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Last edited 22 Jul 2020
Lessons for transport
What does COVID-19 mean for future transport requirements, and what lessons can we learn? Speaking at ICE's Presidential Roundtable breakfast, Huw Merriman MP, Chair of the Transport Select Committee, discusses current and future priorities.
 Government priorities
The COVID-19 pandemic has inevitably affected governmental priorities to some extent, but it is reassuring to see that the need for investment in infrastructure remains high on the agenda. In the March 2020 Budget, the Government announced around £640 billion of gross capital investment for roads, railways, communications, schools, hospitals and power networks across the UK by 2024-25. This included the largest ever investment in English strategic roads.
 A focus on transport investment
The current focus on transport infrastructure investment is much welcomed. In 2018, the Transport Committee examined the Airports National Policy Statement (NPS) on expansion at Heathrow. We accepted the case for additional runway capacity and particularly hub capacity - but on the condition that any expansion was sustainable, consistent with legal obligations and included suitable mitigations to offset the impact on local communities. The March 2020 legal ruling and pandemic have further complicated the issue of Heathrow expansion.
While extra investment in infrastructure will be welcomed news to many, policymakers need to think carefully about how this money is phased and allocated. Trying to do too much too soon can cause problems.
Our report on rail infrastructure in 2018 noted that the scale of the schemes in Control Period 5 were over-ambitious and that eventually spending would need to be curtailed. We concluded that electrification should be delivered through a long-term rolling programme, in which the Department for Transport, Network Rail and the wider industry learn the lessons of earlier schemes and strive to reduce the costs. I want to see these lessons learnt. We do not want to see another boom and bust approach to rail investment.
We also heard about the regional disparities in transport infrastructure investment. We urged the Department to work with the Treasury to ensure that economic rebalancing become an intrinsic consideration in transport scheme appraisals. This is all the more pertinent in the context of the current Government’s 'levelling-up' agenda.
Since March 2020, the Committee’s work programme has inevitably been dominated by the implications of coronavirus on transport. Nevertheless, we have continued to examine major infrastructure projects such as HS2, which are clearly of long-term strategic importance to the nation.
One of our first hearings was with the new dedicated HS2 Minister Andrew Stephenson MP who set out his plans for the project, particularly his intention to improve the transparency that has been sadly lacking in the past. We intend to work with the Department for Transport to determine the content of the regularly released progress reports to Parliament.
We will hold a series of rolling programme of sessions through 2025 to scrutinise the delivery of HS2. We intend to hold public hearings every six months, either at Westminster or at different destinations along the route. Getting out of Westminster is important to ensure we can hear directly from local communities—both about their concerns and also the benefits that HS2 can bring to cities, towns and villages across the country.
 Economic recovery
I have no doubt that infrastructure investment has an important role as a stimulus to help recover from the economic impact of the pandemic. The publication of the National Infrastructure Strategy in autumn 2020 - which has been delayed due to the pandemic -will be an important milestone. The Committee will be examining the transport elements of the strategy closely.
This article originally appeared on the ICE Infrastructure Blog under the title, 'What lessons can Covid-19 teach us about transport in the future?' It was written by Guest Blogger Huw Merriman, Member of Parliament for Bexhill and Battle and Chair of the Transport Select Committee and published on 17 July 2020.
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