We have to re-wire the systems

Speech to Local Transport Summit 2022. Future Inn, Cardiff Bay, 8th December 2022

15 years ago I was working across the road as a Political Correspondent for ITV when I took a punt and left to join what was a then little known engineering charity called Sustrans. I didn’t own a bike, and my move perplexed by mother! “Does it come with a pay rise?” she innocently asked. “No”; “How about a company car?” When I said I was getting a hand-me down fold-up bike she thought I’d lost hold of my senses. 

Being new to the world of sustainable transport, and having the perspective of an outsider, it quickly struck me that the challenge is a structural one. Like lots of practical third-sector organisations, the charity was focused on doing good works, and not on re-wring the system. ‘Why should we have to pay to maintain the National Cycle Network when it is a public good’ was the question often posed by John Grimshaw.  

Why indeed? At the same time the National Assembly for Wales was about to get some limited new powers to make laws and the call had gone out for ideas. And that’s how the Active Travel Act was born. 

Why should Highway Authorities only focus on moving cars around? What if there was a statutory duty to think about pedestrians and cyclists and provide and maintain a network for them too? 

But of course with only 2% of journeys made by bike the issue had what political scientists like to call ‘low salience’ - nobody gave a bugger. So I set about assembling a broad coalition of organisations that represented issues which might offer greater levels of traction – the BMA and RCN spoke to the health benefits,  

The National Union of Teachers gave their endorsement to the educational benefits, BT and Royal Mail added their seal of approval for the benefits of action on congestion and climate action. 

This coalition showed the society-wide benefits of active travel, and the legislation was spawned – the world’s first – now sees every Council in Wales publishing maps of where there are current routes, consulting people on where infrastructure should go, and publishing a map of future aspirations on which funding bids are based. 

It’s not perfect, there’s lots of issues to get right before it achieves its potential, but it begins the work of rewiring – of mainstreaming active travel as a proper travel mode, not the preserve of the eccentrics or the weekend enthusiast. 

I’ve started with this example because I wanted to explain what’s behind my approach as Deputy Minister for Climate Change - You’ll notice that my title isn’t Transport Minister and that’s a deliberate statement of intent by Welsh Government that we need to look at transport through the lens of climate change. What we’re trying to do amounts to a pretty significant package of reform. 

From September all local roads with homes, shops, community centres or schools will have a default speed limit of 20mph; at the same time will be introducing into our Senedd a Bill to franchise the bus network.  

Our reforms will allow us to create One Network, One Timetable, and One Ticket. A different approach to the partnerships with the bus industry being pursued in other parts of the UK, ours draws inspiration from the European model of creating a Guiding Mind to design and run a network of routes that put people before profit.   

As I speak, new trains are rolling off the production lines in Newport and are already in service on the Conwy valley line. By 2024, the vast majority of journeys will be made on brand new trains, half of which will be assembled in Wales.  

This marks an £800 Million investment in creating additional capacity and delivering a much more attractive experience. For too long Welsh passengers have had to settle to cascaded rolling-stock. We are no more the runt of the litter. 

And our Billion pound Metro project is, according to Terry Morgan, the former Chair of CrossRail, the next most ambitious project on the UK railways today. Not only are we building a new railway on top of an existing railway whilst it is still operating, but we are innovating with departures from industry standards to allow bi-mode tram-trains to run on newly electrified lines, and through old tunnels.  

Anoraks will appreciate the significance of that, passengers will appreciate a real step-closer to our ambition of a turn-up-and-go Metro service for Cardiff and its hinterland. Elsewhere in Wales, our plans in the rest of Wales are at different stages of development.   

We have allocated over £50 million to the North Wales Metro over the last 3 financial years. Our Metro schemes will also focus on how we can integrate Active Travel into our existing public transport networks more effectively so that people feel confident to walk, wheel or cycle in their areas, and have safe places to leave their bikes. 

Lord Terry Burns, the former Treasury Permanent Secretary who led a successful transport Commission for the south east is now doing the same for the north.  

Looking not just at main rail and the road corridor across the coast but grappling with how rural areas can contribute to modal shift too. His interim report early in the new year will start a focused conversation on what practical steps we need to take next. I hope to see what we’re now seeing in the south east – a pipeline of schemes being worked up in a joint delivery unit with local Councils, Transport for Wales and the Welsh Government, held to account by a small independent delivery board.  We need to keep that momentum and show people that change for the better is coming. 

Because we have to show people that there is a better way, we can’t just say ‘No’ to schemes, we have to show what else we are going to do. Helping them, by making the right thing to do, the easy thing to do. 

I think we were brave – and we were right – to say No to a new M4 four years ago. And it is not insignificant that when Sir Peter Hendy’s Union Connectivity Review – set up by Boris Johnson in the hope it would give him cover to over-rule the Welsh Government – concluded instead that the approach set out in the Burn report was a better option. We’ve now got to deliver, and the UK Government must play its part in providing the railway infrastructure we need as part of the overall plan. 

We were right, and brave, to set up an independent review of road schemes too. Lynn Sloman and her powerful group of Commissioners have delivered a first-class report to us advising on future roads policy. They have made point by point recommendations on each of the 55 roads schemes that are in the pipeline.  

