Elliot Page, Transport Director at Stantec, asks if the East of England can continue the sustainability trends in changing working habits and lifestyles that have appeared over lockdown.
The Covid-19 pandemic has created a global health crisis which has had several damaging economic and social effects – but not everything has been bad. With lockdowns leading to changes in working practices and lifestyles that would otherwise have taken years to deliver, many people have seen the crisis, somewhat perversely, as leading to an improvement in quality of life. It has certainly led to major reductions in travel, energy demand and CO2 emissions across the East of England, and a realisation that it must be possible to find a new and better normal.
Reflecting this shift in travel demands and behaviours, we have seen many of our Local Authorities using temporary powers to implement walking and cycling measures – changes that have long been campaigned for by active travel champions and designers. In the last week, Cambridgeshire County Council alone has approved more than 80 such schemes and the general consensus seems to be that many are here to stay.
However, with a 20% reduction in GDP in April (the largest on record) and dire forecasts for jobs, there are understandably increasing calls for urgent action to stimulate an economic recovery. The question is what can be done to support economic recovery, while also avoiding squandering the quality of life and environmental gains that have been made? Economic recovery, when it comes, will be driven by employers and investors. Government has the task of finding ways to stimulate investment and job creation in a way that will be attractive for business. Should Government also drive the economy in the direction of the green, clean and inclusive agenda?
The Construction Leadership Council (CLC) is in the process of developing a ‘Roadmap to Recovery’ for the Construction Industry. This plan aims to support economic recovery as well as lead towards, amongst other things, lower carbon emissions, improved sustainability and resource efficiency, and societal benefit. It might reasonably be argued that these aims have been part of the UK transport policy environment since at least 1994. This is the year when the Standing Advisory Committee for Trunk Road Assessment (SACTRA) reported that building more roads generated more traffic, and Planning Policy Guidance Note 13 (Transport) exhorted an integrated approach to land use and transport planning aimed at reducing the demand for travel. However, over 25 years later there has been very little change in the levels of aggregate car use, and as other sectors have successfully tackled the carbon transition agenda, transport has been left as the highest contributor to UK greenhouse gas emissions.
As if to prove the point, June 2020 has seen the Transport Action Network (TAN) applying for a judicial review of the Transport Secretary Grant Shapps’ decision to go ahead with Road Investment Strategy 2 (RIS2), a £27 billion programme to build thousands of miles of roads across the UK. TAN seeks to make the case that building roads and increased traffic will make it harder to meet binding climate change and air pollution targets – effectively reprising SACTRA over 25 years on.
June 2020 has also seen the launch of a new Transport for New Homes report, Visions and Reality, which points out that £700M of the £930M of the Housing and Infrastructure Fund for garden communities is planned to be spent on roads, contributing to concerns about the quality of life in resulting communities in terms of health, wellbeing, as well as economic outcomes. Not exactly in the spirit of PPG13, it might be argued?
These events are not providing encouraging signals that the clean growth message has made it across the gap between policy intention and practical clean growth outcomes, even after 25+ years. It would therefore seem completely fair to say that national policy interventions have had little impact on the direction of our infrastructure and development planning and investment decisions, and that something else is needed. With traffic levels now back to 70% of pre-lockdown levels, there is no scope for complacency. Fortunately, there is some evidence to suggest there is nascent political enthusiasm to grapple with this, with recently launched funding streams and economic recovery policy papers putting carbon transition, resilience, wellbeing and inclusion at the heart of the criteria being set, but more will be needed – much more.
We will need a move away from strategic supply led infrastructure investment, and towards managing demand, local connectivity, and place making investment. We will need structural economic change and financial incentives to encourage moves towards new delivery models for infrastructure and development. Finally, we will need to learn to plan and design communities fit for the future in an environment of disruptive change, taking account of the technical and behavioural change now coming as part of the 4th Industrial Revolution.
At the heart of this change is an urgent need to reboot the transport skills agenda. We are still predominantly working with the tools and techniques designed for the age we are now leaving, not the one we are joining. We will need a far greater ability to work with data to navigate our uncertain world, adaptive and regenerative design capabilities, robotics and process management, as well as highly attuned stakeholder and community engagement skills. We need to move fast to change what is taught, as well as working out how we deliver these skills to a more mobile and fleet of foot cohort of young professionals. These are urgent challenges for our professional institutions and employers, in particular for CIHT and TPS as they grapple with the changing needs of professional qualifications and apprenticeships.
Stantec’s training and professional development programmes have never been more important and through our Cambridge office, we continue to invest in our staff to ensure that their contribution to the East of England’s post-COVID recovery is not just facilitating a return to ‘business as usual’ but instead one which grasps the opportunities to deliver a better future.
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