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Is Transport Policy Keeping Business Moving?

Congestion across many of Britain’s biggest cities – from London and Manchester to Sheffield and Newcastle – is getting worse according to TomTom’s Traffic Index.

And while business drivers battle through traffic jams to reach expectant customers, transport planners in quango think tanks and the corridors of Whitehall plot their strategies for keeping traffic moving.

Are government policies working?

But are their policies really helping or hindering our transport infrastructure and the wider business community?

Among the latest moves is a planned 15 per cent hike in the Congestion Charge, aimed at ensuring the scheme remains a deterrent for those considering driving into central London.

Would you believe the C-Charge has now been in place for more than a decade? Since its launch back in 2003, Ken Livingstone’s gamble has been heralded by many. However, there have also been dissenting voices arguing it’s not an appropriate congestion cure.

A little further north the M6 Toll, which government chose to hive off to the private sector, is patently underused and debate has been ignited over its nationalisation. The motorway was meant to solve congestion around Birmingham and boost the wider West Midlands economy – but it has instead been branded an expensive failure.

Elsewhere across our towns and cities, local authorities are generating annual profits of more than half a billion a year from parking fines. I’ve no desire to fuel traffic warden hostility – they have an important job to do, but some observers claim their fines are a stealth business tax rather than a valuable fillip for traffic management.

As for debates over projects such as HS2? I’ll leave these for another day.

The voice of business critics

So is the voice of business and road transport on the issue of congestion truly being heard?

According to business group London First the C-Charge is a “blunt instrument” and better day-to-day management is called for, alongside more sophisticated road pricing. The AA, meanwhile, says the charge actually has nothing to do with congestion or CO2 but has everything to do with cash generation.

As the business community strives to build a platform for growth following the recession, service companies could well do without an added financial burden. In some cases it is surely inevitable their increasing cost base will be passed on to customers.

The M6 Toll does provide a congestion free route through the West Midlands – I’ve journeyed along it on several occasions – but the motorway, which was designed to take up to 100,000 vehicles a day, is running at around one-third capacity.

There are lessons to be learned from this say the CBI, with the likes of the RAC Foundation and Coventry University Business School’s Professor David Bailey believing operator regulation holds the key to toll road success.

As for Penalty Charge Notices, the Freight Transport Association (FTA) believes these represent a failure by local authorities to adequately plan and provide for kerbside deliveries. The fines are costing businesses millions of pounds a year and the association believes the Traffic Management Act, underpinning parking management, fails to distinguish between parking and delivery activities. Furthermore, it claims all cash generated from fines should be directly reinvested to improve loading space and parking availability.

Action stations: addressing the future needs of business

I am acutely aware of the cost of poor traffic management and congestion to UK business. While fleet management technology continues to make giant strides in helping businesses become more efficient and reach their customers quicker, these efforts must go hand-in-hand with effective government policies.

I’ve heard enough from business leaders, however, to throw my weight behind the call for a more intelligent approach to transport planning. Lessons must be learned from previous transport policy failings and the needs of business addressed with greater vigour than ever before as UK companies only now begin to find their feet in the wake of the global economic crisis.

What are your views? We are keen to hear them.

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