A break from Osborne's road obsession is welcome, but doesn't go far enough
Philip Hammond is an altogether less showy chancellor than his high-vis predecessor, but without the lists of high profile new roads what kind of transport vision emerged from last week’s Budget?
If you’re a roads fan, there was still plenty of roads money on offer. Hammond announced a chunk of money for local authorities to tackle road congestion and specific funds for trunk roads, the midlands and the north of England.
But, and this is where we get a hint of a change of tack at the Department for Transport (DfT), the £1.2bn announced in January for local roads had more to do with mending the roads we already have than building big new ones.
So the £690 million announced last week could go further in this direction, focusing on measures that genuinely tackle congestion by giving people a real choice in how they travel.
This kind of initiative would also help to tackle the country’s appalling air quality. Many people, us included, expected the chancellor to take an important step last week by introducing a diesel scrappage scheme for the oldest and dirtiest engines.
In the event, nothing of this sort was announced, although there are rumours that this may now be being lined up for the autumn. This was a huge disappointment given the scale of the problem and only adds to the government’s already poor record in taking decisive action on air quality.
There was also mixed news for freight transportation in the budget. Encouraging signs that HGV charges will be reassessed after a consultation, but any good that comes of that will be undone by the freezing of HGV Vehicle Excise Duty and Road User Levy rates.
The chancellor also dealt a further blow to rail freight’s ability to compete with road freight by failing to reverse the planned 21 per cent cut to the Mode Shift Revenue Support Grants.
These grants compensate the rail freight industry for the market distortion whereby lorries pay less than a third of the costs they impose on the taxpayer in terms of crashes, congestion, road damage and pollution. The cut, effective from April, will force trainloads of freight back onto our roads, worsening congestion and pollution.
A look at the small print reveals some cuts to departmental budgets with transport spending being cut by £6 billion (eight per cent) across resource and capital. Despite the new money for social care, local government funding continues to take a pounding with further cuts announced between 2016 and 2021.
This will only add to the crisis affecting local authority bus funding. Our latest research shows that since 2010, local authority bus funding in England and Wales has been cut by over £100 million, or 33 per cent, resulting in 2,900 bus services altered or withdrawn and huge disruptions for communities.
This continued lack of support from the government for bus services makes the chancellor’s announcement of free transport for grammar school children who are eligible for free school meals all the more bizarre. While welcome for the small number of pupils who will benefit, this only draws attention to the utter mess much of the rest of school transport is in.
Nearly 80 per cent of local authorities have reduced school and college transport since 2010 with huge impact on families. Outside London, 300,000 children and 50,000 young people have lost their transport to school or college since 2008.
To address this, we are calling on the government to extend the statutory eligibility for free school or college transport to age 18, and to use the Bus Services Bill, currently making its way through parliament, as an opportunity to commit to publishing a Bus and Coach Investment Strategy, including a strategy for the future of school and college transport.
While Philip Hammond’s approach to transport is a welcome break from George Osborne’s road obsession, it is still nowhere near enough to deliver the transport improvements we need.
We still urgently need a tax regime that recognises the seriousness of issues like air pollution and climate change, and funding allocations that support choice in how people travel.
Andrew Allen is a policy analyst at the Campaign for Better TransportSign up to Left Foot Forward's weekday email for the latest progressive news and comment - and support campaigning journalism by making a donation today.
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