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Arguably transport has never been so high on the UK’s political agenda – airports in the south east of England, high speed rail to the north of England (HS2), privatisation of, and tolling on our road network, concerns over value for money in rail franchising and port development in the north of England. These are not only politically sensitive topics, but often involve major public expenditure (HS2 is said to cost over £30bn alone), and are of a scale that will impact on the environment and day to day quality of life for many in the UK.
Clearly decisions need to be made on how and where to proceed to address these issues, within an easy to follow framework of analysis, and within a policy context that reflects national needs as well as local interests. This is why so many of us were initially supportive of the decision to establish a national infrastructure plan, national policy statements, and a planning body to consider schemes that fell within a definition of national significance.
Progress in some sectors has been impressive. Energy, for example, now has all six policy statements in place (overarching energy, renewable energy, fossil fuels, oil and gas supply and storage, electricity networks and nuclear power). The process is also currently being put to the test for major developments like Hinckley Point C Nuclear Power Station, which has now passed through the examination stage (completed 21 September 2012) and a recommendation to the Secretary of State is expected by the end of the year.
The problem for transport in the UK is that the system relies on all the pieces being in place, and especially the national policy statements. The problem is that we only have a statement for ports - we still don’t have them yet for surface networks or aviation. These three transport statements are all clearly linked; after all, HS2 can’t be considered without thinking about its potential impact on aviation, and the same goes for ports and their impact on road and rail access for freight. Trying to make progress without policy statements for all three of these big issues is going to cause us major difficulties.
So, what’s the delay? If the Department for Energy and Climate Change can produce six policies, including one on the highly sensitive issue of nuclear power, how come the Department for Transport can only manage one. Perhaps the recent decision to re look at airport capacity in the South East but not to deliver the report until after the next general election goes some way to explaining the problem. Now, more than ever, the UK needs a world beating transport network based on prudent investment that follows a joined up strategy for national development. Now is not the time to be putting politics into transport, we need planning there instead.