Let passengers decide how to get any place, any time, any way21 August 2009
Britain is a past master at spending money on the wrong things.
The welfare budget nudges up past £180 billion - mostly on a money-go-round that creates a dependency culture. More money is poured into an unreformed NHS, with the political debate surrounding it at an all-time low level.
Meanwhile investment in transport is being slashed - even though Britain's record is already poor compared to other nations.
International evidence suggests that infrastructure spending delivers the most bang for the government buck. Better roads, new rail links and improved airports attract new businesses to an area. They also bring custom and supply to businesses that can grow and thrive. Transport has huge social benefits too.
But transport policy has been a collection of misguided white elephants, a lack of analysis about the best way to spend money and a 'picking winners' approach. Ministers insist on backing high-profile, expensive projects which look good but are rarely the most efficient, appropriate or cost-effective solution.
Road travel, for example, accounts for 9 of every 10 journeys made in the UK - but has around the same level of investment as rail. Politicians' keenness on grandiose high speed rail projects is another unaffordable example, when cheaper and quicker options like lengthening trains are available.
The problem is that politicians are too keen to declare that a given scheme is 'good' or 'bad' on the basis of a single factor, like carbon emissions. They make the case for their preferred projects above alternatives without properly analysing the costs, the benefits and the environmental impact in a fair, consistent way.
The transport system should be changed so people pay for what they use. But as the congestion charging referendum in Manchester showed, people do not want to pay road charges when they already have to pay a fortune in things like car tax and petrol duty. They know it is just another new government money-raising scheme.
To increase fairness, stop wasting money and guarantee Britain's transport will meet future demands, a new 'any time, any place, any way' approach is needed. Ministers should stop favouring one way of travelling over another.
Provided a given project meets the necessary environmental and economic standards it should get the go ahead. This might mean airports as much as rail, given the question marks over high speed rail's green credentials.
In the short term, the massive public debt means we need to abandon white elephants for value for money. Using the hard shoulder, extending trains or developing existing airports are cheaper, quicker options than new build. To get extra cash into the system we must open up to the private sector. If housing companies want to pay for a rail link to their new development, why stand in their way?
User charging, like road tolls, is one part of the picture. But charging should only be introduced if it means reducing another tax on motorists - and the money raised should be ring-fenced to plough back into the transport system.
If politicians will step back and let passengers and developers decide what works, we can safeguard the future of the UK's infrastructure.