Ruth Kelly misses the point

The response published yesterday by the Department to the Stern and Eddington reports was hyped up by the Financial Times on Monday with suggestions that it would include definite plans for a high speed rail line and lots of extra motorway lanes. This apparently embarrassed the Department which wanted to slip the report out unnoticed and, indeed, it was surprising that there was no press conference or keynote speech.
That’s because any good news that could be mined out of the report had more holes in it than a chunk of Gruyere. None of the promised goodies, though, are for now. There is apparently some £20bn of unallocated money available between 2014 and 2019, and that’s when these investments would occur. That is clearly patent nonsense. Governments do not plan their expenditure plans over such long periods and the idea that there is a pot of money available in that particular time frame is laughable. Moreover, Ms Kelly and her prime minister will be long gone by then and their successors may differ entirely on what plans they have for that money.
The only way to judge a government is by what it is doing now and in the short term during which it can influence decisions. Here, it is clear that she is dodging all hard decisions. Her thesis is that transport growth should not be constrained in any way and that the emissions from transport activity should be traded away with other sectors. Why transport should be exempt from the constraints suffered by other sectors is not explained.
In a fascinating article in the latest issue of Local Transport Today, Phil Goodwin, one of the country’s best thinkers on transport, argues persuasively precisely the opposite: that not only is there a practical case to reduce the environmental damage caused by transport because reducing congestion has widespread benefits ranging from health to economic efficiency, but there is also a moral case to demonstrate to developing countries that we are doing everything possible to reduce our carbon footprint.
This sort of thinking eludes the government entirely. It seems we are largely stuck in a predict and provide framework, with little thought about encouraging modal shift or overall transport patterns through the use of the price mechanism. Congestion charging remains a long term aim, but without a clear road map of how to get there, it is really a fig leaf for ministerial inactivity. It is difficult not to think that we are in reverse gear on transport policy.