The Times: A Transport Policy Running on Empty

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Today's Times editorial:

Hilary Benn has emerged as a voice of reason in the cabinet. By warning about the further expansion of Heathrow airport, one of Gordon Brown’s more misguided policies, the environment secretary has put down a marker. If the government does press ahead when it announces its decision next month, it is clear it will be despite Mr Benn’s concerns.

Heathrow has a problem with air quality even before a third runway is built, he says in an interview with this newspaper. He is sceptical of claims that the airport’s problems of pollution and harmful emissions could be solved by new technology. The airport, as he points out, has already breached strict European limits on air pollution and the derogations on those breaches will come to an end in 2015.

The objections to Heathrow’s expansion are many, as we have frequently pointed out. To air pollution can be added noise pollution and the misery the airport already inflicts on the millions of people unfortunate enough to live under its flight path. Traffic congestion around the airport is already appalling and will get worse.

David Cameron is opposed to a third runway, favouring improved high-speed rail links to cut the number of internal flights. Our proposal is more radical: a state-of-the-art airport in the Thames estuary to replace Heathrow. Either way, the case against Heathrow is mounting.

So is the case against other aspects of the government’s transport policy. When the citizens of Greater Manchester voted 4-1 against its proposed congestion charge, they knew what they were doing. Five years after the London congestion charge was introduced, the capital’s road system is still chaotic with traffic moving at a snail’s pace. Promises of a transformation of public transport proved illusory. If Manchester was meant to pave the way for an expansion of congestion charging around the country, its residents have performed the useful service of sending it back to Go.

A decade on from John Prescott’s launch of his integrated transport policy, which was supposed to see an efficient public transport system and an end to congested roads, Britain remains in a mess. Gordon Brown’s great public spending splurge, the consequences of which we will all be funding for many years to come, had precious little impact on the creaking transport infrastructure. Taxpayers think they get a raw deal out of transport and they are right. Road users pay about £32 billion a year in tax, yet only £8 billion is spent on the road network. Just 6% of passenger journeys are by rail, yet trains get an annual subsidy of £6.5 billion. There is a case for “smart” congestion charging to change patterns of road use, as an alternative to duties on petrol and the taxation of vehicles.

Yet little of this thinking seems to be going on. There seems, instead, a willingness to let our dated transport systems gently decline in the hope that nobody notices too much. The reasons for this may be as varied as wishing to save money or to discourage people from using crowded roads. More likely it is a reluctance to think big; it is a truism that this country muddles through when it comes to transport. France, Germany and Spain produce gleaming new trains and glistening auto-routes. We respond with potholed roads and clapped-out trains. Nowhere is this better illustrated than the muddle over Heathrow.

It is a failure of ambition to add an extra runway to an airfield built in the wrong place when you could start anew and create a flagship airport fit for the 21st century.