I love the CBI for the nakedness of its self-interested lobbying which occasionally lapses into sheer hypocrisy. Whenever the CBI produces anything on transport, it always accompanies its findings by a demand for more money to be spent on the infrastructure.
However, the rest of the time the CBI is always pressing for a reduced tax burden on business and less government involvement in the economy. Sir Digby Jones, the CBI boss (why do heads of the CBI have strange names like Digby, Adair or Campbell rather than John, Geoff or Jane?) always has the same answer. ‘We are not pressing for taxes to be reduced overall, but merely for a redistribution of government spending from other sectors into transport’. Digby’s favourite target is civil service pensions but I’m sure he has others in his sights.
Why does the CBI single out transport as a special case? The organisation is convinced that the lack of proper infrastructure is one of the major barriers to business success in the UK. And the CBI commissioned a survey to attempt to prove that.
The CBI tried to simply push the ‘isn’t transport terrible’ button and get the usual response. Only it didn’t quite work. Of course Digby and his transport wallah, Michael Roberts, spun the survey to try to show that the whole world of business was clamouring for better transport, but the results rather don’t back up their case as forcefully as they must have hoped. For example, while virtually all businesses said that road links are important, only a fifth were dissatisfied with them. And on public transport, only just over a third of respondents were 38 unhappy with it.
Now of course virtually everyone complained about congestion and half of businesses believed that the reputation of the UK was being harmed by transport problems – but even that means that half had no such concerns, even when asked such a ‘do you beat your wife’ type question Such surveys are designed to elicit a particular response but people’s feelings about transport are often dependent on what happened on the last journey before they filled in the questionnaire. Digby himself confessed that his experience on Britain’s trains was pretty good, but then the survey had been ‘supported’ by Chiltern Railways and GNER whose MDs were in the press conference audience.
With the Tories resurgent and Labour apparently pandering to the civil service unions, the CBI is in a rather anti-government mood and Digby was pretty damning about the failure of the government to live up to the 10 year plan published in 2000 which suggested that £180bn would be spent over the next decade on transport infrastructure, about a third of which would come from the private sector. However, on pressing, Roberts admitted that he now expected £240bn to be spent in the forthcoming decade, which even taking inflation into account, is rather better than the original plan. ‘But we think £300bn would be a more appropriate figure’, he added hastily.
According to the CBI, business would be ready to make a contribution through the taxes it already pays but any suggestion of extra taxation, such as schemes in France where employers contribute toward the Parisian public transport network, or non-revenue neutral congestion charging would not be supported. It does seem like a case of having one’s cake and eating it. Digby always reiterates that it is only business that generates economic wealth and therefore should not be overtaxed, but the CBI’s demands would look more convincing if they were backed by a greater readiness to pay for the improvements.
Instead, Digby is all too prepared to slag off ‘environmentalists’ who stop any transport progress and therefore are a threat to the British economy. This is backed up by reiterating the old canard that congestion is costing the country £20bn. When I asked about the provenance of that figure, it turns out to come from an updated version of an OECD guesstimate calculated in the 1980s. Roberts told me that other work suggested £7bn or £19bn, but whatever it is, it’s a big figure.’
I have always been sceptical about such work, especially since I found out that the figure of £15bn produced by the British Chambers of Commerce was calculated by asking business leaders what they thought congestion was costing them annually (£27,000, apparently) and multiplying that figure by the number of companies in the country.
Yes congestion is a pain, but using a pseudo scientific methods to come up with a headline figure is dishonest and unconvincing. None of this is to say we don’t need a better transport infrastructure. But it does suggest some of the reasons why politicians fail to respond to the pressure groups arguing that case. We might all moan about the transport system, but perhaps we don’t moan loud enough and the case for action is not always as strong as it is presented by vested interests.