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Infrastructure blog

Why England needs a national transport strategy

03 July 2023

The ICE’s latest policy paper shows how a national strategy can help deliver a more sustainable and equitable transport network.

Why England needs a national transport strategy
A strategy would ensure that regional and national goals are aligned. Image credit: Shutterstock

Transport has a key role in ensuring the UK’s future economic, environmental and social prosperity.

England is the UK’s largest nation. But it doesn’t have its own transport strategy – unlike Scotland and Wales.

Instead, its fragmented system of responsibilities for transport makes aligning investment with the UK’s wider strategic goals difficult.

And those national objectives aren’t being achieved at the pace needed.

The National Infrastructure Commission has warned that constraints on transport infrastructure are holding back productivity and quality of life in large cities and towns.

Transport also remains too carbon intensive.

But, the UK’s progress on delivering net zero has also slowed over the past twelve months.

Earlier this year, the ICE launched a consultation on whether England needs an overarching strategy for how it plans and invests in its transport network.

The resulting policy position statement draws on evidence received from the consultation and sets out recommendations to strengthen transport planning.

1. England needs a national transport strategy

Our policy paper recommends developing a national transport strategy for England.

This should clarify the wider economic, social and environmental outcomes transport should help deliver.

Relevant national and subnational bodies can then plan and invest in infrastructure and services accordingly.

This would help accelerate a shift in how investment decisions are made, moving from a focus on economics to giving more weight to the wider societal benefits of projects.

It can also improve delivery by clarifying the strategic need for major infrastructure projects from the outset – reducing the risk of lengthy reviews that cause delays and increase costs.

2. But there’s a strong case for a UK-wide strategy

In the UK’s devolved landscape, it’s more practical to start by developing a national transport strategy for England.

England already has a range of modal, regional and local transport strategies.

These would benefit from a clearer strategic framework that defines the wider outcomes the government is seeking to achieve.

But there’s a strong case for a UK-wide strategy as well. Journeys don’t stop at national borders.

In 2021, the Union Connectivity Review (UCR) looked at how the UK’s key transport corridors could be strengthened.

However, the government hasn’t yet responded to its recommendations.

A future review of a national transport strategy for England could also revisit the case for a UK-wide strategy.

3. Vision-led planning to prioritise projects

A national transport strategy can help accelerate the shift to vision-led transport planning in England.

There’s a need to rethink how people and freight will travel and guide movement in more sustainable and equitable directions.

A strategy should set out an overall vision for England’s transport network.

This should be supported by principles that help decision-makers assess the trade-offs between different modes of transport and prioritise investments.

In Wales, transport planners must take account of the national well-being goals set out in the Well-being of Future Generations Act.

This has changed how decisions are made, for example in relation to road building.

4. Clarifying roles and responsibilities

In England’s fragmented system, many bodies are involved in transport planning and infrastructure delivery.

Creating clarity about roles and responsibilities will help avoid duplication, enhance cooperation and optimise delivery.

An overarching vision could also help advance devolution in a strategic way.

A national strategy would ensure the regional work being done by subnational transport bodies (STBs) and others is aligned with national objectives.

But it would still mean STBs have the flexibility to plan and deliver services based on local needs.

And it can provide a framework for ensuring those bodies have the necessary funding, powers and capacity to support national objectives.

5. Being agile and managing uncertainty

A timeframe of 30 years would set a long-term strategic vision for modal and regional plans to aim for. It would also align a strategy with the 2050 net zero target.

However, ensuring any long-term strategy is robust to political and economic change is difficult – particularly in a complex devolved landscape.

Agility and the ability to manage uncertainty will be critical to the longevity of a strategy as circumstances evolve.

Five-yearly reviews would enable a strategy to respond to changing circumstances and be tested against scenarios for transport growth and other variables.

Next steps

Embedding a national transport strategy into the fabric of England’s devolved landscape and the myriad of existing modal and regional strategies will be a challenge.

However, the ICE’s consultation indicates strong support for developing a strategy.

A new framework can help end the cycle of transport investment decisions that are blinkered, funded in the short term and disconnected from wider social, economic and environmental outcomes.

But there are questions that need to be addressed to develop and implement one.

These include governance, advancing devolution, and integrating transport with land-use planning and other infrastructure systems.

The ICE’s call comes as the Transport Select Committee announced a new inquiry on strategic transport objectives on Friday.

The new inquiry invites experts to submit evidence to inform how the government sets transport goals.

The ICE will continue to engage with policymakers and other stakeholders on the recommendations in our paper and how to address these issues.

Read the policy position statement

  • David McNaught, policy manager at ICE