Speech

Sustainable transport

This speech was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government

The government's commitment to the sustainability agenda including transport.

I congratulate His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales, Start and IBM for arranging this landmark summit, and in particular for dedicating this third day to the vitally important debate on sustainable transport.

It’s a debate that involves every level of government, from town hall to Whitehall.

And one that affects every community, town and city across the country.

A debate that concerns every business and employer and must engage everyone who has an interest in building a strong and competitive UK economy.

And make no mistake - the coalition government is committed to the sustainability agenda in everything it does, including transport. And of course, addressing the urgent and unavoidable challenges of climate change are a key part of ensuring sustainability. But, as inheritors of a deeply unsustainable fiscal and economic position, we are all too conscious of the fact that sustainability means so much more than simply ‘carbon reducing’.

Sustainable solutions have, of course, first and foremost to be environmentally sustainable. But they must also be fiscally and economically sustainable - affordable to the taxpayer in the long-term and compatible with an economic growth agenda.

And they must be socially sustainable as well - promoting social mobility and recognising the aspirations of the least-advantaged in our society and of the billions of people trying to improve their quality of life in the less-developed nations of the world.

Cutting carbon - as important as it is - is relatively simple. Doing it in a way which supports economic growth, is fiscally sustainable and promotes social mobility and sustainable development is a far tougher challenge. Indeed, one worthy of the deliberations of this distinguished gathering!

It is a little under 4 months since I became Secretary of State for Transport.

It wasn’t the brief I had expected, or prepared for in opposition. It is not an area in which I had any special experience or expertise.

So I faced the disadvantage of a steep learning curve, offset by the huge advantage of no baggage. No preconceptions.

Over the summer, as I have got to grips with my new department and this fascinating sector, and met hundreds of people, throughout the industry, whose job it is to keep Britain mobile, I have become increasingly convinced of the critical role that sustainable transport must play in helping to deliver this coalition government’s core agenda: restoring fiscal responsibility; securing sustainable economic growth; achieving carbon reduction goals and establishing social justice.

And the challenges we face in delivering that agenda are very significant. Over the last few years, Britain has suffered a near-catastrophic breakdown in sustainability.

We have become addicted to unsustainable levels of public borrowing and spending; unsustainable levels of household debt; and an unsustainable failure to integrate economic development with environmental policy.

That is why the coalition government’s clear priorities are tackling the debt crisis and restoring sustainability to the public finances: rebuilding and re-energising our economy onto a path of sustainable growth, and delivering our long-term commitments on climate change in a way that is socially, economically and fiscally sustainable.

And the Department for Transport can and must be at the heart of this programme:

  • contributing to fiscal consolidation through the effective prioritisation of public spending in the transport sector and the vigorous pursuit of efficiency
  • supporting growth by improving the links that move goods and people around our economy
  • tackling climate change through policies which deliver technology and behaviour that will decarbonise mobility as we progress through the 21st century
  • and perhaps most important of all, embedding these changes by moving away from the top-down command and control system that has characterised government in Britain since the second world war and distributing power back to individuals, families, communities and local government - devising solutions to our many challenges from the bottom-up, rather than from the top-down

Having spent the summer thinking about these things, I approach these challenges with a positive outlook: I reject the proposition that we somehow face some kind of stark choice in transport between supporting economic growth and supporting environmental objectives. There is no either/or choice between generating growth and protecting the environment. Because neither growth which undermines our environmental agenda, nor environmental measures that stifle economic growth, will be sustainable in the medium term.

And the technologies are already emerging from the laboratory and onto the factory floor that will help resolve the apparent dilemma. By embracing them - renewable energy, electric vehicle technology, sustainable bio-fuels - we can not only make progress towards our carbon reduction targets, but can also build the basis of a more diversified and sustainable industry, based on these new technologies of the post-carbon era.

That doesn’t mean that technology alone will deliver sustainability: behaviour change will also be necessary - in the short-term because technological change alone will not get us where we need to be fast enough on the urgent agenda of greenhouse gas reduction, but in the longer-term because other elements of a sustainable transport solution - in particular, dealing with congestion - cannot be solved by technological advance alone.

So my team at the DfT is clear, our task in the months ahead is to develop a set of transport policies that will contribute to a genuinely sustainable society: promoting green growth within a framework of local devolution, fiscal stability and social mobility.

We have already made a start.

One of our first actions on coming into office was to cancel the third runway at Heathrow and to make it clear that this government will not support planning applications for further runways at Stansted or Gatwick.

