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