Comparing Party Manifestos on Transport

In this blog, we try to look under the skin of each party’s manifesto to work out what they are really saying while comparing them where we can to the other parties. While there are some expected differences such as on road building, there is a surprising amount of commonality between many of the parties. The one thing that hangs over this analysis is the question of trust, as these promises and statements are taken at face value. Where we spot there are contradictions we spell these out and sometimes question claims when set against past actions.

Given that there is likely to be a Labour Government after the next election, we start by looking at their manifesto first, then the Conservatives, Liberal Democrats, the Greens, Reform and finally Plaid Cymru and the Scottish National Party.

The Labour Party Manifesto

There is much to welcome in Labour’s manifesto.

Promises of joined up Government and an end to silo decision making are very welcome. This is something that has beset transport for too long and resulted in road building being the default solution regardless of economic viability or suitability, or environmental harm. Giving Combined Authorities new planning powers should also help with a more joined up approach if it leads to a better integration of transport and planning.

It wants to overhaul Britain’s railways with greater local control and for there to be a duty to promote and grow rail freight. Also, to reform bus franchising and ownership rules and for a new passenger watchdog.

It pledges to maintain and renew the road network, but with a maintenance backlog of over £20bn for local roads and bridges, deferring the Arundel Bypass to fill an extra one million potholes every year feels a bit of a gimmick. So, while it’s a step in the right direction, nothing is said about the need for much greater funding to get roads back to a good standard. That’s before considering the cost of adapting to climate change.

It expresses a desire for exemplary development to be the norm, for more planning officers and for a brownfield first approach. However, if Labour is to deliver on its wider promises it will need to make sure that planning reform doesn’t sweep away public health and environmental safeguards, whilst removing the obstacles to achieving truly sustainable development. The National Planning Policy Framework is a clear barrier with its exception clauses, allowing development to go ahead to deliver housing numbers even when it is far from ideal and often damaging.

It is also reassuring to hear Labour say it wants the UK to be a climate leader (at home and abroad) and promising to take action to meet Environment Act targets and protect our natural world.

However, sometimes manifestos are significant for what they don’t say.

Worryingly, there is nothing about cheaper or simpler ticketing for public transport. Without these, alongside greater investment in services, structural reform will not bring the changes needed to increase opportunity and to boost the economy. Labour’s silence on the future of the £2 bus fare feeds into this, especially as an early decision on a cap will be needed if we’re not to lose more bus services.

It also seems like a missed opportunity not to include diverting funding from other uneconomic road schemes into public transport and active travel to deliver the change people are desperate for. While we remain hopeful Labour will take a more sensible approach to road building than we’ve seen under the Conservatives, statements like ‘we need to forge ahead with new roads’ do concern us.

Disappointingly, there was virtually nothing on walking, wheeling or cycling with just one mention of active travel in relation to mayoral authorities and one of cyclists. Without a comprehensive plan to ramp up active travel, the NHS will be beset by higher costs treating a less fit public.

Its desire for Local Growth Plans will risk reinforcing the status quo where wider social and environmental concerns are sidelined or ignored, one of the main reasons we’re in the mess we’re in. If Labour is committed to sustainable development, these will need rethinking.

Overall, there is much to welcome, but quite a few concerns about the detail that is missing on public transport investment, what it will do on road building and how it will replace fuel duty. This might become clearer over time but given Labour’s was the longest of the manifestos (135 pages) this was surprising.

The Conservative and Unionist Party Manifesto

Similar to Labour, the Conservatives go big on planning reform and economic growth and likewise pledge rail reform, albeit differently to Labour. They repeat many announcements from last year linked to diverting money from HS2 and their ‘Plan for Drivers’, although go further now by promising a Backing Drivers Bill.

Not surprisingly they double down on road building, something which appears ideologically driven. It certainly doesn’t appear evidence based given that road building increases congestion and emissions, and often wastes public money or provides very poor returns, such as for the Lower Thames Crossing and the A303 (at Stonehenge).

In fact, the desire to build the A303 clearly goes against their promises to ‘always protect our national heritage’, when the Transport Secretary has admitted it would harm Stonehenge World Heritage Site. Trust in what they are promising then becomes an issue. One exception to their roads obsession is the promise not to build any more ‘smart’ motorways, which they did so much to promote in the first place.

They want to bribe Wales into building more roads, rather than let the devolved government decide what the best transport solutions are.

