18th July 2021
The DfT has published its 220-page Transport Decarbonisation Plan.
The document is published as double page spreads that would work well as a physical brochure - but how many people will be reading one of those? I don't know how to get hold of a physical copy of the report.
When reading on a screen, either you put up with tiny print, or you make it larger and have to scroll side-to-side as well as up and down - a really painful reading experience.
This government is constantly in campaign mode, pumping out propaganda, and boasting ad infinitum.
The Transport Decarbonisation Plan is no exception. It's always telling us that what the government is doing is 'world-class' or 'world-leading', whether that is true or not. My plea would be this: just stop it. Please produce a serious, sober plan, containing facts and commitments, and without all the boasting and blather.
Apart from anything else, boasting is bad manners.
Another aspect of the propaganda is shoe-horning the fatuous "levelling up" and "build back better" catchphrases into the document every few pages.
Now on to the substance. As it's a very long and wide-ranging plan, I'll concentrate on cycling and walking, and planning new developments.
The Foreword by the Secretary of State for Transport says some of the right things and some of the wrong things. It doesn't amount to a coherent whole that would give people confidence that the DfT is committed to taking effective measures to decarbonise transport.
"It’s not about stopping people doing things: it’s about doing the same things differently. We will still fly on holiday, but in more efficient aircraft, using sustainable fuel. We will still drive on improved roads, but increasingly in zero emission cars. We will still have new development, but it won’t force us into high-carbon lifestyles."
Well one, that won't work. We know that it's impossible to decarbonise transport without driving less. And two, many of us don't want to go on the same way, with motor vehicles dominating the places where we live, work and shop.
Later on, Shapps says we have to avoid a car-led recovery, and that he wants to reduce urban road traffic; it's about using cars less, not giving them up completely.
That sounds good even if it contradicts the earlier passage, but then Shapps' department is pushing on with spending £27 billion on new main roads, so the actions don't match the rhetoric.
The big finale, the firework display at the end of the show, is this: 'Our job is to ensure that [transport] changes for the better, not the worse.' Call me underwhelmed.
The Introduction says that transport amounted to 27% of UK emissions in 2019 - the largest single source of greenhouse gases. Transport emissions have remained flat for the last 30 years. On the one hand, engines have become more efficient, but on the other hand, SUVs have become more and more popular.
So you think, right, coming up on the next page, urgent measures to deal with SUVs. But no, nowhere to be found.
The DfT admits on p.29 that simply switching to electric vehicles won't be enough to meet its timetable for decarbonising transport. The plan says that mode shift to walking, cycling, and public transport will be needed, as well as higher car occupancy (which isn't going to happen).
This is backed up with statistics about how harmful the current transport system is: the social cost of urban road noise is £7 to £10 billion a year, and the costs of obesity to the NHS are predicted to reach £9.7 billion a year by 2050.
There's a nice graphic to emphasise the point about modal shift.
But once again, you have to look at the actions, not the words. £27 billion is going into new main roads, and only £2 billion (which isn't actually £2 billion, more of which later) to cycling and walking.
The situation is that the DfT knows that car journeys need to be reduced, but it is spending an eye-watering sum increasing capacity on the road network, which is dead certain to increase traffic.
We're not seeing a department that is confronting a hard choice; it is fudging and ducking it. We're not getting honesty from the DfT; it's telling us one thing and doing another.
One commitment on cycling and walking is to deliver Gear Change, investing £2 billion over 5 years in cycling and walking.
Part of the government's propaganda strategy is to think of big numbers and repeat them endlessly, and £2 billion is one of those numbers. Is it honest, though?
£2 billion over 5 years is £400 million per year, yet the Active Travel Fund has been much less than that in the first two years.
|Year||Amount Promised Per Year||Amount Allocated|
That means there is catching up to do in the last 3 years, but who believes that will happen?
Maybe the government is counting money from other funds?
The rest of the text under that commitment simply repeats all the information already published along with Gear Change.
There's no need for the "world class" catchphrase to be wheeled out again here. A conscientious, competent job is all that needs doing. Will we get that?
