With less than a week to go to the election, and the polls remaining pretty much where they were at the start of the campaign, the parties will be pulling out all the stops to sway undecided voters.

If you were to decide who to vote for solely on the basis of transport issues, who should you choose?

First of all, it’s perhaps worth remembering where we were five years ago. Everyone knew cuts  were on the way, and the worry was that transport would be among the first areas to be cut, as had historically been the case.

Few expected Transport Secretary Philip Hammond and chancellor George Osborne to be staunch supporters of the argument that transport investment was good for the economy – but this is what transpired, with the result that much transport investment including the rail programme and TfL’s investment budget were preserved.

Some of the coalition’s other spending decisions were less welcome: local transport suffered severe cuts; and downsizing the DfT led to an exodus of talent and experience that may have been a factor in the collapse of the West Coast main line franchise bidding process. But many feared the last five years would be worse than they proved.

But what of the prospects ahead? On investment, all the main parties broadly support HS2 and the five-year road and rail programmes. There’s a caveat that Labour has from time to time appeared somewhat equivocal on aspects of HS2, and it has identified two schemes it would drop from the roads programme. (An additional caveat would be that, in the coalition negotiations that on current figures are expected to ensue after the election, it’s impossible to predict what might or might not be jettisoned). But in general, little to choose between the parties on that score.

On rail, Labour (and the SNP) would allow public sector operators to compete for franchises, and more generally Labour promises a wider shake-up of the railways in general. Whether a rail reorganisation, with its attendant disruption, is currently the most urgent issue is an area that divides opinion.

For bus supporters, Labour and the Liberal Democrats explicitly acknowledge the importance of the bus for the economy. The Lib Dems go further, with promises of a five year investment plan to   provide more confidence and certainty. The Conservatives have little to say about buses specifically.

The bad news is that if you’re opposed to bus regulation, it’s almost impossible to avoid, with both Labour and the Lib Dems promising to offer some form of control over buses to local authorities, and even the Conservatives having espoused it as an element of Manchester’s devolution package.

If you’re against new runway capacity, the Lib Dems have set their collective face against expansion, not just in the South East but generally. But none of the other main parties has guaranteed to do more than “respond” to the final recommendation of the Airports Commission.

The Lib Dems are the most eloquent on transport and the environment. Both they and their coalition partners promise backing for low emission vehicles, and would set targets by which all cars, vans and taxis must be ultra-low emission vehicles. Labour offers little detail on air quality and related issues.

One of the most important issues, though, you’ll struggle to find in the manifestos (other than the Lib Dems’). That is the question of how much more austerity we can expect after the election. The importance of this is that spending on health, education and aid is protected and that all cuts in departmental spending will fall on unprotected departments, of which transport is one.

The Institute of Fiscal Studies has analysed the implications of the parties’ spending commitments (see page 6). It concludes that the Conservatives, aiming to eliminate the deficit and get into surplus by 2018-19, will need £30bn in departmental spending cuts. Helped by a crackdown on tax avoidance, the Lib Dems will need £12bn. Because Labour has only committed itself to reducing the deficit every year and to bring current spending into balance as soon as possible, it could need to find as little as £1bn in cuts beyond the current financial year.

Which side of this argument you come down on depends on whether you feel eliminating the deficit is the highest priority, or on whether you believe a slower rate of cuts will tend to lead to stronger economic growth.

Reference: Transport Times, May 2015 Issue

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