Wednesday, 6 October 2010

Low Cost and Low Carbon Transport session at the Conservative party conference fringe

Yesterday I went along to the Climate Clinic at Baskerville House to hear the secretary of state for transport, Philip Hammond, answering questions on how we can deliver low carbon transport at low cost (the age of austerity is mentioned everywhere at the moment).

I was hoping to hear something about what's happening to transport funding ahead of the Comprehensive Spending Review to give us an indication of what to expect and how the government will achieve cost savings and to be able to put a question the Philip Hammond myself, but neither of those happened.

I was pleased that the transport secretary does make all the right statements about the need to reduce carbon emissions, even if he doesn't seem to get all the issues, just yet. What I would definitely disagree with him on, is the idea of economic growth and carbon savings not being incompatible. Consumption seems to be so linked to economic growth and consumption = using levels of resources which are environmentally unsustainable on the whole. Also, the government has someone looking at reducing the need to travel as their remit, but this doesn't seem to be in evidence from a lot of the schemes that are going ahead; regional airport expansion, High Speed Rail etc. There still seems to be too much of a feeling that large transport schemes that encourage people to travel more are essential to a good economy.

Philip Hammond is very careful to say that he is “not anti-car, but anti-carbon” and sensibly said some things about which mode of transport was more suitable for which journeys. We agree that in rural areas, there is not always an alternative to the car and it would be very difficult to create an affordable one with such a lack of dense housing. However, there needs to be a lot more ambition in getting people out of cars for those journeys in urban areas, such as Birmingham, where the roads are totally clogged up and many areas have so many cars parked all over the pavements that it makes it hard for pedestrians to walk along them.

He stressed the importance of “greening the grid” for electric vehicles to play a full role as low carbon vehicles, but did admit that we can't make the change quickly enough with technology alone. Quite how he plans to go about achieving the necessary level of behaviour change is still unclear, though.

On land use planning, he said that we need to ensure that we build the homes people want (ones with gardens), not loads of 2-bed flats which nobody wants to live in, as has been the case. Doing this intelligently, and “without restricting people” is part of the solution according to Mr Hammond.

He also spoke about buses needing to change their image (and the people who introduced the meeting had stuff about marketing them for the greener journeys campaign), smart-ticketing across different transport modes and the need for innovative local solutions that are suitable for each area, rather than nationally decided policy.

The other speakers then had a turn – Sir Moir Lockhead from First Group talked more about buses and how they are friends with cars and want to have space for them in the roads, too. He also patted the industry on the back for offering 1million free tickets to people as part of a drive getting people onto buses. No mention was made of the potential cuts to the Bus Service Operators Grant and whether that will stay.

Next up was Edmund King of the AA, who was actually very sensible in what he was saying and quite positive and gave some good stats. He said that 90% of motorists said they would take steps to reduce their environmental impact, 70% of the people who lift-share say they do it for environmental reasons, but more people want incentives for doing it, such as exclusive parking spaces for lift-sharers. He also said that the scrappage scheme had meant 90% of the people switching to smaller, cleaner cars – is that true? He also emphasised the benefits of eco-driving which can reduce the amount of fuel used by 20% and gave the fact that 86% of journeys in the UK are made by car at the moment – another one I'm not sure of – is that true?

Doug Parr from Greenpeace was next and he said that transport is fundamentally different from other forms of carbon reduction because people really feel it in their everyday activity, unlike insulation, changing light bulbs, energy generation etc. he also spoke about oil and the dangers of extracting deep sea oil, as we've seen from the Gulf, and that we should be leaving it in the ground now to avert more environmental catastrophes in colder waters, such as the Arctic and off the coast of Scotland. Another good statistic that he gave is that there is £19 of benefit for every pound spent on walking and cycling initiatives – unrivalled by any other transport investment. I wanted to ask a question of Philip Hammond on this and why the government didn't invest more in it in that case, but wasn't able to do so.

Questions from the floor were asked on various issues while Mr Hammond was still there, including ones on biofuels, hydrogen vehicles, freight facilities for rail and nuclear power. I really wanted to get a question in on HS2 before Philip Hammond left, but the chair, just wouldn't come to me. He left at 7pm, after which there was time for my question, which was “If this is all about low carbon and low cost, why is everyone still talking about building high speed rail, which will not save any carbon and will cost a huge amount of money?”. The chair said “oh controversial question”, yet none of the panel who were left disagreed with me, so it doesn't seem that anyone but top politicians and a few business people really think it's a good idea.

Edmund King said he couldn't understand the reasoning behind it (maybe they'd rashly promised it when rejecting Heathrow) and spoke to me afterwards saying how convenient and easy he found the train for travelling between cities with no need for it to be any faster. Doug Parr was reluctant to rule it out but all the reservations that he gave are ones that the current plans do not meet and where on earth the funding for the transport infrastructure to link in other modes of transport as well as building HS2 is going to come from, nobody seems to have the answer.

Unless we are making the power supply truly green and the rest of the transport system geared to getting people door-to-door, we cannot support HS2 taking people between interchange stations based at airports – that is not low carbon or low cost.

Joe Peacock

1 comment:

BCCubitt said...

We need to to get both politicians and the public to realise the full reality of HS2, the proposed High Speed Rail line. As you know, the Government’s plan is that once stage one (from London to Birmingham) is complete; the new line will then be continued up to Scotland in a Y shape via Manchester and Leeds. Once the full network is in place (from London to Scotland) an area of countryside larger than Manchester will be under concrete because of it. The Coalition Government state High Speed Rail is part of their low carbon economy, but they seem to have forgotten that projects that destroy landscapes are not green, and ultra high speed trains that use three times the power of conventional rail are not low carbon.

Because this proposal is for ultra high speed trains travelling at up to 400kph, the line has to run in a very straight line through tranquil open countryside – including through Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty, SSSIs, watermeadows and ancient woodlands. Ultra high speed trains make more noise, use more power and have a greater impact on the local environment than conventional trains.

It is possible to support High Speed Rail in principle, but be against this existing proposal for HS2. There are alternatives that would cause far less destruction, whilst still producing increased capacity and connectivity. Rail experts Arup, have suggested that any new high speed rail line should travel less fast (300kph not 400kph) and should closely follow an existing major transport corridor (either motorway or rail) – as they do on the continent and indeed in Kent.

The UK is entering a period of massive spending cuts which will affect every person in the country, yet the Government appears to be pressing ahead, at speed, with a massive infrastructure project which will cause untold environmental damage - against the advice of experts in this field. If this is not the right solution, we need to press for a major re-think now before large tranches of England disappear forever.

We need to make the public and politicians aware of the potentially huge loss of unspoilt open countryside, a loss that could be prevented if a precedent was set now that High Speed Rail lines should only run up existing major transport corridors.