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?


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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Can you have capitalism without capital? Brighton, Ankara, Ghent and the intangible economy

The Fusebox, Brighton. Image: WiredSussex.

As you head north out of Brighton on the A23 things take a distinctly granular turn. The cool bars and trendy eateries give way to second-hand shops and nail bars.

Looming over the area, New England House, an eight-storey brutalist office block, is home to Wired Sussex, a collection of digital and media companies, as well as its offshoot The Fusebox. Here, a collection of entrepreneurs, tech visionaries and creative technologists are seeking to transform their ideas into successful businesses. This island of cutting-edge thinking, surrounded by the evidence of the glaring consequences of austerity, could stand as a synecdoche for the suddenly vogueish concept of the “intangible economy”.

Towards the end of last year, on Radio 4’s Start The Week, Jonathan Haskel, author of Capitalism Without Capital, laid out the features of this brave new economy. The ideas are scalable, have sunk costs, their benefits spill over, and they have synergies with other intangible assets. All of these things are, to a greater or lesser extent, attributes featured in the virtual reality games, apps for care home workers, and e-commerce ideas mapped out by the bright sparks in the Fusebox.

Its manager, Rosalie Hoskins, explains that it exists to support the work of small companies doing creative work. Within these clean white walls they can bounce their ideas off each other and reap the fruits of collaboration. “We’ll provide the doors,” she says. But “it’s up to them to open them.”

One innovative thinker hoping to make her entrance is Maf’j Alvarez. She tells me she studied for a masters in digital media arts at the University of Brighton, and describes herself as an ‘interactive artist’. “Right now I am playing with virtual reality,” she tells me. “There’s a lot of physics involved in the project which explores weight and light. It definitely has a practical application and commercial potential. VR can be used to help people with dementia and also as a learning tool for young people.”

The Fusebox, she says, is “about collaboration. The residents of the Fusebox are in all a similar situation.”

The willingness to work together, identified by Haskell as a key element of the intangible economy, is evident in the Fusebox’s partnership with like minded innovators in Ankara. Direnç Erşahin from İstasyon, a centre for “social incubation” based in the Turkish capital, visited the Fusebox toward the end of last year.

“It was a good opportunity to exchange knowledge about the practice of running a creative hub – managing the place, building a community and so on,” he says.

Erşahin and his colleagues have launched a fact-checking platform – teyit.org – which he believes will provide “access to true information”. The co-operation between the Fusebox in Brighton and İstasyon in Ankara  is “a good opportunity to reinforce a data-oriented approach and university and society interaction,” he argues.

But the interaction between wider society and the denizens of the intangible world is often marked by friction and, ironically, a failure of communication.

This point is underlined by Aral Balkan, who runs a company called indie.ie which aims to develop ethical technologies. “There’s a good reason we have a trust problem,” he says. “It’s because people in mainstream technology companies have acted in ways that have violated our trust. They have developed systems that prey upon individuals rather than empowering them.”

A former Brighton resident, Balkan is almost a walking definition of Theresa May’s “citizen of nowhere”. He is a regular speaker on the TED and digital circuits, and I crossed paths frequently with him when I covered the industry for Brighton’s local newspaper. He left the city last year, chiefly, he tells me, in protest over the UK government’s overweening “snooper’s charter” laws.

He has Turkish and French citizenship and is now based in Malmö, Sweden, while working with the city of Ghent on a radical redevelopment of the internet. “Ghent is a beautiful example of how location affects the work,” he tells me. “They don’t want to be a smart city, they want to encourage smart citizens. We are exploring alternatives.”

Karl-Filip Coenegrachts, chief strategy officer at the City of Ghent, is another believer in the synergies made possible by the intangible economy. “The historic perspective has impacted on the psychology and DNA of the city,” he says. “The medieval castle built to protect the nobility from the citizens not the other way around. People in Ghent want to have their say.”

Left out of this perspective, of course, are those who cannot make their voice heard or who feel they are being ignored. The fissures are easy to find if you look. The future of Belgium’s coalition government, for example, is threatened by Flemish nationalists in the wake of a scandal over the forced repatriation of 100 Sudanese migrants. In Ankara, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has purged local government and continues to stamp on any dissent.

In the UK, the gig economy makes headlines for all the wrong reasons. Back in the area around the Fusebox, the sharp observer will notice, alongside the homeless people curled up in sleeping bags in charity shop doorways, a stream of gig-worker bikers zooming from one order to another.

The intangible economy throws up all-too tangible downsides, according to Maggie Dewhurst, vice chair at the Independent Workers Union of Great Britain. She gives short shrift to the idea of ‘capitalism without capital’.

“It does get a bit irritating when they muddy the waters and use pseudo academic definitions. They pretend tangible assets don’t exist or are free.”

In fact, she adds, “The workers are a human resource.”