Select Committee on Transport, Local Government and the Regions Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witness (Questions 440 - 459)



  440. It makes sense but what do you do about it?
  (Professor Begg) We try and get over to Government that the reality is very different.

Andrew Bennett

  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.

Mr O'Brien

  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 proactive.


  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.

Mr O'Brien

  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 to do.

Mr O'Brien

  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.

Chris Grayling

  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 so forth.
  (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.

Dr Pugh

  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 constraint.

  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 transport—bus drivers are a classic case in point but engineers too—so 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 coming in.

Dr Pugh

  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 development?
  (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.

Miss McIntosh

  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.

previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2002
Prepared 22 March 2002