Five things I learned from the party conference circuit…

1.The Government has moved right into local transport’s territory with ‘levelling up’ one of the key themes (and devolution a sub theme) of the Conservative party conference. It’s still a very baggy concept onto which all sorts of asks, ideas and wishes can be projected onto but we are told that more definition will come when the spending review is published. In the meantime Levelling Up Minister, Neil O’Brien defined it on twitter (and on the fringes) as:

  • Empowering local leaders and communities
  • Growing the private sector and boosting living standards, particularly where they’re lower
  • Spreading opportunity and improving public services, particularly where they’re lacking
  • Restoring local pride

All of which is a good fit with the need to invest in and support public transport and active travel – and devolve more decisions over its future. With climate the other big theme of the Conservative party conference there is a big opportunity now to ensure central Government funding decisions reflect these priorities. At the same time there is now a whiff of the 1970s Heath era for Economic policy – with regional development and industrial policies to the fore. Privatisation and deregulation is no longer an aim in itself (as we have now seen on both rail and bus). Again a helpful context for the goal of putting public transport networks back together as well as the ideal of a longer term approach to local transport funding.

2. If you look at the big changes on local transport in recent times – none of them originated from DfT and all of them came from a big hitter in another more influential part of Government. So, the last big round of devolution and effective bus franchising powers came from Osborne when he was at HMT and the radical recent bus and active travel strategies came from Number Ten. Michael Gove’s new brief which covers local government, levelling up and inter-departmental working is therefore very interesting – as if he wanted to he could do something similarly significant. Although we will have to wait and see as he kept his powder dry at the party conference.

3. Different Mayors have defined themselves in different high profile and characteristic ways as they have taken on the mantle (those that don’t tend not to last). They do this in different ways from Ben Houchen in Tees Valley focussed on delivering some big regionally significant projects (like the transformation of the former Redcar steelworks site and the turnaround of the local airport) to Andy Burnham setting out a timetable for when a fully integrated local public transport can be delivered. But overall there’s a sense now that the Mayoralties have found their feet, and as they roamed around the party conferences they also exerted a magnetic pull on the headlines and discourse that took place there.

4. It feels like the fallow Covid period has reinvigorated party conferences as institutions (they were far busier and buzzier than I was expecting) that previously felt like they were in decline.

5. Next up – the outcomes of the spending review and the imperative that the COP talks in Glasgow will give for transport decarbonisation policy and implementation.

Jonathan Bray

Five things I learned for urban transport at Conservative party conference

Grayling’s plan for rail

Chris Grayling was expansive in setting out his thoughts on the future for rail at a rail industry fringe…

– He previously thought evolution not revolution was right approach for rail but recent events have shown that this isn’t the case. The system is broken and needs fixing.

– However the rail review will not be about all aspects of the rail industry it will be a ‘validation exercise’ around different options for greater unification of tracks and trains plus a ‘guiding mind’ for the rail industry as a whole. He would be ‘very surprised’ if this isn’t the approach the review takes. ‘Something like the SRA is needed’ and ‘the DfT should do less than it does now after the review’. He referenced Japan which has vertically integrated regional train companies as one of the models for greater unification of track and trains.

– In the meantime he trusts Andrew Haines to make very sure that Network Rial gets its act together on timetable planning so there will be no repeat of the recent timetabling fiascos

– The rail review will also look at where it is appropriate to extend devo and where it is not. He said extending the Tyne and Wear Metro and Merseytravel taking the Merseyrail infrastructure were good examples of where it is appropriate and gave London taking over south east rail services as his prime example of where it is not appropriate. All of this boils down to that he is pro-devolution where it is about services within the area covered by the devolved authority and anti-devolution where a city region starts to take too many responsibilities for services in the surrounding shires

– The Rail Review will be formally launched following a statement in parliament when parliament returns

Vote leave, vote against HS2?

Grayling said at the same industry fringe meeting that no cabinet minister has said to him that HS2 should be abandoned or scaled back. However it’s clear that there are a number of prominent ‘Leave’ figures, in and out of the cabinet, who have said it publicly or are known to be floating it privately. Grayling’s line was that (as far as any major project of this scale can be completely on target in terms of budget and timings) that HS2 is on course, fully committed and it’s steady as it goes. However it’s clear that completing all of HS2, or not, is back in play as a wider political football. Also there’s probably a stronger political consensus now around Northern Powerhouse Rail than there is around building all of HS2. Some bigger, bolder HS2 advocacy will be required if the case is to be re-made, and re-won.

The devo dimension to Brexit makes a modest come back

One dimension to some Brexiteer arguments was that powers devolved from Brussels should go down to the regions not all go back to Whitehall. This dimension to the argument did make a modest come back in some quarters at the conference (including at some Centre for Cities / Core cities events from CLG Secretary James Brokenshire and George Freeman MP).

It may find fuller voice in a new framework for devolution which Brokenshire briefly trailed as coming out in the autumn at the Centre for Cities reception

Enough to fill the Albert Hall

Although much of what Grayling focussed on at conference was big infrastructure issues he did suggest there could be some better news coming on local roads maintenance (perhaps this reflects that poor local road maintenance is motorists’ number one concern according to recent RAC research)

Love for the Bus

Buses came up much more on our conference stand than in previous years at Conservative party conference and is seen much more through the prism of the key role they can play to improve transport provision more widely rather than the totemic deregulation v regulation argument that used to be more to the fore

Jonathan Bray