Examination of Witness (Questions 440
WEDNESDAY 13 FEBRUARY 2002
440. It makes sense but what do you do about
(Professor Begg) We try and get over to Government
that the reality is very different.
441. So do we have to solve the myths or do
we have to solve the real problems?
(Professor Begg) I think it is the myths. The Government
have a number of really tough decisions to make on transport.
Our concern is that it is the fear of upsetting the majority of
people in Britain who run cars and who are very car dependent.
In all the work we do we really appreciate that motorists do not
always think myopically about their car journey and just see what
is in front of them in the windscreen, because they are pedestrians
and cyclists as well and use public transport and are concerned
about their kids crossing the street.
442. Perhaps they do not understand, Professor,
that you are looking at options for congestion charging for the
whole of the nation's road network. Can you give us a bit of information
on that subject?
(Professor Begg) We have been at this for the best
part of 18 months and we hope to publish within the next month.
We are really supportive of the Government in giving local authorities
the powers to introduce congestion charging. We think congestion
charging is better than a workplace parking levy, although we
would support both. We think it is important that as many of them
take up this offer as possible if we are going to get the cash
in to improve public transport, but also if we are going to reduce
congestion. However, the difficulty local authorities are going
to face in introducing congestion charging is that they are always
going to have to have a boundary. It does not matter whether the
boundary is on the outskirts of the city or, as the Mayor of London
is planning, in Inner London. Whenever you have a boundary there
is always going to be dislocation of traffic and there are always
going to be effects on location decisions. What we are concerned
about and what we have been urging Government to do is to say,
first, do they want a lot of towns and cities to introduce congestion
charging? Is it the case that this is as important as we think
to the congestion reduction target, or are the Government right
to stand back and say, "It is not really up to us. It is
up to local government." We think it is pretty central to
what the Government are trying to do that they should be more
443. Because you are saying in effect that if
they do not do it they are (a) not going to get the support they
want for the other transport schemes, and (b) not going to have
the effect they want in planning the use of transport. Is that
what you are saying?
(Professor Begg) Yes. We do not think it is possible
to reduce congestion in the long run, and I will define that in
a minute, simply by throwing more money at infrastructure, whether
it is roads or indeed public transport. We think good public transport
is a real prerequisite and has to happen, but we think the danger
is that if you take a snapshot in 2010 then it might be possible
for them to reduce congestion by their measure.
444. How long will it take to introduce it?
(Professor Begg) They could do it by 2010. The worry
is that if you look at the lead-in time of most of these infrastructure
projects, they will be struggling to get them in by 2010. It is
a brave assumption they have made. You know the figures. The Light
Rapid Transit extension in Manchester out to the airport went
through public consultation in 1995. Even with a fair wind that
is not going to be open until 2007. That is 12 years. If you look
at the Birmingham northern extension, the road, I know that was
difficult because it is a PFI, but that first went out for consultation
in 1985. The Government will only achieve its objective of getting
all this infrastructure if they are successful in cutting through
an awful lot of the red tape and bureaucracy, the delays. There
is a question mark about whether they will do that. Even if they
do deliver on the infrastructure improvements that they are planning,
especially the road element of the programme, that will have an
impact on reducing congestion by 2010.
445. How will it impact on multi-modal studies?
We have got groups who are looking at multi-model studies to integrate
transport. If we bring congestion charges in is it going to impact
on their studies? Have you given consideration to that?
(Professor Begg) We have. In fact the Government have
made it clear that they want multi-modal studies to look at charging
as being an option as well.
446. But they have not said to you very specifically,
"This is central to the Plan"?
(Professor Begg) No, they have not. What we are all
crying out for is a lot more clarity here on what they are trying
447. I find congestion is not just confined
to towns and city centres. We are now finding congestion on motorways
at peak times, particularly out of and into London. How would
you address that? Would charging alter that or do we build ourselves
out of congestion?
(Professor Begg) To put it into some sort of context,
over 80 per cent of all congestion in England is in the urban
conurbations. You are absolutely right to identify the area where
it is growing fast and that is on motorways, because a lot of
our conurbations are approaching saturation point in terms of
congestion. You will find that at the peak hours in most British
cities there is not much change in traffic volumes over the last
ten years, and that is because we have started to hit saturation
point. People say, "I am not going to bring my car in because
it is too slow and I cannot move it", but on motorways there
is still a bit of room for some expansion. The danger is that
if you try and build your way out of it it is a bit like the heroin
addict's last fix. It makes you feel good but it is not sustainable.
