TAPAS.network | 18 June 2024 | Editorial Opinion | Peter Stonham

Plus ça Change...

Peter Stonham

THE MESSAGE we are all hearing from the General Election campaign - at least from everyone but the current Government- is that it is time for a change. What isn’t clear, however, is how that change will play out in the real world, and especially in the world of transport, and what it will mean for the activity of those involved at the front line in planning and delivering transport systems and services.

Statements of intent regarding transport policy always form part of that agenda, of course — not that there are any very clear, comprehensive and cohesive ones being made available at the moment from any of the parties and their Manifestos. These seem to be mainly made up of specific pledges on matters of relative detail like the bus fare cap and the fate of individual road schemes, and vague assertions of ‘new approaches’ to be taken. The practicalities of agreeing strategies and defining guiding principles in making decisions and choices for local and regional transport authorities, and the other nationally responsible transport bodies, will obviously have to wait.

There has been of late, and looks set to remain in transport, a big void in setting out strategic objectives and priorities to make the best use of resources. Wanting economic growth is just a statement of intent, easily applied as a label to justify all manner of proposals. Setting targets to achieve Net Zero to address Climate Change is another good intention too- if not one that figures very strongly in any of the manifestos, bar, not surprisingly, the Greens.

If this General Election is to genuinely to be a point of inflection in the nation’s economic and social development, the trajectory ahead remains highly unclear. We can thus only speculate how things will play out on the ground. The models we have from the past after major changes of government — those led by Attlee, Thatcher and Blair, for example — reflect major ideological shifts and clear new national priorities that provided a reference point for the work of professionals across all the major sectors like education, health, housing, welfare and public services, including transport.

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There has been, and looks set to remain, in transport, a big void in setting out strategic objectives and priorities to make the best use of resources. Wanting economic growth is just a statement of intent, easily applied as a label to justify all manner of proposals. Setting targets to achieve Net Zero is in itself just another good intention too.

The position today looks very different, with only a couple of clear individual signals relating to transport available from the prospective -very likely- new Labour Government: the effective return of rail and bus transport to public ownership, and a commitment to changing the planning system to boost housing supply. This of course, will surely have implications for transport, but these might be very different depending on which framework for driving the delivery of housing provision is followed, and what compromises are to be made in getting homes built quickly by the private sector through much vaunted moves to ‘speed up’ the planning process.

Much less is being said about other broader issues like promoting sustainable mobility, the achievement of Net Zero, and ensuring equitable access to transport services. Clear indications are needed if these are to be priorities, and if so, some guiding principles sent from national to local politicians and practitioners tackling the subject on the ground. Much is still to be defined. How long it might take a new government to at last issue new Local Transport Plan guidance can only be a matter of conjecture. In contrast to the last newly-arriving Labour administration in 1997, there is a big void. This is the position held at that time by Deputy Prime Minister, John Prescott, who was the big hitting presence in environment, transport and regional development policy, ready to get going with the benefit of considerable preparatory work done in Opposition to that end.

With the much more cloudy picture this time, and no obvious policy agenda, there is much to speculate upon. In this issue three expert contributors look at the tough realities and hard choices that will shape the work of those in local transport over the next few years, following the election.

Two thoughtful contributions, from David Leeder and Jonathan Bray, reflect on what might, or might not, be really different with a new Government in place, and in particular upon the national financial context that will constrain the flow of available resources, and on the extent of new thinking we might expect on policy about both mobility provision and the wider planning and local government agenda. We also have a detailed examination from Mark Frost on how a realistic pathway to decarbonisation can be put in place in London. He considers what options the newly re-elected Mayor has available to deliver the ambitious target of achieving Net Zero by 2030, given the policy parameters he has set for his administration locally, and the national framework he must work within.

The verdict of all three of our contributors is that freedom of action on transport is going to be much limited by external matters, both political and economic. Progress is thus likely to depend on creative thinking about which transport projects at the local level can unlock the restricted resources available, to apply them in the most cost-effective and beneficial ways, and with the greatest impact on desirable travel outcomes and supporting sustainable economic growth.

Tensions between what is desirable in transport planning terms, and what is politically acceptable do not seem set to become any easier to resolve, whoever is in the national hot seat on transport

Let’s therefore hope that when the nation has spoken on July 4th some productive discussion can take place- so politicians and practitioners, national and local, can identify common horizons against which to draw up achievable plans. After all, outcome- driven analysis and intervention justification is the key to good decisions, and for that a broad consensus on desired outcomes is rather essential.

What seems a strong bet is that squaring the troublesome trio of economic growth, sustainable development and social equity will still set a problematic context for transport.

Despite all the talk of political change brought by the General Election, thoughts amongst those responsible for the provision of transport systems and their planning will soon need to turn again to the practicalities of that challenge - and in what ways, if any, it will be different.

Peter Stonham is the Editorial Director of TAPAS Network

This article was first published in LTT magazine, LTT894, 18 June 2024.

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