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Building the Boris bridge and linking the Union


By Christine Quigley

Last summer, the Prime Minister announced that Sir Peter Hendy, former Commissioner of Transport for London and current Chairman of Network Rail, would be conducting an independent review looking at transport connectivity between the four nations of the United Kingdom. This morning, the Department for Transport slightly unexpectedly published the review’s interim report, an action that could be seen as an attempt to bolster the Union ahead of elections in Wales and Scotland in May. 

Comments made yesterday by Transport Minister Jesse Norman implied that Government was considering cutting Air Passenger Duty for domestic flights, making these more competitive against rail and road travel. These remarks caused some consternation, with serious questions raised by stakeholders about the Government’s commitment to reaching its ambitious Net Zero targets. However, the actual recommendation in today’s review is more nuanced than this. The report recommends a review of APD rates for journeys “not realistic by rail” and specifically raises the economic barrier that APD poses to better connectivity between Northern Ireland and Great Britain. It makes clear that aviation emits more greenhouse gases per mile than any other transport mode, and pledges that Sir Peter’s final report will be “consistent” with the UK’s climate change targets, expressing support for the development of sustainable aviation fuels.

The other key topic of conversation today is the Prime Minister’s pet project of a land bridge between Northern Ireland and the British mainland. The prospect has been met with some derision by infrastructure commentators. Sir Peter’s foreword addresses the issue carefully, making clear that he has “been asked specifically about a fixed link” and that he has commissioned two experts to lead a discrete piece of work to assess the feasibility of this link and develop an outline cost and timescale. This process harks back to the consideration of the ‘Boris Island’ Thames Estuary Airport plan, which was assessed as part of the Airports Commission work on a new runway for the south-east of England. Despite the very significant practical issues posed by this scheme, it was important at the time to scope the then-Mayor’s idea in a detailed way in order to demonstrate that it was a less viable option than the more worked-up proposals from existing London airports. Cynics have suggested that the failure of Boris Johnson’s scheme to build a garden bridge over the River Thames as Mayor may not bode well for the prospect of a rather longer link across the North Channel. 

The rest of today’s report is somewhat more sedate, calling for better rail connections from HS2 to Scotland and North Wales, faster rail and road journey times to Scotland from Wales and England, better port capacity for both passengers and freight and connections to freeports. The report also reminds us of the impact of Brexit on connectivity, reviewing progress of the EU’s Trans-European Transport Network (TEN-T) and how this could be replaced by a new UK Strategic Transport Network. 

The final report and recommendations are due to be published in the summer. It will be interesting to see to what extent Sir Peter’s review takes into account the ways in which journeys have changed due to the pandemic, and whether he expects these to be temporary or long-lasting changes. The final report will also include much more analysis of economic indicators than this interim report, positioning it as a key part of delivering the Government’s levelling-up agenda.