Comparing the overall atmosphere
Something was definitely in the air at the Labour Party Conference. We heard this commented at many events and it was clear the Labour Party wanted to make a statement – we are a Government in waiting and it's only a matter of time...
Far from the rather subdued Labour party conferences of recent years, the 2022 conference was more rallying. More business guests were present this year, compared to recent years dominated by party activists. A sign business agrees it's only a matter of time before we have a Labour government.
The Labour conference also came during the week the Conservative Government announced their mini budget and our economy took a nose-dive turn for the worse. You could say that Labour's conference was timely, with the Labour Party able to use this news to their advantage, condemning the Government's economic choices and demanding a retrenchment of their actions. The Party executed this strategy far more effectively than many industry and political commentators expected.
Contrast this with the shambolic displays at the Conservative conference, with Ministers contradicting each other and in-fighting among MPs and the Cabinet highly visible. Despite the in-fighting, the mood among party members was more buoyant than we expected.
Many MPs and Councillors weren't present at conference, which was very apparent when wandering around the conference hall. This was exacerbated on the last day with rail strikes forcing many to leave on Tuesday night throwing concern over the attendance at the Prime Minister's keynote speech. Despite this, Liz Truss was able to pack out the main stage.
It was clear the key message the Conservatives wanted to convey was a focus on growth. The 2.5% target growth rate was consistently mentioned but the exact plans for how we get there will have to wait for the November 23rd medium term plan.
Devolution was a key theme at both the Labour and Tory conferences and definitely the most frequent theme to emerge from Labour.
The view of metro mayors, transport directors and Labour politicians alike focused on the need to devolve transport funding, and for Government to trust regional political leaders. After all, it is communities and their local representatives that know their region the best.
We heard how the current lack of regional transport powers and investment is having a direct impact on communities, with many smaller and rural communities at risk of social exclusion as a result poor transport.
The Labour fringes emphasised the need to listen to and properly engage with local people so they can benefit from devolution and inform the schemes that affect them. But devolving powers is not a silver bullet. Only through proper investment, devolution, local engagement and co-creation can so called 'levelling up' initiatives be successful. These are sentiments we completely agree with as an organisation with engagement and co-creation at the heart of our ethos.
Devolution was also a theme at the Conservative conference with Levelling Up secretary Simon Clarke, pledging to create many more metro mayors, including in the East Midlands as directly elected leadership is key to enabling devolved government.
Transport and diversity
New Transport ministers Kevin Foster MP and Lucy Frazer MP were curiously absent from the fringes at the Conservative conference, but the new Secretary of State, Anne-Marie Trevelyan, spoke with clarity and purpose in several fringe events, laying out a clear plan for what she wants to deliver as Secretary of State.
This included a commitment to increase diversity in the transport sector by encouraging more women into transport careers, a pledge that we very much welcome.
Baroness Vere also confirmed her support for a diverse workforce, pointing out that the new DfT ministerial team are 80% women, and confirming her willingness to work with Women in Transport to improve the industry's gender balance.
We heard at many rail and transport events, including in Shadow Transport Secretary, Louise Haigh's speech, Labour's commitment to completing HS2 and Northern Powerhouse Rail (NPR) in full. This was seen as essential for ensuring the north of England was not left behind in terms of connectivity and infrastructure.
Equally, the most significant policy announcement to come from the Conservative conference was the Prime Minister's confirmation of her leadership election pledge to build NPR in full, confirming it will be a fully electrified new line from Liverpool to Hull with a stop in Bradford. This represents a reversal of policy set by the previous prime minster Boris Johnson in the Integrated Rail Plan which essentially scrapped NPR by committing to upgrade existing lines rather than build a new railway.
There was much agreement from the fringes at both Labour and Conservative that the current rail franchising model is not working. Labour pledged to bring the railways back into public ownership as contracts expire, although we heard shadow Rail Minister, Tan Dhesi hint that allowances could be made for open access operators such as Hull Trains.
It was reported during conference season that the Government's Transport Bill, which will create Great British Railways (GBR), is delayed. Speaking on the Conservative fringes, Chair of the Transport Select Committee Huw Merriman MP urged for creative thinking to get GBR set up in spite of any delays the legislation may be facing.
Huw Merriman and Transport Select Committee colleague Chris Loder MP also called for a re-think of rail given the change in commuter travel and the growth of the leisure market. Huw challenged the need to do weekend engineering works and Chris said the standard-pattern Monday to Friday timetable was outdated.
It was inspiring to hear both Andy Burnham, Mayor of Greater Manchester, and Steve Rotherham, Mayor of Liverpool City Region, at the Labour Party conference talk of the introduction of London-style transport networks in Liverpool and Manchester.
Bus is featuring heavily in both cities, with the introduction of £2 fare-cap to spark modal shift. Manchester has already taken buses back into public control with a TfL-style franchise model and Liverpool are set to introduce this soon.
There was little mention of buses at the Conservative conference, where there was more was focus on rail, roads and aviation.
On the fringes, Anne-Marie Trevelyan reiterated the Government's commitment in the Growth Plan 2022 to reduce the red tape surrounding planning regulations to speed up the delivery of major infrastructure projects.
The Secretary of State's speech to conference confirmed the Government will invest record amounts in roads and accelerate the delivery of many road projects, including establishing a pot-hole fund to repair local roads.
What do we need to do as an industry
With industry change being a common theme at both conferences, whether that's rail reform, bus franchising, or further devolution of transport powers, it's important we don't lose sight of the customer.
Transport is a service industry so the customer must be placed at the heart of all change plans, with early engagement and a diverse workforce being key to delivering services that most closely match people's needs.