The South West's future prosperity hinges on improving its transport infrastructure, MPs have warned in a report from the South West Regional Select Committee out today.

The region needs a coherent voice when bidding for transport improvements whilst regional bodies and local authorities must do more to improve public transport, cut congestion, and boost walking and cycling, say the MPs. The report points out that the region has some of the worst performing areas in the country in terms of traffic congestion, access to bus services, and the cost of rail fares.

The Committee welcomes the creation of the Transport and Infrastructure Board, and accepts that decision making processes have improved, but the report identifies a need for greater expertise within the South West's regional bodies and local authorities to ensure effective transport planning. Evidence to the inquiry was also critical of the lack of transparency in recommending transport projects for central Government funding through the Regional Funding Advice process - with accusations that 'pet projects' have been put forward that ignore local concerns and show scant regard for Government targets to reduce carbon dioxide emissions and air pollution.

Chair of the Committee Alison Seabeck MP said:
"The South West needs a new direction in transport if it wants to be economically successful in the future."

"As oil prices rise and climate change gets worse the region's heavy dependence on cars will become increasingly problematic.

"Regional Agencies and local authorities must make sure people across the region have access to affordable, clean and reliable alternatives to get them from A to B."

The South West has the greatest reliance on car use of anywhere in the UK. And congestion is a real problem. Bristol, the largest urban area within the region, has the slowest moving urban traffic in the country. The Committee believes the South West needs improvements to some of the existing major roads into the region and the situation at Stonehenge should be a national priority, but overall the Committee believes that schemes put forward by the region have put too much emphasis on road projects and not enough effort on improving rail and bus services.

The South West has the oldest rail fleet in the country and some of the highest rail fares in Europe. News that the mainline railway will be electrified between London and Swansea was enthusiastically welcomed. But the addition of new rolling stock may be delayed as a result, leaving some routes overcrowded - such as the suburban rail services in Bristol and Bath. The Committee is therefore urging the Government to publish its new rolling stock plan as soon as possible. Concerns were also raised during the inquiry about the high cost of rail travel in the South West. The Committee is calling on the Minister for the South West, Jim Knight MP, to investigate the impact of ticket prices on the region.

Households in the South West are less likely to have access to a regular bus service and are on average further from a bus stop than in any other part of the UK. Evidence to the Committee also told of infrequent services, use of old vehicles, relatively high prices per mile travelled, and little apparent control over routes. The Local Transport Act 2000 provides Local Authorities with powers to improve bus services using quality contracts and quality partnerships, but very few councils in the South West have chosen to use them. The Committee is urging regional government identify which communities in the South West are the most isolated and bring forward tangible projects to improve their access to rural bus and rail services.

The region's airports will continue to play an important role in its economy in the absence of quick and reliable alternatives. However, they could be more ambitious in improving their links with public transport and the Committee supports the Regional Development Agency's moves to ensure this happens. Protection of slots at Heathrow for regional links are also seen as vital.

The South West needs to boost the numbers of people cycling and walking - the most healthy and sustainable modes of transport. Programmes which help people form healthier travelling habits, such as Sustran's TravelSmart, represent a small investment compared to road-building projects, but have real public benefits in terms of reducing congestion and improving public health. The Committee recommends that decision-makers consider making funding for such projects more readily available.

The report raises concerns that the region has not always managing transport programmes effectively, has underspent its budget and risks losing investment from the Department for Transport as a consequence. The inquiry found that some local authorities, particularly the smaller ones, did not have the capacity to develop complex integrated public transport schemes and proposals could be poorly thought out as a result

Despite improvements in recent years, the inquiry found that the way schemes were put forward for Government funding lacked objectivity and transparency, with a substantial discrepancy between those schemes and the priorities suggested by the groups and individuals that submitted evidence to the Committee. One witness suggested that some road schemes were advertised as 'an integrated transport scheme' because they partly featured a bus route. The Committee identified some of the successes achieved by local campaigning groups and urged transport decision makers to engage the wider public more effectively when making decisions.

The Committee received considerable evidence urging greater integration of public transport, which has been shown to be advantageous in urban areas elsewhere in the country. Evidence suggests that the creation of Integrated Transport Authorities (possible under the Local Transport Act 2000) is a positive step in this direction and the Committee urges local authorities to set up such bodies.