The text says that all large towns and cities will have a comprehensive walking and cycling network by 2040. This includes infrastructure with physical protection from traffic, and school streets.
It's a good ambition, but it won't happen at the present rate - nowhere near. Harrogate has had one single cycling improvement in the last 7 years (Beech Grove, and even that is not confirmed as permanent). North Yorkshire has no school streets at all. There's stuff in the pipeline, but there's no urgency, and not enough resources are being put into it.
It's a good heading, at least.
This is about the planning system, which is an unmitigated disaster in Harrogate, with car-dependent housing developments all around the edge of town, and no active travel infrastructure. That's not just our present, it's our future over the coming decades.
This is what the Plan says about place-based approaches under the current planning system.
'We have already seen many improvements that this place-based approach can achieve. These include supporting levelling-up across the UK, reducing congestion in areas where it is a barrier to productivity, bringing extra capacity to greener public transport, improving health and wellbeing by making places more pleasant to live and work in and supporting jobs to deliver our future transport needs.'
Transport Decarbonisation Plan, p.147
If that's true at all, it's not true in Harrogate.
A commitment mentions funding of £12 billion (big number alert!), but that appears to include the £2 billion allocated to cycling and walking (which as already discussed is almost certainly not £2 billion).
There's also talk of a £4.8 billion Levelling Up Fund and a £4.2 billion City Region Sustainable Transport Settlements fund. I have an open mind about these funds - maybe they are genuine, and not a re-announcement of money already announced.
Local authorities' LTPs will have to set out how they are going to deliver quantifiable carbon reductions in transport (p.151). Future local transport funding will gradually become dependent on reducing carbon emissions, so that's a good thing if implemented rigorously.
This is what the document (p.156) says about current developments.
'Traffic issues have often caused opposition to housebuilding. There is a legacy of developments that give people few alternatives to driving, are difficult to serve efficiently by public transport and are laid out in ways which discourage walking and cycling. Developments which are planned to minimise car use, promote sustainable transport choices, and are properly connected to existing public transport could help make new building more publicly acceptable.'
p.156, Transport Decarbonisation Plan
The word "legacy" is highly misleading. Car-dependent developments are being built throughout Harrogate District right now, and no developments that discourage driving are under construction. This is not a legacy - this is the present and the future.
The Conservative Party receives large donations from the house building industry. The Conservative Party has made proposals to in effect abolish planning permission - legislation that will be very much in favour of developers, and against the interests of local people. It looks very much as though housing developers are paying the piper and calling the tune.
The Plan expresses a vague hope that ripping up the planning system will somehow make future developments more sustainable in terms of their transport links.
'A reformed planning system can assist in achieving the ambition of a zero emission transport future. The planning reforms will provide an opportunity to consider how sustainable transport is planned for and importantly how it is delivered to support sustainable growth and drive more sustainable use of our existing built environment e.g. planning for new development around existing transport hubs, for all developments to be easily and safely accessible and navigable by foot and cycle, and to make existing cycling and walking provision better. Through good design and proper consideration of the needs of our communities, we can better connect people, making communities more accessible, inclusive, safe, and attractive as well as promoting the principles of 20-minute neighbourhoods. We are working with the Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government and the Local Government Association to place cycling, walking and public transport provision at the heart of local plan making and decision taking for new developments. In doing so, we recognise the particular challenges faced by rural and remote areas in this regard, and will work, including through the upcoming Future of Transport: Rural Strategy, to ensure policies recognise differing geographies.'
P.157, Transport Decarbonisation Plan
It seems highly unlikely that a developers' charter put into law by the Conservative Party will somehow improve the active travel situation in new housing developments, but let's hope that miracle happens.
The Plan says that the DfT is working with the Ministry for Housing, Communities & Local Government to try to move the planning system away from a 'predict and provide' model and towards a 'vision and validate' way of thinking. This should mean planning for what you want to achieve, not just guessing how many cars there will be on a road and making it wide enough to accommodate them.
Active Travel England is due to be set up this year, and it will be a statutory consultee in the planning system.