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Is a new UK-wide transport strategy the answer to fast recovery?

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Is a new UK-wide transport strategy the answer to fast recovery?

The government’s pan-UK approach to transport, laid out in its recent report on union connectivity, is refreshing. But, Marta Santamaria argues, the report overlooks some important considerations to enable resilient and flexible infrastructure for the future.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson proposed a significant investment in pan-UK transport links to lead the way to recovery and growth. For this, he commissioned Sir Peter Hendy, Chairman of Network Rail, to review the problem of Union Connectivity. The interim report was released in March. It outlines what the UK transport network may look like in the next 20 years, after gathering evidence from a wide range of sources including governments, industry and the general public.

The central goals are to level up parts of the country that have been ‘left off the transport map’ and to improve connectivity across nations. The review considers the current weaknesses of transport by rail, road, air and sea. A few of the priorities are to strengthen the cross-border rail network further than HS2, to upgrade road connections across nations, especially between England and Scotland, and to reduce passenger duties on domestic flights.

The pan-UK approach of the review is refreshing. Domestic travel and transport are extremely important. Furthermore, given the geographic nature of the UK, upgrading links across nations also improves connections to the main international ports and airports, most of which are in England.

Unfortunately, the review overlooks some important issues.

1) No post-Brexit response: There are only two mentions of Brexit in the report (in the introduction). This is disappointing. My recent research with Jaume Ventura and Uğur Yeşilbayraktar has found that country borders in the EU reduce trade across regions by 80%, and we can expect this number to increase once tariffs or other non-tariff barriers are in place.

As the PM pointed out, ‘it’s currently quicker to get a train from Cardiff to Paris than from Cardiff to Edinburgh’. For the last 50 years, the UK’s infrastructure supported fast cross-continental trade and travel. If demand for travel and transport between the EU and the UK falls after Brexit, as expected, the infrastructure network will have to be reshaped or may become obsolete.

2) Lack of global vision: After Brexit, the UK will have to reach out for new partners and strong international corridors. As mentioned, domestic infrastructure also connects the country to international markets, firms and travellers. For instance, transport through UK ports is made up of 80% of international goods that, after entering the country, are distributed across the regions.[1] Who will be the UK’s new trade partners and how will goods and people travel? Investments should consider which traffic flows are likely to grow to make sure these port, airport and rail connections are upgraded.

3) Connectivity trumps environmental protection: The strong emphasis of the review on road and air shipping could leave train connectivity behind, potentially making the transport system less environmentally responsible, as already pointed out by transport experts.

The UK is living through unprecedented global and national changes. To the uncertainty left by Brexit we must add the global pandemic that has changed how we live, move and work. Some of these changes will stay after we have overcome the COVID-19 crisis. These extraordinary times require not only a forward-looking plan but also a resilient and flexible approach.

Transport infrastructure investments are costly and long-lasting. Decisions taken today will likely shape the regional distribution of activity in the UK for decades to come. History has shown us that infrastructure plans can be made irrelevant by unexpected shocks, as I show in a recent study on West Germany’s infrastructure response to the division of the country in 1949. In addition to the post-COVID economy and Brexit, the UK must respond to growing support for independence in Scotland and Northern Ireland. If more borders were to be established in the UK, failing to adapt the transport network to the new geography could entail large income costs.

It will be crucial that the cross-national plan takes a global view and considers connectivity to international markets so that the UK is not left isolated. Only a resilient and flexible transport system will remain valuable in the future, bringing about the desired recovery and growth for everyone.

Marta Santamaria, University of Warwick

Further Reading

Santamaria, M. (2020) ‘Reshaping infrastructure: evidence from the division of Germany’, CAGE working paper (no. 456)

Santamaria, M., Ventura, J. and Yeşilbayraktar, U. (2021), ‘Borders within Europe’, CAGE working paper (no.560)

[1] Page 28, Union Connectivity Report – Interim Report- March 2021.