Is there a government policy for our national road network? If there is, where do we find it? What does it say on such matters as adequacy of capacity, performance of the network, future investment, how it should be funded and who should own and operate it?
Ascertaining government policy on any subject is often like piecing together a jigsaw but we all know that, when a piece is missing, it is more difficult to work out the rest of the picture, particularly when it is not on the edge.
The sky in the picture may lie in election manifestos, speeches at party conferences and consultations. Below the horizon the image may be made up of press releases, White Papers, Ministerial statements and speeches in Parliament, answers to Parliamentary questions, responses to reports and inquiries, Ministerial decisions, Bills and subordinate legislation.
The DfT website is a help. If, for example, you click as follows: Home>Transport Topics> Legislation>Nationally Significant Infrastructure Projects, you reach a page which explains the new consenting system of development consent orders under the Planning Act 2008.
The page is silent, however, on one of the foundations of the new system: the publication of a National Policy Statement (NPS) against which new transport projects can be judged without being hijacked by debates on what the policy is or should be.
The Act was passed four years ago and came into operation on 1 March 2010 (or four Secretaries of State ago). The present government is now half way through its Parliamentary term and has its third Secretary of State. Yet, in all this time, all we know is that the Government intends to include all surface transport in one ‘National Networks’ NPS. No draft NPS has been published; nor is it expected until 2013 (see below) and yet it was first promised to be published in draft in Autumn 2009. By then, it may have to be retrofitted to accommodate decisions that have since been made, rather than influencing whether, or on what terms, those decisions should have been made.
To service adequately the new system, the NPS needs to be of practical benefit to the transport industry – not written in the language of Sir Humphrey Appleby. It needs to give genuine guidance as to the acceptability in policy terms of new infrastructure without necessarily being project specific.
At a time when the Government regards new infrastructure as an important means to stimulate much needed economic growth, we look forward to our latest Secretary of State, Patrick McLoughlin, delivering on this overdue NPS for roads and other surface transport.
No doubt Mr McLoughlin will shortly be appearing before the Transport Select Committee for the first time since taking office. Perhaps the committee would seek clarification from him on this responsibility not yet discharged by his department? The transport sector will welcome a positive response.