My new book published on 1 September is one in a series of short books on policy and economics topics described as ‘essays on big ideas by leading writers’. My contribution is a critique of the inconsistencies of transport policy in recent decades, which I attribute to the shortcomings of conventional transport economic appraisal in identifying the benefits that arise from investment. A column in The Spectator magazine of 26 September described my book as ‘excellent throughout’. My book, Travel Fast or Smart?, is available both in print and as an ebook from Amazon Books.
The National Infrastructure Commission has issued a report on the corridor connecting Cambridge to Oxford via Milton Keynes, in response to a request from the Government for proposals to optimise the potential of this knowledge intensive cluster that competes on a global stage.
The Commission’s national remit does not extend to housing. Nevertheless, its central finding in the present study is that a lack of sufficient and suitable housing presents a fundamental risk to the success of the area. Investment in infrastructure, including enhanced east-west transport links, can help to address the challenges, but it must be properly aligned with a strategy for new homes and communities, not developed in isolation. This means local authorities working in partnership, and with national government, to plan places, homes and transport together.
The Commission recommends that planning for the East West Rail route and the Oxford-Cambridge Expressway should be taken forward urgently, as investments that will deliver substantial national benefits and, if designed properly, can provide the foundations for the corridor’s long-term prosperity: unlocking housing sites, improving land supply, and supporting well-connected and sensitively designed new communities, whilst bringing productive towns and cities closer together.
The Commission’s recognition of the importance of planning transport investment to unlock land for housing and to facilitate access to employment is very welcome. However, the orthodox approach to transport economic appraisal focuses on time savings to travellers, which is unhelpful in making decisions about best value for money in this context. A new approach to appraisal is needed.
The Commission’s recommendations for strengthening rails links within the corridor are more persuasive than those concerning road improvements. Increased road capacity in an area of housing development would result in roads filling up with commuter traffic, consistent with the maxim that we can’t build our way out of congestion. Conventional economic appraisal of road investments does not distinguish between benefits to different classes of road users – commuters, long distance business, freight etc. Yet such understanding is important if road investment is not to disappoint.