WE are chronically short of capacity of transport of all kinds in our country. That is true in the North as well as the South; in the East as well as the West.
I am particularly optimistic about the UK economy once we leave the European Union – above all, because I look forward to spending the £12bn a year that we currently have to send abroad.
Spending that money at home will mean that jobs and activity come from it. That generates more tax revenue but also, above all, takes some of the intense pressures off the public budgets that have been particularly acute since the banking crash and the big cuts made at the end of the previous decade.
Those cuts by the outgoing Government were particularly harsh on capital investment in things like transport. We all look forward to these budgets easing a bit and to the extra tax revenue that growth would bring.
But growth also brings the need for more transport investment. We need investment in road and rail capacity to catch up with all the additional houses, jobs and business investment that there has been over the past 20 years.
Looking first at rail capacity, I urge Ministers to spend what are obviously limited budgets on two particular priorities. The first is digital signalling.
We run only about 20 trains an hour on the very good track networks that we already have. We could easily get up to 25 – a 25 per cent increase in capacity – with modern digital signalling, and probably go well above that if we developed and improved the technology.
We could also put in a few bypass links of track where we need more of those because we run a mixed railway and it would be better to have more places where fast trains could safely overtake slow trains providing a local service. That would deal with a lot of the capacity problem.
Producing extra capacity by building new tracks is expensive and causes environmental problems, and people are not keen to have new tracks going past their front windows or back doors. I urge Ministers to concentrate this money on where we can get the quickest and cheapest results, which is through much better control systems and new types of rolling stock with the right ratio between carriage weight and braking capability so that we can run many more trains an hour.
We then come to road capacity. We particularly welcome the idea that councils are being invited to establish, with the Government, local strategic highway networks. Those council-controlled roads will be part of a wider scheme that allows access to bigger sums of money so that the roads can provide some kind of back-up or alternative to the main national highway network of motorways and trunk roads.
My local councils are working on that and are keen to be part of the bidding process, because we need local networks of main A-roads that have more capacity, better junctions, safer junctions and more ability to route cars and vans from place to place so that people can get their children to school, go about their business and carry on their work by using road-based transport to make their day more efficient.
We also need to ensure that the main highway network is well managed by the state, and I hope future smart motorway programmes can be done a bit faster and a bit cheaper. The current programmes are clunky. They are desirable, but it seems to take rather a long time to get the extra lane of a smart motorway into use.
I also hope the Transport Minister and his colleagues will look at sea transport. We have some potentially great ports – they are good ports already – so let us have a free ports scheme for those who would like to promote more industry and development adjacent to the ports. Let us make sure there are better road links into the leading ports, and let us see what we can do about coastal shipping.
That could be a good way of relieving some of the intense pressures on the coastal highways, which leave a lot to be desired on many parts of our beautiful coastline.
Please, Minister, we need much more capacity. Let us try to spend the money more wisely, and let us move quickly to a world in which we have more money to spend.
John Redwood is a former Cabinet minister and is the longstanding MP for Wokingham. He spoke in this week’s Commons debate on transport. This is an edited version.