Jonathan Edwards, Plaid Cymru MP for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr
We are undoubtedly living in very serious times, but one of the silver linings to this very dark cloud is that it could create the creative space needed for a complete reboot of how our economy and society is structured.
Modern life for most working people is all-consuming due to its rapid speed. Trying to juggle work pressure and family expectations is a huge challenge in itself. It is very difficult to imagine let alone create a different way of doing things.
This week in the new virtual Westminster world, I tabled a parliamentary motion which I hope could stimulate wider debate. At the recent Budget, the British Government announced a £28bn road-building programme. This investment is being driven by modelling on likely road traffic forecasts. The last major piece of work undertaken by the British Government was Road Traffic Forecast (RTF) 2018. It indicated that Road Traffic could grow by up to 51% by 2050.
Furthermore, most of the growth is expected in already largely congested areas meaning that the investment is directed towards already high performing economic areas of the British State. The same is the case in Wales where our Labour Government priorities the vast allocation of investment to the Cardiff-Newport corridor.
This concentration of investment has hugely negative consequences in several areas. Firstly, it polarises geographic economic wealth. In many ways, the history of transport investment in the UK has been one of pouring money into a black hole. Each investment increasing demand leading to the need for more investment.
At a Welsh level, the Cardiff-first policy approach means that community planning development even as far west as Carmarthenshire are based on large housing developments operating as commuter communities. Workers today are travelling longer and longer distances to their workplace. The average commute in the UK now is set at 10 hours a week. To put in context, a whole working day per week is lost in travelling.
Such wasted time obviously has severe consequences for work-life balances. Tired and stressed-out workers obviously undermine family life with all the negative consequences that range from mental and physical health issues to childcare and much more.
We should also consider of course is the enormous contribution of transport emissions to the environment. Transport in the UK accounts for 20% of the emissions – and therefore reducing traffic pollution is inevitably going to be a vital part of the strategy to reach climate change targets.
The pandemic has opened up the possibility of a new way of working. Many of us will have become completely accustomed, and seamlessly changed, our way of working to being home-based. Whole Office structures are essentially working from home and are communicating via instant messaging services and Skype and Zoom virtual meetings.
With the appropriate equipment and critically the infrastructure to enable the technology, colleagues hundreds of miles away are effectively in the same room.
While our work and home lives have been shoved under one roof by the Covid-19 crisis, the aftermath will give us an opportunity to radically change how we work. It gives us the first real opportunity to take a step back from the stressful working situations that was the norm before the crisis, and to dedicate more time to our family and friends. Dedicating an hour-long commute to an hour with family could mean a world of change for many.
Not only are we realising that we do not need to travel into cities for work, but the crisis has also opened our eyes to the value of community spirit. Thousands of people across Wales are volunteering to deliver shopping and medicines for those shielding, and more people than ever are realising the need to support local businesses. It would be a wasted opportunity to allow things to go back to normal when the crisis is over.
And with more people spending time in their own communities, now is the time to refocus our transport infrastructure, dedicating spending to sustainable transport within communities rather than building more roads that only suck the money out of our local communities into cities.
There will always be a need for some new roads, and we will also need to maintain the existing network. However, the British Government’s investment in broadband is only a sixth of its commitment to road building.
A brave new world is possible that will help geographically level up wealth, improve work-life balance, aid community development especially for small post-industrial and rural towns who could develop a vibrant lunchtime and evening week-time economy, and help us meet the challenge of global change.
It just requires the re-allocation of resources – and a bit of imagination.