The battle for transport has just begun

The announcements made in the Autumn Statement will have implications across all sectors and all parts of the UK. But for transport it showed how many battles remain ahead.


On the face of it the Chancellor, Jeremey Hunt, gave transport a good settlement. After speaking first about the need to secure, clean and affordable energy, he went onto say that a modern economy needs "good roads, rail, broadband and 5G infrastructure".

The overall capital budget was not cut and he committed the government to delivering the core Northern Powerhouse Rail (emphasis added), HS2 to Manchester and East West Rail.

So, transport looked to have done well from the Chancellor's decisions not least because of the mood music that preceded the statement. Such infrastructure was also described as being part of levelling up economic opportunities, a project that gives it continuity with the Conservative Party's 2019 manifesto.

But the real battles now lie ahead.

Future battles

Whilst recognising the value infrastructure plays in the facing down climate change, it was only mentioned in the speech to claim that the UK is a "global leader" and is refusing to "step back from our international climate responsibilities".

As with many parts of the Statement, the choice of words provides the Government with scope for interpretation. On climate change, "responsibilities" are not the same as actual targets. On Northern Powerhouse Rail, what constitutes its 'core' is unclear but it is certainly scaled back from Liz Truss's commitment to 'a full new line all the way from Liverpool to Hull with a stop in Bradford'. In all likelihood, the scheme has returned to being the less ambitious one mentioned in the Integrated Rail Plan.

The Chancellor also placed the emphasis for future delivery in local, not national, hands.

"To unlock growth right across the country, we need to make it easier for local leaders to make things happen without banging on a Whitehall door".

This was accompanied by new devolution deals for Suffolk, as well as deals to bring Mayors to Cornwall, Norfolk and an area in the North-East to follow shortly.

How central government will move out of the way has not been detailed. Whilst the shift towards greater levels of devolution is always to be applauded, the challenge is always around what powers and the ability to secure or raise finance. Too often, there is a continued emphasis on applying for money from central government which simply reflects their priorities, not local needs.

But devolution is not only battle. There will also be a, potentially divisive, debate over planning reform. This, along with an updated National Policy Statement for transport, is required "to ensure the quick delivery of schemes". The future of planning has been debated time and again without any resolution. Whilst housing tends to be the dominant factor,

transport too is dependent on planning policy. If "quick delivery" is to be the abiding driver of reform that that could signify significant change.

There is also though a battle to be had over the vision for future transport policy. The announcement that electric vehicles will now pay vehicle excise duty from 2025 was met with shock by many.

In the SMMT's pointed response to the Autumn Statement, its Chief Executive, Mike Hawes said:

"The introduction of taxes should support road transport decarbonisation, and the delivery of net zero, rather than threaten both the new and second-hand EV markets".

The Government believes that the change is needed to "ensure that all road users begin to pay a fair tax contribution as the take up of electric vehicles continues to accelerate". The prospect that the impact could be the exact opposite does not seem to be considered by the government.

At a time when confidence is needed in the electric vehicle market, the measure appears to be a perverse incentive.

The Autumn Statement represented a critical set of announcements for the Government. It will help to make or break the whole of Rishi Sunak's time as Prime Minister.

It was also though a statement that showed that there are policy, project, direction and vision battles to be engaged in. It was a starting point rather than a definitive final word.