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Small is still beautiful

4th December 1982
Page 35
Page 35, 4th December 1982 — Small is still beautiful
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Which of the following most accurately describes the problem?

THE PRESIDENT of the FTA, Ian Dallison, was not only right when he suggested recently that the Government should stimulate economic recovery by investment in transport infrastructure. He was also displaying a subtlety not always noticeable in the pronouncements of the industry's leaders.

Transport people will not need convincing of the rightness; the need is painfully and expensively obvious. This may have blinded them to the subtlety.

The Government is clearly and indissolubly wedded to its economic strategy. Nevertheless, equally clearly, the approach of the next general election is inducing at least a flirtation with measures which will reduce the level of unemployment, now affecting (admittedly with greatly varying severity) all parts of the country and all social classes.

Open assaults on the general strategy, of the sort mounted last month by the Labour Party and the TUC, will make no impact on the Government. But measures which can be presented as consistent with that strategy stand more chance of serious consideration than at any time over the last three-anda-half years.

Investment in transport infrastructure has at least two advantages over most other forms of investment often put forward as potential stimulants of industrial recovery.

First, it is not likely to have severe effects on the balance of payments. Much of the raw material needed is indigenous. The major cost is labour. And the sort of manpower that would be taken off the unemployment register by such investment is likely to have higher priorities than Japanese videocassette recorders and similar imported luxuries when it comes to spending their increased income.

Second, such investment, once completed, does not carry a major commitment in current expenditure terms.

True, as users of the Ml know to their cost, each new stretch of road has to be maintained and, eventually, reconstructed. There will inevitably be some extra current cost. We pointed out in this column a few months ago the absurdity and waste of not maintaining our existing roads.

But there are likely to be substantial savings in expenditure on the old roads from which traffic is diverted.

So, even looked at past Treasury blinkers, which means ignoring savings to the industry • (through reduced congestion) and the general public (through reduced pollution, noise and accidents) increased investment in transport infrastructure has many commendable aspects.

Even the smallest road scheme, though, takes months to complete. It seems from the Government's recent actions to stimulate spending in other public sector fields, notably housing, that they want more money to be spent during this financial year — that is, before the end of March.

Not even the smallest additional road improvement scheme seems likely to fit within that timescale. Even if the design work has been completed and the contract documents drawn up, the contract has to be advertised and let, a process lasting several weeks. So can nothing be done in the transport sector to cash in on the Government's current mood?

One answer lies in resurrecting the popular Sixties saying "Small is beautiful". Thinking should be switched away from new bypasses, or even widen ings and straightenings, to the miniscule end of transport infrastructure. Only a moment's thought is needed to see what benefits could be obtained in the area of better signing.

Although every driver will have his own collection of favourite complaints about poor, misleading or non-existent signing, motorway and trunk road signs are, in general, adequate. The problem is at its most acute when the journey is almost ended. This is because of the extraordinary difficulty drivers often face in ascertaining the name of the street when this is eventually reached.

Even for a car driver this is at least a nuisance. For the driver of a lorry it is much more than a nuisance. Stopping to ask a passer-by where he is will probably block the road. And even the process of asking is more difficult for him than for a car driver, since he has to lean across a wider cab, and look down from a greater height. On top of all this, if he finds that he is going in the wrong direction . he must manoeuvre his vehicle in what are often difficult surroundings.

Most of this time and energy would be saved if the quality of street naming were raised and standardised. Local authorities should be encouraged to look at the situation in their areas, and to place a nameplate on every corner, not just at either end of a street, as seems to be the present policy.

It cannot be denied that this proposal lacks glamour. But who can deny that, if implemented, it would benefit almost every person who ever moves, by any mode, outside areas with which he is familiar? And the lorry driver is the most frequent person in this category.

Street names are the responsibility of local authorities. House and building numbers are the responsibility of the occupier. There seems to be no legal obligation on an occupier in Britain to display that number, as is the case in most countries.

Whether or not it should be a legal obligation is a matter for debate. What is beyond doubt is that better numbering would benefit everyone.

All this is no doubt a long way from what Ian Dallison had in mind when he made his plea for more transport infrastructure investment. What has been suggested above is certainly not a substitute for more roads, railway electrification, and other desirable items. Nor does it contradict his argument that such investment would help to stimulate industrial recovery.

But in these stringent days Ralph Waldo Emerson's maxim about the world beating a path to the door of the inventor of a better mousetrap is a particularly apt encouragement to think small, even though the present state of British street naming and building numbering would make it difficult for the world to find the inventor's door — and especially if they were arriving in a 38-tonne lorry!


Organisations: Labour Party, TUC, FTA

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