The road to growth for the next Government

In the same week as Labour announced its plans to deliver 'the biggest overhaul of railways in a generation', Copper Consultancy's Director Caroline Romback sat down with Shadow Transport Minister for Roads, Bill Esterson MP and a range of representatives from across the highways sector to discuss the industry and Labour's long-term ambitions for transport infrastructure.

Up for discussion was the broad range of road-related challenges and opportunities facing the next government, from maintaining the current network and cutting congestion to simplifying the planning process, engaging with the public and transitioning to low-carbon vehicles.

The insightful session reflects a Labour Party that seems keen to continue to engage with industry and the public to understand perspectives and use this to inform policy and approach. And one which recognises the value of our road network, even sighting building roads in the detailed breakdown of their five key Party missions, under the banner 'Get Britain building again'.

Rebuilding rather than road building

For their latest public attitudes survey, Copper recently polled members of the public on their views about transport priorities and needs. Thanks largely to a sizeable backlog of pothole repairs, its understandable that maintaining our roads has become a key priority for the public, something which is rippling through the political landscape as well.

Results from the survey show that 48% of people would prefer to see investment in maintaining and repairing existing road infrastructure compared to just 22% who prioritised building new. And there was a similar story for rail, with 45% prioritising improving existing rail infrastructure, compared to just 27% choosing to build new.

Maintaining infrastructure goes beyond filling potholes, however. Structural repairs and the replacement of bridges, improvements to junctions and widening carriageways all fall under the 'maintenance' umbrella. And these include complex projects which require community support to run smoothly. Labour seems to recognise that there is an important balance between maintenance projects and major schemes which promise to deliver vital capacity and connectivity benefits.

Congestion is also currently a hot topic for the public; the question of course being how to reduce it. One answer embraced by Labour is to increase rail capacity for passengers and freight. Add to this better public transport and integrated active travel options, where bus lanes, walkways and cycleways are integrated to offer communities better connectivity, relieving some pressure from the road network.

The quality of our highways is affected by a variety of organisations, from those needing access to install and maintain other infrastructure to those requiring complex transport planning as part of wider development and regeneration. Labour recognises the need to work smarter to create a more integrated approach, with a longer term lens on the collective needs of communities and regions, and key partners helping to drive that co-ordination and collaboration.

Last year, the prime minister announced plans to postpone a ban on the sale of new petrol and diesel powered cars from 2030 to 2035. If elected, Labour have said they will revert to the original 2030 deadline, which would give confidence to investors and help encourage consumers to make the switch to electric.

Labour has a mission to be self-sufficient in clean electricity generation by increasing onshore and offshore wind and solar and speeding up grid connections. Government must work with local authorities, businesses and consumers to make it possible for people to plug in electric vehicles easily. Through its Automotive Strategy, Labour has promised to accelerate the charge-point rollout, setting new binding targets and releasing and redirecting existing funding to ensure reliable charging coverage across the UK.

As part of its plans to revive the economy and 'Get Britain building again', Labour has ambitions to accelerate the planning process for critical national infrastructure. Changes would include updating all national policy statements, which detail what types of projects the country needs while weaving considerations about economic growth and net zero into the planning system.

In her speech last year, Shadow Chancellor Rachel Reeves said that Labour will set clearer national guidance for developers on consulting local communities and provide a menu of potential incentives to help local communities welcome new schemes.

In its Vision for Community Power, Labour also outlines its ambitions to redistribute power out of Westminster and into the hands of the people, and there was a clear narrative around needing to bring communities on the journey through early and ongoing engagement when investing in infrastructure.

The importance of a partnership approach

Labour seems focussed on creating productive partnerships and collaborations, hence framing their policy lens around 'Five Missions' everyone can rally behind. More specific examples include giving long-term visibility in key plans like their Industrial Strategy and being keen to echo this approach more broadly to build back public and industry confidence and keep collective investment momentum.

Whoever forms our next Government, it is to be hoped that they bring a vision of investment, collaboration and momentum. This would be a welcome shift from current challenges around policy, pipeline, framework and project stagnation that are stifling an otherwise energetic, innovative and ambitious industry.