TRANSPORTING THE UK ECONOMY
Lilian Greenwood, Chair of the Transport Select Committee and Labour MP for Nottingham South, discusses with Marcus Papadopoulos Britain’s transport system and how investment in its infrastructure needs to be correctly targeted
Transportation is key to a country’s economic development and prosperity. Without a modern, extensive and efficient transport infrastructure, a country’s economy can quickly become hamstrung.In the case of Britain, one of the main facilitators of its economic prowess over many years has been its globally renowned transport system, especially its trains, airports and seaports.
But, in the period of a number of years, the UK transport system has shown weaknesses, mainly stemming from the consequences of under-investment by successive governments at Westminster. Today, Britain’s transport system has been eclipsed in its overall quality by a number of other developed nations, while Germany and France continue to go from strength to strength with their respective transport networks.
Whilst significant amounts of money have been invested in the UK’s transport system in recent years by Westminster, questions have arisen about whether this money is being channelled correctly; for instance, is money being invested in certain parts of the country to the detriment of the rest of the country? And with Brexit on the horizon, will the British transport network be prepared to meet the challenges and embrace the opportunities which leaving the European Union will bring?
To discuss the present standing of Britain’s transport system is Lilian Greenwood, Chair of the Transport Select Committee and Labour MP for Nottingham South.
In this exclusive interview, Lilian considers how the UK’s transport system compares to those in other countries, what the Government can do to make certain that British transport is fully capable of supporting the UK economy, whether Brexit will affect seaports and airports and explains what her Transport Select Committee is currently scrutinising.
TRANSPORTING THE UK ECONOMY
Q. Can you begin by explaining the importance of transport to the British economy.
A. Transport is absolutely essential to the working of the UK economy because it brings together the inputs which are required for the production of goods and services, whether this is raw materials or people. And, obviously, it moves goods to markets and customers.
Transport is particularly important for the functioning of the labour markets – for example, how people get to work and training opportunities. The quality of our transport network plays an important role in supporting or inhibiting economic activity.
However, transport is not solely confined to the economy and the functioning of markets; transport is also about the environment and people’s quality of life. Transport is one of those subjects that affects you as soon as you leave your front door.
Q. What is the state of the UK’s transport infrastructure and how does it compare with the infrastructures of other leading countries in the world?
A. An objective measure to cite, in answer to your question, is that last year, the World Economic Forum ranked the UK as 24th in the world in the quality of transport infrastructure. That was a move down from 19th in 2006. So, that ranking puts Britain mid-table amongst industrialised countries and probably towards the bottom of the group of G7 nations.
I suspect that if you went out and asked British people about their opinions over the quality of the UK’s transport infrastructure, you would, inevitably, hear concerns expressed about roads and especially potholes – not just on local roads but on national ones, too.
Now, that is not just a perception; the UK has spent less on infrastructure in recent decades than other developed countries. And the quality of British roads compared to those in countries such as Germany and France is poor because we have invested less over the last couple of decades than what the Germans and the French have.
In terms of UK railways, there has been substantial investment by the current Conservative Government and also by its predecessors – the Coalition and Labour governments. Part of that investment was due to us needing to catch-up after many years of under-investment. It was also because there are far more people using the railways today and, to meet this pressure, significant investment was required. So, there has been, without any doubt, a serious modernisation of our railway infrastructure. However, there is still some way to go.
Turning to airports, we have a very competitive and dynamic air transport system in the UK but, that said, we know that airport capacity in the south-east is highly constrained. Heathrow and Gatwick’s capacity is full and these are two of the busiest airports in the world. That is a major reason for airport expansion in the south-east.
Q. How can the Government ensure that Britain has a transport system fully capable of supporting the UK economy?
A. In answer to your question, investment is the most important step that the Government can take. Investment in maintaining – and renewing – our existing transport infrastructure, so that it is of a decent standard and quality. And, investing in new projects for the future which will meet the growing, changing and diverse challenges facing our economy.
There have been some major investments which are very positive, including Crossrail and High Speed Two. However, investment has to be targeted, fairly distributed and carried out in the right way.
There is a great deal of concern amongst the public that investment has been unfairly prioritised in London at the expense of the rest of the UK, hence the thirst for economic rebalancing. So, for instance, in areas in the south-west, such as Devon and Cornwall, there is a real need for substantial investment.
What is also essential is the role of new technologies, such as autonomous and connected vehicles or digital signalling on the railways. In addition to investment, Government must ensure that we have the necessary regulatory and policy frameworks to maximise the use of new technologies as they arise.
Q. In a post-Brexit world, what kind of focus will there be on UK seaports?
A. As an island nation, our ports will always be of immense importance to our future, and, once we have left the European Union, our links to the outside world and our ability to export to the rest of the world is going to be even more important. We have one of the biggest port industries in Europe so it will be imperative that ports are able to deal with the requirements of the UK economy post-Brexit.
The Transport Select Committee, which I chair, has recently been looking at the effects of Brexit on UK freight and, obviously, ports are part of this. We will be taking evidence on the scale and nature of the challenges and opportunities that Brexit will bring to British freight companies and their customers. Ports will also be high on our agenda.
One of the issues that the previous committee considered was access to ports, making sure that the road and rail infrastructure that links our ports to the rest of the networks – markets and storage – are up to scratch. That is very much a long-term concern of our committee.
Q. And what will Brexit mean for UK airports?
A. There is no reason to suggest that Brexit will have a significant impact on our airport infrastructure. After all, the infrastructure is already set up to deal with aeroplanes, people and freight from outside of the EU (though, of course, it might need to make adjustments to customs facilities at airports, if our customs arrangements change once we leave the EU).
However, there was a concern about what will happen to aviation and this is now covered by the transition deal which takes us through to 31st December 2020. But new formal arrangements will need to be put into place after that deadline. That was an issue which we raised, as a committee, with the Secretary of State for Transport. He was very confident that there will be new agreements around aviation to replace the Open Skies Agreement but we will maintain a watchful eye on progress.
There is considerable growth forecast over the coming decades for UK airports so making sure that there are long-term arrangements in place to facilitate air travel, post-Brexit, is imperative.
Q. Finally, what is the Transport Select Committee currently scrutinising?
A. Well, we recently completed a report into the Government’s Airports National Policy Statement. We also have a number of ongoing inquiries.
Firstly, we are examining rail infrastructure investment, looking at how the Government intends to invest in the railways, including its plans to increase private sector financing.
Secondly, we are looking at ‘Mobility as a Service’ and the technology which could change the way that we travel by using digital applications to plan and pay for journeys.
Thirdly, we have launched an inquiry into the lessons that can be learned from the failed Intercity East Coast rail franchise.
And finally, we have just launched a new inquiry into the implications of Brexit for our freight networks and operations.