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What did the party conferences say about transport?

Stephen Joseph's picture
Photo: rural bus stop

As usual this time of year, I and colleagues have spent some time at the annual conferences held by the political parties. They are good opportunities to hear from and talk directly to transport ministers and shadow ministers and also hear views from the party grassroots on transport, especially at the fringe meetings that make up a lot of the activity at these events. So what have we learnt this year about transport?

Well, there are obvious sharp dividing lines between the parties, notably on the future of the railways, where Labour is committed to renationalisation as one of Jeremy Corbyn's signature policies. The Conservatives are however not signalling full support for the current state of things - there is at least some sign that new transport secretary Chris Grayling is interested in reform, of franchising and more widely of the structure separating tracks and trains, though it is unclear how far he wants to take this.

However, beyond this there were more nuanced attitudes and approaches.

The changing of the guard in the Conservative party has also brought some changes in attitudes to infrastructure. There seems to be still strong cross party support for HS2 - the rail unions are backing Labour Party support for it, with conditions, and the Prime Minister backed it too in her speech. But beyond that there has been a definite move away from big infrastructure projects ("projects you can see from space", as one critic of George Osborne described it) towards smaller, more focused spending. It's to take advantage of this that we've launched our briefing on 'Fix it First', calling for any new infrastructure spending to be focused on local road and pavement maintenance, reopening of rail lines and stations, cycling and walking investment and greener buses, as well as extra funding for the Access Fund, which is the successor to the Local Sustainable Transport Fund.

Devolution also seems to be pushing ahead, with support for the new city region mayors and the Northern Powerhouse, though all parties also want this spread elsewhere. The Bus Services Bill is proceeding too, and there was talk about supporting buses at all the conferences.

Of course, Brexit and the economy were the big  issues discussed all over the conferences, and  these will have more effect on transport than any transport policies. 

However, even given this, I think it is fair to say that wider issues relating to transport were almost invisible at the conferences. Roads and road traffic had very limited attention, apart from general statements about extra investment. Air quality and emissions were talked about, but mainly as an introduction to more electric vehicles. Missing entirely (apart from the Liberal Democrats) was any mention of climate change. In a week when Arctic sea ice was found to be at historic low levels and the Paris agreement was brought into effect, this seems to be a huge gap.

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