Expert Blog

General Election 2017: Where the parties stand on transport

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The election campaign has entered a new phase. After weeks of politicians claiming that they can’t really discuss policies because their parties haven’t published their respective manifestos yet, we now have some of those manifestos. The Conservatives, Labour and the Liberal Democrats have all published documents for voters to read, internalise and choose between.

Here at Hitachi Capital Vehicle Solutions, we’ve read them too – and thought we’d match them against the five major transport themes that we identified recently. Here goes:  

AIR QUALITY

The Conservative manifesto doesn’t even mention the draft Air Quality Plan that was released earlier this month. But is that any surprise? Theresa May’s Government originally wanted the publication of the draft Plan to be postponed until after the election. When the High Court denied them that luxury, the document that they did publish was rather light on specifics.

Whether this omission is surprising or not, it’s still an omission. It means that the Conservative manifesto doesn’t touch on policies such as the expansion of Clean Air Zones, the raising of diesel taxes, the introduction of a scrappage scheme – all of which a Conservative Government could feasibly legislate for in the next few months.

However, whilst it steers clear of the Plan, the Conservative manifesto doesn’t totally ignore the issue of air quality. It does include the line: ‘We will take action against poor air quality in urban areas.’ And it also promises to invest in the development and proliferation of electric vehicles: ‘We want almost every car and van to be zero-emission by 2050 – and will invest £600 million by 2020 to help achieve it.’

In fact – and happily – electric vehicles are present in all three of the parties’ manifestos. Although there’s not much detail on how they would achieve it, Labour promise to ‘position the UK at the forefront of the development, manufacture and use of ultra-low emission vehicles.’ Whilst the Lib Dems go further by pledging to ‘reform vehicle taxation to encourage sales of electric and low-emission vehicles and develop electric vehicle infrastructure including universal charging points’.

Neither Labour nor the Lib Dems shy away from mentioning their own air quality plans. The former party would introduce a ‘new Clean Air Act’. The latter have several environmental Acts in mind, including a specific ‘Green Transport Act’. What would these involve in practice? The most striking proposal comes from the Lib Dems: a diesel scrappage scheme, followed by a ‘ban [on] the sale of diesel cars and small vans in the UK by 2025’. 

This makes air quality a strangely divisive issue in this election. The parties are united in wanting to improve it, and they all want to do so, in part, by encouraging the uptake of low emission vehicles. But there are also yawning differences in emphasis and in policy. These differences – and the overall debate – will continue well beyond 8th June.  

HEATHROW

The three manifestos give us three different policies on Heathrow. At one end is the Conservative Party, which is determined to proceed with its pre-existing – yet still unlegislated – policy of a third runway at the airport. At the other end are the Liberal Democrats, who are entirely opposed to the third runway, and would prefer to see improvements to airports outside of London. And in the middle are Labour, who welcome the work of the Airports Commission that recommended the expansion of Heathrow in 2015, but stop short of explicitly agreeing with that recommendation themselves.

As we said in our previous post, this argument is going to play out locally in constituencies in the south-west of London. The Conservative challenger in Richmond Park, Zac Goldsmith, previously resigned the seat in protest at his party’s support for a third runway at Heathrow. How will he get on now that that support has solidified into a manifesto commitment?      

HIGH SPEED RAIL

Now that first phase of the High Speed 2 line has finally been approved by Parliament, is seems as though all of the parties want to get on with it. All three manifestos contain promises to complete HS2 – and, indeed, to extend it. The Conservatives, Labour and the Liberal Democrats would bring high-speed rail up through Manchester and Leeds. Labour and the Liberal Democrats would then take it on to Scotland.

There’s a good deal of agreement all round, when it comes to rail expansion. Aside from HS2, several other projects are part of all three parties’ prospectuses, including the Oxford-Cambridge rail link and improved lines in the North. However, the Conservatives are alone in not committing to Crossrail 2 – despite doing so in their 2015 manifesto.       

RAIL NATIONALISATION

The major differences in rail policy are about ownership. As expected, Labour’s manifesto contains a commitment to bring the entire rail network back into public ownership, at which point a Labour government would get hands-on to try to deliver improvements: ‘capping fares, introducing free wi-fi across the network, ensuring safe staffing levels, ending the expansion of driver only operations, and introducing legal duties to improve accessibility for people with disabilities.’

The Conservatives don’t agree with renationalisation, whereas the Lib Dems aren’t entirely averse to it. Tim Farron’s party would create government-run companies to take over two franchises in particular, Southern Rail and Govia Thameslink, which they accuse of ‘severe failings’. The battle is certainly on for commuters’ hearts and votes.

BORROWING FOR INFRASTRUCTURE

Then there is the overarching question: how would the parties pay for their transport policies, and particularly their big infrastructure plans, whilst also bringing the public finances back to health?  

The Conservative manifesto commits to balancing the overall budget – including capital spending – ‘by the middle of the next decade’. Labour’s target is to balance the current budget – which includes day-to-day spending but not infrastructure investment – within five years. The Liberal Democrats are also focused on the current budget, but plan to balance it two years earlier than Labour, by 2020.

That leaves both Labour and the Lib Dems room to borrow a lot more to invest in infrastructure than the Conservatives. However, both parties have an extra rule that would constrain such borrowing: Labour pledge to make sure the national debt (as a percentage of GDP) is lower in 2022 than it is today, while the Lib Dems want to have it falling throughout the next Parliament (unless the economy tips into recession).

The scale of each party’s plans for infrastructure is roughly as you’d expect given their respective fiscal stances. The Tories simply restate the £23 billion National Productivity Investment Fund announced by the Chancellor in his Autumn Statement. The Lib Dems commit to an additional package of £100 billion of infrastructure investment, while Labour propose a £250 billion National Transformation Fund.

That just about covers the main transport policies within these three manifestos. There are, of course, more manifestos to come – from the SNP, the Greens, UKIP, etc. We shall cover them, when they appear, in a separate post.

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