Election 2017: What are the parties promising on transport?

A lovely train. Image: Getty.

Transport is important. I am assuming, dear reader, from the fact you are on this website at all that you are well aware of this.

Our political leaders, though, often neglect transport. It’s lower on voters’ priority lists than hospitals or schools, capital investment is easier to cut than revenue spending and, anyway, if a minister throws all their energy into getting a new railway line built, some other government will get to snip the ribbon in about 15 years time. Throw in the fact that building anything in this country tends to annoy a small but vocal crowd of angry homeowners and it’s little wonder so few politicians are banging the drum for new roads and rails.

This year’s manifestos are not completely silent, though – so what is the next government likely to do to keep us moving?

Let’s start with the favourites.

The Tories

Education gets around five pages of the Tory manifesto. The NHS gets four; housing gets two.

Transport doesn’t quite manage one.

But length isn’t everything, it’s what you do with it that counts, so is that page any good?

Well... no.

There’s a promise of “one of the largest-ever investment programmes in our roads and railway”, worth £40bn by the end of the decade. But this is one of those figures that may not be as big as it sounds: in recent years, the Department for Transport has generally been getting around £7-8bn in capital funding every year, so in the three years between here and 2020 you’d expect around £25bn anyway.

And much of the extra cash is likely to be swallowed up by a couple of major projects. To whit:

“We will continue our programme of strategic national investments, including High Speed 2, Northern Powerhouse Rail and the expansion of Heathrow Airport.”

Or, to put it another way: don’t go expecting the Leeds Supertram to be back on the agenda any time soon, lads.

Elsewhere, in a section on the National Productivity Investment Fund, we are promised:

“...£740 million of digital infrastructure investment, the largest investment in railways since Victorian times, £1.1 billion to improve local transport and £250 million in skills by the end of 2020.”

This also sounds exciting, but the fact they don’t put a figure on it, combined with the vagueness of the answer, suggests to me that the lion’s share of that “largest investment since Victorian times” is going on those major projects listed above.

That’s not to say they’re not important. High Speed 2 should help deal with the capacity constraints on the West Coast Main Line. The Northern Powershouse Rail, thing, too, is a vital step if we’re ever to rebalance the economy in this country.

But what’s really noteworthy about that list is what’s not on it: Crossrail 2, expected to be the next major project to hit London, is nowhere to be seen. It was in the 2015 manifesto, so its exclusion is likely significant. It might well be dead.

The rest of the transport section is pretty vague: extra motorway lanes, extra rail capacity, “new lines and stations” and support for councils building cycle networks. There’s also a promise to push ahead with electric vehicles and low-emission buses.

Zac Goldsmith is sad. Image: Getty.

ast but not least, there’s the promise to expand Heathrow. This, while expected, has the amusing side effect of meaning that Zac Goldsmith – who left the Conservative party to fight a bi-election on an anti-Heathrow ticket, and lost – is now standing as a Conservative candidate on a pro-Heathrow ticket. Poor Zac. Nothing ever goes right for you does it?

Labour

The opposition is promising a “National Transformation Fund that will invest £250 billion over ten years in upgrading our economy” – that’ll cover all infrastructure, but transport is likely to be a big part.

  • Specific projects promised a Corbyn government’s love include:
  • High Speed 2, from London to Birmingham, on to Leeds and Manchester, and then all the way to Scotland;
  • Crossrail of the North – that’s Northern Powerhouse Rail in disguise;
  • Completing what used to be known as the Varsity Line, and is now apparently the “Science Vale” transport arc from Oxford to Cambridge through Milton Keynes;
  • Crossrail 2! Oh, huzzah.
  • And, more surprisingly, a new Brighton Main Line. Why not.

There’s also a promise of rail electrification, especially in Wales and the west, which is a policy that has been popping up in manifestos literally since the Second World War, so I’ll believe it when I see it.

Labour’s most prominent transport policy, though, is rail nationalisation: an endto the franchise system, and a return of public ownership. This, we’re told, would mean

“...capping fares, introducing free wi-fi across the network, ensuring safe staffing levels, ending the expansion of driver only operations, and introducing legal duties to improve accessibility for people with disabilities.”

Just like in the British Rail days.

Elsewhere, the manifesto promises better regulation of bus routes; retrofitting diesel buses; and reforming taxi regulation, so watch out Uber. There’s also talk of a few specific road projects to relieve bottle necks – the A1 North and Severn Bridge are both mentioned – and getting the National Infrastructure Commission to work on upgrading the National Cycle Network.

Lastly, the manifesto “recognises the need for additional air capacity in the south east” but stops short of promising to expand Heathrow. First, we need to deal with noise, air quality and climate change issues. I think that’s a “We’ll see”, as my mum used to say when she wanted to shut me up.


The LibDems

At first glance, the yellows don’t seem very interested in transport: there’s no transport section in their manifesto, and it took me a while to find its policies,  buried in the “families and communities” section.

There you’ll find a hodge pordge of ideas: electrification, reopening of stations, “ensuring that new rail franchises include a stronger focus on customer”, apparently through the medium of a Rail Ombudsman. It’s also promising a “Young Person’s Bus Discount Card” for 16-21 year olds, presumably to make buses cool again.

The major investments promised are a familiar list: Crossrail 2, HS2, HS3 (that’s the northern one again; does it need that many names?), and the Oxford-Cambridge link, now going by the name “East West Rail”.

In terms of aviation, the party wants a “strategic airports policy for the whole of the the UK”; it’s opposed to Heathrow expansion.

And finally, the party also backs London Overground taking over more suburban rail services. That one we can get behind.

The others

The transport section of UKIP’s manifesto is promised “keeping Britain moving” which is an ironic title, because its two big polices are scrapping HS2 and ending road tolls, two policies calculated to stop Britain moving entirely.

