Perhaps not surprisingly having been involved in transport all my working life, I have found it extremely frustrating that, other than in London, transport has remained so low on Labour’s agenda for so long.
Who can remember a national transport commitment- other than perhaps free travel for pensioners in 2005- in any of the last dozen Labour manifestos?
There have been 34 Secretaries of State since the war (the Tories are just as bad!) only possibly Ernest Marples (motorways)and Barbara Castle(seat belts, breathalysers, Metropolitan Transport authorities)- and they were both in the 1960s- are remembered in that role.
And then when transport policy is discussed. It`s about an infrastructure project or local parking charges not really about “policy”.
Despite the vast majority of the population experiencing a transport event every day, whether it’s walking, cycling, driving or being a passenger ( far more frequent than a health or education event surely!) we seem unable to produce anything resembling a transport strategy for the nation.
The first step for a strategy is to articulate its objectives. What is the strategy trying to achieve? While there are a small proportion of the population who delight just in experiencing travelling on a bus or a train ( I worked with some in London Transport!) most use transport, as a means to something else.
I believe transport is about four clear objectives:
- 1. Improving the economy-improving access for individuals to jobs, improving access for businesses to attract people, moving goods more efficiently from manufacturer to supplier, to retailer, etc
- 2. Reducing social exclusion-providing better access to good schools, leisure facilities, shops selling cheaper food, doctors surgeries and hospitals and greater range of workplaces for the unemployed.
- 3. Improving the environment- reducing carbon footprint, the use of fossil fuels, reducing noise etc
- 4. Improving health and personal safety-reducing accidents caused by moving vehicles, reducing pollution in the atmosphere, encouraging more physical ways of getting around (walking – even just the bus stop – cycling etc)
There will be many policies-and even specific infrastructure projects- that will, of course, meet more than one of these objectives.
Most infrastructure investment over the last decade has been about the first objective. Indeeed the DfT in evaluating competing proposals have tended to focus on relief of traffic congestion and the benefits to the economy (Objective 1). Hence the extensive bias to London where congestion is greatest, leading to the current imbalance, quoted by IPPR ,of average transport expenditure per person in London being 100 times that in the North East.
London has a far superior public transport system compared to the rest of the country partly because of this investment and the priority given by mayors and mayoral candidates to transport but also because it is the Mayor, through TfL, that plans and procures the network. The Mayor sets the overall shape of the network and the level of fares. Outside London the scene is very different with the bus operators determining both fares and the network- and very profitably.
The transport objective of reducing social exclusion, surely fundamental to a Labour party agenda, seems to be largely ignored. Most of the media and political leaders live in London where local transport links are good and when outside London travel by car or train.
Approximately 70% of rail journeys are made by individuals in the top 40% of earners, whereas 70% of bus journeys are made by people on lower incomes (bottom 4 deciles).
Many forget that a quarter of the population does not have access to a car. For most of these people outside London the bus is the only means of getting around and for many their local service has reduced in frequency or disappeared. For virtually all outside London bus fares in real terms have more than doubled since Thatcher deregulated bus services outside London in 1986. Many today can no longer afford to travel by bus . Some are compelled, therefore, to buy food at their more expensive local shop compounding their poverty.
When buses outside London were first deregulated Labour said they would reverse this immediately they came to office. If Labour is to be serious about producing a transport strategy to reduce social exclusion it first needs to give London type powers to Transport authorities outside London. Such authorities, comprising local councillors, already exist and are being expanded geographically in the main conurbations; it would not be difficult to establish partnerships of local authorities elsewhere so all of the UK is covered.
Reducing poverty and inequality must be to the forefront of the next manifesto, and a clear transport strategy should be a key tool in that goal.
Mike Parker is chair of LFIG`s Transport Policy Group