What did the party conferences tell us about transport ?

Reflecting on the party conference season, Jo Field analyses transport policy announcements and insights from the Lib Dem, Labour and Conservative party conferences.

Transport – a major conference focus

While Brexit dominated the party conference season, transport was also a significant focus. Most transport fringes were standing room only, showing this is a hot topic among party members and industry delegates.

All parties are committed to delivering net zero and, as transport is one of the biggest emitters of carbon, this means there are big challenges ahead for the sector.

Achieving net zero

Achieving net zero was a massive theme during conference season. The Lib Dem conference passed a policy motion that would commit a Lib Dem government to the UK reaching net-zero by 2045. This is five years sooner than the current government goal of 2050. The conference also committed to ending the sale of petrol and diesel cars in 2030, 10 years before the current target.

Labour went one step further, with delegates supporting a motion that committed to achieving net zero by 2030. This is one of the most radical net zero emissions targets in Europe.

Net zero was a common theme at the Conservative conference too. Many delegates expressed scepticism over whether the 2050 target is achievable. The main concerns were over heating homes and that aviation will not be far enough advanced to be carbon neutral. There was more acceptance that the diesel and petrol ban would happen but needed much more investment to speed this up.

Electric vehicles (EVs)

Secretary of State for Transport, Grant Shapps said he would like the Government to look again at the 2040 target for banning the sale of petrol and diesel cars.

Grant Shapps also said there are now more EV charging locations than petrol stations. The government is building a network of rapid chargers and he thinks the EV tipping point is coming very soon.

Shadow Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Secretary, Rebecca Long-Bailey MP outlined extensive plans to support the shift to EVs under a Labour government. This would include £3.6bn to expand the EV charging network. She announced a network of rapid and ultra-fast chargers and a scrappage scheme to enable motorists to trade in polluting cars for an EV.

Rebecca Long-Bailey also said that 100% of the Government car fleet under a Labour government would be electric by 2025. She announced support to help private motor fleets go electric and enable an EV revolution. Electricity would come from renewable sources and be distributed by the National Grid, which Labour would nationalise.


The overarching message from the Labour Party conference was the need to tackle the climate crisis. Jeremy Corbyn said in his speech that 'nothing matters more than the climate emergency' and this was the core theme in Labour's messaging.

In a SERA (Labour's environment campaign) rally, Shadow Transport Secretary Andy McDonald was very clear about the need to move away from fossil fuels and focus on public transport and active travel. He hinted there is much more to come from the Party on walking and cycling; and said cycling should be 'for the many not the brave'.

Andy McDonald said building more roads is not a solution, as new roads fill up and become congested. He pledged the next Labour government will reallocate the Tories £30bn roads budget to a sustainable transport fund.

Influencers in Labour fringe meetings mentioned road pricing as something that will need to be looked at. This would enable cities to reach net zero.

The Conservatives pledged to continue building and upgrading roads. Chancellor Sajid Javid announced an 'infrastructure revolution' in his conference speech, including £29bn of road upgrades and improved bus services across England.


It was great to see buses getting the attention they deserve, with both Labour and the Conservatives very positive on the issue. Sajid Javid, said the Government had allocated £220 million to improving bus services, which will include 'superbus networks' and low emission buses.

Labour pledged to 'reverse Tory bus cuts' and introduce free bus travel for everyone under 25.

This makes perfect sense as net zero cannot be achieved without a massive modal shift to public transport, walking and cycling.


It was great to see commitment to Rail infrastructure investment from all sides of the political spectrum.

A rail policy motion at the Lib Dem conference outlined plans to make the railways safer and more accessible for all. The motion opposed re-nationalising the railways and supported devolution to local authorities. It proposed large scale investment and support for major rail infrastructure including HS2, Crossrail 2 and HS3 (Northern Powerhouse Rail).

Andy McDonald, shadow transport secretary, promised renationalisation of the railways would be in the opening Queen's speech of the next Labour Government. The Party also supports devolved power to regions.

Andy McDonald said HS2 is much more than a high-speed railway line and is also about capacity, including capacity for more rail freight. He said there is a need to talk about the scheme in terms of how it enables Northern Powerhouse Rail.

In his conference speech, Jeremy Corbyn pledged that a Labour government will invest in Crossrail for the North (another name for Northern Powerhouse Rail).

The key message from the Conservative conference was that it is all about devolution, devolution and more devolution. This was a core message in every transport fringe, with councillors and metro mayors saying devolved power is vital because local regions know their needs best.

A panel debate on the future of rail at the Conservative conference, predictably, suggested re-nationalisation of railways is not the answer. We heard from transport minister, George Freeman that better service integration, localisation and technology would improve things for customers.

The Conservatives stressed they are making record amounts of rail investment (£48bn over 5 years). They also underlined their commitment to Northern Powerhouse Rail.

Workforce diversity

Industry gender balance did not feature as much as it sometimes does in fringe debates, but the issue is usually only raised when I ask the question! Generally, I think transport fringe attendance and panels are becoming more diverse, which is good news.

It was good to hear, Jessie Joe Jacobs, candidate to be the next Tees Valley Mayor, say that transport should not be a male conversation: 'whether the railways work or don't work affects us all'.

This is a point that I often make. Transport is for everyone so it will only fully serve customers' needs when infrastructure and services are planned, designed and delivered by a truly diverse workforce.

When asked about diversity, it was great to hear from both Andy McDonald and Grant Shapps that improving gender balance is important.

Looking to the future

The party conferences tell us we can be confident of political support for transport investment. But it is important that we, as an industry, continue making the case for transport infrastructure, as well as communicating the benefits and engaging the public from an early stage.

The sector is at the forefront of delivering net zero, so transport businesses must make their voices heard to shape the policy debate.

Continued infrastructure investment to support growth in a post-Brexit world will be vital. There has never been a bigger opportunity for the industry to shape its own future.