Five things I learned at Labour Party Conference for urban transport

1.About towns

For many years the dominant argument has been that all policy focus should be on cities, as they are where the economic action is. Now that hegemony is breaking down. Thinktanks like Centre for Towns and Wigan MP, Lisa Nandy, have been challenging the implicit assumption (and were doing so across Labour Party conference) that the best it gets for towns is ‘trickle down’ of some growth from booming cities. The worsening plight of many towns is also seen as a factor in Brexit, the rise of the far right and now electoral mathematics. All signified by the way that Labour’s new campaign ads now no longer focus on their new core vote of big city students and their tuition fees. Instead the imagery is rows of terraces and shuttered up small town high streets. The places which could decide the next election. As for transport and towns we are currently finalising our own contribution to the debate with a new forthcoming report on ‘About towns – how transport can help towns thrive’.

2.Bus and rail plans

As they have already set out, Labour’s plans for buses is to back those authorities that go for franchising or municipalisation with funding for free travel for young people. The rail plans are essentially the same as they were too with a new national rail body which will absorb Network Rail and train operations but with a regional/devolved nations dimension to allow for rail devolution. However, this would have been a slow motion process as it could have taken some time for all the franchises to fail or expire. The big change at Labour party conference is the news that this could now be sped up via a unit in the Treasury set up to find ways of renationalising utilities more rapidly. For rail a fast forward nationalisation would, for example, enable the recreation of a single inter city network again which could then be promoted and developed as a single entity.

3.Economic democracy

John McDonnell wants to bring a greater element of democracy to economy and to industry (be it public or private) with more worker and staff involvement in decision making. Easier to do with those industries that you directly control though – so most likely to be applied in some form to the new national rail body. But clear implications too across the wider transport and local government sector.

4.Road building piggy bank

Inter urban road building has seen a surge in funding recently – so much so that delivery of a programme on this scale and on these timescales looks unlikely – even if it was a sensible use of resources. The glut in funding for roads has been given a further boost from hypothecation of VED. Labour has spotted this as a funding source for its bus plans in particular and a way of defending themselves against the ‘unaffordable price tag’ allegation.

5.Preston

There is going to be a lot more talk of Preston as the exemplar of how the decisions that the local public sector make (local authorities, the health service, the education sector) can be used to support the local economy. This means making sure that local firms, which support the local economy and provide good local jobs, can be in a position to compete effectively for the contracts these big ‘anchor’ institutions let. This is what Preston has to some extent already been doing and what Labour wants to see more of. This also ties in with their towns and economic democracy agendas. To some extent this has already been filtering more into the transport sector in recent years from the choices made on train catering on some parts of the rail network (most noticeably in Scotland) to the greater efforts now being made to ensure that everything from HS2 to the extension of the Midland Metro to the Black Country is seen as an opportunity to build local skills and the local supply chain. This trend towards favouring the local is likely to become more marked in the years ahead (whoever is in power).

Labour policy has certainly moved on significantly from the last election (where the manifesto wasn’t so far removed from that of Ed Miliband) with John McDonnell’s team where the action is on domestic policy development. We now wait to see how the Conservatives respond next week in Birmingham.

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