Last year was certainly unpredictable for transport with strike action continuing, active travel funding cuts, the scrapping of the northern leg of HS2, and a new Plan for Drivers that culminated in the ban on the sale of new petrol and diesel vehicles being pushed back to 2035 from 2030. As the transport industry tries to find its feet among these changes, what, if anything, can we predict for 2024?
An election year
Weighing over 2024 is the highly-anticipated announcement of a general election, currently expected for the autumn. This election will be crucial to setting the direction for the rest of this decade on key issues such as growing the economy, tackling climate change and the future trajectory of transport investment.
What to expect from the Conservatives
The Conservatives have switched tactics from their party conference where they presented Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak as the 'change' candidate, preferring now to present him as the 'stability' candidate . We expect to see the party's manifesto reflect this new approach. The Conservatives are also likely to continue softening their approach to green policies in reaction to the rising cost of living and increasing geo-political tensions.
However, with Suella Braverman's recent letter criticising Sunak's handling of the Rwanda Plan and leveraging the support of the more right-leaning echelons of the party, and the recent resignation of Chris Skidmore MP in protest of the Government's new Bill to authorise new oil and gas licenses in the North Sea, Sunak needs to perform a careful balancing act to unite his party while ensuring he doesn't lose valuable voters on both ends of the Conservative spectrum.
What to expect from Labour
The Labour Party are starting the year in a strong position but once they publish their manifesto they will be looking to build genuine support for policies rather than just reactionary votes.
It is encouraging that Labour have commissioned an independent rail and urban transport review to look at how a future government could improve connectivity within and between the UK's key urban areas. But the party's cautionary approach to public finances means we are unlikely to see manifesto pledges to deliver major transport reform or infrastructure investment. Instead, we expect Labour to wait and see the financial position they inherit if they do win the next election.
But we do expect a key Labour manifesto pledge will clarify their position on the £28bn investment for every year of this decade to transition towards a green economy. Since announcing this pledge in 2021, both Rachel Reeves and Sir Kier Starmer have said due to the current high cost of borrowing this investment would now only increase to £28bn a year by the end of the decade. It is currently
unclear whether any funding from the green investment plan will be dedicated to transport improvements.
Transport key in the mayoral elections
Transport is expected to take a more central role in the upcoming Mayoral Elections on 2nd May. These elections include voting for the next Mayor of London as well as for the Mayors of combined authorities including Greater Manchester, Liverpool City Region, South Yorkshire, West Yorkshire, Tees Valley and the West Midlands, and for the first time the East Midlands, North East and York & North Yorkshire.
The main transport projects likely to divide party lines and make headlines once again include Sadiq Khan's ULEZ expansion and Andy Burnham's non-charging Clean Air Zone. The alternatives to the northern leg of HS2 will also be a key topic of debate for both Andy Burnham's and Andy Street's election campaigns, as well as for other combined authorities across the north.
What will the industry will be doing?
While the politicians are very much in campaign mode, the public transport industry will be keen to improve services for customers and continue the bounce back to pre-pandemic passenger numbers.
The aviation industry will be calling for more investment to support Sustainable Aviation Fuel (SAF) production in the UK, following the success of the first transatlantic flight from Heathrow to New York's JFK Airport powered solely by SAFs last year.
Major UK airports including Gatwick and Heathrow are also expected to consider airport expansion projects in 2024, with Gatwick proposing to use its second runway to increase their flight capacity and Heathrow expected to relaunch their expansion plans that have been paused since the pandemic.
Lastly the automotive sector is likely to continue calling for greater public and private investment in EV charging infrastructure.
The opportunity for transport
Following a year of change in transport priorities, the promise of a general election seems on the surface to provide the opposite of the stability that the industry needs.
However, local and national elections offer the opportunity to make the case for investment in transport projects and build public support while they are under the spotlight. The election will shape the next five years of British politics and transport decision-making, so it's crucial the transport industry harnesses this opportunity to engage with politicians and the public. Now is the time to influence manifestos and make the case for investment in transport improvements to meet our climate targets.