That is not because we are ‘anti-aviation’. Far from it. But it is because we recognise, firstly, that the local environmental impacts of ever-increasing usage of the south east’s key airports outweigh the potential benefits, and secondly, that until technology delivers very significant reductions in aviation CO2 emissions, capacity expansion is simply incompatible with our goals on climate change.

Instead, we will focus scarce airport capacity on maintaining Heathrow’s vital role as a global hub airport.

And by committing ourselves to a high speed rail network - linking the major English conurbations by dedicated high speed rail lines with onward links to Scotland and Wales - we can offer a real alternative to domestic air travel so that, just as flying between Paris and Brussels has all but ceased, rail will become the preferred mode of travel for the overwhelming majority of passengers between London and its hub airport and Britain’s great provincial cities.

We will announce very soon detailed plans for the high speed rail programme, which will be put forward for public consultation in the new year. The first phase will run from London to Birmingham, but we will also set out a clear timetable for the extension of the network to Manchester and Leeds, with onward connections to the north east and Scotland.

And, mindful of the principles of sustainability, our aim will be to balance the benefits of high speed rail to the wider community with the local environmental impacts of the line. Through careful mitigation measures, I am convinced that the most intrusive local impacts can be eliminated and a solution found which is balanced and fair.

So we see high speed rail forming the backbone of one of our key transport networks for the 21st century. And the wider rail network can also play a key role in delivering reduced carbon footprint and greater mobility - but only if we can make it affordable. We have one of the most expensive railways in the world. More expensive to build, more expensive to operate and more expensive to ride on than any comparable system. That is not acceptable. The taxpayer is contributing almost as much as the farepayer - and the farepayer is paying a lot more than his international comparators.

So a sustainable railway isn’t just one which is safe, which is reliable and which is electrified to reduce its carbon footprint. It must also be one which offers value to its passengers and is deliverable with levels of taxpayer subsidy which are affordable in the long-run.

So another key task of my department will be to review and reform the way the rail industry functions. Building on the work of Sir Roy McNulty’s value-for-money study, to drive efficiency in rail investment and operations so that the railway can play its crucial part in delivering sustainable transport for the future.

But while railways have enjoyed a massive increase in passenger usage and a surge in passenger satisfaction with them, we cannot ignore the fact that 84% of all journeys in the UK are made by car. The roads represent our most important network and the overwhelming bulk of our total network assets. For long-distance, inter-urban journeys, our challenge is to make the train the mode of choice. For short-distance urban travel, our challenge is to make public transport or low-impact modes such as walking and cycling the most attractive options. But for intermediate journeys involving complex routing across rural and suburban areas, there is no realistic prospect of displacing the private car through persuasion rather than coercion.

And I do not favour coercion as a solution.

Whether we like it or not, the ability to travel point-to-point on an individually-tailored timetable is one of the great quality-of-life gains of the second half of the 20th century - and not one that people will give up without a fight.

And the good news is, they won’t have to.

After years when the carbon reduction agenda has placed the motorist firmly on the naughty step, we are on the brink of a technological revolution that really will transform the way we see motoring in the 21st century. It won’t solve the problem of urban congestion - which can only be tackled through behaviour change. And it will not, in most cases, make motoring the sensible choice for long-distance inter-urban journeys against high speed rail. But it will allow the benefits that the private car delivers in rural and suburban areas and for medium-distance complex journeys to be enjoyed by future generations, without destroying the planet in the process.

Order books for the first new generation, all-electric vehicle - the Nissan Leaf - opened in the UK this month and the first vehicles will be on our roads early next year. Imported from Japan. But with government’s support, by 2012 they will be rolling off production lines in Sunderland. And others will follow.

The government’s commitment, even in the face of severe public spending restraint, to direct consumer subsidies to kick-start the market for low-carbon vehicles has ensured that Britain is the principle European launch market for global manufacturers. Our Plugged-In Places programme - rolling out public charging infrastructure in London, Milton Keynes and Newcastle - will allow us to gather important information about the way people use electric cars.

Our commitment to mandate a public charging infrastructure across the country will ensure the UK remains in the vanguard of the electric vehicle revolution.

And the plug-in hybrid vehicles being developed both in Britain and abroad, promise a practical solution that will be completely carbon-free for the short trips which make up the overwhelming majority of car journeys, while offering the possibility of greater range when longer journeys are necessary.

The de-carbonisation of motoring, ironically, presents policymakers with some more complex decisions. For the last few years, it’s been easy: rail good; roads bad: the carbon impact of motoring dramatically reduced the measured benefits of road network investment.

But the investments we will make over the coming years from an extremely limited pot of public capital will need to last us not just for a parliament or two but for generations to come. And alongside our plans for a high speed rail network, we must look carefully at where investment in our road infrastructure will make sense in a future of decarbonised surface transport.

