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Roads to Nowhere

New Government, new challenges

Stephen Joseph's picture

The unexpected election result has in appearance given us continuity in transport - Patrick McLoughlin has been reappointed as Transport Secretary, and two junior Ministers return to their pre-election posts.

These Ministers do however face significant challenges. The ones the media have focused on are aviation and High Speed 2, reflecting a focus on big projects. In fact, because transport is a key part of everyday life, the challenges the new Government faces are much broader than these. 

There's an overarching challenge on air pollution - the Supreme Court announced a decision during the election campaign which requires the Government to draw up a robust air quality strategy by the end of the year. This will require a clear timetable and measures to cut transport emissions, especially from diesel vehicles. It also strengthens the case for investment in cycling and walking and in upgraded public transport, and supports the reappraisal of new road-building and aviation infrastructure policies. 

A full contribution from the transport sector to reducing carbon emissions will also need to be agreed as part of the UN climate negotiations in Paris this December. The Government is already supporting a transition to low carbon vehicles and we welcome this, but more is needed to improve alternatives to cars and especially lorries. Tackling climate change must also be a key factor in the decision on airport expansion in the wake of the Davies Commission report.

However, crucial to this will also be strategically promoting more use of public transport.

The situation for buses remains alarming, and this Government needs to step in to share funding across government departments which benefit from buses fast if it is to avoid the costly problem of further service withdrawals.

Proposals for giving Greater Manchester authorities more control over local bus services as part of the wider Manchester devolution package open the door for local authorities elsewhere to be given greater control over local buses. We think that this is the only way in which cheap multi-operator and multi-modal ticketing can in practice be achieved, and bus networks planned effectively. The Government’s recent proposals to promote devolution of transport and other powers to cities in England are a step towards this.

The Conservatives made a number of commitments on rail in the run up to the election, and indeed we welcomed the commitment to freezing rail fares in real terms and look forward to seeing that implemented. However there are other fares challenges: in particular we still await the promised flexible season tickets for part-time workers.

We have also welcomed the various commitments to new rail investment made during the previous Government, including further electrification, and devolution of rail services to groupings of local authorities starting with the Northern and Trans-Pennine franchises this year. And we are keen to support further rail reopenings, noting that some were supported by candidates during the election campaign.

There's also the Road Investment Strategy; we will continue to challenge this, especially in the case of some schemes where we believe that alternatives have not been properly considered, and threats to important sites such as Stonehenge, the Peak District and South Downs National Parks and the Broads have not been sufficiently assessed. Even in terms of helping road users, spending money on big trunk roads while there's a £12bn backlog in local road maintenance looks unbalanced.

The Government’s commitment to produce a Cycling and Walking Investment Strategy this year must also be a further opportunity to properly fund the measures needed to improve conditions on and around our roads, and reduce car dependency. In support of this, we will be arguing for the Government to continue and enhance funding for local sustainable transport, as the great value of investing in local targeted projects, for employment and education, as well as health and environment is proven.

The Conservative party fought the election committed to supporting investment in transport as part of rebalancing the economy. There are ways to achieve this through the forthcoming Comprehensive Spending Review, but they will involve smarter spending as well as reviews of damaging schemes. As an "unprotected" department, DfT will face huge pressures to cut funding, and there's a risk that the transport programmes that matter to people - buses, local transport, cycling and walking - will be the ones in the firing line. We'll be campaigning to ensure that these are protected and that any cuts are instead made in the big road projects.