This morning’s publication of Sir Peter Hendy’s Union Connectivity Review – Interim Report gives an early indication on emerging thinking.
It also sets out the challenges and potential pitfalls of trying to predict the future of transport, with elephant traps already in place from a factual and political viewpoint.
Reports of this nature always tend to have longish titles and, whether rightly or wrongly, get shortened to their author’s name.
So, it is the ‘Hendy Review’ in much the same way as the 1963 report The Reshaping of British Railways is best known as the Beeching Report.
In some ways, Sir Peter is being asked to do similar things to what the then Chairman of British Railways, Richard Beeching, was.
While the underlying aims are different – Hendy’s to make things better; Beeching’s to find a way of returning the industry to profitability as soon as possible in the face of falling traffic and the failure of the 1955 Modernisation Plan – both had to start from the same point: Set out what the current world is like.
At 61 pages, Hendy’s interim report, can’t contain much – that’s not the point of it – but it does reveal the shifting sands of transport and how external factors can have unintended consequences, or be hard to accurately predict.
In the ‘terms of reference’ given to Sir Peter by Transport Secretary Grant Shapps last October, one objective is to “consider likely future transport need and technological development in the long-term, which the government defines as the next 20 to 30 years.”
That’s a tough call, but if anyone is best placed to attempt this, then with his background running all of London’s transport; including the 2012 Olympics and now his role as Network Rail Chair, then it’s Sir Peter and his six-strong advisory team. Having real front-line experience of this nature is an invaluable asset.
Shifting sands of transport trends
But simply choosing one of the best people for the task, doesn’t help with the shifting sands of transport use.
A key example is the section in the interim report about ports traffic, which has shifted substantially since the last available figures, due to Covid and Brexit.
Brexit’s minefield of complex customs forms and inspections have seen new ferry services from the Republic of Ireland to France, while use of the UK as a ‘land bridge’ has declined.
It’s a subject that noted Ireland commentator Jarlath Sweeney covers in this week’s CV Focus podcast. It’s not just about customs, but also speed, and here the ‘land bridge’ could not be beaten pre-Brexit; vital for perishable goods.
The statistics for sea links between Ireland and the UK, and the UK and France are now a fast-moving feast. Also, we don’t yet know what the effect of storms will be on new services, so it is too early to see what the longer-term sea freight trends will be.
By the time the Hendy Review is published this summer, it might still be too early.
Amid all the projection about what might happen to transport flows, there are some facts we do know, and trends that are unlikely to change unless politicians make tough decisions.
This is the environment and the road to net zero – another aspect that is required to be considered.
While road-based transport has become cleaner on a per-vehicle basis, the rise in traffic has negated this so in actual terms the graph has flatlined. Making predictions based on what we know, for example the 2030 ban on new petrol/diesel cars/vans, is relatively straightforward.
Against all of this is something that is out of gift of the Hendy Review, which can only inform and advise: Politicians.
The interim report exposes existing divisions. Devolution has been successful in terms of transport, but not for connectivity between the four nations (the whole point of the review).
Folk in transport have long known that, whatever Welsh politicians would like to believe, there is little demand for North to South Wales transport – by any mode, passenger or freight.
Residents and businesses in North Wales look to Chester and Manchester, while those in South Wales look to Bristol and Gloucester.
There have been plenty of previous studies showing this, so it’s not news.
That a historical political border puts an artificial construct around transport planning, is something that isn’t top of politicians’ agenda. Wales isn’t immune to this.
While the Irish Sea creates a water border and our geography means that Carlisle and Newcastle at the biggest places south of Glasgow and Edinburgh, makes for different dynamics.
At a local level we’ve seen this for years.
Who should control Manchester?
Witness the 2020 spat between Stockport and the rest of Greater Manchester (of which it is politically a part) over The Greater Manchester Spatial Framework.
It’s also about what local politicians want. For Greater Manchester’s elected Mayor Andy Burnham, it’s about getting as much money devolved and ‘control’ over everything.
In a seminar on Monday (8 March) with The Institute for Government, ‘control’ was a word he used repeatedly.
He is very proud that the region has just taken control of Horwich Parkway station, near Bolton, although it is unclear what the exact passenger benefits of this will be, or indeed anything else of which he wants control of.
After five years as the elected Mayor, it’s hard to see what he has achieved for transport.
Any failings, it would appear, are not his fault but due to the ‘lack of control’ and therefore Westminster is to blame. That was the over-riding impression from his appearance at the seminar.
And there lies the rub. Whatever politicians may wish for, if they are lucky they might see something within five years if they take almost immediate action.
It’s a point that Leon Daniels succinctly makes in his forthcoming Lunch with Leon podcast with Sara Sloman, (to be published on Friday 12 March) as he recounts his first meeting with newly-elected London Mayor Boris Johnson.
Last June, now as Prime Minister, Boris Johnson announced his plan to “carry out a study of all future road, rail, air and cross-sea links between our all our four parts of the UK.”
Renewing past promises
Part of a major speech about the economy and his ‘new deal’, delivered at Dudley College of Technology, he inadvertently revealed how governments are a hostage to fortune when he said: “When did a government first promise to dual the A1 to Scotland? It was 1992. Well this government is going to do it.”
That 1992 promise, made by the Conservative government, was in an equally high-profile announcement and followed its 1989 Roads for Prosperity White Paper. The promise was to upgrade the whole of the 396-miles A1 from London to Edinburgh.
The only section that was delivered was 12 miles of motorway south from Peterborough to Alconbury. As a side note, it was built under a ‘design-build-finance-operate’ PFI scheme that expires in March 2026, with a ‘shadow toll’ system. Whatever the merits of this are, the result is one of the country’s best-designed and maintained roads.
The transport minister at the time, Steven Norris, later admitted that he “saw first-hand the difficulty in implementing the Roads for Prosperity programme.” In his foreword to a 2012 Campaign for Better Transport report ‘Going Backwards’, which is still well worth a read today, he sets out the problems. (Download link below)
An area of current conflict is the M4 corridor in South Wales, which the Hendy Review has identified as among the top nine ‘key concerns’.
In short, the M4 around Newport/Cardiff is heavily congested and a plan to upgrade it or build a relief road was rejected by Welsh politicians who want to see traffic reduced, not encouraged.
The South East Wales Transport Commission (the Burns Commission) recently reported to the Welsh Government on the subject.
Hendy is clear: His review “does not operate in a vacuum” and he lists nine other current transport-related reviews, including the long-awaited 2018 Williams Rail Review.
We know that the final report was been delivered to the DfT last summer, but it is yet to be published by Rail Minister Chris Heaton-Harris.
Essentially to report and recommend on a way forward on passenger rail franchising, it’s been largely overtaken by events – Covid and the subsequent renationalisation of rail – demonstrating how reviews are often a hostage to fortune.
Advisors can only advise. Ministers decide.