The party conference season is always a busy period for policy announcements. Government ministers and their Opposition counterparts spend the summer crafting speeches and searching for eye-catching measures to stuff them with. Political parties exploit heightened media attention to unveil vote-seeking pledges. And this year’s conferences were no exception.
At their gathering in Bournemouth, the Liberal Democrats passed motions on Brexit, Universal Credit and corporate governance, among others. In Brighton, Labour committed to introduce rent controls and end all private finance initiative (PFI) contracts. And in Manchester, the Prime Minister revived her manifesto pledge to cap household energy prices and promised £2 billion of investment in new council houses and affordable homes.
Transport investment in the ‘Northern Powerhouse’
And there were significant announcements on the transport front too. The Transport Secretary, Chris Grayling, used his highest-profile speech of the year to unveil £100 million of investment to reduce congestion on roads in the North of England.
That money comes from the £23 billion National Productivity Investment Fund established by the Chancellor in last year’s Autumn Statement, and will be joined by an extra £300 million to improve northern rail links. It’s all part of the ‘Northern Powerhouse’ – a phrase used seven times by the Transport Secretary in his speech.
Smart ticketing and Heathrow expansion
Grayling also announced an £80 million ‘smart ticketing’ programme. His aim is that every rail passenger, anywhere in the country, will have the option of using digital tickets on their phone instead of paper tickets. And he hopes to make it happen by the end of 2018.
And finally, Grayling offered hope of a final decision on Heathrow Airport expansion in the coming months. The Government gave the proposal its backing last year, but still hasn’t put it to a vote in Parliament, as it is required to do. Grayling revealed that ‘Subject to the necessary consultation work and securing the backing of Parliament, we are aiming to give it the formal go ahead in the first half of next year.’
Labour quiet on transport policies
Meanwhile, transport issues were conspicuously absent from much of the proceedings at Labour’s conference. Despite rail nationalisation having been a major plank of his General Election manifesto, Jeremy Corbyn didn’t mention the policy – or anything to do with transport – once in his 75-minute speech in Brighton. Water companies, rather than train operators, were the focus of his nationalising zeal this time.
The Shadow Transport Secretary, Andy McDonald, wasn’t afforded a speech on the conference stage at all. It was therefore left to Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell to promote Labour’s plans for rail electrification, a ‘Crossrail for the North’ and extending High Speed 2 to Scotland. And even McDonnell had no words for Britain’s roads.
It might seem strange that policies for motorists played a relatively small role at the recent party conferences – especially in a year that’s seen major developments such as the publication of the Air Quality Plan and calls for a national diesel scrappage scheme. Perhaps it’s a sign that politicians are reluctant to take a stand on these potentially controversial subjects, or to pose questions to which they don’t yet have an answer. Motoring policies may not have featured prominently in the big conference speeches, but they’re sure to feature prominently in the headlines and debates to come.