14 October 2021

The Prime Minister, who is known to favour big and occasionally fantastical infrastructure projects, said in his speech to the Conservative party conference that transport is “one of the supreme leveller-uppers”. On the other hand, decarbonisation, which hints at disruptive price increases and heavily encouraged or even enforced modal shift, is the underlying imperative for transport in the coming decade. Samantha Sleights and Hannah Dordi scanned the transport agenda horizon at the party conferences.


Labour conference


Public ownership
Shadow Transport Secretary Jim McMahon made his views on the public ownership of public transport explicitly clear throughout the Labour conference. He repeated at multiple fringe events that he advocates for public ownership and democratic control of transport and reiterated this in his speech, saying he believes in “public transport run for the public good, with democratic control and a strong role for our transport unions.” He was supported in his views by the head of multiple trade unions.

Green transport
Ahead of COP26, Labour shadow Ministers highlighted the importance of the green transport revolution. Mr McMahon underlined the importance of “new hydro and battery technology” but stated that public transport as a whole requires investment to ensure the public choose public transport over private vehicles.

This was emphasised by shadow Rail Minister Tan Dhesi, who believes that it is railways which can be at the heart of the green recovery. He explained how trains are the lowest polluting modes of transport, releasing only 1% of carbon emissions. Like Mr McMahon, Mr Dhesi stated that only significant investment into rail could really begin the green revolution.

Kerry McCarthy, shadow Minister for Green Transport, stated that financial incentives would potentially be necessary to entice people into buying electric cars. Explaining that the cost of electric vehicles is so high, she emphasised that the average household would not be able to afford an electric vehicle which can cost on average around £30,000.

Investment needed in airports and ports
Jim McMahon stated that Labour’s recovery from the pandemic would be fundamentally British. The party would prioritise buying British and investing in British companies. A common theme from him throughout the conference was the emphasis on devolution and he again stated that any recovery from the pandemic should be hardwired into devolution.

Mike Kane MP, shadow Transport Minister, said that the aviation sector has gone backwards due to the lack of Government investment throughout the pandemic. On the issue of airports and ports, he was clear that only great investment would help them achieve net zero and aid their recovery after the pandemic.

Dan Norris, Mayor of the West of England, said that he believed there should be a pause on any form of airport expansion if the country is serious about challenging the climate emergency. He explained that if Britain is to increase its position in the world, achieving net zero must be put first, even if that means pausing the upscaling of airports.


Conservative  conference

Recovery from the pandemic through the newly established Great British Railways was the key message from party conference. Transport Secretary Grant Shapps highlighted that the next goal of Government was to attract passengers back to the railway. Minister said that the leisure market was already exceeding pre-pandemic levels and focus was predominantly on attracting passengers back to key commuter routes.

Due to the Government being delayed in publishing the integrated rail plan, a lot of ministerial answers centred around answers being contained in the plan, namely on HS2, which was the most contentious issue of the conference apart from the Planning Bill. Fringes were seemingly split into two groups: industry proponents of the project and councillors saying that the most expensive infrastructure project was a vote-loser.

Green transport was additionally widely discussed throughout conference, with industry calling for sound policy developments to encourage private investment. The “fluffy” transport decarbonisation plan was noted on multiple occasions, with industry calling on the Government to stress that the technology included would go ahead.

“Overheating of the south”

The phrase “overheating of the south” had been mentioned throughout fringes focusing on ‘levelling up’. 

Katy Balls of The Spectator said that in conversations with Conservative MPs who represented a southern constituency, the ‘levelling up’ agenda benefited southern constituencies by easing the pressure on housing and housing delivery in their constituencies by making the places where people grow up, particularly the north, more attractive, with people more likely to stay. Ms Balls argued that levelling up the north would lessen the need for young people to move to the south for career goals, which alleviated the need for housing development in the region.

This echoed Boris Johnson’s speech in July 2021 in which he said that levelling up was not just aimed at creating opportunity throughout the UK, but “about relieving the pressure in the parts that are overheating”.

Despite numerous MPs emphasising that levelling up is less about bridges and bypasses and much more about each area of the country having equality of opportunity, Prime Minister Boris Johnson took the main stage to highlight transport infrastructure’s role in levelling up. Boris Johnson said transport was "one of the supreme leveller-uppers" and that the Government will “do northern powerhouse rail”. He also said the Government plans to "link up the cities of the midlands and the north.

One of the key takeaways from the Conservative party fringes concerning levelling up was the statement by Levelling Up Minister Neil O’Brien who stated that metrics will be included in the upcoming White Paper.


GBR: The future of rail

Secretary of State Grant Shapps and Rail Minister Chris Heaton-Harris focused on outlining how Great British Railways would improve the railway for passengers by putting passengers at heart of the new system.

Mr Shapps added that the Bill to implement GBR was not yet ready but would be presented within this Parliament. Mr Heaton-Harris stated he was a “legislation sceptic” and the Bill would be a skeleton framework, but many of the reforms outlined in the White Paper could be implemented using powers already established..

On a commitment to the eastern leg of HS2, Mr Shapps said it would be set out in the IRP.

Mr Heaton-Harris stated the Government was much more informed through the sharing of data by train operating companies. Mr Heaton-Harris said TOCs held data, but through the emergency contracts and National Rail contracts, data was much more accessible to the Government and would be shared “far and wide” to encourage private investment.

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