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Party Conferences 2021: What did the leading party conferences tell us about the transport industry? 

Reflecting on the party conference season, our Founder and Chief Executive, Jo Field analyses transport policy announcements and insights from the Labour and Conservative party conferences.

With transport central to pandemic recovery, net zero and ‘levelling up’, it is no surprise that the Labour and Conservative conferences featured vibrant conversations about the future of transport. In front of packed audiences, transport fringe events captured the complexities and possibilities embedded within each area of transport policy. 

Net Zero

The Prime Minister continues to portray the Government as being fully committed to decarbonisation and supporting the public investment needed to make it a reality. But, with critics saying their climate package is too small and the Chancellor, Rishi Sunak, increasingly stating his proud fiscal conservatism, there are question marks over the substance of these claims. The Shadow Chancellor, Rachel Reeves, has made a £28bn annual commitment to green investment in an attempt to position Labour as the genuine party of the green industrial revolution, placing pressure on the Government ahead of the forthcoming Autumn Budget. 

Rail 

Each conference had a considerable focus on the organisation of the railways. The Transport Secretary, Grant Shapps MP, and his ministers relayed the vision for a customer-led railway outlined in the Williams-Shapps plan for rail, which was published in May this year. Regularly highlighting the widespread fares and ticketing reform under Great British Railways (GBR), ministers asserted that this new model will lure customers back after the pandemic and build public confidence in rail over time. 

While Labour stepped back from an ideological commitment to wholesale nationalisation of key industries, including rail, shadow ministers have stated they remain open to public ownership on a case by case basis. 

On major rail projects, the significant announcements from the Conservatives are earmarked for the long overdue Integrated Rail Plan (IRP), expected to be published later this month. The plan is expected to unveil how major rail projects will work together to deliver reliable train services for the North and Midlands. The Labour Party placed its full support behind major infrastructure projects including HS2 (including the Eastern leg), Northern Powerhouse Rail and the Transpennine upgrade. 

An emphasis on the importance of rail freight was shared by both parties, with both pointing to HS2’s core value as a capacity, rather than speed, railway – it will free up other lines for freight and passenger journeys alike. Echoing the Transport Decarbonisation Plan published in May, ministers and shadow ministers alike were at pains to highlight rail’s potential to take freight off the road, with the Conservatives pointing to government grants that are currently supporting that transition. 

When it comes to rail electrification, Labour’s ambition stretches beyond that of the governing party. Shadow Rail Minister, Tan Dhesi, is a vocal advocate for rail electrification, and has committed to a mass rolling programme of electrification as key to decarbonising the industry. In contrast, the Conservatives have cut many electrification projects. When asked about this, Secretary of State for Transport, Grant Shapps pointed to the Conservatives’ superior record of electrification compared to New Labour, but did not commit to accelerating the rate of electrification that many industry bodies say is needed. There are hopeful noises around the party about hydrogen and battery power in place of electrification – but given these technologies are a fair way off use, the current trajectory suggests diesel trains will retain their dominance for the foreseeable future.

Electric vehicles (EVs)

With new sales of petrol and diesel cars to be banned in the UK by 2030, the question of transition to EVs has become increasingly pressing. While no new policy commitments emerged from either party, debate continued around how to increase uptake of EVs. Introducing larger government subsidies to incentivise EV purchase has been considered, but conference fringes indicate this could provoke internal backlash about excessive government interference in the market, and how far the taxpayer should be funding the transition.  

As well as focusing on incentives, Labour ministers are straining to connect EVs to more fundamental questions about mobility. Shadow Green Transport Minister, Kerry McCarthy, said a ‘just transition’ would not only mean replacing vehicles with electric alternatives, but significantly altering the transport system and creating more liveable neighbourhoods. McCarthy further pointed out that the UK needs a serious industrial strategy to decarbonise the EV supply chain.

Buses

Buses found their way into the Prime Minister’s keynote speech at the Conservative conference, reiterating some of the sentiment and a flagship policy announcement from the Government’s National Bus Strategy. As part of his levelling up vision, Boris Johnson outlined the need to ensure everyone had access to a reliable bus service and repeated his government’s commitment to deliver 4,000 zero emission buses. 

Nonetheless, buses seldom featured in discussions outside of the main conference hall, suggesting a gap between rhetoric and real policy priorities. Indeed, Labour ministers and influencers called out the Government on their reflexive deferral to their 4,000 zero emission bus policy, and questioned where their plan was to achieve this goal. They sought instead to focus on how buses should be part of multi-modal transport systems. 

Aviation 

While Labour largely dodged the question of aviation, the Conservative Minister for Aviation, Maritime and Security, Robert Courts MP, placed his full weight behind the aviation sector, including the new freeports. While recognising the difficulties of decarbonising the sector, he stated its importance to the economy nationally and regionally. 

Air quality

Concerns around air quality have infiltrated public consciousness in recent years, becoming a major anxiety for those living in urban areas. This heightened awareness was reflected in the Labour Fringe events, as air quality featured in many discussions about transport. Politicians and influencers were keen to point to the success of local councils in implementing clean air zones, and the Welsh Labour Government’s climate ministry that has placed air quality as an utmost priority. Shadow Minister for Air Quality, Ruth Jones MP, also stated Labour’s commitment to a new Clean Air Act. 

On the contrary, debate about air quality seldom featured at Conservative Fringe events. With the Conservatives’ support base generally being outside metropolitan areas and Labour councils pioneering the way on local initiatives, it seems this issue may not get the national direction to match the urgency for improvement felt in parts of the country. 

Looking to the future

Both parties showed a firm commitment to transport investment. Labour portrayed a clearer vision of a low-carbon transport future through mass electrification, investment in multi-modal transport systems, and empowered local communities. For the Conservatives, transport remains a key subsidiary to the levelling up and decarbonisation agendas. Should the detail back up the promise we can be confident of long-term transport investment. 

While the party conferences offer promising signs, it is important that we, as an industry, continue making the case for transport infrastructure, as well as communicating the benefits and engaging the public from an early stage. The sector is at the forefront of delivering net zero, so transport businesses must make their voices heard to shape the policy debate.