Wednesday 3rd January 2018
Andy McDonald, Shadow Secretary of State for Transport and Labour MP for Middlesbrough
Few policy areas present governments with the ability to meet long-term economic challenges as effectively as transport does. For the United Kingdom, thoese challenges include a crisis of low pay and stagnating wages that has meant that workers’ real wages are still lower than they were in 2010, along with some of the most pronounced regional inequalities among advanced economies, abysmal productivity and sluggish economic growth. Thatis is without mentioning the difficulties presented by the forthcoming withdrawal from the European Union.
Decisions taken by Transport Secretaries are both a cause of and a potential solution to the economic challenges faced by the UK. But since 2010, when the Conservative-Liberal Democratic coalition came to power, decisions of consecutive Transport Secretaries have worsened rather than addressed the many economic challenges we face, damaging the quality of life of our citizens and undermining the long-term wealth and prosperity of the nation.
The UK has the worst regional inequality in Western Europe, with the Institute for Fiscal Studies finding that average incomes in the West Midlands, East Midlands, northern England and Wales were no higher than incomes in the South East in the late 1990s. Not only are such inequalities an issue of social justice, our economic performance suffers because large parts of the country are unable to live up to their potential.
With more than half of the UK’s total spending on transport networks invested in London, this is problem that looks set to accelerate in the coming years. The Government occasionally talks a good game about regional inequality but its policies tell another story, with the Secretary of State for Transport, Chris Grayling, scrapping promised rail electrification in underdeveloped regions throughout the country, while greenlighting further investment in the South East.
Investing in transport infrastructure is a key driver of economic growth and is necessary for the rebalancing the economy, increasing productivity and tackling climate change. It is no’t good enough to instruct parts of the country to pull themselves up by their bootstraps whilst failing to deliver the investment or powers needed to improve transport networks. Rather than depriving areas already undermined by chronic underinvestment and poor connectivity, Labour is committed to tackling regional inequality through ensuring each region receives its fair share of investment – including building a Crossrail for the North and upgrading the rail network across the UK.
We will continue to upgrade our highways and improve roadworks at known bottlenecks, refocussing the roads building and maintenance programmes, connecting our communities, and realising untapped economic potential. Thatis must include addressing the crisis on our local roads, where a £12 billion repairs and maintenance backlog has been allowed to develop, including a consideration of the re-prioritising of government spending on roads to ensure that our local road network is not neglected compared with our national road network.
Our exit from the European Union will also necessitate preparation for new global trade arrangements, making it imperative that our ports and airports effectively facilitate the flow of goods to and from the UK. So we will study the feasibility of port development across the UK and instruct the National Infrastructure Commission to help plan future Road Investment Strategies and& rail investment to improve surface access.
Transport is the lifeblood of thriving cities and towns, and the successful integration of public transport with improved walking and cycling infrastructure is key to both economic vibrancy and delivering cleaner and greener transport, meeting the air quality crisis and our climate change obligations. Thatis must also be complimented by increasing support for electric and low emission vehicles and boosting rail freight.
And the affordability, not just the availability, of efficient transport networks risks undermining economic performance. The cost of socially and economically valuable modes of transport, such as bus and rail, continue to rocket above inflation. Without a serious commitment to keeping fares down, as Labour would do by tying regulated rail fare rises to CPI rather than RPI and re-regulating buses, the cost of travel will worsen transport poverty in the UK and derail the nation’s economic ambitions.
The scale of the challenges faced by the UK must be met with ambition from the government to upgrade and transform the nation’s transport networks. That ambition is lacking in the present administration and so the responsibility will fall to the next Labour government.