Local Transport Today is the authoritative, independent journal for transport decision makers. Analysis, Comment & News on Transport Policy, Planning, Finance and Delivery since 1989.

Should we expect anything better for transport policy from the next Government?

Many Local Transport Today readers will be hoping for a new Government which will address the underfunding of local transport, unlock genuine devolution of responsibility, and get behind radical, climate-focussed policies designed to promote modal shift and reduce the need to travel. So, how likely is all this, asks Jonathan Bray, as he reflects on the policy pledges so far

19 June 2024
Shadow Transport Secretary Louise Haigh will face a number of significant early decisions if Labour is elected to Government
Shadow Transport Secretary Louise Haigh will face a number of significant early decisions if Labour is elected to Government

As ever, transport, climate and local government issues have not taken centre stage in this election campaign, with traditional political preoccupations like the cost of living , tax, crime, immigration and health more to the fore. Meanwhile random meme-worthy ‘gaffes’, and internal party spats are also helping to shape voters’ impressions.

Away from the headlines, the future landscape is nonetheless being shaped - with the frontrunners for victory, the Labour party, setting out the stall in their recently launched manifesto.

Much of what they do on transport will be influenced by the wider context – which is that Labour want to broadly stick to the current Government’s public spending framework , with a modest (or ‘trivial’ in the words of the IFS) amount of targeted taxation of friendless special interests and commensurately modest additional targeted spending.

The financial constraints implied by Labour’s approach to fiscal policy means that there will be no funding tap turned on by incoming Chancellor Rachel Reeves. This inevitably means that Labour’s wider transformational policy aspirations are dependent on there being economic growth. This may or may not happen – but this will be dictated in the short term at least by the much wider forces at play. This is because the scale of (and timeline for putting in place) the economic interventions that Labour propose, mean it’s difficult to see how they will have a significant economic impact in the short term.

Meanwhile they are also hoping that private sector investment can pick up some of the slack. However here it’s worth remembering that private money isn’t free money – it can also be more expensive given that the private sector charges more for taking on risk.

One big positive in the manifesto is their pledge to provide greater long term funding certainty - and less gimmicky and resource -hungry ‘competition funding’ distraction - for both local government and for national infrastructure. If this came to pass then it would be a most welcome development for local transport – depending, of course on the level of that funding.

Many local Labour leaders will also be satisfied with commitments to further solid progress on devolution of powers (although the danger of the centre’s inherent institutional resistance shouldn’t be underestimated).

Labour leaders locally will certainly also be looking for more generous funding support given that usually national governments skew local government funding towards the areas that vote for them. 

he same will be true in Wales, which is still reeling from the brutal financial settlement that the brief Truss premiership gave them. However, given the starting point for local government spending after years of cuts, and Labour’s broad commitment to the existing public spending framework, it could be that for many local authorities there will be a period of austerity-lite at a time when their staffing levels are already minimal to work on transport initiatives.

Another stand out policy area affecting transport (that is not financially dependent) is the re-shaping of the planning system – long proposed (but patchily implemented when in Government by most of the parties) and now firmly endorsed by Labour. Its intent is the speeding up of private sector development (especially housing) and particularly on brownfield sites - even in the Green Belt.

Its manifesto says this will be done with appropriate safeguarding for biodiversity, quality standards and climate resilience.

To match this pledge – and hopefully bring more sustainable and less car-dependent new developments (including promised New Towns) - would require a big shift in the business model of private sector volume housebuilders which is often predicated on monetising housing scarcity, but delivering low quality schemes, as well as facilitating car dependency.

On public transport the main focus for Labour is clear - returning rail and bus services to public control. The long awaited Great British Railways will inherit the remaining franchised services when they fail or expire.

Meanwhile, Labour say they will knock the rough edges off the Conservatives’ bus franchising legislation in order to further accelerate the pace of change in both urban areas and potentially beyond. As public control of public transport becomes the norm again, the opportunity arises for this to become more than a funding distribution and organisational change, but also a wider shift in accountability, ambitions and values. A mindset change – from caution to confidence.

