A pragmatic consensus on transport policy has been shattered by the return of ‘war on the motorist’ rhetoric. We must do better

Our current PM has boxed his government into being the motorist’s friend

I have been on a sabbatical for a few years and have been catching up on transport policy from a fresh perspective. I have been shocked by the vacuum when it comes to strategy. What exactly is it that the government is trying to achieve?

The ‘war on the motorist’ has been weaponised by a desperate government facing oblivion in the polls in the same way as identity politics and Islamophobia have been aimed at whipping up fear and hatred. We can surely do better than this.

When the Conservatives took over from Labour in 2010 there was no dramatic shift in transport policy. Rail investment was seen as virtuous and essential if we were to achieve our economic and climate change commitments as well as regional levelling up. I worked closely with the then secretary of state for transport, Philip Hammond, on promoting the case for High-Speed Rail. It was after all promoted by David Cameron when he was leader of the opposition, and riding with the huskies in the Artic, as a key policy to back up his electioneering slogan: “vote blue, go green”.

HS2 was originally adopted as an alternative to building a third runway at Heathrow to show that the Conservatives were not anti-travel. That was before Cameron would go on to say “get rid of all the green crap”, but nevertheless the direction of transport policy, while not as radical as many of us would have liked in terms of changing travel behaviour, was not bottom of the class. Even Boris Johnston – a PM who had a better grounding in transport than any of his predecessors and who certainly talked about it more – appreciated the importance of buses and trains to the economy. It wasn’t transport policy that made many of us angry with him as PM.

But now, anyone who promotes what we had thought had become mainstream common sense transport policies risks being demonised as being part of the car-hating sinister mob. Would someone please explain to me why the concept of 15-minute cities has been described by none other than the secretary of state for transport, Mark Harper, in this way? Being able to access work, leisure and shops easily without having to drive by car was always seen as a desired holy grail by transport planners. Now it’s ‘Big Brother’ local authorities telling us where and when we go, Soviet-style.

The comments were made some six months ago, but I’m still incensed by them

In my view this has crossed a line. If I were working as a civil servant or in one of the government’s transport agencies I would not hesitate to call him out for it. It’s fine to have legitimate debates about ownership and control and the merits of HS2, but to resort to fabricated rhetoric that you would associate with Putin or Trump is unacceptable and not something we should have any truck with in this country. The comments were made some six months ago, but I’m still incensed by them.

If you want proof that the Conservatives’ record on transport while in office has been deteriorating you only have to read ‘Network North’, the cobbled together response to the scrapping of HS2 north of Birmingham. What exactly are the strategic outcomes that this rag bag of commitments – many of them announced before and mainly unfunded and lacking any investment appraisal – expected to achieve? A few headlines in the tabloids and regional press perhaps, but this is no substitute for a considered strategic document you would expect from government.

It’s against this political background that a potential future Labour government will have to operate as well as an inheritance on public finances which is the worst in living memory and probably much worse than we currently expect. The landscape could not be more different than 1997 when the finances were much healthier and there was a wider acceptance that we couldn’t deal with traffic congestion just by building new roads and that we had to focus on modal shift away from the car.

The toxicity around paying for road use and cutting pollution will mean that we are unlikely to experience the radical shift in transport policy associated with the last time Labour replaced a Conservative government. It’s harder to win consensus for any measure which increases motoring costs during a cost-of-living crisis, although ironically there is not the same backlash when public transport fares go up. This explains why you have to go back 13 years for the last increase in fuel duty and why politicians are like a rabbit caught in a car headlight when it comes to discussing how we pay for roads when the road fleet is electrified. Labour needs to set up both a cross-party commission and a citizens jury to look at the options.

There has been much talk following the budget about the £40bn funding gap if National Insurance is to be abolished. Why no focus on the £40bn revenue lost when fuel duty goes? Many people argue that this funding gap will force a future government to act and introduce a new tax/charge on road use. If this government is anything to go by, then I wouldn’t bet on it. They have boxed themselves into being the motorist’s friend regardless of the financial, social and environmental consequences. If we don’t replace fuel duty, then the projected growth in traffic will double. The congestion associated with this makes it anti-motorist in my book. And what about the equity implications of people on low incomes paying for road infrastructure and not owning a car?

The centrepiece of Labour’s transport plans is public ownership of rail and more freedom for local authorities to regulate buses and set up municipally-owned bus companies. This would bring the UK more in line with how public transport is delivered across most of Europe.

While both are popular with the public don’t expect them to move the dial much when it comes to patronage. I would classify them as second order issues as opposed to first order issues such as motoring taxation, car parking charges and bus priority which all would have a much bigger impact on modal split. They are all, however, more difficult to deliver politically, and unpopular with the public.

When Labour came to power in 1997, they implemented these first order policies and what was unique during this period was that a politician as senior as the deputy prime minister John Prescott held the transport brief. This gave a priority and gravitas to the portfolio not been seen before or since. Policies then were aimed at changing travel behaviour. Now they are aimed at not upsetting the motoring lobby. The challenge for Labour is to convince sceptics that shielding road users from paying their true social, environmental and congestion costs, and in future even covering road infrastructure costs, will not only have a negative impact on the economy and impose a brake on economic growth but will also mean traffic congestion becomes even more intolerable.

Keir Starmer is not ideological and will be guided by what works

Keir Starmer is not ideological and will be guided by what works. Ideologues on both the right and the left have a jaundiced and simplistic view of ownership. They claim that the doubling in rail patronage was all down to privatisation and the decline in bus use is all down to bus de-regulation. Neither is accurate. Rail growth was propelled more by the first order issues I mentioned and by generous taxpayer funding. The economy was also growing which generated more rail journeys as well as road congestion which gave a competitive edge to rail. While road congestion is a friend for rail it is the enemy for buses which get snarled up in slow moving traffic. For every 10% decline in bus speeds, we lose 10% of patronage. The only way round it is to mitigate the impact of congestion with effective bus priority.

With unrealistic budget cuts set for public services and transport at the lower end of the pecking order compared with protected services such as health, education and defence, we face a drastic financial outlook for the DfT. Throw into the mix the fact that around a third of local authorities are facing bankruptcy then you get a view of the mountain that will have to be climbed. If bringing rail franchises into public control when they expire and regulating bus services can demonstrate better value for money and improved service levels, then you can anticipate extensive roll out.

With all the headwinds you had best buckle up because it’s going to be a bumpy ride.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Professor David Begg is a former chair of the government’s Commission for Integrated Transport and was the chair of the Transport Committee of the City of Edinburgh Council when the radical Greenways bus priority measures were introduced in the 1990s. He has been a board member of FirstGroup, TfGM and TfL. He will be the keynote speaker at the Transport Times conference, Transport after the General Election, in London on May 23. Visit transporttimes.co.uk for details.

This story appears inside the latest issue of Passenger Transport.

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