It also opposes the Thames Crossing from Thurrock  to Gravesend, but is in favour of one further east. And it’s tentatively supportive of better east-west links in the north (though it doesn’t refer to them by any of their many, many names).

Less predictably, it’s in favour of the transition to zero emission vehicles, and while it opposes Heathrow expansion it thinks it’s found an alternative in reopening Manston Airport in Thanet, Kent. This is not a joke.

The Green party, unsurprisingly, likes green transport. It’s promising to nationalise the railways, re-regulate buses, invest in a series of new rail links... On the whole, except for the promise to cancel airport expansion, it’s not a million miles away from Labour.

Transport is a devolved matter, which is nice, because it gets me out of doing the SNP or Plaid, I’ve read quite enough manifestos for one day.  Phew.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and also has a Facebook page now for some reason. 

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There isn’t a single national housing market – so we need multiple models of local regeneration, too

Rochdale. Image: Getty.

This week’s budget comes ten years after the 2007 financial crisis. The trigger for that crisis was a loss in confidence in mortgages for homes, with banks suddenly recognising the vulnerability of loans on their books.

In the last ten years, the UK’s cities and regions have followed very different paths. This week’s focus on housing affordability is welcome, but it will be a challenge for any chancellor in the coming decade to use national policy to help towns up and down the country. Local housing markets differ drastically. The new crop of city-region mayors are recognising this, as rents in parts of south Greater Manchester are on average double the rents in parts of the north of the city-region.

When it comes to buying a home, politicians are increasingly articulate about the consequences of inequity in our housing system. But we must recognise that, for 9m citizens who live in social rented homes, the prospects of improvements to properties, common areas and grounds are usually tied to wider projects to create new housing within existing estates – sometimes involving complete demolition and rebuilding.

While the Conservative governments of the 1980s shrank the scale of direct investment in building homes for social rent, the Labour governments from the late 1990s used a sustained period of growth in property prices to champion a new model: affordable housing was to be paid for by policies which required contributions to go to housing associations. Effectively, the funding for new affordable housing and refurbished social homes was part of the profit from market housing built next door, on the same turf; a large programme of government investment also brought millions of social rented homes up to a decent standard.

This cross-subsidy model was always flawed. Most fundamentally, it relies on rising property prices – which it is neither desirable nor realistic to expect. Building more social homes became dependent on ratcheting up prices and securing more private profit. In London, we are starting to see that model come apart at the seams.

The inevitable result has been that with long social housing waiting lists and rocketing market prices, new developments have too often ended up as segregated local communities, home to both the richest and the poorest. They may live side by side, but as the RSA concluded earlier this year, investment in the social infrastructure and community development to help neighbours integrate has too often been lacking. Several regeneration schemes that soldiered on through the downturn did so by building more private homes and fewer social rented homes than existed before, or by taking advantage of more generous legal definitions of what counts as ‘affordable housing’ – or both.

A rough guide to how house prices have changed since 2007: each hexagon is a constituency. You can explore the full version at ODI Leeds.

In most of England’s cities, the story does not appear to be heading for the dramatic crescendo high court showdowns that now haunt both developers and communities in the capital. In fact, for most social housing estates in most places outside London, national government should recognise that the whole story looks very different. As austerity measures have tightened budgets for providers of social housing, budgets to refurbish ageing homes are under pressure to do more with less. With an uncertain outlook for property prices, as well as ample brownfield and greenfield housing sites, estates in many northern towns are not a priority for private investors in property development.

In many towns and cities – across the North and the Midlands – the challenges of a poor quality built environment, a poor choice of homes in the local are, and entrenched deprivation remain serious. The recent reclassification of housing associations into the private sector doesn’t make investing in repairs and renewal more profitable. The bespoke ‘housing deals’ announced show that the government is willing to invest directly – but there is anxiety that devolution to combined authorities simply creates another organisation that needs to prioritise building new homes over the renewal of existing neighbourhoods.


In Rochdale, the RSA is working with local mutual housing society RBH to plan for physical, social and economic regeneration at the same time. Importantly, we are making the case – with input from the community of residents themselves – that significant investment in improving employment for residents might itself save the public purse enough money to pay for itself in the long-run.

Lots of services are already effective at helping people find work and start a job. But for those for whom job searching feels out of reach, we are learning from Rochdale Borough Council’s pioneering work that the journey to work can only come from trusting, personal relationships. We hear time and again about the demoralising effect of benefits sanctions and penalties. We are considering an alternative provision of welfare payments, as are other authorities in the UK. Importantly, residents are identifying clearly the particular new challenges created by new forms of modern employment and the type of work available locally: this is a town where JD Sports is hiring 1000 additional workers to fulfil Black Friday orders at its warehouse.

In neighbourhoods like Rochdale’s town centre, both national government and the new devolved city-region administration are considering an approach to neighbourhood change that works for both people and place together. Redevelopment of the built environment is recognised as just one aspect of improving people’s quality of life. Residents themselves will tell you quality jobs and community facilities are their priority. But without a wider range of housing choices and neighbourhood investment locally, success in supporting residents to achieve rising incomes will mean many residents are likely to leave places like Rochdale town centre altogether.

Meaningful change happen won’t happen without patience and trust: between agencies in the public sector, between tenants and landlords, and between citizens and the leaders of cities. This applies as much to our planning system as it does to our complex skills and employment system.

Trust builds slowly and erodes quickly. As with our other projects at the RSA, we are convinced that listening and engaging citizens will improve policy-making. Most of those involved in regeneration know this better than anyone. But at the national level we need to recognise that, just as the labour market and the housing market vary dramatically from place to place, there isn’t a single national story which represents how communities feel about local regeneration.

Jonathan Schifferes is interim Director, Public Services and Communities, at the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA).