Baroness Neville-Rolfe: Government is too slow to deal with the problem of traffic congestion

Posted On: 
17th January 2018

Former Treasury and BEIS Minister Baroness Neville-Rolfe writes following her recent Lords Question on the impact of investment in local roads on traffic congestion and productivity in local areas.

Credit: 
PA

I believe that one of our most important economic tasks as a country is to improve infrastructure – reduce travel times, expand Heathrow, improve the provision of broadband and the like. By increasing the ratio of capital to labour we can improve our poor record on productivity. It is no coincidence that we invest less in improved infrastructure than do many other countries. 

Nevertheless, some important steps have been taken including the £31billion National Productivity Investment Fund set up by Philip Hammond. Even so the rate of movement on infrastructure seems to be too slow. We decided a while ago to proceed with the third runway at Heathrow. If China had resolved similarly diggers would now be on the ground. 

Traffic is my particular focus, because I think it is given inadequate attention amongst policy makers enraptured by rail and cycle lanes. The fact is that 17 million people use the roads to commute to work and nearly all of us use a car some of the time. And yet local roads are a nightmare in too many parts of the UK.  I have a growing list of blackspots as I get about whether on the election trail or in the course of business. These jams must in total be wasting thousands of person years in time. They also create air pollution, allergies and respiratory problems - dreadful for families affected and extremely costly for the NHS.

I refer to Salisbury, Stoke, the A49 at Hereford and many other places where there are virtually permanent traffic jams wasting time and frustrating those trying to go about their business.

The good news is that part of the Productivity Fund is to be used to eliminate traffic blockages. As well as motorway investment, money will be found from 2020 for a major investment in the wider road network including bypasses and road widening to ease congestion. I had a good meeting on this with Roads Minister Jesse Norman, better known for his brilliant biography of Burke and an enticing historical perspective on all issues.

But to return to the main issue, there are two things that are wrong.

First, Government is too slow. Heathrow is not the only example. Housing is another obvious instance. There is a tendency to make political promises, but a risk averse bureaucratic machine, stymied by well-intentioned regulation and rules, finds it difficult to deliver quickly.

Second, there is a problem with rules for challenge funding under which smaller cash strapped councils compete for grants for local roads to tackle congestion. They find it too risky and expensive to prepare the fancy applications needed to bid in this uncertain climate. And the whole challenge process takes time to complete in a fair way.

Speaking as a practical person, if there are institutional constraints that prevent us from moving forward on such issues, then they need to be identified and proposals put forward for simplification. A crumb of recent comfort is the commitment to help local authorities to develop their bidding and delivery capability. Another is the extra delegation to Metro Mayors who may yet prove to be a powerful new force for dynamism.

But my challenge to the Government is to take congestion more seriously, to make the money in the Productivity Fund available more quickly and to move closer to a Chinese speed of delivery.

The Baroness Neville-Rolfe DBE CMG is a Conservative peer