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So what’s next for Transport policy now that the Conservatives are in power in the UK?

A personal perspective from Former Transport Minister and Strategic Advisor to Clearview Traffic Group, Dr Stephen Ladyman.

Number 2015 on road and sun beam.

When Clearview asked me to write this Blog, we expected that I would be doing it sometime in June, when the outcome of weeks of coalition building was known and future transport policy started to become clear.

The fact that the Conservatives have won an outright majority means, whether you like the result or not, that at least we can use the Conservative manifesto as our source document for working out what the Government plans for transport.

Of course, transport is more than just roads – so let’s start with trains, planes, and general policy.

We can expect HS2 to push on – the Government has enough of a majority even without the help of northern MPs on the opposition benches to ignore the potential rebels from the Conservative ranks whose constituencies are affected by the route.

They’ve also promised a continued programme of rail electrification and the roll out of smart ticketing, but how far they will get with either before the next election is less clear.

In all, a 38bn rail investment package over the Parliament is on the table.

On aviation, they have promised a decision on airport capacity as soon as the Airports Commission reports. After the 2010 election, I was interviewed by Transport Times about the Conservative promise not to build a new runway at Heathrow, a promise which helped them win a cluster of West London constituencies.

I predicted they would set up a Commission, which would inevitably recommend further Heathrow expansion, and then claim after the 2015 election that their hands were tied and in the national interest they must lift their objection. I should have put money on it!

On general policy issues, the Government promises more transport decision-making devolved to local transport partnerships and support for regional infrastructure plans. They will also take steps to use transport investment to close the engineering skills gap.

Which brings us to roads.

The manifesto is almost silent on road safety (see my last blog if you want to know why it doesn’t appear much in manifestos). In a section on cycling and greener motoring they say they want to double the number of journeys made by bicycle and will spend 200m to make cycling safer, ‘so we reduce the number of cyclists and other road users killed or injured on our roads every year’ which is the entirety of what the manifesto says on road safety, and on cycling for that matter.

The Tories did suggest during the election they would extend the freeze on fuel duty, but not for how long – and the manifesto makes no promise to do so. It refers only to the fact that they have (past tense) frozen fuel duty.

There is, however, a commitment to invest in road infrastructure and we know Highways England was given a five-year budget before the election, which is good news.

Now the election is behind us, expect to see some of the high ticket, eye-catching schemes that were in the announced plans but which were always going to struggle to deliver value for money start to make way for more sensible projects that, whilst being less newsworthy, will deliver better cost benefit.

I’ve blogged previously that the much-touted tunnel under Stonehenge would not stack up to close examination and it’s interesting to see that the Conservative manifesto offers only ‘improvements to the A303’ which is very different to the pre-election suggestion that the A303 would be dualled all the way to Exeter.

In total, they promise a 15bn investment in roads including 6bn in the northern road network, with a specific promise that this will include ‘dualling and widening’ the A1 north of Newcastle (note the wording – this is not a promise that the improvements will always involve new dual carriageway).

Of course, most roads are local roads and on local councils, and local council funding, the manifesto is silent.

The Local Government Association, which is now Conservative controlled, has in recent days said that further cuts in council spending power is not an option – but they are clearly worried that the Chancellor might disagree.

They have previously said that the 2015-16 settlement in England amounted to an average 8.8% cut and central funding for councils has shrunk by 40% since 2010. If schools budgets are to be protected and with the ageing population making greater demands on care funding, it is difficult to see how local council road spending can be improved anytime soon.

Readers of my previous blogs or people who attended the Clearview road shows will know that I believe the Climate Change Act carbon reduction targets cannot be achieved unless all cars and vans are zero emission vehicles by 2050.

The Conservative manifesto is now quite specific on this point.

Their aim, they say is ‘for almost every car and van to be a zero emission vehicle by 2050’ and they will spend 500m over the next Parliament to achieve it, although they don’t say how or on what the money will be spent.

So how will the next five years pan out? Captain Barbossa, in the Pirates of the Caribbean says of the ‘Pirates Code’ – ‘the code is more what you’d call “guidelines” than actual rules’.

He could have been speaking of Party manifestos.

By which, I don’t mean to suggest that political parties don’t take them seriously nor that they include in them promises that they don’t hope to deliver – indeed, they are written very cleverly to ensure that they contain as few hostages to fortune as possible.

But the promises about specific projects that people may have inferred from newspaper headlines during the election are usually far more carefully caveated in the manifestos.

Of some things you can be sure.

We live in a global economy – and stuff happens. Between now and the next election there will be a period of economic difficulty that will require plans to be re-programmed or new priorities will emerge.

Also, every road improvement, safety initiative and traffic investment will have its supporters but also its detractors and sometimes the detractors will win.

So by all means, use the Government’s manifesto and pre-election comments as a signal of its intentions – but remember the words of Captain Barbossa, and treat them more as guidelines than actual rules.

To find out more about Clearview Traffic, please get in touch here.

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