There is a way. But is there the will?

Speech to the UK National Transport Awards, Westminster Park Plaza, 5th October 2023

Diolch yn fawr iawn / Thank you very much for inviting me here tonight to celebrate the achievements of those nominated at these 20th annual National Transport Awards.

There’s a lot to say about current events, but I’ve decided not going to dwell on what’s been happening in Manchester this week. But I would like to make two points.

Despite the slogan there is no longer a pretence that this Government are thinking about long-term decisions; there is no strategy, it is all tactics. And pretty grubby ones at that.

The chaos over HS2 I think illustrates the point. As part of their political mitigation strategy, they have announced a 1 Billion pound initiative to electrify the north Wales rail mainline.

They have clearly learnt nothing from HS2, or from the broken promise to electrify the mainline line to Swansea. Then, as now, there was no development work behind the announcement, no plan and no costings.

I heard Jeremy Hunt asking why it costs 10 times more to build a railway in this country than just across the Channel in France.” Well, that’s why.

I was particularly disappointed to see Mark Harper, who in my dealings has been a decent and reasonable man, drawn into spreading misinformation about what we are doing in Wales, and legitimising conspiracy theories that ‘15 minute cities’ involve local councils deciding how often you go to the shops.

That is playing with fire. And if one of the most reasonable Conservatives is being drawn into that type of dangerous culture war I do worry about how we are going to respond to the profound challenges that are ahead of us.

These are serious times and we need a serious Government. Thankfully devolution offers us a chance to fashion an alternative way of doing things.

A stable, serious Government developing policies based on evidence, and tackling the challenges of climate change that are with us now and are certain to intensify.

Just as our parents’ generation asked their parents ‘what did you do during the war mammy / daddy’, we need to be ready with our answer when our grandchildren ask us, ‘what did you do when you were given the evidence of catastrophic climate change, when you were shown flood maps showing seawater rising by 2m, when you saw that 40% of species were in long-term decline, when you were told that all the coral in our waters was on the absolute brink of devastation, when every year broke the record for the warmest temperatures; what did you do? What did you do?

There is always - always – a reason for maintaining the status quo.

Always a short-term argument for maintaining a business model. For just doing the minimum that is required by regulations, for going with the grain.

For waiting for someone else to make the first move. Even though we know deep down that we can’t keep doing what we’ve always done, it is human nature to wait a bit longer before confronting the need for change.

Because change is difficult. Don’t I know it. Nearly half a million people – an unprecedented number – have signed a petition in the last two weeks calling for us to abandon our change to the speed limit in built up areas. I’ve had to have security cameras installed in home, a police patrol calling by, I’ve been asked to stay away from events in my constituency that I’d been invited to. And a motion a confidence in the Welsh Parliament. So I know that change isn’t easy.

But we are kidding ourselves if we think that carrying on as we are will be easy either.

I’m certain there are people here tonight who will say we need to think about the economy; we need to be ‘realistic’ about the tiny contribution the UK makes to global emissions and the self-harm we will inflict by moving before others do.

So let me address that head-on.

Your operating environment is going to be turned on its head. By the time my children are my age the science tells us that most of the towns on our coast will be flooded.

Our rail infrastructure; our roads - under water.

What’s that going to do to our economy? How is that going to impact your business model?

The weather and the wildfires we’ve seen this year, the warmest year on record - the floods, the deaths from heatstroke, that’s the new normal.

Over 15 years ago the Treasury commissioned Stern report said we face an annual drop in GDP of 5% unless we radically change course.

Every single year a 5% fall in output. That’s not a recession, that’s an endless Depression. And since then the science has hardened, and Nick Stern himself has said his estimates were too conservative.

It is in our self-interest to take the science seriously, and to act quickly.

In Wales we have placed transport alongside planning, housing, regeneration, and the environment in one climate change department to try and achieve the elusive policy join-up.

We have scanned the horizon to identify where we are going to struggle to hit our Net Zero targets.

And let’s be clear how tough it is – to be in with a chance of hitting the 2050 target we need cut emissions in the next ten years more than we have over the last 30 years combined.

More than three decades worth of cuts in under one decade.

Clearly, that’s hard to do. And transport needs to play its part.

Since 1990, the base year used by the UN, we’ve managed to cut carbon emissions from waste by 64%, from industry by 36%, the same from the energy sector; even in agriculture we’ve cut emissions by 10%.

But transport has decreased the least – just 6% since 1990. And that’s even with the advances in technology we’ve had in the last 30 years.

If we continue to move at that pace, we’ll be sunk – literally!

Technology alone will not be our saviour.

Innovation has a huge part to play in getting to NetZero, and I’m a big fan of the role digital and data in particular can play.

But the UK Climate Change Committee – the independent advisors to all the Governments in the UK – are clear.

The move to electric cars is necessary but not sufficient.

I know there are plenty of people who think that all we need to do is switch to EVs and it’s job done. It’s just not true.

We also need to shift behaviour. That is why the Welsh Government have put Modal Shift at the heart of our transport strategy.

As well as converting our car fleet to electric we also need to reduce the need to travel, that’s why we have a target of 30% of people working remotely on an ongoing basis.

And, crucially, we need to shift the journeys we do make to sustainable forms of transport.