Something to watch post-election will be how Labour works with the solid bloc of Labour mayors now in place across significant swathes of the country, especially those who are well-bedded in and know what that want, and how the system works – most notably Sadiq Khan and Andy Burnham. Looking back in time it was the odd-couple relationship between Ken Livingstone as London Mayor, and a New Labour national government, that after a more than frosty start ultimately worked together to successfully transform London’s public transport system. For a period at least Labour politicians at city region and (if the polls are correct) at UK level will have a significant shared mandate for change – something that comes about rarely.

Another area is much less well-mapped - what happens next on road network development, vehicle taxation, road user charging (locally and nationally) and low emission zones. We have seen a mixed approach from Labour leaders at the sub- national level.

Some have fought to get charging schemes through on the principled grounds of public health or climate, some have stayed on the sidelines to wait and see, whilst others have said they are against it on the grounds of the impact on low income car users.

And then there’s Mayor Sadiq Khan who having fought the good, but bruising, fight on ULEZ has seemingly decided not to go the next step on road user charging. Kier Starmer actually turned his fire on Sadiq Khan last year on ULEZ, after the Uxbridge by- election wobble rather than providing support. The Labour manifesto has nothing to say on any of these topics (indeed, concerningly, it laments the failure to deliver more road schemes). However, technocrats love technocratic solutions like road user charging, so the issue is likely to keep simmering away in the background especially with electric vehicles undermining the existing vehicle taxation regime.

Then there’s the pathway to Net Zero, of course. My guess is that Labour nationally are more likely to focus on the presentational/ technological fix ‘get out of jail’ card on the decarbonisation of transport ,which is to get behind the transition to electric vehicles, than they are to move to a pricing regime for vehicles which promotes traffic restraint and modal shift. Instead, such measures will continue to be implemented in fits and starts locally.

The Conservatives, meanwhile have now thoroughly repudiated a relatively brief flourishing of a London-inspired approach to urban transport policy under Boris Johnson. Perhaps only Johnson could have mesmerised the Conservatives into backing thoroughly radical (if top down) approaches to turning cities into paradises for active travel and buses at unprecedented pace.

Now the Conservatives have moved decisively to make LTNs, traffic restraint, ULEZ and 20mph limits both a culture war and a party political dividing line. Whilst no doubt seen as a way of shoring up their core vote, and fending off the threat from their right from Reform UK it has also contributed to a mood music for transport policy which will require even greater levels of political courage and savvy from decision makers who favour more progressive approaches to take action.

If the Conservatives continue in a similar vein after the election (even if they are not in power nationally) then it is not good news for progressive local transport policy. Especially, given that if Labour is elected nationally, then the usual pattern is that the Conservatives start to do better in local elections, and nationally will be looking for weak links in Labour’s armour.

If the Labour and Conservatives transport plans are not to your taste, the Lib Dems manifesto has rather more detail, and much in it that many Local Transport Today readers will doubtless like. If part of a coalition government, it might be a helpful force for good if transport was one of the top tier issues that becomes a condition of their participation. It wasn’t last time.

Meanwhile if there are more Green MPs at Westminster, it could help in developing parliament’s green conscience as well as being a rallying point of the disaffected Labour progressive vote which election mathematics means it doesn’t need to worry much about now, but may need to try to win back in the future.

So in summary, like it or not, transport is not a big issue in the election. There’s no John Prescott this time to bang the drum within the Labour party as transport overlord (even if he talked a better game than he delivered). Early and radical decarbonising moves on traffic restraint, transport taxation and modal shift look highly unlikely. There could be more stability for local transport funding but it might still be at way below pre-austerity levels. Public control of public transport operation looks set to be the norm again opening the way to greater integration outside of London.

Meanwhile, there could be a battle for the soul of a new push on house building. Will it unleash yet another tidal wave of sprawl and car dependency or will it point the way to a new era of more sustainable suburbs?

But first, let’s see what the voters have to say.

Jonathan Bray, is an independent transport consultant and former director of the Urban Transport Group

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