Transport: Key issues for the 2015 Parliament
Two big infrastructure decisions faced the previous Government when it came to office in 2010: whether to approve airport expansion somewhere in the South East, and whether to build a high speed rail line between London and the north of England. For different reasons the incoming Government will face the same questions.
While these big infrastructure decisions may consume the lion's share of political debate, on the ground there is a burgeoning movement to improve infrastructure and facilities for cyclists and pedestrians, particularly in cities, and to make roads and vehicles safer for all.
Then there is the often-overlooked local bus, the most popular form of public transport.
The next Government is likely to face calls to devolve further transport powers to local areas, making it easier for them to raise money and make plans for transport provision beyond the next Parliament.
The fated sky
The Coalition Government set up the independent Airports Commission, chaired by Sir Howard Davies, to report in summer 2015 on whether extra airport capacity is needed and if so, where that should be.
No party has committed itself to implementing Sir Howard's final recommendations, though there will inevitably be pressure to do so. A new hub airport in the Thames Estuary, promoted by the Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, was rejected in September 2014.
This leaves three likely alternatives: building a new third runway at Heathrow, extending an existing runway at Heathrow, or building a second runway at Gatwick.
Whatever Sir Howard recommends, it will be up to the airport owners to put forward planning proposals for new infrastructure, with the final decision to approve any scheme resting with the Secretary of State: no legislation will be required.
The proposals for both airports are likely to need new or improved ground transportation links to accommodate increased demand.
High speed: wisely and slow?
Plans for Phase 1 of High Speed 2 (HS2), between London and Birmingham, have the support of the Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat parties, but it is likely to be some years before construction starts.
This is because each phase of HS2 requires a ‘hybrid Bill', which follows a special Parliamentary procedure that can take years to complete. The consideration of petitions against the hybrid bill for Phase 1 by a specially appointed Select Committee will resume in the new Parliament.
Once this process is complete, the Bill will proceed to Committee stage, Report Stage and Third Reading, before being sent to the Lords, where there will be a further opportunity for objectors to petition and to appear before a select committee.
There will be no ‘spades in the ground' until the legislation receives Royal Assent.
Firm proposals for Phase 2, between Birmingham and Manchester and Leeds, have been delayed, and it will be for the new Government to finalise and publish these plans before the relevant legislation comes before the House in the 2015 Parliament.
Phase 1 of HS2 has already been beset by increases in its projected cost, which now stands at £50 billion (for the whole scheme plus trains), with around £1 billion spent so far.
Despite the cross-party support, further cost increases might yet tempt the Government into writing-off spending to date and cancelling HS2. There are no end of suggestions for how else the money might be spent.
What is the city but the people?
While big infrastructure projects tend to absorb the bulk of media coverage and political interest, the 2010 Parliament saw the continuing rise of the ‘slow travel' movement, as cyclists and pedestrians fought for better provision and improved safety.
High profile campaigns by cycling groups and The Times led to more funding, better facilities and efforts to improve vehicle safety, particularly that of lorries and buses. Local authorities are also increasingly enthusiastic about cutting speed limits in towns and cities to 20 mph.
The 2015 Government will be faced with continuing calls to make the streets safer for these groups, and to improve land use planning for new developments to properly accommodate more sustainable forms of travel.
There is also likely to be a push for more devolution of power to local areas, so that towns and cities, villages and parishes can plan and fund their transport networks to cater to local circumstances.
A key challenge for the new Government will be to balance the calls on the one hand to take big infrastructure decisions centrally and to see them through, and on the other to devolve power to local areas so that they can plan and provide their own transport services.
- Conservatives: devolve transport, build HS2 and Crossrail 2, consider the Airports Commission report; increase rail fares only by RPI, build more roads, curb unfair parking, encourage cycling and protect bus passes
- Greens: free public transport for young people, protect bus passes, lower speed limits, nationalise the railway, scrap HS2, support walking & cycling, re-regulate the buses and stop airport expansion
- Labour: build HS2, review rail franchising, increase rail fares only by RPI, invest in roads, promote cycling, make a swift decision on airport capacity, protect bus passes, and devolve transport powers including buses
- Liberal Democrats: devolve transport, invest in the regions, build HS2, increase rail fares only by RPI, no new runway in the South East, support trams, protect bus passes, pass a Green Transport Act, and more money for cycling
- UKIP: scrap HS2, free hospital and local parking, re-open Manston Airport, cut speed cameras and scrap road tolls, abolish eCall and the drivers Certificate of Professional competence, and exempt 25 year old vehicles from car tax