And since resilience is an integral part of sustainability, it seems to me to be desirable to have at least two alternative practical modes of transport between any two population centres. Just in case Bob Crow has a son.

The road to decarbonisation will not, of course, always be smooth. The story of bio-fuel perhaps illustrates that truth better than any. Once the great hope for transport decarbonisation, the bio-fuel story has led to early disappointments. And emphasised in spades that sustainability is about the total impact of an activity, not merely the first order effects.

But, depending on the volumes of bio-fuels that can be produced on a sustainable basis, they should indeed provide technical solutions to the mitigation of aviation emissions. And perhaps be able to contribute to decarbonising that element of heavy freight which cannot be moved from roads to rail - the final miles of delivery from depot to high street.

So much for our National Networks. But most journeys, of course, are made not on those national networks, but on our local roads and it is at local level that most can be done to change patterns of behaviour and to create more genuinely sustainable transport modes while stimulating urban regeneration, economic growth and social integration at the same time:

Light rail and tram schemes that link outlying and isolated estates with wealth-creating city centres.

Cycling initiatives that transform peoples’ way of travelling around urban centres.

Attractive, air-conditioned buses running on prioritised routes that have the kind of appeal to passengers that metro systems have traditionally enjoyed.

Smart cards to make multi-modal journeys easy and seamless.

All of these types of scheme, when carefully thought-out and properly implemented, demonstrate extraordinarily high value-for-money. But they all have something else in common: they are essentially local.

That means they cannot be mandated from Whitehall. They have to be devised, developed, owned, promoted and implemented locally.

That is why, as a key part of our local transport agenda, we want to devolve as much responsibility for local transport initiatives as possible to local level. By the end of this Parliament, I want to see far fewer civil servants sitting in my department evaluating, monitoring and appraising transport schemes proposed by local authorities in Bradford, Birmingham or Bristol.

The government is inviting proposals from local authorities to form Local Enterprise Partnerships. My department will seek to work with them, either individually or in strategic consortia, delegating decision making to them to allow them to develop truly innovative transport solutions.

Sustainable local transport will depend on solutions invented in the place it serves. Solutions tailored for the specific needs and behaviour patterns of individual communities.

Addressing congestion, urban regeneration, social integration, road safety, air quality and local environmental and carbon reduction targets as part of a single integrated agenda.

Delivering solutions - not ticking boxes on a government form.

What local communities need is answers to problems, not poorly-designed, 18-inch wide cycle lanes, laid down roads that go nowhere simply to meet some target in a plan handed down from Whitehall.

So - national network solutions, technological change and local problem solving.

But you might be surprised to know that the most innovative change we have made in the Department for Transport in the last 4 months is to introduce a portfolio responsibility for ‘non-travel’.

Promoting alternatives to travel is a key part of the sustainability agenda. And although it has not traditionally been thought of as a transport responsibility, I have decided that we should integrate it into our transport agenda. So my colleague, Norman Baker, is working with colleagues at DCMS, in BIS and in other departments to look at reducing the demand for travel, particularly for business.

Encouraging home working; promoting the use of high speed broadband for both business and leisure purposes and encouraging the uptake of video conferencing as an alternative to long-distance travel.

No, it is not the mission of the Department for Transport to stop people travelling, but unnecessary travel is expensive in environmental and financial terms and, if we can help businesses to understand the opportunities to operate efficiently with a need for less travel, we will be advancing both their agendas and our own.

Conclusion

We face huge challenges in refocusing Britain’s economy to a sustainable future.

Years ago, long before Ireland’s motorways were built, I was driving across that country with a colleague to a meeting on the west coast.

We stopped in a small town in the Irish Midlands to ask directions of an elderly farmer.

“How would you get to Sligo” I asked.

“Well, you wouldn’t start from here”, was his instant reply.

That is sometimes how I feel about the challenges the Coalition faces. But ‘here’ is where we have to start from.

And in transport, we are clear that we have a vital part to play in addressing the challenges of the fiscal deficit, declining economic competitiveness, climate change and social exclusion.

Those challenges call for a genuinely sustainable policy response: A response that recognises the need for carbon reduction, fiscal discipline, economic growth, social justice and genuine localism.

Not one, or some of them, But all of them. Together. In every policy initiative.

In 4 months we have made a start.

But we are under no illusion about the scale of the challenge ahead. But if we want Britain to have a sustainable, prosperous future, there is not a moment to lose.

The time has come to face up to our problems. To get our heads out of the sand. To recognise, and learn from, our past failures. And to get on with the job of building a sustainable future for Britain without further delay.

And that is precisely what this government intends to do.

Thank You.