Stuck on the slow track to Europe

Britain's uncoordinated, underfunded approach to transport policy is ba d for business

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Asked why he did not consult French settlers in Algeria before deciding on his policy of disengagement, General de Gaulle responded: "When you plan to drain a swamp, you don't consult the frogs."

The same principle underlay French transport planning for many years. As a result, autoroutes were built with minimal planning delay and high-speed TGV tracks were driven across open countryside. Generous compensation payments eased the way, and France now has a fast rail network of which we can only dream.

But the swamp-draining era is drawing to a close: TGV Provence is bogged down in planning disputes. And everywhere in Europe governments face tension between the need for a transport infrastructure to support competitive business and public resistance tothe environmental disruption which the construction of such an infrastructure brings.

The only difference between the Germans, Dutch, French and ourselves is that, from a business perspective, the others resolve those tensions more effectively. Business satisfaction with the transport infrastructure is measured in the World Economic Forum's Competitiveness Report. On that measure, the UK ranks tenth of the old EU 12 on roads, eighth on rail and fifth on both air and port infrastructure. These ratings were struck before the sharp cuts in last year's public spending plans. Since then, business confidence here in the Government's transport policy has slipped further, if the evidence of the CBI's regional councils is any guide.

One reason for the difference in business attitudes in Continental Europe is straightforward: other European governments have spent a higher proportion of GDP on the transport infrastructure. In the 15 years to 1990, UK investment was little more than half the European average. The gap narrowed in the early 1990s, but has begun to widen again. Railway investment has been particularly low. Over the past six years, it has been running at a quarter of the French or Dutch figure, and less than 20 per cent of the German.

But the sheer scale of investment is not the only difference, or even the most crucial one. In transport policy, as elsewhere, businesses crave certainty. In other European countries, long-term infrastructure plans, once agreed, are carried through. Here, each annual public expenditure round produces a new forward strategy. Over the past five years the road programme has followed a confused traffic-light sequence: green, amber, red, amber and now firmly on red (until next time). Total spending on the transport infrastructure was cut in the last Budget by almost 30 per cent from one year to the next, a far larger cut than that experienced by any other spending programme.

How do other countries manage to do it better? Surely they face the same fiscal and environmental pressures? The answer, in a study of transport policy in Germany, France and the Netherlands which the CBI publishes today, seems to lie in two deeply unfashionable words: strategy and consensus. The three other governments, whose policies and practices we studied, set explicit strategic objectives for policy. They articulate the aims of transport policy oriented around forecasts for demand, and how those increases should be accommodated.

A key policy priority in France, for example, is to "assert the position of France in European and worldwide competition". In the Netherlands, policy is designed explicitly to serve the country's "engines of growth" - the port of Rotterdam and Schiphol airport. Last week's announcement of the all-cargo rail link from Rotterdam to Germany is a sign of that strategy.

This does not mean that policy-making in the three countries is perfect. Plans sometimes fall behind schedule and policies fail to deliver. But there is a greater will to reverse these shortcomings when they do occur, as can be seen from the ambitious future investment plans which the three governments have in place. That will is driven by a fundamental belief in the economic importance of developing good transport links.

Transport policies are also more explicitly linked to the notion of sustainable economic growth. In the Netherlands, the departments of transport and environment share the same policy aims. Other countries also develop intermodal strategies. The Dutch government argues that transport policy should be increasingly characterised by an integrated intermodal approach, both nationally and internationally. That approach includes a policy to develop short-sea shipping between Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany.

But a strategy is only of value if its implications are widely understood and accepted. The three governments thus seek to develop a consensus around those objectives, and proposals to meet them. Regional and local governments have a greater role in shaping and delivering transport policies than they do here. In Germany, the national infrastructure plan is debated and agreed by both houses of parliament. In France, the 22 regions sign five-year transport infrastructure contracts with Paris.

Consultation with business and public opinion is also better developed elsewhere. As a result, long-term transport plans are accepted and understood as commitments. Businesses believe that the programmes within them will be pursued, on the timescale set out. They can plan accordingly.

Here, there is no overall transport policy presented for public consultation and agreed in Parliament. Each iteration of the road programme emerges from a private debate between the Treasury and the Department of Transport. Even rail privatisation first emerged as a white, rather than a green, paper. As a result, the logic of rail privatisation is still only dimly understood in the business community.

The Government is paying a price for this highly centralised and secretive approach. With greater public understanding of objectives and policies, it becomes easier for governments to build long-term commitment to improving their transport infrastructure. That is the case in France, Germany and the Netherlands.

Here, the links between environmental and transport policies are hard to discern. The Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution delivered itself late last year of some trenchant observations on transport policy, which seemed to come as a surprise to the Department of Transport. While some of the arguments in the report were valid, it is a curious body to be setting strategic aims for transportation, more especially since business representation on the Royal Commission is very thin.

And there is little sign, yet, that we have properly addressed the link between our own infrastructure and that of the rest of Europe. It may be that 1995 will see the start of work on the Channel Tunnel Rail Link - just a decade too late.

There are strong signs that Brian Mawhinney, the Transport Secretary, has understood the nature of the problems he faces and the need for a fresh start. He has called for an active national debate on transport policy. That is a positive step forward. Buthe should be under no illusions about the difficulty of the task he faces. Business confidence in transport policy is very low indeed.

Unless the Euro-sceptic thought-police prevent him from so doing, he would do well to consult his colleagues in Europe on how they address the problem. He might even give Neil Kinnock a call.

The writer is director-general of the Confederation of British Industry.

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