You just do not keep on doing it. You have to get out of that
habit. We would argue that while building extra road capacity
on the trunk road part of the network could reduce congestion
by 2010 if they shorten the timescale, what we are fascinated
by is what will happen by 2015 and 2020, how quickly will the
roads fill up, what generation factor have the Department assumed
for the extra road space built? We would be on the side of those
who say that it is important to try and reduce this never-ending
growth in the demand for travel in Britain.
448. Professor Begg, can I go back to some of
the sensitivities in the Plan? Looking at some of the assumptions
on which the Plan is based, one example would be the fact that
the assumption is that unregulated rail fares will rise by RPI.
There are some strong assumptions within the rail traffic areas
we discussed. Have you as an organisation taken a look at the
sensitivities across the board and come to conclusions about the
risk factor that one or either of these moving wrongly could throw
the whole Plan out of kilter?
(Professor Begg) We hope to produce some sensitivity
analysis on this. The other assumption is that the economy will
continue to grow at the rate it has. That is going to have an
absolutely critical bearing on the growth in demand for road traffic
in the future. There are a whole number of assumptions that predicate
the forecasts that are in the 10 Year Plan. Yes, we will be starting
to unpick those. We do have concerns about public transport fares.
449. One of the other areas of concern is the
headline figures, that when you strip out inflation, when you
strip out routine repairs and maintenance which appear to be buried
in the overall headline figures, the amount left for capital spend
does not seem to be particularly great by historic standards.
Is that the case?
(Professor Begg) I think it is the nature of politics
that there is a tendency sometimes to exaggerate how much money
has gone in. I do not think this Government are any different;
at least I do not think they are but you may challenge me on that.
I do not think the 10 Year Plan should be ripped up. We view it
as a step in the right direction because it is good to have that
length of plan for transport because of the gestation period on
these projects. Other people will say that future governments
can do what they want, but committees like this can hold them
to account and say, "You are going to spend a lot less than
was forecast". Our analysis shows that if the Government
deliver on the 10 Year Plan they will be spending 50 per cent
more on transport in real terms this decade as opposed to the
last decade. In that sense it is a step change.
450. In terms of the balance between private
and public there is clearly a very significant amount (perhaps
more within rail than within roads but roads are still two to
three billion pounds' worth) of private sector money to be found.
What assessments has your organisation made of the plans, the
ways, the opportunities to raise that money and do you believe
it will be achievable within the time frame?
(Professor Begg) It is a bit early to make any assumptions
about whether the Government are going to hit their targets on
private finance. We would concede that the early signs on rail
are of some concern. If you look at the figures the interesting
thing about rail is that a lot of the private sector finance is
front loaded. A third of the private sector finance going to the
railways is supposed to be delivered over the next three years.
This plan was worked out pre-Hatfield, pre-Railtrack in administration,
so most of the informed commentators would conclude that there
is now a question mark about whether that amount of money is going
to be delivered. We are not in a position to say how much we think
will be delivered yet.
451. On congestion, we have seen a number of
examples over the course of our enquiries over the months of question
marks emerging about whether current congestion levels are going
to be eased. It seems to be that all the projections say that
there is going to be an increase in travel over the next ten years.
Do you believe that the increases in capacity on our different
transportation networks that could be delivered by the 10 Year
Plan could keep capacity ahead of where it is today or are we
struggling even to keep up with where we are?
(Professor Begg) Is this capacity relative to traffic
growth? Is this road intensive?
452. Road intensity, rail passenger usage and
(Professor Begg) The 10 Year Plan infrastructure investment
on the road network is focusing on the congestion hot spots. The
Department would argue that they will see quite big reductions
in congestion because of the extra capacity that they have provided
at these points. Our concern is how sustainable is it? What is
the extra traffic that is generated as a result of that? I think
that is a key issue that we need to probe. Let us assume the Government
are right and all their assumptions are right. On their measure
of congestion it will fall by six per cent. What will be the figure
in 2015 and 2020?
453. Lastly, multi-modal studies. There is considerable
effort going into multi-modal studies around the country, something
like £30 million being spent on them all. Their conclusions
have not yet been taken into account in the 10 Year Plan. We have
talked about the time frame to get things done. Is this effort
in multi-modal studies actually going to be worthwhile in the
context of the 10 Year Plan?
(Professor Begg) There is no doubt that the multi-modal
studies are complex and they add quite a bit of time to the process.
I would defend them on the basis that a number of us have been
calling for road and rail investment to be assessed on a level
playing field for some time now on the basis that we felt that
the system has been biased in the past towards road investment.
