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Maria Eagle MP: We need a new direction

SERA front coverShadow Transport Secretary Maria Eagle MP writes for the new edition of New Ground on the new direction needed to cut transport's contribution to climate change. Transport emissions are responsible for more than a fifth of the UK’s contribution to potentially irreversible climate change. Despite the green rhetoric of the Coalition Agreement, this government’s record is woeful. The key transport pledge in the deal between Conservatives and Liberal Democrats was “to make the transport sector greener and more sustainable.” Yet decision after decision by Transport Ministers over the past two and a half years has set back the progress needed to meet our emissions reduction targets. Whether it was commitments on buses, rail, cycling, roads or aviation, the gulf between the Coalition Agreement and the record of the past two and half years is vast.

Vehicles using our roads make up by far the largest share of transport emissions. A government that was serious about sustainability would be making it easier to make the choice to switch to public transport, cycling and walking wherever possible. Instead the first decision of this government was to cut support for local transport by 28 per cent and axe 20 per cent of the direct support for bus services. The consequence has been fares rising by twice the rate of inflation and the loss of one in five supported bus services. The loss of a local bus service, particularly in rural areas, forces people back into their cars. Where services survive, rising fares hit household budgets that are already under pressure and prevent young people from taking up college courses and apprenticeships.

The Coalition Agreement pledged to “encourage joint working between bus operators and local authorities”. Instead they have undermined local authorities wishing to use the powers introduced by Labour that enable them to take on responsibility for setting bus fares and planning the bus network to increase integration and improve chances to use public transport, walk or cycle. Even though these powers already exist and have been effective in London. Ministers have caved in to pressure from the private bus companies and now threaten to penalise transport authorities that seek to regulate services using a Quality Contract by excluding them from Better Bus Area funding.

There has been a similar failure to support rail passengers and stand up to the private train companies, risking pricing people off the railways and on to the road. According to the Coalition Agreement, Ministers would deliver “fair pricing for rail travel” and the rail regulator would be turned into a “powerful passenger champion”. Instead train companies have been into chaos, the tender documents promised bidders they could reduce services, close ticket offices, axe frontline staff and even remove CCTV from trains. There have been no new powers for the regulator which remains weak in the face of powerful train companies.

Commitments to support active travel have also come to nothing. Instead of the ‘promotion of cycling and walking’ that was promised, we’ve seen the closure of Cycling England and the loss of its dedicated £80m annual budget. Instead, cycling now only shares part of a single £112m annual pot that has to support all sustainable transport initiatives across the whole country. Labour’s Cycling Towns and Cities initiative was abandoned, rather than rolled out. All funding for speed cameras and road safety was axed and national targets to cut deaths and serious injuries on our roads abolished. Longer HGVs have been allowed and speed limit restrictions are set to be lifted. We’ve seen the first increase in deaths and serious injuries on our roads for more than a decade.

The Coalition Agreement pledged to help create a low carbon economy through investment in transport infrastructure, yet planned rail investment has actually been cut. The £9bn of ‘new’ rail investment announced at a Cameron and Clegg photo opportunity unravelled as it was revealed that the majority of the schemes, such the rolling programme of electrification, were revealed to have been announced by the previous Labour government. The rest was nothing but a postdated cheque for the next government to deliver after 2015. There was a promise in the Coalition Agreement of ‘longer trains and better rolling stock’, yet the order for a new generation of inter-city trains was halved and Ministers decided to build the new Thameslink trains in Germany, costing jobs in the UK. Ministers have failed to provide the leadership needed to deliver HS2, which is not only vital to address the capacity crunch on our major rail routes between north and south but has the potential to replace short haul flights.

The pledge to back “tougher emission standards and support for new transport technologies” has come to nothing. In fact far from supporting a national recharging network for electric and plug-in hybrid vehicles” as the Coalition Agreement promised, the Government has slashed support, leaving them well short of their own target. The Committee on Climate Change estimate that we will need 1.7 million electric cars by 2020 to meet the commitments set out in Carbon Budgets must now be impossible to deliver.

And now Ministers are drawing up plans for the privatisation of the road network to entice the private sector to kick start the biggest road building programme in decade. Private companies could be incentivised to take on sections of the road network by being handed revenue from VED and permission to introduce tolls, provided they upgrade the infrastructure. Private-sector led Local Enterprise Partnerships are to be given devolved transport infrastructure budgets and are already drawing up wish lists of new road schemes. Yet local transport authorities will be left with integrated transport strategies and little funding to make them a reality. In perhaps the most disastrous decision yet taken by the Coalition, they are now proposing to remove the requirement for the impact on transport to be a consideration in planning decisions.

Finally, the Coalition could not have been clearer about its approach to aviation, placing its commitments not within the transport section of their agreement but under climate change. The pledge was clear: “We will cancel the third runway at Heathrow. We will refuse permission for additional runways at Gatwick and Stansted. We will replace Air Passenger Duty with a per-flight duty.” Yet the independent commission on aviation, established under Sir Howard Davies, is free to consider all of these options for aviation growth including expansion at Heathrow. The commitment to replace Air Passenger Duty with a per-flight duty has been abandoned completely. Ministers have stood aside as the Emissions Trading Scheme for aviation has been suspended. The Government has rejected the Committee on Climate Change advice to include the UK’s share of emissions from international aviation and shipping in Carbon Budgets.

Line by line, the commitments in the Coalition Agreement have not only done nothing to make our transport system greener but put into reverse the progress that had started to be made under Labour.

A One Nation Labour Government would be taking a different approach, placing the need to significantly cut transport’s contribution to climate change at the centre of the Department for Transport’s priorities.

Even in this tough economic climate and the need to tackle the deficit, there is much that we could be achieving. Our willingness to take on We’d be banning train companies from hiking fares beyond a strict cap, preventing super peak fares, protecting ticket offices and introducing a series of ticketing reforms such as a common peak time clearly advertised on tickets and a legal right to the cheapest deal. We’d be standing up for transport authorities that wish to reregulate bus services by giving the Transport Secretary a new power to designate an area as a Deregulation Exemption Zone and restoring fairness to funding. We’d support young people by requiring bus companies to introduce a concessionary fares scheme for 16-19 year olds in return for the significant subsidies they receive. And for that funding, we’d force real action on extending smart ticketing on bus services across England. Even within existing budgets we could be achieving more to encourage and promote active travel. As a start, there are real lessons to learn from the Active Travel legislation being taken forward by the Labour Government in Wales. We’d also be switching funding from the Highways Agency budget to support dedicated separated cycling infrastructure and making a cycling safety assessment a central part of approval for transport schemes. The devolution of infrastructure spending is right, but we’d be passing that funding to accountable transport authorities to support integrated transport not just new road schemes. The best way to support jobs and growth is investing in smaller local transport schemes and maintaining the quality of existing roads. On aviation, we would include our share of international emissions in Carbon Budgets and only take forward proposals from the independent commission that could be met within the emissions reduction target to which we are committed.

Half way through the parliament, the Government’s Mid Term Review failed even to include a section on transport, the only Government department to be excluded. No wonder, considering the catalogue of failure to which Conservative and Liberal Democrat Ministers would have been forced to admit.

Putting the reduction of transport’s contribution to climate change should be at the centre of the Department for Transport’s priorities and policies. It’s increasingly clear that it will be the responsibility of a future One Nation Labour government to pursue that alternative direction for transport.

Maria Eagle MP is Shadow Transport Secretary
Follow on Twitter: @labourtransport

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