Strategy or Plan?

The term ‘strategy’ (adjective ‘ strategic’) is now in common use, for instance the Government’s Road Investment Strategy for the Strategic Road Network. Why don’t we speak of the Motorway and Trunk Road Network, and of the Road Investment Plan, both arguably clearer descriptions?

The concept of strategy was originally derived from military thinking. As explained by Edward Luttwak in his classic book (‘Strategy: the Logic of War and Peace’,1987), what differentiates a strategy from a plan is that the former has to take account of the likely response of the adversary. Building a force of long-range bombers (‘strategic bombers’) elicits countervailing reactions, both anti-aircraft defences and dispersal of important industrial targets.

Where competition is experienced in non-military spheres, strategy is also important. Oil companies selling petrol at retail outlets where the price is very visible find that competition drives down profit margins. The company most distressed needs to raise the pump price, but has to judge the likely response of local competitors – whether they will emulate the price rise or resist it to increase market share.

In contrast, Government-initiated ‘strategies’ tend not to take account of competitive responses. The Government’s five year Road Investment Strategy is really a Plan. The supporting economic analysis and forecasts are too insubstantial to assess the likely behavioural responses – not in this case of adversaries but of users of the Strategic Road Network. I have argued previously that available evidence is consistent with the proposition that additional capacity is exploited by local users, with little if any benefit for the long distance users – which seems paradoxical for a network designated ‘strategic’. However, paradox is a characteristic of strategic thinking. Recall the maxim: if you want peace, prepare for war.

We should certainly think about transport investment strategically. But this requires a deep understanding of the behavioural responses to new infrastructure and services – the subject of a new book of mine to be published later this year.