It’s encouraging that for most parties, the policies being advanced are set in the context of tackling climate change and air pollution

 

What’s the collective noun for manifestos? An aspiration? An imagination? A deception? In any case, it’s election time so we are awash with them.

Every party has to produce one, it seems. Except the Brexit Party. Nigel Farage says manifesto is a “dirty word”, though this seems to be a gimmick, as he has instead produced a “contract”, which is just the same thing except thinner. For its showcase transport policy, the Brexit Party commits to cancelling HS2, a policy they have in common only with the Green Party. Odd bedfellows. Elsewhere, support for the controversial scheme remains firm with Labour, the Lib Dems and the SNP, while the Tories want to keep their powder dry.

Looking through the transport sections of the various party publications, it is both striking and encouraging that for most parties, the policies being advanced are clearly set in the context of tackling climate change and air pollution.

While the UK has been successful in cutting emissions from energy generation quite substantially, with a whole lot more renewable energy coming on stream, those from transport have remained largely unchanged

It is absolutely right that this should be the case. While the UK has been successful in cutting emissions from energy generation quite substantially, with a whole lot more renewable energy coming on stream, those from transport have remained largely unchanged. Meanwhile, a shocking 83% of reporting zones have had to endure illegal levels of air pollution, largely from surface transport.

The important exception is the Conservatives, who recently came under fire from a group of leading scientists for their record in office. This includes abolishing the DECC (the Department of Energy and Climate Change) to make way for the new Brexit department.

The former government scientist David King gives the Tories “no more than three or four out of ten” when it comes to tackling the climate crisis. Tom Burke, an environmental advisor to three former Tory environment secretaries, is even more scathing, calling the Conservatives’ environmental record “a disgrace”. Meanwhile, Greg Archer, of the pressure group Transport and Environment, calculates that the nine-year freeze on fuel duty has put the equivalent of an extra 2.5 million cars on the road.

Their £25bn road expansion programme continues, which cannot frankly be squared with their carbon reduction targets, even if sugared by an eye-catching £2bn pothole-filling fund.

To be fair, it is always easier to criticise the party in power rather than those who make promises from the sidelines. The dispassionate observer might in fact conclude that the further a party is from gaining power, the more radical, even extravagant, their ambitions are.

The Green Party is proposing a “Green New Deal” which “will revolutionise our transport system by ending dependence on carbon”. Their policies include a total ban on “all increased road capacity” and on any new runways. They want all new vehicles to be zero emission by 2030, and alone of the parties, advocate a reduction in travel, helped by incentives for home working. “Even electric vehicles pollute so they are not a solution in themselves,” they assert.

The Lib Dems and Greens have an identical policy to introduce a frequent flyer levy, both noting that 15% of the population are responsible for 70% of flights. I wonder who thought of that first. The Conservatives attacked the Lib Dems for this, saying it amounted to “pricing families out of going on holiday.” For their part, the Tories want aviation to “grow sustainably”, whatever that means.

North of the border, the SNP offers an eye-catching policy of creating the world’s first “zero emission aviation region”, and intends to trial low emission planes from 2021. It is not clear if the party intends to use hydrogen, or a mountain of batteries, but either way, it is one to watch.

They fail to mention, of course, that between 80-85% of the rail system is already nationalised, but then renationalisation is a popular policy, and one that keeps the unions happy, so why draw attention to the reality on the ground?

On the railways, there is a divergence between the parties in terms of ownership, with Labour putting renationalisation as the centrepiece of its rail policy. They fail to mention, of course, that between 80-85% of the rail system is already nationalised, but then renationalisation is a popular policy, and one that keeps the unions happy, so why draw attention to the reality on the ground?

Labour says it will achieve this partly by allowing franchises to expire and then taking them back into central control at that point. That of course means that any franchise operator will simply halt any planned improvements unless they show an immediate payback, and cut services and train lengths which are not specified in their contract to maximise profits while the contract lasts. Why wouldn’t they? The Greens also say they want all trains back into public ownership within 10 years, which too implies a policy based on franchise expiry.

Labour’s rail plans, in fact, look hugely expensive. They include the end of Driver Only Operation, a system that has existed across a substantial part of the network for decades. Every train will henceforth have two employees on board. This item alone will cost upward of £100m a year, assuming the staff can be found. I also note that they refer to these non-driving train staff as “guards”, so it is not even clear if they will have a fare-collecting role. The RMT will be delighted.

