Good transport can do great things - it can change our lives and our country for the better. That’s why this coalition government is fully focused on building a modern transport system - one that connects our communities and supports our businesses, one that is safe and reliable, affordable and accessible. And, of course, we are determined that such a system will also play its part in contributing to the government’s climate change goals.
If our transport networks are to achieve all these ends then first, last and always, they have to be sustainable. But the nub of my argument is this - if we are to achieve genuine transport sustainability, then we have to think of it as three dimensional, something solid and real.
What are these dimensions? In essence, sustainability has three prongs: economic, social, and environmental. And it’s that ‘three part sustainability challenge’ I’d like to speak about today.
Let me first deal with the economic component of this challenge.
If anybody asked me to sum up the legacy bequeathed to the new coalition government, then I’d probably choose one word - ‘un-sustainable.’ We inherited unsustainable levels of borrowing and spending which, together, added up to unsustainable levels of debt.
Well you can’t build a sustainable future for transport on the quick-sands of debt - in truth, living beyond our means is not, and never could be, a recipe for a successful and properly resourced transport system in the UK. And that’s precisely why this government is taking urgent action to put the public finances back on track.
The latest milestone on our road to fiscal discipline will be the publication today of the spending review. And that review is much more than an announcement of departmental budgets - it is a programme for economic sustainability.
So - what does that mean for transport as we move forward?
Well, it means squeezing every ounce of value out of existing assets.
It means finding innovative ways of funding expenditure and attracting investment.
And it means making a rigorous cost-benefit case for each and every infrastructure project and proposal.
It also means moving away from the top-down command and control system that has characterised government in Britain since the 1940s and giving power back to individuals, families and communities - what we call ‘localism.’
These are not just common sense responses to the inherited debt crisis - they are the hallmarks of a genuinely sustainable transport system.
The second dimension of transport sustainability is social.
If access to transport is limited, if it’s too expensive or the level of services provided is poor, then barriers can arise that prevent the least-advantaged in our society from taking part in key social activities and accessing essential public services.
But, by ensuring the social sustainability of transport, you can break down these barriers. For example, when transport is socially sustainable:
- you can take the kids to school, and pick them up again, without having to rely on a car
- you can get yourself and your loved ones to the GP or the hospital
- you can hold down a job - or even get to the interview that wins you that job in the first place
- you can journey to, from and around a rural area just as easily as you can an urban conurbation
- and regardless of your age, physical ability or social background, you can use a value for money public transport service that gets you to where you want to go, and brings you back again - quickly and seamlessly
To put that more succinctly - at its best, transport is a vital rung on the ladder of social inclusion.
So far I’ve argued that, when it is economically and socially sustainable, then transport can generate wealth and spread prosperity, reinforce community cohesion and open up life-changing opportunities.
But I also recognise its impact on the environment we all share, especially in terms of CO2 emissions and also on air quality and quality of life - and, that means transport must also be environmentally sustainable. Indeed, for me, this is perhaps the most important and challenging dimension of the three parts of transport sustainability.
I make no bones about it - I regard a low carbon future as the only future for Britain. What I reject though is the argument put by some that modernising transport, generating growth and safeguarding the environment are incompatible. They are not. With the right policies and the proper balance these ambitions are mutually reinforcing, not mutually exclusive.
In my view, if we want to make real and lasting progress towards environmental sustainability then we need to recognise that a cleaner, greener future can never be built through coercion, or by government dictating which particular mode of transport people should use.
Our goal must be to persuade, encourage and incentivise. And, to do that, we should use all of the policy levers at our disposal to make low carbon travel a genuine, viable and attractive choice for businesses and ordinary citizens.
But there’s something else we have to do. And that’s tap into the potential of the greenest travel option of all - namely not travelling. From video conferencing to the innovative use of the internet I sense that we are on the verge of radical changes in how we organise our working day and our personal lives - changes that will mean less travelling and less pollution.
Policies and programmes
A strong economy, a fair society and an environment that’s respected and protected - this is the prize offered by a truly sustainable transport system.