They already reported on two of them and recommend we cancel them because they are not compatible with Welsh transport policy, planning policy or Net Zero policy. They have similar views on some others, and suggested changes on some more. We are deep in the work of assessing their recommendations and intend to announce our conclusions when we publish our National Transport Delivery Plan in February.  

None of this is easy. 

But for too long nobody in Government in any part of the UK has been willing to challenge the orthodox view that tackling transport emissions is too difficult and too expensive. ‘There are three pillars to sustainable development you know and we can’t trade off the economic one for the environment one’ was what I was told by a senior transport official 15 years ago. That thinking is still alive and well in the world of economic development and transport all across the UK. 

And it needs to be challenged. 

It is worth reminding ourselves of some facts. Since 1990, the base year, we’ve managed to cut our carbon emissions from waste by 64%, industry and business have brought down their emissions by 36%, the same in the energy sector; from buildings we’ve reduced emissions by a quarter, even in agriculture we’ve cut emissions by 10%.  

But transport has decreased the least – just 6% since 1990. 

If we repeat that over the next 30 years we will fail not just our environment, but our economy. This hotel will be underwater by 2050 according to latest climate predictions. The steelworks across the road will not be creating jobs, or steel, when the sea levels rise by a meter or more. We can try and justify sticking to the status quo as much as we like, but we’ll be having the argument in dinghy's. 

None of us want to confront that. I don’t. It terrifies me. And it is human instinct to smooth edges, pull punches and kick cans down the road. The climate science community have for a long time cautioned against alarmist language for fear of putting people off, making them feel powerful. But that is changing. The science is becoming more alarming. And the language being used by the UN Panel on Climate Change is becoming more stark: “Climate change is happening with catastrophic speed – devastating lives and livelihoods on every continent,” said the UN Secretary-General, Antonio Gueterres most recently in Egypt.  

Just yesterday the RSPB in Wales said that one in four birdspecies in Wales were now in ‘serious trouble’. 1 in 4 bird species. It used to be the tree-huggers who talked about ‘planetary collapse’ now it’s the RSPB 

We have got to face up to this.  

17% of our emissions come from transport, and transport must play its part in getting us on to a low carbon trajectory. 

I’ve been at this a while now and I know it is easier to say than it is to do. We are dealing with generations of culture and practice.  

I’m delighted that Prof Phil Goodwin is in the audience. We’ve never met but I’ve been an admirer from afar. Phil has been the vanguard of pointing out the clothing deficiencies of the transport empire.  But rational analysis isn’t enough to budge orthodox thinking.  

And that brings we back to my opening point, we have got to change the wiring. The primacy of car transport is deeply embedded in all aspects of our thinking and practice. The Welsh Government has said the right things for a number of years, our planning policy, Future Wales, is undoubtedly progressive. And yet Carmarthenshire council, for example, has just consented to yet another drive through coffee outlet in an out-of-town location.  

We can’t just write policies, we have to change practice and thinking. And we have to re-wire the systems. 

The Wales Transport Strategy published last year puts modal shift at the heart of our policies. For the first time, we’ve set a target of 45% of trips to be made by sustainable modes by 2040 – that compares to 32% now.  

But the Design Manual for Roads and Bridges prioritises traffic flow; the treasury Green Book insists on monetising notional journey time savings when it comes to transport investments; rather than reduce speeds to save lives, orthodoxy suggests we upgrade highway design to increase capacity and allow faster speeds under the guise of road safety.  

There are multiple of examples of this where the system has been fixed to produce the same outcome. To see off the here-today-gone-tomorrow reformers.  

It’s worked before, and it can work again. But it would be a pyric victory.  

The climate crisis is real. It is here. And transport can’t continue to get a free pass. 

To change it requires leadership. Not the heroic leadership of a vainglorious politician, but the quiet, day-to-day distributed leadership of each of us.  

Not only can be avert the worst impact of climate change but we can create civilized communities, improve the quality of life, advance social justice and create a resilient economy.  

I don't normally quote people in speeches, not do I usually writ them down, but I thought you were worth it. I’d like to finish with the word of Robert Kennedy. He delivered them in South Africa at a time when we hoped winds of change were blowing through the continent.  

“Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centres of energy and daring those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.” 

Together, let’s send ripples, let’s build a current. Let’s be able to look our grandchildren in the eye. 



Loindsey said…
Thoughtful, surely timely . I've been reading your previous speeches and want to commend you on your vision for a sustainable and better future than the one we are heading towards without that vision and sense of reality about climate change that is happening now.
I use my car a lot more than I want because I'm arthritic, in pain and public transport is not convenient. So right on for hoping to change that.
I am part of a 'green ' group in Kidwelly, Cydweli Common Ground. It does feel like an unhill battle to change the way we think and do things - you call it a modal shift- I call it back to basics. Or as Schmacher said back in the 60s, think globally act locally. Still holds!
All the best
Lindsey Witombe

Popular posts from this blog

How much is a life worth?

The Welsh Roads Review

Salt in an open wound