The Tumbleweed Budget For Transport

Posted by: on Mar 13, 2024 | No Comments

Long gone, it appears, is the idea that the contents of a Budget remain secret until they are announced by the Chancellor. For anyone hoping that transport had been ignored in the media ‘leaks’ but would come good on the day itself, were sadly disappointed. This Budget told us all we need to know about how the current government will treat transport in the General Election.

Back in the heady days of George Osborne as Chancellor, and even as recently as Boris Johnson as Prime Minister, transport was a key force in government policy. Everything from specific grand projects, such as HS2, through to the proposals supporting the Northern Powerhouse, the establishment of new sub-regional transport bodies, the completion and opening of Crossrail, and actually being at the heart of the economic rebalancing of the UK through levelling up, transport was key.

Now transport is barely mentioned in the most important financial announcement of the year leaving everyone to wonder what the Government really wants to achieve with the transport.

The Government has now published its draft Rail Reform Bill which it says will “will leverage private sector innovation” and is “the biggest rail reform programme in a generation.” These ambitions are now being tested during pre-legislative scrutiny by the Transport Select Committee. The deadline for written submissions is 27th March and once these have been considered, and the issues raised, the Committee will consider the need for and potential number of oral sessions. All this should come together in a report before the Summer Recess. But add in consideration of the report by the Government, potentially making changes to the Bill and then finding Parliamentary time and you see that the reform will not happen before the General Election.

But it will enable the Government to say they have moved forward with Great British Railways and in delivering the “simpler, more effective rail system” promised in their 2019 manifesto. This is an attempt to try to take the sting out of Labour’s eventual plans.

So, just like the Budget itself, the Draft Bill is a purely political move.

The Budget itself included a cut in the Department for Transport’s resource spending but name checked a few projects, not least East West Rail, to demonstrate ongoing commitment to transport. There is also talk of the seemingly never-ending reapportioning of the ‘saved’ HS2 money for projects around the country. Add in the freeze in fuel duty, an additional change on business flights, an extension to Freeports tax relief and you have a pretty light-weight Budget for transport.

Probably the most important announcement was that the next Spending Review will take after the General Election, whenever that may be. That Spending Review:

“will put in place a robust and comprehensive strategy for improving public sector productivity, putting these improvements at the heart of departmental settlements”.

In other words, all the real decisions around spending the ‘saved’ HS2 money, around infrastructure priorities and how rail, and other transport methods, will pay for themselves in future sit with the next government.

The Budget left a lot unsaid but that is a deliberate ploy to avoid any hostages to fortune at the General Election. What the shape of transport will really look after the election will now be a subject for the overly optimistic manifestos.

Published in Transport Times