We are challenging ourselves to switch the number of trips by sustainable modes from the current 32% to 45% by 2040.

Now that is a stretch.

And we have to be clear what it involves.

It means an end to the ‘Predict & Provide’ approach to road building.

We paused our pipeline of highway schemes and asked an expert panel to test it against our carbon targets.

We cancelled many and changed more in line with a new set of climate proof tests for when roads are the right solutions to transport problems.

And there will be times when roads are the right answer.

And our invitation to the professions is if you want interesting work, professional challenges, a chance to get ahead of the curve, come to Wales and work with us on applying our new road building tests in practice.

Despite what was said in Manchester this week this is not a ‘Ban on roads’. We are building new roads now and will continue to. But a building a road cannot be the default answer wherever we face congestion, or have an accident blackspot.

As well as consuming tonnes of carbon from all the steel and concrete required for construction, roads quickly fill up with traffic again and deepen the cycle of car-dependency.

The business case of the Flintshire ‘Red Route’ that we cancelled on the advice of our Roads Review Panel said that congestion levels on the new 350 million pound road would be back to current levels within 15 years.

Predict, provide, and repeat.

We’ve got to break this cycle.

For 70 years we’ve focused on making the car the easiest and most convenient way to get around. So that’s what people do.

If we want people to use alternatives, we need to take the pain away. We need to make the right thing to do the easiest thing to do.

But to be more than a slogan that requires cultural and system change. Not just headlines but a change to the hard wiring.

The Treasury need to start to valuing bus passengers, pedestrians and cyclists in its formulas, and stop obsessing about trying to monetise notional time savings.

70 years of orthodoxy has pervaded every corner of transport principle and practice - from the Design Manual for Roads and Bridges, to Parking Standards for new housing development, and the Red Book on Street Works used by contractors across the UK.

There is hardly a nerdy manual that is not infused with car dominance. There’s nothing unconscious about this bias.

We need to re-write our systems to make sure they are focused on modal shift. To make sure our high level goals are aligned with the delivery mechanisms.

We’ve been taking a new strategic approach to active travel for a decade now. This week marks the 10th anniversary of the Active Travel Wales Act, a law I led the campaign for that I am now trying to implement in Government. It places a duty on Highway Authorities to plan routes not just for cars but for people too.

And we’ve backed it up with investment, more spending per head than any other part of the UK this year. A sharp contrast to England.

I really do applaud the creation of Active Travel England, but the DfT decision to slash the budget for walking and cycling was miserable and myopic.

We are making roads safer and more welcoming for people to walk and cycle, and for children to play out, by setting speed limits on streets in built up areas to 20mph as a default – but giving Councils the ability to exempt roads that are best left at 30mph.

It is the biggest change in the rules of the road since wearing seat belts became compulsory in 1983. And just as with that change, there is push-back, but there’s no going back.

Our initial data shows that average speeds are already down and, as a result, we can expect to see fewer accidents, fewer casualties, fewer deaths, fewer tragedies. A little bit slower, yes, but a whole lot better.

We are also breaking new ground in our approach to bus reform.

The claim in the 1980s that bus deregulation would bring lower fares and more services has been tested to destruction.

Next year we’ll be legislating in the Senedd, the Welsh Parliament, for the most far-reaching changes in the UK.

We are planning a whole system shake-up which goes beyond the bus partnership approach just launched in Manchester - and kudos to Andy Burnham for taking a stand in the courts that has allowed us to follow-on.

Our planned system of franchising will finally reverse the fragmentation of bus privatisation. It will correct the market failure which has seen bus use steadily fall to the point that half of us never set foot on a bus.

Simply put – our plan is for One Network, One Timetable, One Ticket - putting people before profits.

We are building a Billion-pound Metro system for the Cardiff City region, a project that the former Chair of Crossrail, Terry Morgan, said was the 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.

Welsh passengers have become accustomed to being the runt of the litter when it comes to rolling stock. But not any more.

We are spending 800 million on brand new trains – many of them assembled in Wales by CAF in Newport.

But people won’t believe it until the see it. Passenger expectations are so low though that when our brand new Stadler trains arrived at Bargoed train station, at the top of the Rhymney valley, the passengers didn’t get on because they didn’t think the train was for them.

The awful truth is that even though passenger expectations of our public transport system are low, we still often fail to meet them.

And cuts in bus funding, and the failure of the UK Government to make rail infrastructure investment that will make a meaningful difference in the near term, won’t help.

I am acutely conscious that there’s a gap between our rhetoric and the reality for many passengers today, between the plans we have and the situation they face now.

And that’s where we are vulnerable to the populist rhetoric around a war on motorists.

And I want to finish on this.

We are close to the point of no return with climate change. But we are not there yet. We still have choices. There is still hope. But pulling back from this point will challenge us all.

Everyone in this room is a leader. We all have choices.

We can seek to exploit the difficulties that this challenge will throw up to advance short-term interests.

Or we can recognise the shared interest in getting the transport system to play its part in delivering the imperative of NetZero emissions no later than 2050.

We will only be able to bring people with us if we make it easy for them to get around. If we expect people to make heroic sacrifices, we will fail.

We have to make the right thing to do the easiest thing to do.

And thankfully, that is do-able.

There is a way. But the question for us is – is there the will?


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