They also promise “simpler, more affordable fares”, a “full programme of electrification”, major enhancements such as Crossrail for the North, and steps to enhance rail freight. The Tories provide a long list of cities in the north where they want to enhance the railway. By an extraordinary coincidence, they are the same areas where the Tories want to make electoral gains. The Lib Dems want to prioritise electrification of lines from ports as part of a freight enhancement programme. The Greens want to electrify “all lines that connect cities”.

The Lib Dems intend to “fix the broken fares and ticketing system”, and promise a freeze on commuter and season ticket fares for the duration of a parliament. That of course may not be very long, if recent precedents are anything to go by. They also promise to “reopen smaller stations” and “restore twin-track to major routes”, though the long-standing policy to reopen closed lines seems oddly missing.

The Tories boldly state that they want to “restore many of the Beeching lines”, boasting that they have embarked on the biggest rail investment programme “since Victorian times”. I am bound to observe that this was a soundbite which I coined when a transport minister, and when Theresa Villiers and I had begun a rail spending spree before George Osborne noticed.

There is a degree of agreement emerging across the parties in terms of structure for the railways. The Tories pledge to “end the complicated franchising model” and seem likely to endorse the Williams recommendation for a new railway body that looks not terribly dissimilar to the old Strategic Rail Authority. That body had a short life of only five years before hitting the buffers in 2006.

Labour want a “new publicly owned rail company”, which could be the same, or something more like a recreation of British Rail if the unions get their way. The Lib Dems want a “new Railway Agency”, probably in line with the Williams review. The Greens want to “give councils responsibility for short distance rail franchises”, which to be honest sounds a bit impractical. How can you have a short distance rail franchise?

Meanwhile the SNP will demand “full control of Scotland’s railway system”. In practice this means taking over Network Rail functions. I have not forgotten Plaid Cymru – they support a plethora of rail projects and the creation of a publicly-owned regional bus company for southern Wales, amalgamating Cardiff Bus, Newport Bus and First Cymru.

On buses, there is a welcome cross-party continuation of the recently found enthusiasm for this most used form of public transport. We have already had the firm commitment of £220m from self-proclaimed bus fanatic Boris Johnson, even if this was less than 1% of the extra money announced for road-building the same day.

Labour will “improve bus services by regulating and taking public ownership of bus networks”, and give councils the necessary legal powers and finance to facilitate this. The Green Party has a similar policy. Companies like Stagecoach will not go quietly.

The Conservatives also intend to “give city regions the funding to upgrade their bus, tram and train services to make them as good as London”. Is that the 1986 Act that deregulated buses I can see slowly burning in the grate?

The Conservatives also intend to “give city regions the funding to upgrade their bus, tram and train services to make them as good as London”. Is that the 1986 Act that deregulated buses I can see slowly burning in the grate?

Labour will also introduce free bus travel for the under 25s, which, bearing in mind the free bus pass for older people, reduces the range of people who will actually be paying anything at all.

They will also “reinstate the 3,000 routes cut”, which sounds a bit glib. For a start, some may have been taken up commercially, others covered by reconfiguration of routes, and a
few frankly could not justify reinstatement, any more than every single Beeching cut on the railways could justify a reopening. The
Lib Dems pledge £4.5bn over five years to “restore bus routes”. The Greens will also reinstate lost routes, and sensibly also highlight the need for more bus priority measures.

Plaid Cymru are big on proposing more clean air zones in towns, giving councils power to introduce pollution and congestion charging zones, and advocating a novel bike reward scheme based on a Dutch precedent which will pay people for every mile they cycle to work.

The Lib Dems, I am pleased to say, want to revive the Local Sustainable Transport Fund which I introduced in 2011 and which was successful in deploying small local measures to both cut carbon and help economic growth. They call for 10% of the transport budget to be allocated to cycling and walking, a five-fold increase. The Green Party wants to spend £2.5bn a year on new cycleways and footpaths, built using sustainable materials such as woodchips and sawdust.

About the author:
Norman Baker served as transport minister from May 2010 until October 2013. He was Lib Dem MP for Lewes between 1997 and 2015.

 
This article appears inside the latest issue of Passenger Transport.

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