While saying the Conservatives will introduce reforms to outdated EU red tape to better protect nature in one breath, in the next they want to resurrect the M4 relief road (across the nature-rich Gwent Levels). Trust is undermined again. They also want to give mayors powers to spend money on the strategic road network.

More things out of the culture wars playbook are listed, such as stopping road pricing, reversing London’s ULEZ expansion, ruling out things that don’t exist such as blanket 20mph zones (including being able to overrule The Senedd) and bringing in a law for cyclists that kill. To be fair they do say more about active travel than Labour but make no promises on funding. They also say they will give powers to councils to ban pavement parking, but given they’ve sat on the results of the pavement parking consultation for years and refused to do anything about this scourge, will people believe them now? That’s before considering whether a piecemeal local approach is best.

They do say some good things on planning regarding brownfield first and gentle densification of urban areas and supporting high streets. They support the growth of the rail freight sector without saying how and list many rail upgrades, many of which are welcome. However, it’s difficult to tell if these are genuine new announcements or the recycling of previous ones.

One area where they differ from Labour is that they are promising to keep the £2 bus fare cap in England for the next five years, funded through rail reform. So robbing Peter to pay Paul, given there is an urgent need to reduce rail fares too. And by ruling out a frequent flyer levy they will make rail less attractive for longer journeys, although they are promising some ticket reforms.

Perhaps one of the more worrying statements in the Conservative’s manifesto was the line about reforming the Climate Change Committee, which could undermine its objectivity.

Overall, there was nothing much that was surprising, although it is disappointing they are perpetuating the culture wars narrative and ruling out a fuel duty replacement that will leave a black hole in Britain’s finances. There were many worrying things included in the manifesto, but a few positives too on planning and bus fares.

The Liberal Democrats Manifesto

The Lib Dems want to make Britain a world leader in technology needed to tackle climate change and to put climate change at the heart of the industrial strategy. They want to reach net-zero by 2045 and are committed to meeting our international obligations to cut emissions by at least 68% from 1990 levels by 2030. Surprisingly they were the only party to mention the Paris Agreement target.

They want to invest in clean transport and restore nature and tackle toxic air pollution, with a Clean Air Act based on World Health Organisation guidelines.

On infrastructure, they want to require the National Infrastructure Commission (NIC) ‘to take fully into account the environmental implications of all national infrastructure decisions’. We’re not quite sure how this would work, given the NIC only makes recommendations, but the sentiment is welcome.

They call for business rate reform, like Labour, to help town centres and high streets. Like Labour they want to see new garden cities, more planners and brownfield development, but also talk about community led development of cities and towns. They want to see a new strategic Land and Sea Use Framework to balance competing pressures.

On public transport they go further than other parties in freezing rail fares alongside simplifying ticketing (although the Greens might go further, they don’t spell out what affordable means in terms of ticket prices). They want a 10 year plan for rail electrification and improving rail infrastructure and would review the cancellation of the northern leg of HS2.

On buses they would maintain the £2 bus fare cap until fares are reviewed, so better than Labour but not as good as the Conservatives. They also want to see reforms around buses and to give local authorities money to expand services. They would also give discounts on public transport to more young people.

They want to see more of the roads budget given to local councils to maintain existing roads, pavements and cycleways. They would create a new nationwide active travel strategy, although how this would change from what is already required (the third Cycling and Walking Investment Strategy – CWIS3 due in 2025) is unclear.

They would ban short domestic flights where there is a comparable rail journey taking less than 2.5 hours (the Greens go for 3 hours), introduce a frequent flyer levy and have ‘a moratorium on net airport expansion until a national capacity and emissions management framework is in place’.

Like the other main parties they talk about giving the motorist a fair deal and speeding up the roll out of electric charging facilities. However they go further, advocating helping motorists in rural areas by expanding Rural Fuel Duty Relief. Like Labour they talk about greater devolution and encourage greater joint working across all four nations. They would also devolve responsibility for rail services and infrastructure to Wales, promising fair funding and shared governance on cross-border services.

Like Labour they fail to address what will replace fuel duty, an important issue as revenues to decline with increasing numbers of electric vehicles.

Finally, they promise to ‘Scrap the Conservatives’ draconian anti-protest laws, restoring pre-existing protections for both peaceful assembly and public safety…’

Overall a fairly progressive manifesto on planning and transport often going as far as, or close to, the Greens and sometimes further, such as mentioning the Paris Agreement. Like the Greens they want to roll back anti-protest laws. The main difference between them and Labour and the Greens is they don’t propose nationalising the rail industry.

