The Conservatives have clearly decided to make transport the latest front in the culture wars with ‘The plan for drivers’ announced at their party conference in Manchester. Looking behind the headlines however, while there are a few genuinely new initiatives, most involve extending the scope of existing promises, not delivering any radical change. There is a welcome proposal to clampdown on inconsiderate drivers, which ironically includes the use of more enforcement cameras to tackle noisy vehicles and littering. However, it is the tone that is perhaps more worrying, the painting of a picture that speaks to a lot of driver entitlement, of a ‘war on the motorist’, and how at last here is a party prepared to stand up for drivers’ rights. In reality, we already live in a car dominated society where the interests of people driving are mostly put ahead of people wanting to travel by other means.
While some drivers undoubtedly have legitimate grievances, many of those who complain do so thinking they have the right to drive and park anywhere unhindered. This can be seen by the way they regularly park across dropped kerbs, on no stopping zones and on pavements. In contrast, for the many people who walk or wheel, and that is most of the population, the continued delay in bringing forward a ban on pavement parking (now over 3 years since the consultation) feels like the ‘war on pedestrians’ is very real and unending. This comes alongside the latest threat to pavements from EV chargers and trailing cables which are set to proliferate across the country.
Included in the plan were some bizarre comments, such as the one about ‘15 minute cities’, which it claimed are being used to police people’s lives and restrict their movement. This seems to come right out of the conspiracy theorist’s playbook and it’s worrying that it is being reflected in a Government announcement, especially after the Government had already debunked this nonsense itself!
Elsewhere the pledges look like they’d been included to create the perception of the Government taking clear and decisive action to improve the driving experience. Examples include the speeding up of traffic through better and smarter traffic lights. However the £50 – £70 million on offer for these initiatives is unlikely to make a huge difference given the high cost of signal upgrades and vast number of traffic lights across the country. Similarly, while potholes are mentioned as ‘the bane of many drivers’ lives’, nothing new was announced that would make any serious inroads into the £14bn backlog in local road maintenance, or the £6bn backlog in local bridge maintenance.
It proposes consultations on Low Traffic Neighbourhoods (LTNs), camera enforcement, parking charges and more. It also wants to change guidance on 20mph speed limits and bus lanes. Ironically allowing cars into bus lanes will more likely create more confusion as people forget when they can and cannot use them. Equally, the idea that allowing cars into bus lanes makes sense in off-peak times when congestion is lower is bizarre and will only slow down off-peak services.
Walking, wheeling and cycling got a positive mention when the Transport Secretary said: “We can make it safer to walk or cycle without forcing drivers off the roads.” However, he did not make it clear how he would improve road safety, or significantly reduce the number of people killed on our roads (last year it was 1,711) or seriously injured (28,031).
In fact the Government let slip that it had invested just £100 million on improving road safety over the past 6 years and had only allocated a further £47 million this April. While low cost solutions are the way to go, this lack of investment in road safety is very telling. It does not even amount to one significant road junction upgrade! Additionally, while historic road spending was mentioned, no comment was made about future spending on new roads.
Unsurprisingly there was further misrepresentation about what was happening in Wales with talk of ‘blanket’ speed limits and bans on road building, neither of which are true of course. There was also gaslighting of the public with talk about how they “want to give people choice” and that the Conservatives “stand for freedom, to allow you to travel how you want”. Yet how they can claim this when bus and coach fares have soared compared to motoring costs (despite the recent bus fare cap) and thousands of bus and rail services have been cut since 2010 isn’t explained. This has removed choice for many people and forced them into cars (where they have them), worsening conditions for everyone. Hardly helping the motorist as claimed.
Cut through the hype and misinformation and you’re left with little more than style over substance. Short termism triumphing over the need for long term decision making. The concern is that this emboldens the opposition to much needed solutions and keeps funding away from delivering the change that people need and want. The important thing will be how opposition parties react and whether the public will see through the thinness of these proposals before the General Election.
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