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Norman Baker’s speech to Liberal Democrat Autumn Conference

September 19, 2011 6:38 PM
Originally published by UK Liberal Democrats

Don't be alarmed. It's not a new Lib Dem policy. It's actually the advice given in 1903 to Henry Ford by the President of the Michigan Savings Bank.

That wildly wrong assertion is perhaps bettered only by William Preece, the Royal Mail's Chief Engineer, who in 1878 grandly stated: "The Americans need the telephone but we do not. We have plenty of messenger boys."

Clearly prediction is very difficult, especially about the future.

So where does that leave transport policy? Well there are perhaps some certainties that can guide us.

The first is that people want to travel, and as incomes rise, they want to travel further and more often.

The second is that good transport infrastructure is essential to a well-functioning economy.

The third - and before some wilder elements on the far right object, yes this is a certainty - climate change is upon us and there is a need to drastically cut carbon emissions, including from transport, which accounts for around a quarter of the UK's emissions.

So a sound transport policy might usefully be summed up in four words: "Creating growth, cutting carbon."

And that's exactly why those four words form the title of the government's local transport white paper which I launched earlier this year. And why those four words guide our transport policy generally.

And let me make this clear - it's not growth OR carbon reduction. We can have both.

That's why I have been keen to see major investment in rail - good for the economy and lower in emissions than car or plane. In fact, despite the very difficult economic position we inherited, the Department for Transport is today overseeing the biggest rail expansion programme since Victorian times.

Crossrail is going ahead in its entirety. So is the Thameslink project, or Thameslink 2000 as Labour called it until it became too embarrassing for them to do so.

We have committed to a major and ongoing programme of electrification, in the north-west, down to Oxford and Bristol, and to Cardiff. No longer will Wales be the only country in Europe bar Albania and Andorra to have no electrified railway. Indeed, we are also investigating the electrification of the Welsh valley lines.

Major station upgrades worth over two billion are proceeding, including of course Birmingham New Street. £370 million has been set aside for the Access for All programme, sweeping aside the obstacles that make life difficult for the disabled person or the mum with a pram.

We are proceeding with the acquisition of 2700 new carriages - real ones this time, not Labour's phantom carriages - to replace clapped-out rolling stock and ease overcrowding.

We are even finding funds for key local projects like the redoubling of the line between Swindon and Kemble, for which Martin Horwood still owes me a drink, and the installation of the Ordsall Chord linking Manchester's Victoria and Piccadilly stations, so slashing journey times between Liverpool and Leeds.

Of course all this investment costs money, so regrettably rail fares are still going up. That is not to say that bargains can't be had - they most certainly can. My ticket from London to Birmingham cost me just £10.80. But that cannot hide the fact that we are still seeing regulated fares rise by more than RPI.

It is clear from the McNulty report that there are huge efficiency gains to be wrung out of Network Rail. We are already acting to realise these, which will release billions of pounds. I want that money to be returned to the railway, in more investment and yes, returned to the passenger.

I want our railway to be available for all. Just as soon as the public finances allow, we must end the era of RPI plus.

In the meantime we must drive further improvements to the rail network. As Minister for rail performance, I know only too well that there are far too many occasions when trains are shunted off on a Sunday and replaced by buses. Network Rail needs to be far smarter when it comes to engineering works. We don't see anything like this level of disruption in other European countries.

We also need to tackle the serious problem of cable theft which is causing major disruption not just to the railways, but to the motorways, the coastguard service, the telecoms industry and much more besides. The cost to business is enormous.

So this week six government departments came together to tackle this. We have agreed a strong action plan to deal with this highly organised crime. Why should the travelling public have their journeys wrecked by these people? Make no mistake. We are determined to deal with this scourge. No option is off the table.

Of course there is one really major scheme I haven't yet mentioned - HS2. We in the Department for Transport are promoting a new domestic high speed rail line, north from London to Birmingham, then on to Leeds and Manchester, and I hope thereafter to Glasgow and Edinburgh.

You know, most of the good ideas in politics come from the Lib Dems, and the response from our opponents is always the same. First they ignore our ideas. Then they rubbish them. Then they adopt them and say they thought of them first. So it is with high speed rail.

Well I very clearly remember John Thurso strongly advocating high speed rail at our conference about 10 years ago when he was our party's transport spokesman, and it is good that all three parties have now bought into the vision. It is perhaps fitting that John's grandfather, Sir Archibald Sinclair, was the last Liberal to be a transport minister before me.

Let me be clear why we need HS2. There are three reasons, the most important of which in my view is the desperate need for more capacity north-south. You know, we now have more people travelling on the rail network than at any time since 1929, and on a network around half the size. Furthermore, rail has proved to be recession proof with numbers rising every year bar one over the last 20 years or so.

Even after the £8.8 billion upgrade to the west coast main line, some trains - local or freight - still cannot find a path. Nor can we sensibly upgrade that line further. It would cause massive disruption to services, cost a fortune, and affect far more people than HS2 will. So we need a new line, and it is then only a marginal extra cost to make it high speed rather than conventional speed.

The second reason is economic development. Evidence from other European countries is that high speed rail reaches the parts other transport modes can't. We need to ensure prosperity is shared round the country, not just concentrated in London and the south-east.

Thirdly, there will be carbon gains arising from modal shift from domestic air to rail.

