13 June, 2011 - 13:19 By Tony Quested

Why the A14 debate is in a cul-de-sac

It is a singularly unedifying sight to witness a cluster promoting itself as the innovation capital of Europe, flogging a dead horse as repeatedly and enthusiastically as Cambridge has done in its futile campaign to upgrade the A14.

In my experience as soon as you’ve added another lane to any artery it’s full the minute it’s opened; you can go on repeating the process until the Treasury is bankrupt. The congestion remains. More vehicles will keep pouring on; costs of improvements will keep on escalating.

No-one has provided a convincing argument that such a move brings any economic benefit. Britain lost the plot decades ago on transport policy when it effectively put canals out of commission for transporting non-urgent freight.

Beeching’s axe in the ’60s chopped the heart out of the railway network, isolating whole communities. Many rural bus services are as frequent as the old Wells Fargo stagecoaches ferrying mail across the Wild West.

Successive governments have strangled attempts to grow our airports – which do act as catalysts for economic growth – while the rest of Europe chuckles uncontrollably.

The Port of Felixstowe has been almost a lone crusader in this region, taking goods from around the world by sea and shipping them by rail across the UK, slashing lorry journeys on our roads.

With half a brain, our economic svengalis could plumb Felixstowe by rail direct into the Alconbury Airfield site and re-activate the air terminal there again, providing two solutions for the price of one. The airfield site is also right on the roundabout for the A1(M). Several thousand more road journeys could therefore be cut with a bit of visionary planning.

While they are at it, the city fathers could lose their obsession with getting Marshall – Cambridge’s largest industrial employer – to move off its Newmarket Road site so it can build another sink estate. Instead they should be championing the development of a real-life regional airport from the location so international businesses could commute by air.

The only way to fund road improvements that would make a difference is through tolls and taxes and Britain has also been an abject failure here.

It has allowed foreign lorries – full of cheap Euro fuel and charged a fraction of the taxes in their countries that UK hauliers are forced to pay here – to swamp our roads putting British carriers out of business in the process.

These lorries have also taken a heavy toll on road surfaces; not to mention human lives. Around 50 per cent of foreign lorries stopped and tested in the last four years have been deemed unsafe.

Traffic figures for the M6 toll road are at an all time low and have been diving since prices soared to £5.30 for cars, compared to the £2 levy on launch. Wherever there’s a cheap or free alternative, drivers will take it. They can’t escape the Dartford Tunnel for certain routes so revenues there hold up well.

The best brains in Europe’s innovation capital should start living up to their reputations with some out-of-the-box thinking that circumnavigates the region’s perceived transport problems. Start thinking virtual; stop thinking physical infrastructure. Grey cells travel faster than cars, lorries, trains or even planes. They are also the ‘greenest’ form of delivery on the planet.

The internet, allied to smart advances in technology, have made it easier than ever to trade across borders without having to leave your desk. The answer is not to hurl millions the country can’t afford at improving road networks – but to think and work smarter. Handle the R & D, fabless and light manufacturing elements of your business in Cambridge and set up physical bases in your global market territories to handle volume manufacture and distribution.

It aint rocket science. It just requires a change in mindset.


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