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Green: The Government should give travellers genuine choice on transport

Extract from speech by Damian Green MP to the Freight Transport Association Summit

"There are six principles which I want to set out as the basis for our policies:

1. Government should give travellers genuine choice about the mode of transport they use. Forcing people to choose between walking, cycling, driving, or public transport is unnecessary interference

2. Long-term transport success will come from steady and predictable investment policies, sheltered from non-stop political interference

3. To achieve the necessary levels of investment over the long-term requires private sector money in increasing quantities

4. Long-term investment is as important for roads as it is for rail

5. We can learn from other countries far better than we have in the past.

6. Too many transport decisions have been politicised; we need the transport professionals to take more of the key decisions.

Those are our guiding principles. What do they mean in policy terms? Starting with roads, I think the Government should call off its war on the motorist—not least because making driving miserable for private motorists also inevitably means making it miserable for commercial motorists—including all of your drivers.

We have already made some proposals, including an audit of the positioning of speed cameras to make it clear that every one is contributing to road safety and not just acting as a silent tax collector for the Chancellor. We believe speed limits should be revisited, with higher maximum speeds possible on motorways and lower speeds necessary on some other roads.

We think the emergency services should be consulted before road humps are put down-making it difficult for ambulances and fire engines to reach the scene of an emergency may not be a very bright policy in all circumstances, to put it mildly. And we think encouraging car sharing by making more intelligent use of the tarmac available is worth considering. In other words can we use the current bus lanes better.

There will be more proposals along these lines. Simple practical measures to free up our roads from unnecessary congestion. Every driver who uses Britain's roads deserves better.

As for the railways, like everyone else we will be following the latest review announced by Alistair Darling very carefully. I suspect he knows the structure of regulation he inherited from Stephen Byers and John Prescott is a mess. There are too many bodies jostling for complete detailed control of the rail network. Many people fondly remember Thomas the Tank Engine and the Fat Controller. The problem today is that there are too many people competing to be the Fat Controller, and Thomas is probably locked in a siding somewhere because failures in the power supply won't let him operate properly.

So the review is necessary, but my real fear is that it will end up doing more harm than good. If it ends up with more centralisation, with more detailed decisions being taken inside the Department for Transport, even inside 10 Downing Street, things could get even worse on the railways—hard though that is to imagine. The leasing companies and some of the Train Operating Companies have been the successes of privatisation—hence the rise in passenger numbers and the 50% increase in freight moved by rail since 1995. But the real need is for long-term steady capital investment. Under any Government this is more likely to come from the private than the public sector. Setting up a policy framework which promotes that long-term investment should be the purpose of the review, and we will judge whether or not it has succeeded by looking at that criterion.

One last thought on our approach before I move to the issues which I know particularly concern all of you about the Ten Year Plan. It is that what I have just said about long-term rail investment requiring public policy that promotes private investment applies just as much to our roads. Both in terms of road building and road maintenance we are behind other countries in utilising private money to make good the many deficiencies which a completely public sector funded and run road network display. We be addressing this deficiency seriously in the coming months, and will bring forward our proposals before the end of the year.

This is vital because we need to bring about a complete change in the way we deal with transport policy. We have it high on our agenda, and I am sure it is rising up the Government's agenda as well. But it is obvious that the life-cycle of any particular big transport project is very likely to be longer than one particular Parliament, or of one particular Party's period in power. We need to be grown up about this. In particular we need to set up funding systems so that the temptation for new Governments or new Ministers to drop existing ideas in favour of their own pet projects is minimised. This is an area where I am sure progress is needed.

Let me turn to the FTA's own concerns. I sympathise with Richard Turner, when he says, in the latest edition of Freight Magazine "With more than six years under its belt, the Government has failed to generate confidence that is it is tackling congestion effectively. The universal view of members was that nowhere is there knowledge of our problems matched with enthusiasm and commitment to solve them." Since I read that this is the universal view of all of you, and it's my view, it must be right.

The figures are depressing. The Ten-Year Plan promised a 5% reduction in inter urban congestion, and an 8% reduction in large urban areas. The result has been a predicted increase in journey times of 30% by 2010. The solution won't be a single magic bullet. We will need to use our roads, especially in urban areas, more intelligently-using some of the methods I spoke about earlier. We will need more by-passes. We will need more dualling, and possibly more motorway routes. To fund these new roads, we will need more private finance. For obvious reasons we don't have the details yet, but this is the direction in which we will be travelling, and our aim is to provide a network which will make all your businesses easier to run.

This is also our aim when we consider the Road Transport Working Time Directive. It seems clear to me that we should aim at the maximum available flexibility, while still protecting the health and safety of all involved. I would urge the Government to lobby for extending the reference period over which average working time is calculated. I agree with the FTA that a 17-week reference period would be too short, and would damage businesses that have a seasonal focus. Clearly there are companies that are much busier in the run-up to Christmas. Equally, the soft drinks trade has its busiest period in the summer. The application of rigid rules that damage businesses in these sectors does no good to Britain's competitiveness, and they should be opposed.

I am also in favour of keeping the opt- out clause in the current Working Time Directive. Some of the countries joining the EU in 10 weeks time have already written the opt- out into their laws, and again, I do not want to see British firms put at a competitive disadvantage.

Talking about European matters brings me to the vexed subject of Road User Charging for lorries. It is good to know, looking at the Austrian example, that this kind of system can be made to work technically, especially when you look over the border at Germany and their problems. And certainly the current situation when British hauliers are put at a competitive disadvantage to other European companies by our own Government because of our fuel duties is neither sensible nor sustainable.

So I hope to see the problems with the Commission about the use of the revenue from the User Charging Scheme can be resolved quickly. We need a revenue neutral scheme to allow your industry to plan ahead with confidence, and I very much hope we will hear some positive news when the Chancellor announces his Budget next month. If not, I will be on the case.

As for rail freight, I am enchanted by the title of the session starting at 3.15, "Growing Rail Freight despite the Government's best efforts." I am not sure I can improve on that as a summary of the current situation. If the subsidy is directed away from the lines on which much freight traffic depends, then rail freight will stop growing. What is going to happen in the long term? We won't know until after the review is published in the summer—and maybe not even then. So I would like to wish Keith Heller all the very best in his new job. This is straightforwardly an area where the uncertainty about what we might inherit if we win the Election makes it impossible for me to predict what would have to be done.

There are a number of other issues, not least those affecting ports and aviation, which I will not have time to address this afternoon. But I would like to make a closing observation on the Ten Year Plan as a whole. It was, frankly, over-hyped as a solution to our transport problems. The slow progress of the Multi-Modal studies has meant that the implementation of specific road improvements has remained a weak area in the plan. Congestion charging seems to create at least as many problems as it solves. Rail planning is back in the melting pot. Tax incentives for cleaner vehicles are offered with one hand and taken away with the other.

So the degree of certainty that many people in your industry hoped for when the Plan was unveiled has not happened. There is an alternative vision, where politicians step back from the detail of industrial planning and set the framework for companies and individuals to make their own decisions. That is the vision that my colleagues and I are developing, and I am sure that it can contribute to the long-term health of our freight industry—an industry which itself is absolutely essential to the long-term health of our economy."

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