I recognise, of course, that those who live close to the proposed line are somewhat less enthusiastic about the idea than the rest of us. I recognise there are understandable concerns at the London end in particular. But along the line and particularly through the Chilterns, I do believe that the Department for Transport has taken great steps to minimise both noise and visual intrusion. That of course has not stopped some of the alarmist horror stories in the press. But those of us with long enough memories recall similar stories when HS1 was planned to run through Kent. I suggest those worried about the impact of HS2 might take some reassurance from how HS1 has turned out.

So the Lib Dems are delivering on rail - big time.

But we're also delivering on light rail too. Since the election we have confirmed funding for extensions to the Manchester Metrolink to Ashton and to East Didsbury, and given the green light to scheme extensions in Nottingham and here in Birmingham. And earlier this year I announced funding for a tram-train trial between Sheffield and Rotherham which if successful, could open up exciting new possibilities for integration between the two modes right across the country.

Light rail presses many of the right buttons - it is popular with the public, clean and low in carbon. But in recent years scheme costs have often spiralled out of control.

I want light rail to grow. That's why I have commissioned work to examine how the capital costs of light rail could be both reduced and made more predictable. So I can announce that tomorrow I will be publishing a new report, entitled Green Light for Light Rail, which analyses exactly these issues, followed by a high level tram summit to take forward the report's recommendations. And I am initiating a consultation on the thorny issue of the interface between utilities and light rail. If we can crack that, we can make some real progress.

Of course, in our enthusiasm for rail, we need to remember that the majority of journeys in this country are made by car. And if we are going to meet our challenging carbon reduction targets, we need to decarbonise the car. So we have been supporting R&D on future vehicles. We have launched the Plug-In car grant to give up to £5000 off the purchase price of an electric, plug-in hybrid or hydrogen-fuelled car. And we are rolling out our electric charging points and working with the private sector to expand the network still further. 15% of drivers now live in an area with charging points.

I am confident that we are on track to cut carbon emissions from cars very substantially over the next 20 years, and with it our dependency on imported fossil fuel, as Chris Huhne's investment in renewables bears fruit.

But cars - clean or dirty - can still cause congestion, particularly in our urban areas. And nobody wants congestion in their town. But now here's a fact. Half of all car journeys are less than five miles in length, and nearly all car journeys to school are less than two miles. These journeys lend themselves to modal shift to cycling or walking.

So an integrated approach to local transport in our towns and cities can ease the congestion, cut the carbon and help business by making our urban areas more pleasant places to be. I was in Bavaria for my holidays last month and saw town after town where there was virtually no traffic in the historic core. Yet the pavements were bustling and the shops teeming.

Now we are pushing forward with such an integrated approach, through our new Local Sustainable Transport Fund which I was delighted to be able to launch. A fund worth £560 million. A big sum, but justified by a hard-nosed analysis. Because money spent on good local transport schemes really does create growth and cut carbon, and does so quickly.

The fund has been very well received by local government, with every eligible council in England applying, except for the Isles of Scilly. Already I have been able to hand out over £155m to the successful bidders in tranche one, with tranche two to follow next summer.

The successful schemes will boost cycling, encourage walking, support buses, help with the integration of different modes, and our roll-out of smart ticketing, and much more besides. Smart ticketing in particular is popular with the public and has the ability to increase markedly the use of public transport. So I have set a target of December 2014 by when I want to see the majority of transport journeys undertaken by smart ticketing technology. And we are on track.

Of course I recognise that the recent local government settlement has been challenging for councils. So we want to do our bit at the DfT to help. I have already referred to the Local Sustainable Transport Fund, but we are doing more.

I am looking at the way Bus Service Operators Grant is delivered to see if that can be improved. And I made available to local councils an extra £10 million to help kick-start community transport in their areas. On the roads, we are providing more cash to local councils for road maintenance over this four-year spending period than the last government did. And we are funding special research in this area to help identify best practice when it comes to road maintenance and will make our findings available to councils.

I also want to help councils by reducing unnecessary form-filling. You know, one of the first decisions I had to take was whether to approve a road works permit scheme for Northamptonshire. I was astonished. What has this to do with me, I asked my civil servants. If Northamptonshire wants a permit scheme, why can't they just get on with it?

I am now taking steps to take ministers out of such decisions.

But we need to go further. And we are doing. I can today announce that when the House returns next month, I will be laying before Parliament a new Traffic Signs policy document. This will cut pointless form-filling by streamlining Traffic Regulation Orders, cutting time and saving money.

The Traffic Signs review will also end the need for Whitehall approval for special authorisations for a whole range of signs, so councils will for example be able to erect No Entry Except Cyclists signs without having to ask Whitehall first.

I am also making it easier for councils who want to introduce 20mph schemes.

They will, for example, henceforth be able to use painted roundels on the road surface rather than lamppost after lamppost of repeater signs. And the decluttering agenda will also be helped in many ways, particularly by significant changes to the requirements for parking signage.

I would encourage councils to go further and take out redundant signs that are no longer needed. The one at Lewes cattle market which said: "Cattle and pigs turn left" has long gone, as I think has the one that said only: "Do not throw stones at this notice". But there are still lots of signs warning of cattle where cattle farming no longer occurs, and so-called temporary signs advising of events long past.

In recognition of the environmental advances being made, there will be new signs to promote safer cycling and help pedestrians, to discourage HGVs from using inappropriate routes, and to inform motorists of electric vehicle charging points. And in carefully selected locations, occasional signs will be permitted to alert motorists to alternative ways of getting from A to B, for example by giving the journey duration of the parallel rail service. This will help cut carbon and ease congestion on our roads.

Colleagues, cutting carbon, creating growth, reducing bureaucracy, localising decision-making. And implementing Lib Dem policy in spades. It's full steam ahead at the Department for Transport.