We would welcome the multi-modals. However, what you are starting
to address is a concern that we have, and I gather that your Committee
has too, that if there is a ring-fenced budget through the Highways
Agency for roads, and there is no such ring-fenced budget for
anything that is coming out of the multi-modals on rail, how are
they going to be funded? If a lot of the rail investment is predicated
on private investment and that is certain, but the Highways Agency
programme comes out of taxpayers' money and that is more uncertain,
will that mean that the roads element kicks in much earlier? We
have concerns about phasing, how this is going to be sequenced.
We would express some alarm if the Government were to pursue the
road build element of the programme in advance of the public transport
improvements, the rail improvements kicking in.
454. Skill shortage is identified within the
industry as a whole. Do you think the skills shortage is such
that it can actually stop the 10 Year Plan from happening?
(Professor Begg) We do. If you were to have interviewed
me six months ago I would have put most of the emphasis on finance,
but the evidence that we are gathering now is that it is the physical
resource constraint which is greater than the financial resource
455. In which particular areas?
(Professor Begg) A number of different areas. There
is a chronic shortage of bus drivers. This kicks on to local authorities
tender costs. What happens is that the bus companies will pool
routes. They are not uneconomical, a lot of routes; it is just
that the rate of return is too low. What they do is that they
take drivers off the low return routes and put them on to the
high return routes and the local authorities have to pick up the
pieces. For train drivers the market has forced up their wages
considerably. One of the reasons for that is that the supply of
train drivers has been curtailed. This is why the National Rail
Academy is to be welcomed. If you look at local authorities they
are struggling to spend a lot of the money. I do not have an answer
to this but a question that interests me is, are we going to spend
£180 billion in the 10 Year Plan? When people say, "Is
it enough?", my first question is, "Can we make sure
we have these physical resources in place to make sure that we
are going to spend that given amount of money?".
456. What are the things you identify then?
Lack of highway engineers? Lack of local authority staff, planners?
What are we talking about?
(Professor Begg) All of them. Planners at local level,
engineers at local level, signal engineers on the railway. I had
not appreciated that 18 months ago a third of all the signal engineers
on the railway were laid off. They had no work to do because Railtrack
were not spending any money. The ones that are employed just now
have got about five months' worth of work. We have to do something
about this pretty urgently. Government just cannot turn on the
investment tap and, hey presto, there are all these people ready
to work. The other thing that I have started to appreciate is
that we have driven down wages an awful lot in transportbus
drivers are a classic case in point but engineers tooso
we cannot compete with the private sector. That is because we
always tend to go for lowest cost tender. If we go for lowest
cost tender they compete on wages, which is why the Highways Agency
have started to say, "We want to see how you are actually
going to attract skilled people in to deliver on this project".
If you look at the Midland mainline extension to their franchise,
they have actually said that they are going to set up a customer
relations operation to make sure that they have got skilled people
457. So it is dire in other words?
(Professor Begg) I would not say "dire".
I think it is a serious concern if that is any different from
"dire". I think it is.
458. Okay. To take you back to another area,
you were talking about local authorities applying constraints
to stop private cars and the like entering the cities as a necessary
condition of success on congestion, and yet local authorities
obviously have to maintain vital town centres and traffic is mobile
and can go to out of town centres. Do you visualise delivery of
the local transport plan requiring increased powers for local
authorities or more restraints of a planning kind on out of town
(Professor Begg) My judgement on this is that local
authorities are now starting to get the financial resources and
they have the powers, but the problem is that it is a difficult
political challenge for them to re-allocate road space from cars
and give it over to buses and the increase in parking charges.
It is very difficult. I can see in a lot of places why it would
be judged as not being popular. We are convinced that the vitality
of a lot of our retail centres will be threatened if we continue
to become more car dependent because we are still focusing too
much in this country on moving vehicles rather than people. There
is a limited amount of road space available to get people into
city centres and there is a finite limit on the number you can
bring in in cars without having an occupancy of 1.2. When we look
at Europe, the really successful retail centres are the ones that
have really excellent public transport taking large numbers of
people into the centre. If you look at London, for example, from
a retail point of view London city centre is doing very well despite
high parking charges and a limited number of parking places.
459. Could I turn your attention to cycling?
I am a little concerned to hear that I am twice as likely to be
killed if I am a cyclist in this country as I am in Denmark, the
Netherlands or Sweden.
Chairman: So you are thinking of leaving?
Miss McIntosh: Not yet. Motor cyclists, mopeds
and scooters are five times more likely to be killed here than
in, say, Finland or Italy. How do you think we can achieve the
targets that have been set?
(Professor Begg) I need to declare an interest here
because I was knocked off my bike two weeks ago by a white van.
Miss McIntosh: Not guilty.