We live in a world of hyper states—countries with enormous populations that are increasingly making their weight felt on the world stage as their living standards rise. China, India, Brazil, Mexico and Indonesia are no longer sleeping giants. They are taking their place in the economic premier league. And they are spending on infrastructure.
For advanced countries with medium-sized populations like the UK, the challenge is to maximise our economic potential and achieve growth. We cannot waste whole areas of the country by consigning them to second-tier status.
We cannot tolerate the situation in which the north of England, the Midlands, Scotland and Wales forever trail behind turbo-charged London and the southeast in terms of productivity per job filled. Our 67m-strong population needs to fire on all cylinders, so we can be the biggest economy in Europe by 2050.
This is where transport comes in. If we are going to build economic strength, we must better connect our country—digitally through broadband, but also physically. The pandemic has taught us to work remotely on a scale not seen before. But, to borrow from Mark Twain, I believe that reports of the death of physical interaction are greatly exaggerated. Humans need to meet. The best ideas come through face-to-face encounters. Naysayers imagine that the low use of public transport during the lockdowns is here to stay. I don’t believe it. Better railways, roads and air links will help relatively neglected areas of the country join in, not just as dormitories for city powerhouses but as attractive sites for sunrise industries.
If we are to make these homes of old industry into resurgent centres of green growth—as is happening with the hydrogen transport hub being created on Teesside—we in government must install the plumbing through which goods, ideas and commerce flow.
As Conservatives, we shouldn’t pick the winners of the future, but we must make sure businesses can flourish wherever they choose to be located.
Government is the ultimate facilitator and strategic target-setter. Our forthcoming transport decarbonisation plan will be the most radical of any major developed nation, encouraging research and development in vehicles, batteries and cleaner fuels to reach net zero by 2050.
Before Covid, our railways were some of the busiest in Europe. We must not only nurture them back to that state but improve them. HS2 will shrink journeys between the north, the Midlands and the capital—the flagship project in a constellation of new builds and upgrades that will enhance the network bequeathed by the Victorians.
Our strategic road network is being constantly upgraded and equipped with the charging network that will allow the UK to transition to electric vehicles. The government has already supported the installation of over 23,000 public charging devices. We have also announced £1.3bn to accelerate the rollout of charging infrastructure, including rapid charge-points on motorways and major A-roads to cure “range anxiety,” as well as on-street and workplace ones. Airports in Cornwall, Scotland and Wales will soon be joined by spaceports for small satellite launches.
Our improved transport arteries must bind together the four members of the UK family. Total reliance on the traditional cost-benefit analysis for transport infrastructure reinforces existing success and entrenched failure. We have to break this cycle.
We are expanding the infrastructure for “active travel”—what non-bureaucrats call walking and cycling. We envision half of all journeys in towns and cities being taken that way by 2030. To get there we are investing £2bn over five years, with over £200m already provided to councils.
If, through such initiatives, we build on the transport foundations of our ingenious ancestors, our best days as a nation will still lie ahead.