrastructure that is much needed to help Britain, and London in particular, remain a place in which the world wants to do business rather than stuck in endless traffic jams.

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