The Department for Transport (DfT) has had a predictably unpredictable three years under the Coalition Government. Under Philip Hammond’s stewardship the key message was that the DfT was doing better than others with the spending cuts being imposed by the Treasury on all departments. However, these cuts to revenue spending created a build-up of pressure that has now been exposed. The revenue spending reductions led to more competition for spending on sustainable and active travel projects, with the Local Sustainable Transport Fund being overly-relied upon by local transport authorities to cover walking, cycling and other sustainable transport schemes. The reduction in DfT staff was a key factor in the recent collapse of the InterCity West Coast rail franchise competition, which in turn led to the collapse of the whole franchising competition timetable.
But the DfT has come back fighting. Under Justine Greening, the momentum (built up by Philip Hammond) behind crucial long-term capital spending on the rail network, and the flagship HS2 project, was maintained, and with Patrick McLoughlin at the helm, this has been further ramped up. Without a shadow of doubt, HS2 is the totem of transport policy for this Government. A national high speed rail network is now finally a certainty rather than a possibility. Numerous attacks have been seen off and the Government has held its nerve on this project.
On the other hand, aviation policy has faltered. With the Mayor of London weighing in regularly on airport capacity, the Government appears to have decided that this is one battle that can be put on hold for the next Government to deal with. Roads policy has not motored ahead either, with a real lack of clarity as to how to fund new roads, and a fear of engaging in a long-term debate on whether road charging is a long-term prospect for funding roads and managing usage.
The broader localism agenda has been a key area of debate with local transport authorities, and the passenger transport executives (PTEs) at the forefront, making the case for devolving powers and funding away from Whitehall to the regions to decide how to run their areas. Rail franchises are a likely candidate for devolution, but the move of other powers and funding is being resisted, and the new local bodies, such as Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs), are potentially generating more confusion than clarity on how to practically devolve transport powers.
Finally, given the explosion in popularity of cycling over the last few years with the success of Team GB in cycling, the Tour de France victory of Bradley Wiggins and the coming of the Grand Depart in 2014 to Yorkshire, the DfT has not normalised cycling as a form of transport whatsoever in Britain. The same is true of walking, with urban mobility still centred around the dominance of cars over walking and cycling as cheap and healthy means of mobility.
Ultimately, transport has been played fairly safe with political risk being focussed on high speed rail, while other policy areas have either continued in the same vein or in a state of flux within the localism debate.
Progress against the Coalition Agreement
Pledge: We will mandate a national recharging network for electric and plug-in hybrid vehicles.
Status: In progress - The Plugged-in Places scheme was meant to kick-start the development of a national recharging network, however, this has not progressed as quickly as hoped and the network continues to develop in a piecemeal manner.
Pledge: We will grant longer rail franchises in order to give operators the incentive to invest in the improvements passengers want – like better services, better stations, longer trains and better rolling stock.
Status: Not achieved - Rail franchising policy was reviewed following the InterCity West Coast franchise fiasco. The subsequent Brown Review has put a halt on longer franchise terms and the revised franchising timetable has given a number of extensions to existing operators.
Pledge: We will reform the way decisions are made on which transport projects to prioritise, so that the benefits of low carbon proposals (including light rail schemes) are fully recognised.
Status: In progress – Little progress has been made on fully reviewing transport appraisal and prioritisation methodology.
Pledge: We will make Network Rail more accountable to its customers.
Status: In progress – Creating a more accountable railway is one of the goals set out in the Transport Secretary’s High Level Output Specification 2012. This sets out rail progress targets to be achieved by 2019, and framed Network Rail’s Strategic Business plan for this period.
Pledge: We will establish a high speed rail network as part of our programme of measures to fulfil our joint ambitions for creating a low carbon economy. Our vision is of a truly national high speed rail network for the whole of Britain. Given financial constraints, we will have to achieve this in phases.
Status: In progress – The Government is pushing ahead with HS2. A Hybrid Bill for Phase 1 of the network is anticipated towards the end of 2013, and a public consultation to be launched on Phase 2 in summer 2013.
Pledge: We support Crossrail and further electrification of the rail network.
Status: In progress – Crossrail is under construction and will open towards the end of this decade. A significant amount of electrification has been announced, including the Midland Main Line, the Great Western and parts of the North West network.
Pledge: We will turn the rail regulator into a powerful passenger champion.
Status: In progress – The DfT has consulted on giving the Office of Rail Regulation (ORR) a broader role, and this is currently being undertaken.
Pledge: We will support sustainable travel initiatives, including the promotion of cycling and walking, and will encourage joint working between bus operators and local authorities.
Status: In progress – The Local Sustainable Transport Fund is funding a number of schemes – however the amount of money being spent on sustainable travel is not increasing. Sustainable travel continues to receive piecemeal funding in relative terms. Meanwhile joint working is encouraged, but little more.
Pledge: We are committed to fair pricing for rail travel.
Status: In progress - The Government reduced the fare increases from RPI+3 per cent to RPI+1 per cent earlier this year. However, rail fares continue to increase significantly making rail travel relatively less affordable. Since fair pricing should mean making rail travel more attractive in terms of cost, this is clearly not the case.
Pledge: We will work towards the introduction of a new system of HGV road user charging to ensure a fairer arrangement for UK hauliers.
Status: Done – The HGV Road Levy Act received Royal Assent on 28 February 2013.
Pledge: We will stop central government funding for new fixed speed cameras and switch to more effective ways of making our roads safer, including authorising ‘drugalyser’ technology.
Status: Done - Speed cameras are currently a victim of reduced local authority spending power, and we are seeing a shift from fixed to mobile speed camera use. Ministers approved the first ‘Drugalyser’ kit in January 2013, and the technology is coming on stream and being increasingly used. Road safety spending is significantly reduced, with road safety partnerships switching off fixed cameras across the country. The Government has dropped proposals to lift the motorway speed limit to 80mph, which accords with wanting to make roads safer.
Pledge: We will tackle rogue private sector wheel clampers.
Status: Done – The Protection of Freedoms Act 2012 banned wheel clamping on private land in England and Wales.