With the political parties back from their trips to the seaside (or Manchester, in the Conservatives’ case), what did we learn about their transport policy from this year’s round of conferences?
The most substantial policy development came from the Liberal Democrats in Bournemouth. There, members passed a motion entitled ‘Urgent Action on Air Quality and Health’, noting recent research about the terrible effects of pollution on health, as well as the Supreme Court’s judgment in April that the Government must submit new air quality plans by the end of the year.
The Lib Dem manifesto promised to create Low Emission Zones in the most polluted cities, reform Vehicle Excise Duty to help reduce pollution from cars and implement the Get Britain Cycling report. The conference motion added calls for a scrappage scheme for diesel engines; a ban on diesel vehicles keeping their engines running when parked (including trains at terminuses); a ban on HGVs driving through city centres at rush hour; more ambitious European limits on emissions; and more support for electric cars and buses, including giving them privileged access to town centres, toll roads and airports.
For its part, the Government put out its draft Air Quality Plans for consultation in September, promising to submit a final version to the European Commission by 31st December, in compliance with the Supreme Court judgment. However, these plans only aim to bring nitrogen dioxide levels down to those required by law by 2020 outside London, and 2025 for London. They were supposed to be reached by the beginning of 2010. As a result, ClientEarth has lambasted the plans as ‘another list of meaningless assurances and half-measures,’ and promised to ‘do everything we can to force the Government to come up with a lawful plan, including returning to Court to force them to think again.’
It’s hardly surprising, then, that mention of the plans was notably absent from the speeches of Environment Secretary Liz Truss and Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin, when the Tories met for their conference in Manchester – though McLoughlin did refer to the Volkswagen emission scandal, promising ‘emissions tests that mean what they say. Real world testing with results that we can trust, to protect air quality and give car buyers a fair choice.’ Instead, Truss took the opportunity to claim that Labour ‘want us to abandon our cars’.
London mayoral candidate Zac Goldsmith did bring it up, though, saying that ‘We are going to have to get to grips with one of the great menaces of urban life: air pollution.’ His Labour opponent Sadiq Khan spoke in his own conference speech of ‘tackling our air pollution that is killing 10,000 Londoners every year.’
Instead of pollution, the Conservatives wanted to talk investment. McLoughlin trumpeted his Department’s ‘biggest investment programme in our roads for a generation,’ with ‘over 120 new schemes on our national network’, and Highways England helpfully put out details of projects in the South East, East England and the Midlands – part of the Road Investment Strategy launched by the Coalition Government last year – in the days leading up to Tory conference.
But the big announcement came from George Osborne: a new National Infrastructure Commission, chaired by Lord Adonis, to look at Britain’s needs for the next 30 years. It will have an initial focus on connecting northern cities (including HS3) and London’s public transport network – with proposals on each of these promised by next year’s Budget.
As for Labour, meeting in Brighton, their attention to transport was entirely consumed by plans to bring the railways back into public ownership. The party endorsed a policy statement from the National Executive Committee calling for franchises to be renationalised when they expire. Shadow Transport Secretary Lilian Greenwood told the hall that ‘it is time for our railways to be run under public ownership, in the public interest, with affordable fares for all.’