Robert Leitch: Britain's roads need significant investment
As we embark upon the traditional holiday month of August, many of us will be looking forward to getting away for that welcome break. However, whether it be the sunshine beach resort or the quaint countryside cottage that beckons, general relaxation is only likely to begin once we have battled our way through countless roadworks, queues, accidents, delays and service cancellations to reach our destination. If truth be told, getting from A to B has never been more problematic and it is during the holiday seasons that our creaking transport infrastructure is highlighted most vividly.
We will all have experienced such travel woe before - some face it on a daily basis. From the rush hour squeeze on our undergrounds, to stationary traffic on our motorways and signal failures on our train lines, the life of a commuter is not an easy one. Add school and bank holidays to the everyday burdens already placed upon our transport system and a chaotic picture of traffic bedlam begins to take shape.
Ultimately, however, our greatest concern should be for our road networks - a quick glance at the relevant statistics is telling. Since 2001 the number of cars on Britain’s roads has risen considerably from 24.6 million to 28.5 million, whilst in 2009 the overall volume of motor vehicle traffic was 313 billion vehicle miles. Surprisingly, perhaps, 90% of all passenger travel takes place on the roads with just 7% by rail and 1% by air. Despite these figures, in 2006-07 (the latest figures available) the UK spent over £5 billion on railways and just £4.8 billion on our roads.
Meanwhile, 70% of adults now hold driving licences and over 80% of our population live in a household with at least one car. Put simply, our lust for cars and driving continues to rise ceaselessly, ensuring that the pressure on Britain’s 245,000 miles of road is set to intensify yet further. Faced with such increasing demand and usage, it is all too apparent that the status quo is simply not sustainable – significant investment is required.
Naturally, at present, any talk of such investment is quite rightly viewed through sceptical eyes. The huge budget deficit and upcoming spending reviews leave little room for expenditure on the scale required. However, to swiftly dismiss the need for investment in our road networks is a dangerous attitude – frankly, we depend upon them more than we seem to realise.
Indeed, even from a financial point of view it is worth noting that road users contribute over £47 billion to HM Treasury each and every year. Sadly only £7 billion of this is re-invested in repairing and improving our roads. Whilst road users provide the Chancellor with 4p per mile they drive, rail passengers actually dent the public purse by 21p per mile of each journey. Clearly, road users pay their way and as such their plight must be taken seriously.
Failure to act and invest in Britain’s roads will not only impose transport misery upon the vast majority of motorists, but it could also affect our social and economic well-being and development too. As the economy begins to stutter back into life, we are in desperate need of a wide-ranging road management strategy for the future. Without any such plan, the volume of traffic will increase yet further cutting capability, diminishing reliability and hindering economic growth.
After all, we must appreciate that it is not just the individual who suffers from our broken infrastructure but, more importantly, our small and medium size businesses too. Functional transport networks are critical to the economy and, in 2003, the estimated cost of congestion to businesses in London alone was over £5.3 billion. We cannot afford to underestimate the cost of poor investment in our road networks or its impact on our wider economy.
Unfortunately, the Coalition’s policy towards Britain’s decaying roads remains shrouded in mystery with no mention of it in the Coalition Agreement or indeed our own Party’s manifesto ahead of the election. This must be addressed. The previous Labour administration failed to take on board the concerns raised by the Eddington Transport Study in 2006 which itself warned that congestion would rise by 30% on Britain’s roads by 2025 unless serious measures were taken.
Labour, as in so many areas, flunked the opportunity to act. This sluggish approach is highlighted by the fact that only Belgium, Italy and Lithuania did less than the UK to improve the capacity of their national motorway systems in Europe between 1996 and 2006. We are already a decade out of date.
Ultimately, a long-term strategic plan of road investment is critically required. Even in these bleak economic times, the Government must commit to reviewing the situation with an open mind, particularly with respect to encouraging private investment into road building, maintenance and management. Our roads have been neglected for too long – it must now be an urgent priority to repair Britain’s woefully blocked transport veins and accelerate them into the 21st century.