Better investment decisions: DfT’s consultation on transport appraisal

A few weeks ago, the deadline passed for responding to DfT’s consultation on improving Transport Modelling and Appraisal.  This is an opportunity to help government make better investment decisions.

Good question, but not the big questions

The questions asked are useful, but the scope is pretty limited.  The consultation actually says a lot in the questions it doesn’t ask.  Devolution, City Deals, elected mayors and the localisation of business rates mean that a lot of projects are no longer funded directly from DfT capital grants.  But this consultation is not about taking seriously this change in the DfT’s role, not of changing the power structures of decision making.  So whatever appraisal and modelling guidance emerges, there will still be a million opportunities to game the system.

Likewise, the consultation remains rooted in the landscape of benefit to cost ratios.  A strong current within the profession sees this as the wrong way to do business – particularly in complex and multidisciplinary settings where transport overlaps with development, regeneration, health or other sectors.  Under this complexity, they argue, what we need is leadership.  Transport should be part of a vision for better and stronger places and communities – and benefit cost ratios will never capturing this adequately.  Instead of ‘predict and provide’, they say ‘vision and validate’.

Steering the appraisal supertanker

This is the second round of DfT’s ‘ask the audience’ approach to crowdsourcing better appraisal practice.  The first version had the snappy acronym “UVITI” - Understanding and Valuing Investment in Transport Infrastructure – and it did bring some big changes.  One welcome example was a more structured recognition of the link between transport and delivering development – particularly housing – even if the steps towards valuing these were only baby ones.  Another was a new emphasis on evaluation, although the results remain patchy.

Now the winds of change are blowing again.  Our priorities which, to a large extent, reflecting those that we see across the profession, are:

  • Integration: pressing for further integration of transport, development and the economy within appraisal and calling for work to understand how these factors interact to support of undermine local prosperity; and
  • Honesty: Having the courage to admit that we are uncertain about the future (and, in many cases, the past) and structuring appraisal to better reflect unknown future worlds and future behaviours.

Professional citizenship

DFT’s openness to public challenge and debate is welcome.  For transport professionals, it is an opportunity to help sweep away some of the failings in current practice that nag us every day.  Better decision making frameworks make our day jobs more fulfilling and more productive.  So naturally, Connected Economics jumped at the chance to respond.  This time we collaborated with CEBR to benefit from their insights about how our changing world is changing the way we should be approaching these complex problems.

You can read our joint response here.