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Transport growth is not inevitable

Christian Wolmar identifies clear divisions but says all parties are silent on the big issue

Just before the election was announced, the Lib Dems attracted considerable coverage with a promise to reopen ‘thousands of miles' of closed railway lines by transferring £3bn from the roads budget. Ignoring the fact that £3bn would pay for a couple of hundred miles, at best, it was a welcome bit of attention in the hustings for a transport issue.

Discussion of transport issues during election debates is rare despite the fact that there are real political differences between the parties and fundamentally transport is an issue that raises passions among the electorate since it affects everyone. Even when the extremely radical idea of rail privatisation was part of the Tory manifesto for the 1992 election, there was precious little debate for a policy that was far-reaching and had long term effects from which we are still suffering.

Despite the Lib Dems initial foray, these hustings are likely to be no different from those in previous elections. Yet, these are very interesting times for transport policy. In announcing the government's support for a high speed line on March 11, Lord Adonis, the Transport Secretary also let slip that there would not be any future motorway building under a Labour government. While the last motorway, the M40, was completed twenty years ago, this marks a radical departure from previous policy and has long term implications because it is a recognition that the policy of trying to expand road space to meet the demands from the growing number of vehicles has been abandoned.

Adonis is quite clear about the implications of this. Future growth of intercity transport, he says, ‘will be by expanding rail capacity rather than road capacity'. This is in marked contrast to the policy of the Tories who, while supporting the construction of a high speed line, are also keen on new roads. While the Tories have said little about their transport policies, one only has to look to London where the mayor, Boris Johnson, has scrapped part of the congestion charge and therefore refused to endorse the type of demand management which transport planners almost universally recognise as necessary in towns.

Oddly, on aviation, the roles are somewhat reversed. The Tories, during David Cameron's brief green phase, came out against a third runway at Heathrow, while Labour is supporting the idea. It would not be surprising, however, if the Tories soon dropped this commitment given their links with the business lobby but Labour's support for a proposal which makes no sense in terms of the environment is an Achilles Heel in their claims to be green.

On rail policy, there is a clear dividing line too. Whereas Labour has committed itself to continuing the current high levels of spending on projects such as Crossrail, Thameslink and electrification of the Great Western line, the Tories' spokeswoman, Theresa Villiers, has made plain that all schemes would be reassessed in the light of ‘value for money', that catch all phrase which can spell the death of any scheme if it does not have ministerial support.

As for bus transport, the ideological divide is clearest. The Tories still see the free market as the way of delivering better services, even though 25 years of deregulation and privatisation outside London has led only to higher fares, reduced frequencies and a collapse in usage. Labour, which has failed to address this situation during the past 13 years, is at last stuttering towards a limited amount of regulation, even though it is too little, too late.

While there are clear differences, none of the main parties is addressing the most fundamental issue on transport – whether it is feasible to keep catering for continued growth or whether it is time to try to contain it. Adonis has said that he supports the notion of universal road pricing but neither the technology or the political support is currently available, and therefore it would have to wait for the Parliament after next. This is broadly the position of the Lib Dems, too, while the Tories are adamantly opposed to road pricing.

The real debate should be about ways of reducing the environmental impact of transport and yet that is unlikely to be aired during this campaign. The politicians in the main parties are still obsessed with the notion that economic growth will necessarily lead to increases in demand for transport and therefore it must be accommodated in one way or another. Yet, there are a myriad ways of trying to decouple the two, ranging from planning rules to better use of the internet. Challenging the assumption that transport growth is inevitable is the only radical way forward.