As Labour Takes the Helm, Demands for Transport Policy Reform Grows

The 2024 United Kingdom General Election has reshaped the political landscape with a historic landslide victory for the Labour Party, led by Keir Starmer. Labour’s triumph, securing approximately 410 seats in the 650-seat House of Commons, marks a significant shift after 14 years of Conservative rule. The Conservative Party, whose reputation had been tarnished by numerous scandals and accusations of economic mismanagement, experienced a dramatic decline, capturing only 131 seats, a post-war low. The centre-right-leaning Liberal Democrats and the relatively newly formed anti-immigration Reform UK also made notable gains, with 61 and 13 seats, respectively. This election, though characterised by a low voter turnout of 60%, reflects a profound desire for change amid widespread economic and social discontent, and those calls for change have not excluded widespread reform of Britain’s transport and mobility landscape. Especially as the sector is, by some accounts, the single largest emitter of greenhouse gas emissions of all UK industries.

Dissatisfaction with public transport is at a low, as the rail industry calls for support.

According to analysis by Gallup, Britons’ satisfaction with public transportation fell to its lowest level in over a decade in 2022, with only 64% expressing approval. During the initial five years of David Cameron’s Conservative Party premiership (2010-2016), the public viewed transport policies positively, with satisfaction increasing from 66% in 2010 to 76% in 2015. However, this progress was followed by a steady decline over the next seven years during the Thersa May (2016-19), Boris Johnson (2019-22), Lizz Truss (Sept. 2022 – Oct 2022), and Rishi Sunak (Oct. 2022 – July 2024)) administrations, due in part to a series of rail bankruptcies and public transport price increases.

To counter decreasing satisfaction, the Campaign for Better Transport has called on the new government to initiate widespread reform in the country’s rail sector, including freezing rail fairs, pegging rail fare increases to the Consumer Price Index (CPI), and introducing a cap on so-called “peak” fares.

Additionally, the Campaign for Better Transport has asked the government to ensure that all communities with a population over 30,000 people have access to regular rail services and have argued for the revival of Phase 2 of High Speed 2, which was cut by Rishi Sunak’s government in 2023.

The Railway Industry Association, the UK’s rail supply lobby, reacted positively to the new government, with Chief Executive Darren Caplan saying, “RIA and our members now look forward to working with the new Government to achieve its goals for rail. With passenger growth returning strongly, and as we seek a fresh start for the UK railway industry, we urge the new Government to deliver on our and our members’ five main RIA Manifesto asks: to publish a long-term rail strategy; bring about railway industry reform; accelerate new train orders and low carbon network upgrades; support a sustainable supply chain; and leverage private investment”.

Automotive stakeholders call for certainty after a chaotic decade.

Like rail, the UK car industry has faced a tumultuous decade. Indeed, data from the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT) shows a significant decline in car production since 2018, hindered, in part, by Brexit-induced tariffs and regulations such as the GB Type Approval and inconsistent policy and messages on environmental legislation, such as the phase-out of internal combustion engines.

Despite these challenges, the industry has been quite resilient. Indeed, according to a study by Transport & Environment, the UK remains one of the leading EV, battery, and charging investment destinations in Europe, and SMMT data suggests that car manufacturing has become substantially more energy-efficient over the past few years.

In light of the automotive sector’s resilience, the SMMT has called on the new government to “use the industry’s decarbonisation success to the UK’s economic advantage” and has suggested seven measures for the new government to adopt including publishing a green automotive transformation strategy, introducing new fiscal measures to attract investment, and developing a “harmonised” UK regulatory ecosystem.

From a consumer perspective, environmental NGO T&E has also argued that the new government should introduce social leasing schemes, such as the one implemented in France, and re-introduce home charging grants to ease the financial burden of EV ownership.

Similarly, the NGO has said that the government should “level up charging” via a reformed Local Electric Vehicle Infrastructure (LEVI) scheme, amend Amending Vehicle Excise Duty to account for weight and emissions to encourage the uptake in lower-emissions ICE cars, and mitigate increasing van and HGV emissions by urgently introducing grants to small businesses and an incremental 100% zero-emissions truck mandate until 2035.

Clean Air and Sea Plans Need Updating

Off the shores and in the skies of Blighty, the UK government has historically championed aviation and maritime innovation. Yet, as outlined by the Skies and Seas Hydrogen-fuels Accelerator (SASHA) Coalition, the UK’s Clean Maritime Plan has not been updated since 2019, and the Jet Zero Strategy may have already failed to keep aviation emissions below the 2019 level target. Much, therefore, needs to be done to decarbonise the two hardest-to-abate transport sectors.

In order to decarbonise aviation, the SASHA Coalition suggests that the government must move forward with plans to implement an industry-funded revenue certainty mechanism to support the production of hydrogen-based e-fuels and calls for the UK government to follow the EU’s lead and include international aviation in the UK ETS in 2027.

The aviation industry was also upbeat about the new government. In a joint statement, Andy Prendergast, GMB National Secretary and Tim Aldersdale, Chief Executive of Airlines UK, said: “It’s especially encouraging to see Labour’s support for the technologies that will drive the net zero transition across aviation and provide the green industrial workforce of the future.

Meanwhile, on the high seas, T&E calls on the new government to update the Clean Maritime Plan and introduce legally binding net-zero targets, which aim to decrease shipping emissions by 96% compared to 2020 levels by 2040. To facilitate this, the green group calls for the imposition of a progressive renewable and low-carbon fuel mandate, whilst both T&E and SASHA suggest that shipping should be included in the UK’s ETS.

Taken together, the UK’s path towards a more sustainable transport sector remains potholed. Yet, at least during this honeymoon phase of government, green groups, unions, industry, and maybe even the stars seem aligned with the new Labour government’s manifesto promise of “change”.