But to deliver that sustainability, to make it a reality, you need an effective framework of policies and programmes. And that’s exactly what this government has got.
The way we appraise and prioritise is especially important. I’ve said before that we will reform the way that transport projects are prioritised in England - so that schemes offering the best carbon efficiency and value for money are fully recognised. The revised approach will be launched after the spending review.
Now in speaking to you today about our policies and programmes I could have pointed to our commitment to light rail as a flexible, adaptable and reliable form of public transport.
Alternatively, I could have mentioned our efforts to work with industry stakeholders to de-carbonise road freight.
I could have discussed our grants of up to £5,000 to stimulate the market and encourage the purchase of electric and ultra-low carbon vehicles - an investment that would help to cut the running costs for drivers and businesses, as well as shrink their carbon footprint.
Or, I could have highlighted our belief in Crossrail - a rail infrastructure project this government regards as a significant growth generator, with real economic benefits that will be felt far beyond London.
I could even have talked about our commitment to a high speed rail network - one with the potential to radically improve Britain’s strategic connectivity in a way that both re-balances socio-economic development and makes an important contribution towards meeting our environmental objectives by encouraging a modal shift from long road journeys and short haul flights.
But, instead, in what remains of my speech, I’m going to focus on something that runs through, and cuts across, each prong of the three part sustainability challenge - our new Local Sustainable Transport Fund.
Local Sustainable Transport Fund
I’ve already touched briefly on the key role of localism in transport. Well, we have recently announced our plans to underpin our localism agenda with our ‘Local Sustainable Transport Fund.’
This government’s belief that transport is integral to supporting economic recovery, advancing social mobility and tackling climate change is reflected in our decision to establish this new fund.
We want to cut the congestion that gets in the way of jobs and business.
We want to encourage people to make more journeys by sustainable, carbon-friendly modes of transport - from walking to cycling, from car-sharing to public transport.
And we want to see better air quality and a cleaner environment, improved safety and healthier communities.
I believe that our new fund can help local authorities and local communities to secure all of these benefits. It really does have the potential to be a game-changing innovation.
But there’s another important aspect of this new fund that I want to highlight - namely that it is part of our efforts to simplify the myriad of funding grants that have been issued for various projects and purposes in the past.
This system was centralised, bureaucratic and inflexible. It was synonymous with an out-dated, top-down, Whitehall-knows-best culture.
So let me be clear - we will not be setting conditions as to what schemes we are prepared to support through the fund, provided they are affordable, deliverable and meet the high level requirements of helping the economy and cutting carbon. There is no set menu.
Instead, it will be for local authorities - working in partnership with their communities, with neighbouring authorities, transport providers and transport users, health service organisations, environmental groups and local people - to decide on the right solutions for their area. Solutions that will be efficient, effective and sustainable - solutions informed, shaped and driven by localism.
I started my speech by arguing that transport sustainability was anything but a single issue concept. It’s about our environment - certainly. But it’s also economic and social too.
That’s the three dimensional reality of transport, and delivering in each of those dimensions is the sustainability challenge we face.
Will meeting that challenge be easy? Definitely not. It will be tough and it will be testing.
So can we succeed? Absolutely yes - with fresh thinking, news ways of working and the right policy solutions it can be done.
But success will also require partnership working.
And when I say ‘partnership’ I mean it. From the town hall to Whitehall, from the business community to wider civic society and from the high street to Downing Street - I want to see partnership for a purpose, partnership for progress.
And believe me, both as a local councillor and as a Minister, I’ve come to learn that this kind of partnership working isn’t some path of least resistance taken by politicians just to make life easier - it’s actually the best way to achieve goals, realise ambitions and get results.
Okay, if there’s one thing you learn pretty quickly in my business it’s that the tribute, ‘I wish they’d gone on longer’ is rarely paid to a public speaker - especially a politician.
So it just remains for me to thank you for listening, to wish you a great conference, and to say that I look forward to working with you all to meet the sustainability challenge in the months and years ahead…thank you.