Just south of Tonbridge the A21 trunk road reverts for a short distance to single carriageway. This creates a traffic jam at every rush hour, and often for much of the rest of the day. This has been true for – literally – decades. A local member of parliament has joked that the probable reason for the success of the Norman Conquest was that Harold, on his way to Hastings, was held up on the A21.
Aside from the cost and frustration to local residents, and the delays in reaching the large new area hospital, there are wider economic consequences. Hastings is the most depressed of England’s south-coast resorts. Government regeneration programmes have tried to revive the town, with limited success: poor road and rail connections to London remain a critical problem.
Work was about to begin in 1993 on a project to make the Tonbridge to Pembury road dual carriageway, but was postponed at the last moment due to public expenditure cuts. The scheme was deferred again in 1997 when the new Labour government announced a review of the road building programme. After several further postponements, a fresh public inquiry into the scheme was to start in 2010, but the new coalition government delayed its start pending a reappraisal of public programmes. As part of the comprehensive spending review that followed, the scheme has been delayed yet again. The Tonbridge to Pembury scheme may well be the most urgently needed road improvement in the UK. (This is a disinterested observation; I do not live anywhere near Tonbridge. My priority is junction 10 of the M40, where some rookie traffic engineer designed a layout that forces the lanes of traffic leaving the motorway to cross those entering it, with predictable and entirely avoidable delays.) But it is only the top of a long list of similar issues.
It is always easier to reduce public spending by deferring capital spending than by constraining current expenditure, and that has happened again and again. The process is self-defeating, because it increases rather than reduces the pressure on public expenditure in future. But the principle of never do today what you can hope to do tomorrow has ruled. And it rules now. The deficit reduction plans for this parliament offer spending reductions in aggregate by combining a modest increase in current expenditure with a big reduction in the smaller capital expenditure programme.
Within that capital budget, grand projects tend to squeeze out modest improvements. The Olympics provide an opportunity for politicians and sponsors to accompany the Queen to watch the opening fireworks and the world’s greatest athletes. The Pembury dualling provides an opportunity for a junior minister to join the chairman of Pembury parish council in cutting a ribbon to celebrate the completion of the new road. It is not hard to see why our leaders would prefer to take seats in the stand than stand in the drizzle.
But, as Rod Eddington’s report on UK transport policy explained in 2006, piecemeal improvements are most likely to deliver economic benefits and easier lives. Hastings residents know this all too well. The history of poor communication goes back, if not to 1066, at least to the 1840s, when the South Eastern Railway built in a hurry to compete with its rivals’ line to Brighton, and was cheated by contractors who skimped on the specification. There has never been enough money since to do the job properly.
Some improvements to this rail-line are on the way. But in the 21st century, the road link is more important. Within constrained public expenditure totals, rail has recently received inappropriate priority over road. Passenger rail traffic has increased by almost 50 per cent since the mid 1990s, but still 90 per cent of the distance we travel is on road. No conceivable expansion of rail use would have a discernible impact on the level of road traffic. But despite that, capital spending on railways is now almost as great as capital spending on roads – even without schemes for high-speed trains and cross London links.
This month’s budget in Britain will provoke yet another round of debate on austerity versus stimulus. But the issue of how we spend what we have is more important than the issue of what we spend. We should shift our focus from aggregate totals and visionary projects to much smaller issues. Like improving the A21.