You might have heard, there’s a General Election coming. And this one is rather unique. It was announced, unexpectedly, by Theresa May on 18th April and it will take place on 8 June. This is a short campaign, even by usual standards, and doesn’t leave much time for policy debate. Particularly as one subject is likely to dominate proceedings anyway: Brexit.
But other policies will matter too – not least because politicians can’t truly appeal to voters without touching on the issues that affect their everyday lives. The parties will soon be publishing their transport proposals, among others, in their manifestos. We thought we’d pick out five of the themes that you should look out for.
1. AIR QUALITY
The quality of the air we breathe, and particularly the threat posed by pollutants such as nitrogen dioxide, has, of course, been a major talking point of recent months and years. However, it’s still surprising how much drama it’s inspired in the early days of this election campaign.
The action centred on a single date: Monday 24 April. This was the day when, according to the dictates of the High Court, the Government was supposed to publish its plan for curbing air pollution. However, the day came…and went. The Government declined to publish the plan because, it argued, a period of pre-election ‘purdah’ had been reached, which meant that no major policy announcements could be made.
Cynical observers thought that the Government was simply trying to avoid spelling out difficult policies, perhaps including tax hikes for diesels, so close to an election. And the High Court wasn’t too pleased either. It dismissed the Government’s arguments, and ordered it to publish the plan by 9 May. If the Government didn’t, it would be breaking the law.
So the Government did. Four days before the new deadline, it released a series of documents under the headline ‘Draft UK Air Quality Plan’, although it was all somewhat looser than the name suggests. There wasn’t much concrete detail in the Plan. What it chiefly did was to reiterate two existing Government proposals: to encourage the expansion of Clean Air Zones, and to ‘explore the appropriate tax treatment for diesel vehicles’. It also raised the possibility of a scrappage scheme for the very dirtiest diesel vehicles, although the Government stopped short of actually advocating one.
Besides, none of this is entirely certain anyway. The Plan is actually a draft that is up for consultation until 15 June. You can respond to the government with your own views here.
This inconclusive situation has left clean air groups such as ClientEarth, who kick-started this whole process in the first place, dissatisfied – and that makes this a live election issue. Politicians were always going to be debating the merits of ULEVs and toxicity charges during this campaign, but now they have the meaty question of the Government’s air quality proposals to sink their teeth into.
So much has happened between then and now that it’s hard to remember that, only six months ago, Conservative MP Zac Goldsmith resigned over the Government’s decision to approve a third runway at Heathrow. The plan is still to receive parliamentary approval, meaning it could be one of the first big votes facing MPs after the election.
And it’s still a very sensitive political issue, particularly in the Conservative/Liberal Democrat marginal seats in south-west London, near the airport. The Lib Dems are hoping their opposition to a third runway will help former Cabinet Ministers Vince Cable and Ed Davey to reclaim their old seats, while Goldsmith is attempting to win back the seat he lost to Lib Dem Sarah Olney in the by-election that followed his resignation.
3. HIGH SPEED RAIL
The High Speed 2 rail line is now on its way. The Bill authorising construction of Phase One finally passed through Parliament earlier this year, and the procurement process for new trains and stations has begun. So where will high-speed trains go next? There’s still plenty of wrangling to come over Phase Two of HS2, which will extend the line to Manchester and Leeds, and that’s sure to be a major issue in constituencies along the proposed routes.
The Government has also already given the green light to HS3, connecting Manchester and Leeds. Meanwhile, both the Lib Dems and the SNP have previously advocated extending high-speed rail further north, to Scotland. With the public finances already stretched, the question now is whether politicians will prioritise these expensive infrastructure projects for funding.
4. RAIL NATIONALISATION
Speaking of railways, what about the much broader issue of ownership? One of the defining policies of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party has been to bring rail franchises back into public control. It’s a policy that’s popular with voters, too: a 2014 YouGov poll found that 59% of Brits support renationalising the railways. And the idea has become particularly salient due to the disruptive strikes on Southern and on other services in recent months.
Will Labour provide more detail to flesh out this policy in its manifesto? And what policies will the other parties offer to deal with the overcrowding, delays and high fares that continue to vex rail travellers?
5. BORROWING FOR INFRASTRUCTURE
The public finances are not as much of a heated topic in this election as they were in the previous two elections. This is largely because Philip Hammond has slowed the Government’s deficit reduction plan in response to the new economic conditions created by Brexit.
However, this doesn’t mean that there aren’t differences between the parties at this election. One is over whether the Government should keep on borrowing in order to invest in the nation’s infrastructure. The Chancellor’s position is that infrastructure spending is highly necessary – that’s why he established a £23 billion infrastructure fund in his very first Autumn Statement – but that this should not be funded by borrowing in the long-term. Whereas Labour’s position is that borrowing is always defensible when the money goes towards infrastructure.
Both parties, and all the rest, will soon publish their manifestos. We’ll be reading them closely to see how they address these themes – and will keep you posted.