John Dales, Director
It’s tempting to think that, due to the simple fact of his not being Chris Grayling, the appointment of Grant Shapps must be a positive change. Time will tell, of course, but his track record suggests that he isn’t about to depart from his predecessor’s essentially car-centric approach. In May 2016, I wrote an article for Local Transport Today about something that Mr Shapps had himself just written; and this piece is reproduced below verbatim, other than for a couple of references to dates. It would be good to think that as he’s got older he’s also got wiser. We’ll see.
On the last day of (April 2016), a report entitled We’re Jammin’ was published by a group headed by that reggae icon, The Right Honourable Grant Shapps MP (or TRHGSMP, to give him his full acronym). I don’t really know what a Rt Hon is, but I know Grant’s one because his website is quite brazen about the fact; and I had to visit the website in order to find the report.
I did so to try and discover whether the report really does, as its press release claims, “Clearly show the damage we are doing to motorists and the UK economy as a whole with the lack of thought that highway authorities are putting into their efforts to control and manage traffic”; and to see if there is justification for such statements as, “The current attitude seems to be in favour of ever increasing numbers of traffic lights and making it as difficult as possible to be a motorist, particularly in cities.” In short: it doesn’t; and there isn’t.
More on this in due course. But first, a bit of background. The Shapps-led group behind the report is the British Infrastructure Group (BIG); and, no, I’d never heard of it before either. Its only online home, it seems, is guess-who’s website. Its January report about broadband has the names of 121 MPs attached to it, but TRHGSMP’s is the only name to be found in We’re Jammin’. Generic blurb about BIG suggests it has no fixed membership, since “an individual MP’s support is distinct to the particular subject and report under research”. So it’s impossible to say how many others support the views We’re Jammin’ expresses and the conclusions it reaches. (I like to think that no-one with any self-respect wanted to be associated with a report having such a naff title: I’ll just call it WJ from here on.)
BIG’s blurb also says its focus is on “areas of current or future infrastructure need” (fair enough) and that BIG’s “bold new ideas and recommendations” are “backed by authoritative research and evidence”. So you’d think that WJ would contain a clear and rational justification of well-argued conclusions, wouldn’t you? If so, you’d be sadly disappointed.
It reads as an attempt to post-rationalise a prejudice; and, on this particular subject, it’s not even original. As recently as January (2016), the Institute of Economic Affairs published a report entitled Seeing Red: Traffic Controls and the Economy, which expressed the view that we should “rip out 80% of traffic lights to boost the economy and road safety”. TRHGSMP also uses the same, lame figure of speech when saying, in the WJ press release, that too many traffic lights are “making us all see red”.
Should you not know, the IEA is a ‘free-market think-tank’ that promotes ‘the intellectual case for a free economy, low taxes, freedom in education, health and welfare and lower levels of regulation.’ Which is to say that it has a strongly libertarian agenda; and its utterances necessarily conform to that ideology.
This is pertinent because, of WJ’s 40 footnote references, nine are to Seeing Red (the next most-referenced document is cited just four times). WJ also echoes Seeing Red’s simplistic promotion of ‘shared space’ as something close to a panacea; but does so in a way that is alarmingly naïve and very late-to-the-game. The credibility of anyone still citing Portishead’s experience of switching off traffic lights at one junction in 2004 is, frankly, zero.
But, then, WJ’s credibility has already been shot full of holes by some of the ‘Key Findings’ in its Executive Summary. To complain about a 66% increase in the number of controlled junctions since 2000 because traffic has increased by “just 9%” over the same period is to betray an embarrassingly poor grip on the basics of traffic capacity (as though there could be an arithmetic or any other fixed relationship between traffic growth and the number of signalised junctions nationally). Similarly, there’s no recognition that some of WJ’s headlines – like the ‘Shock! Horror!’ statistic that there is “a controlled junction or crossing, such as traffic lights, for every 5.7 miles of road” – are essentially meaningless in the context in which they’re used.
But perhaps I’m the one being naïve. TRHGSMP (and his friends, if he actually has any) may actively disdain such nuances and details. After all, who cares about slandering practitioners, so long as headline writers and readers swallow the tosh whole?
BIG says that it “firmly believes that Britain should lead the world in infrastructure investment in order to drive forward our economy for the benefit of both this and future generations”. But, while that may be true, and a worthy enough objective in itself, whoever put WJ together also firmly believes that there’s one particular way, and that way only, in which that objective should be pursued.
The parroting of the IEA’s stance, the repeated use of phrases like “at huge cost to the taxpayer”, and the clueless words about ‘shared space’ all betray the libertarian, small-government ideology behind WJ. “Traffic lights are a manifestation of Big Government, so we don’t like them, so we’ll use whatever facts we can find to make an entirely specious case against them”.
It is most revealing to find that the preamble to WJ extends BIG’s remit from that of its webpage and previous reports. In addition to “areas of current or future infrastructure need”, BIG has grown a focus on “unnecessary infrastructure, trying to find inefficiencies that can be eliminated or improved”. Thus, while BIG comes across like a broadly-based, serious-minded, public-spirited venture, the evidence of WJ is that TRHGSMP and others have an agenda that is more dogmatic than altruistic.
If I were to be charitable, I’d describe We’re Jammin’ as the latest in a series of prejudiced, simplistic and therefore worthless interventions on a complex topic – what happens in town and city streets – by people who really don’t know what they’re talking about. However, I don’t think such charity is deserved.