Why is transport policy so confused?

Posted by: on Jul 29, 2022 | No Comments

To listen to the Government, it would be easy to think that transport policy needs little attention and is operating efficiently and effectively. However, the reality is that transport policy is confused. But why is that the case and how have we got here?

There has been no shortage of big, set piece transport announcements – Transport Decarbonisation Plan, the Integrated Rail Plan (IRP), the National Bus Strategy and the Jet Zero Strategy – not forgetting of course the Williams-Shapps Plan for Rail.

But the common thread is that these big announcements steadily unravel, with the much-needed details never taking shape.

While the Government may be wholeheartedly committed to HS2 at present, the reality is that the project has changed and will doubtless continue to change – recently, for example, we saw HS2 lose its Golborne Link. In response, the Transport Select Committee has called for the IRP to be thoroughly reassessed so as not to miss opportunities “to address regional imbalances.”

Grant Shapps made himself one of the few, possibly only, Secretaries of State to ensure his legacy by putting his own name on a reform paper. The Williams-Shapps review promised the delivery of the Great British Railways project, but the transition team tasked with delivering the change is still hard at work. With a Transport Bill promised in the recent Queen’s Speech, hopefully we should expect to see progress soon.

One might assume that when it comes to cars the picture might be clearer. However, while the Government can be proud of its commitment to ending the sale of new petrol and diesel cars and vans by 2030, its decision to end the subsidy for new electric cars and shift to improving the charging infrastructure – in the words of the SMMT – sends the ‘wrong message’. At the very least, the decision fails to understand the worries of customers, especially during a ‘cost of living crisis’.

From here we turn to the hugely upbeat National Bus Strategy, which, with a foreword from the bus building, soon-to-be former Prime Minister himself, Boris Johnson, put itself at the heart of transport policy. It wanted authorities to challenge themselves when developing Bus Improvement Plans, encouraging them to be as aspirational as possible.

However, the money set aside to deliver the plans, while not insubstantial, was nowhere near the scale required across the country, resulting in the government marching everyone to the top of the hill only to let them roll slowly back down.
But could it be that the confusion in transport stems from a lack of clarity in other policy areas?

Centre vs local

Levelling up was the signature strategy of the Johnson government but, despite a long White Paper, it never really took shape, leaving the policy dead in the water. Devolution was long talked about but again few moves were made.

As the bus plans, and other policies, showed, the Government often set out very clear requirements when it came to bidding for money. The level of local autonomy was minimal, while central control was maximised.

While the Government had mandated clean air zones, when Manchester progressed these plans, Johnson stated in Parliament that “it is totally wrong to impose measures thoughtlessly that damage business and don’t do very much to protect clean air”.

This level of central control is likely to increase still further.

State vs private

When it comes to the railways, the level of state involvement is often glossed over or ignored. Government ministers proclaim the benefits delivered by privatisation and say they have no control over the issue – something demonstrated during the strikes.

However, in an interview on the rail strikes with RMT General Secretary, Mick Lynch, Robert Jenrick MP, former Secretary of State for CLG, admitted “in effect [over the last two years], a large swath of the railways have been nationalised.”

Across buses and rail, in particular, there is a consistent failure to articulate what the role of the public and private sectors should look like.

Climate change

The net zero target is critical for all, and the Decarbonisation Plan illustrated what needs to happen to reach it; however, as the Climate Change Committee recently found: “Many of the UK’s critical energy, water, digital and transport providers are struggling to take account of the climate-related risks to connected infrastructure systems which could lead to cascading failures in service provision if not addressed”.

A number of organisations across the transport sector even failed to update on their progress for the Understanding climate risks to UK infrastructure report. Electrification of rail lines seems permanently delayed and, as highlighted, the market signals of EVs are, at best, mixed. In the current Conservative leadership battle both candidates appear committed to the Net Zero target but acknowledge that some of the policies design to achieve it may need to be reconsidered.

This lack of clarity is not only apparent in the transport policy but in the lack of integration between modes and the failure to work out finances. With the addition of some Liz Truss “full-fat freeports” the level of confusion increases still further.

There is an opportunity for the new Prime Minister, and presumably the new Secretary of State for Transport, to bring clarity to the sector but only if they address some of the big underlying challenges. If not, then the confusion is set to continue.

My article for Transport Times.