Election 2015: Are the real transport debates missing?

 

So far the election campaign has been dominated by spending and taxes but transport has started to make some of the running.

The big transport issues have been missing from the debate so far mainly because they are either in the ‘too difficult’ box or because some aspects have simply dropped off the public’s radar. Today's announcement from the Conservatives of a rail fare freeze shows that when related to the cost of living it can be a potential weapon.

Stuck in the ‘too difficult’ box however comes airport expansion and HS2, both huge infrastructure projects which arouse bitter controversy and upset otherwise solid parliamentary seats (mainly Conservative). 

The Airports Commission is due to issue its findings only after the election, to no one’s surprise since Conservative seats around Heathrow and Gatwick are at risk and the same applies to HS2 where MPs representing otherwise rock solid Tory seats in Buckinghamshire and west London have been compelled to fight HS2 or risk their majorities. While Ukip may be able to campaign against it outright, the tentative cross-party support from the main parties has kept HS2 out of the election's mainstream.

Amersham MP and former Conservative minister Cheryl Gillan is one of the MPs who has broken ranks. She said recently: ‘I want an incoming Conservative Government with a healthy majority to rethink, refine and re-engineer this project before we are locked into the most expensive Procrustean bed in history.’

Labour, with seats in Northern cities enthusiastic about HS2, has less to worry about but there are plenty of Labour supporters who believe the money could be better spent on local rail upgrading across the North rather than North-South or who believe that HS3 should come before HS2.

In addition, should Labour form the next government, the temptation for the new chancellor to dump HS2 and save some £50bn in earmarked cash at a stroke, or divert some of the funding to northern transport projects, must be very tempting.

Note a marked reluctance for Labour to go all out and call for the renationalisation of the railways. Although the recent success of the East Coast route as a nationalised railway might have sparked some new thoughts, Labour is pledging to allow the public sector to compete against rather than replace the private sector on rail franchises. The trouble is no politician wants either the responsibility or the cost of renationalisation.

There has been some political activity around the Northern Powerhouse with Labour now jumping on the bandwagon and promising local control over bus routes and fares as part of its pledge to deliver ‘the biggest devolution in England for 100 years.’

Interestingly, political parties make little noise nowadays about road building. This is partly because it always creates controversy and delivers votes to the Greens and partly because the rise in traffic has stabilised – or at least I thought it had until I saw a reference to Department for Transport forecasts of increases over the next few years. I had believed that the argument that if you build more roads then traffic simply expands to fill it had been won but clearly not. 

 

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