The Green Party Manifesto

The Greens also want planning reform but to ensure public services and green spaces are protected. They want new developments to be less car dependent ‘so that residents don’t have to rely on cars to live a full life’. They would also make 20mph the default speed limit in built up areas.

In contrast to the other parties they have come up with costed investments they want to make in transport. While Labour does this generally, on transport it is limited to filling more potholes.

The Greens want to invest £30bn in a modern electric railway, a further £7bn on public transport infrastructure, £6bn in active travel and £4bn in reducing the climate impact of road transport. They will also bring in a carbon tax and a new Rights of Nature Act. Like the Lib Dems they want to see a new Clean Air Act, and maintain protection for our countryside and wildlife sites.

While it is helpful to have the figures, they don’t always seem to add up, such as ensuring £2.5bn a year is invested in new cycleways and footpaths when the total over the next Parliament is stated elsewhere at being £6bn. Then there is an additional £19bn reallocated from road building to be spent on public transport and active travel, yet it’s not clear whether this includes the previously mentioned £6bn or not, as capital spending for transport is not listed in the appendix.

Notwithstanding this, the breakdown is welcome. It is clear from the transport revenue spending that the big increases will enable more and hopefully cheaper services to be run. Something communities have been crying out for. It appears to be the most ambitious of any party.

Similar to the Lib Dems and Labour, they would enable new bus services to be run locally, but go further to ensure a service to every village. Similar to Labour, the Greens would nationalise the rail operators, but would also bring the rolling stock back under public control. They also want more support for railfreight.

On roads, the Greens would restore the fuel duty escalator, oppose new road building and introduce road pricing. In fact, they were the only party brave enough to acknowledge the need to replace fuel duty.

They, like the Lib Dems, would introduce a frequent flyer levy and ban domestic flights for a journey that would take less than 3 hours by train (rather than 2.5 hours for the Lib Dems). They would also halt airport expansion and tax kerosene (aircraft fuel).

All parties pledge action on ending the sale of new petrol and diesel vehicles, although the Conservatives say it very quietly. But whereas the others plan to end new sales in 2030, the Greens want to see this brought forward to 2027. They also want to outlaw petrol and diesel vehicles on our roads by 2035, but would provide more support to people moving over to electric vehicles.

Like the Lib Dems they want to roll back the draconian anti-protest laws.

Not surprisingly, overall they have the most progressive policies of any political party although more detail on the costings and what they are proposing would be welcome. They want to go further on nationalisation than anyone else, are the only party to address the gaping black hole in public finances due to the decline in fuel duty, and are amongst the most ambitious on public transport and active travel.

Reform’s Manifesto

Reform’s manifesto was the shortest of all the main parties at only 28 pages, resulting in there being little space to outline what they would actually do or want to see. Their biggest threat is to scrap net-zero but without any consideration as to the cost this will have on the economy or the climate.

On housing Reform say they would fast-track planning and incentivise brownfield site development but doesn’t say how that might be achieved or how it might be integrated with transport requirements.

On transport they want to scrap all of HS2 saying that would save £25bn over five years. They don’t say how they could then fund the much needed increase in rail capacity in the absence of HS2.

Reform wants to stop the mythical ‘war on drivers’ by banning Clean Air Zones, Low Traffic Neighbourhoods and scrap 20mph except where safety is critical, however they are going to define that. It’s interesting to note that it’s normally those purporting to stand up for drivers who make things worse. Just look at the Conservatives, who greatly expanded the much hated ‘smart’ motorways and presided over record potholes due to underinvestment in road maintenance.

As part of scrapping net-zero, Reform want to remove the ban on the sale of new petrol and diesel cars and the requirement for manufacturers to sell electric cars. It’s doubtful that manufacturers would welcome the uncertainty this would bring. If other markets continue to electrify anyway this could see Britain becoming the dumping ground for dirty cars well into the future.

Finally, they want to focus new rail and road infrastructure on coastal regions, Wales, The North and the Midlands without saying how this might be funded given the cuts they are proposing. Although they propose merging the National Infrastructure Commission and Infrastructure Bank to caste waste and simplify funding.

Overall, the lack of detail suggests they feel they don’t need to say how they will deliver many of their promises, or they don’t know what they would do. There are many worrying elements, such as scrapping 20mph, which show a lack of understanding of the issues. They don’t say how they would boost road maintenance funding and fail to address the cost of public transport, or to mention buses or active travel.

