British carmaker Jaguar Land Rover has set an optimistic target of half of its cars being electric by the end of the decade. Their chief executive said: “We are shaping the future, developing our own approach to autonomy, connectivity and electrification to offer our customers more choice.”
Shaping the future is exactly what the manifesto of every party in this election should be doing when it comes to transport. Governments, even more than the private sector, need to be sowing seeds that will germinate five to ten years ahead, and preferably a lot longer. Sadly, this is precisely what this government is not doing.
UK transport policy is often glacially slow. Sometimes, delays are caused by important consultations that give local people the opportunity to express their views over projects that will significantly impact their communities. In others they are caused by technological difficulties which could not have been foreseen. But in the era we are now living in, we need a government that is on the front foot with technological innovation and prepared to respond quickly to the changing needs of our economy.
Speed of decision-making is not something at which this Conservative government has excelled. From the painfully drawn-out decision over Heathrow expansion to the crawling rollout of HS2, ministers have repeatedly put internal party politics ahead of quick decisions. The most recent case in point is the lengths they have gone to in order to delay the publication of a clean air plan.
Twice in the last 18 months, the government has been told by the High Court that its plans to address air pollution are so poor that they are illegal. Air pollution has become so bad that, according to the government’s own estimates, 40,000 people are dying every year from pollution-related problems. In the light of these figures, the next government must make tackling this silent killer a priority and move us further towards the electrification of transport.
There are two major factors which underpin the government’s inability to get transport and related policy moving. Firstly, although the government likes to pretend otherwise, its focus is unrelentingly inside the M25 and into the south east and fails to rebalance our economy away from the capital.
Secondly, the government’s anti-environmental agenda has seen it undercut most of the environmental programmes established by the coalition government. They have clearly abandoned plans for the full electrification of some of the UK’s busiest train lines – including the Great Western Line – and have cut subsidies for electric vehicles.
The country would be better served by a government that focused on the long-term interests of the country: shifting to an environmentally sustainable transport policy, ensuring our rail network is fit for the 21st century, investing in infrastructure projects outside of the south-east, avoiding a hard Brexit that wasn’t on the ballot, rather than on a government trying to manage party-political issues through policy announcements.
By the end of the next parliament, transport will look different. We almost certainly will have autonomous vehicles on the roads, for example. To keep up, our transport policy will need to be modern, forward-looking, and capable of dealing with advances in technology, and so will our government. Theresa May’s steadfast belief that the country’s future is to be found in a return to its past will not be sufficient.