The Plaid Cymru Manifesto

Plaid Cymru is one of the more environmentally aware parties, recognising both the climate and nature emergencies. It is also one of the most ambitious, seeking to reach net zero by 2035 and to reverse biodiversity decline by 2030. It is committed to increasing Air Passenger Duty and introducing a kerosine tax on private jets.

It wants to see better and more integrated planning so that new development is located and built to take into account wider societal needs such as transport.

It is calling for £4bn that it says Wales is owed from its share of HS2 funds. This would be used to revolutionise rail services in Wales, reconnecting north and south, and electrifying the North Wales Main Line, amongst other things.

It wants to see rail and buses nationalised, but as a first step supports greater bus regulation and better services. It would also keep the older people’s bus pass and want to explore doing something similar for young people.

It mentions active travel which it wants to promote and supports traffic calming measures, clean air zones and 20mph zones although is critical of how this was introduced in Wales, saying there is a need for more community engagement. It does not call for more road building.

Overall, it is one of the more comprehensive and progressive manifestos on transport, especially on its net zero target and rail investment plans. With devolution, some of the issues mentioned are perhaps less relevant in a UK general election. However, it will be interesting to see how a Labour Government would handle the claims that Wales has been short-changed on HS2 funding.

The Scottish National Party Manifesto

The Scottish National Party (SNP) has relatively little to say on transport which is perhaps a reflection of the devolved powers the Scottish Parliament has. Much of what it says is about what the SNP has delivered while in Government, such as all-day off peak rail fares and free bus travel for young people.

While it doesn’t go as far as Plaid Cymru in setting challenging net zero targets it wants to “establish a Four Nations Climate Response Group to agree climate plans across the UK that deliver on our net-zero targets and ensure the UK Government stops backtracking on climate ambition.”

It’s major gripe is the £1.3bn cut in capital investment it says Scotland has suffered which is undermining its ability to invest in rail and road infrastructure amongst other things.

If elected, it says its MPs will call on the UK Government to:

  • Transfer full powers for complete integration of track and train to Scotland – a fully devolved railway, including full ownership and powers over Network Rail Scotland. 
  • Promote a fair and affordable transition to zero-emission transport fuels and ban the import and sale of new, non zero-emission buses by 2025.
  • Strengthen incentives to purchase cleaner vehicles
  • Invest in safer roads. Wanting dualling of the A9, increasing capacity on the A96 and improving the A75.

While it acknowledges that reducing road traffic is key to cutting emissions it doesn’t reconcile how this will be achieved by encouraging more people to drive. Nor does it explain where it would find the funding (if it is spent on roads) to improve public transport and active travel to deliver the necessary reduction quickly enough. 

Overall, the manifesto contains some good points, such as pushing for a ban on the import and sale of non zero emission buses. However, it’s not clear how its acceptance of the need for traffic reduction to meet net zero could be delivered with its road building plans. Nevertheless its proposals for bringing the devolved nations together to ensure better delivery on net zero is welcome if it can be made to work. Unsurprisingly it claims it could do a much better job with more devolved powers and funding.


Overall the Green Party manifesto appears the most ambitious and thought through of all the UK parties. They are the only party to have addressed the decline in fuel duty and propose sweeping improvements for public transport and active travel. Having said that, the Lib Dems are pushing them hard and are a close second. Labour appear a little way behind the Lib Dems, although the lack of detail in their manifesto is worrying. Both the Conservative and Reform manifestos represent a retrograde step in levelling-up opportunities, public health and environmental protection.

While Plaid Cymru and the SNP are targeting only parts of the UK electorate, they will still have a voice and hence some influence in Parliament. Therefore what they say can matter and influence wider discourse. Plaid Cymru are certainly the more progressive of the two with the most ambitious net zero target and transport policies. In contrast, while the SNP does have some good policies on transport, they are fairly limited in comparison.

However, as Labour are likely to form the next government, we would expect them to set out more detail ahead of the election. Currently it is unclear how they will deliver the change people are crying out for, especially in public transport. Greater thought also needs to go into how transport interacts with wider policy areas such as public health, countryside and nature, net-zero, transport related social exclusion, etc.

Blog updated on 15 June and on 18 June to include road pricing, Reform’s manifesto and an overall conclusion. Updated on 19 June 2024 to include Plaid Cymru and SNP manifestos


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