WE BELIEVE THERE IS AN URGENT need to go much further and to be much more radical in Labour’s approach to public transport and transport as a whole. The challenge is to create a socialised, accessible and integrated transport system which is an essential part of the Labour Party’s commitments on climate change. Crucially we need transport policy that is environmentally sustainable.
The current largely privatised system isn’t working for the many. It is costly and failing and its minister, Chris Grayling, now has that tagged on the end of his name on social media and in political circles. The market can never deliver public transport solutions that meet the needs of the community. It is also killing us – literally in some cases.
The recent announcement that a fresh inquest is to be held into the death of nine year old Ella Kissi-Debrah, who lived near the South Circular Road in Lewisham, highlights this. Her death from a fatal asthma attack, which may be linked to air pollution near her home, is to be taken back to the High Court. This shows that creating a non-polluting transport system is a human rights issue. Pollution from transport is shortening the lives of our population, with children, older and disabled people most vulnerable to the negative effects of the free market policies of successive governments.
Mobility is recognised as a basic human right. But more and more of us are being denied it. The car crash Prince Philip was involved in was just a high profile example of a much bigger, more serious issue affecting many older drivers and those with long term conditions. This is being forced to keep driving when it may no longer be safe to do so for them or other road users because there is no adequate public transport alternative.
Bus services have contracted exponentially as private companies restrict their services to where the best profits are. Reliable and secure taxi services have been undermined by the encouragement of Uber-style arrangements. When you add up subsidies and high fares, train travel is the most costly in Europe and prohibitive for many people. The positive enthusiasm of more and more people for cycling is put at risk by the failure to develop truly segregated safe riding spaces along the lines of more progressive European countries.
Environmentally damaging diesel lorries create additional health and injury risks while our growing reliance on centralised goods distribution massively increases the billions of polluting miles being racked up.
Disproportionate housing and rental prices mean that people have to travel further and further for work and study. Families are spread far and wide as children can no longer afford to live close to their localities of origin.
The North-South divide is a transport divide too. All of these social problems also incur additional travel and environmental costs.
And the solutions being offered? HS2 high speed train routes, which leave untouched the poor transport links between East and West and driverless cars and trucks – which may reduce the transport costs of big multinationals, but will create their own new problems of unemployment and do nothing to cut unnecessary journeys.
However, it doesn’t have to be this way. There is a whole different way of thinking about public transport. We are both old enough to remember the radical ‘Fares Fair’ policies of the Labour-controlled Greater London Council in 1981. Ken Livingstone and John McDonnell prioritised public transport and slashed fares on buses and underground trains by 32%, producing a steep rise in use. They were blocked by the Tory government from doing the same for British Rail services in the Greater London area. Similar schemes were also adopted in other cities, notably Sheffield, with similar results. Unfortunately, the policy was short lived as it was challenged in the courts by Tory-run Bromley council and rescinded in 1982.
By bringing transport policy into the exciting and transformational work that is going on in the shadow cabinet around the economy and climate change, and connecting it with social policy, we can go much further to achieving a socialised system which is based on low emissions, non-polluting, safer and regenerates the economy.
The first challenges, already identified, are to sort the buses, taxis and rail network. Luxembourg has announced that public transport will be free for all users from the beginning of 2020. The left wing government has prioritised the environment and already slashed fares, provided free travel for young people and free shuttles for school students.
We have to find alternatives to air polluting cars and lorries. The electrification of cars will go some way to achieving this, although we also know it may only move the pollution source upline, but ambitious targets and incentives for diesel and petrol car owners have to be set.
The key to removing lorries from our roads lies in making rail freight much cheaper than HGVs. Crucially we have to be imaginative and explore reducing transportation needs, moving to more local systems of production and consumption and exploring alternative energy sources like hydrogen and more sustainable forms of travel, including canal and river transport, ground effect vehicles (that can skim quickly over flat surfaces) rather than aircraft, and dirigible balloon vehicles rather than winged ones.
We must seriously and urgently review air travel, one of the most dramatic polluters, and put real urgency into cleaner, short take off and landing (STOL) and vertical take off and landing (VTOL) aircraft.
To achieve the transformative system required a set of principles are needed to guide development.
These should be:
» Environmentally sound - Impact assessments and tough targets on emissions and pollution will drive policy and planning to meet agreed reductions in pollution. Support and invest in safe cycling.
» Socially inclusive - Ensuring equity of access to public and private transport and a human right to mobility. This should be inclusive of poor, disabled and older people and those living in rural areas. It will be important to make transport accessible and safe, based on gender and ethnicity as well as well as other issues of difference.
» Redistributive - Ensuring policies address the North-South and East- West divides by investing resources away from London and the South East to the Midlands, northern England, East Anglia, as well as Scotland, Wales and N. Ireland.
» Sustainable - Seeing a new approach to public transport (including both goods and people) as part of a broader strategy committed to localising, wherever possible, employment, housing, production, consumption and services, and minimising damage to the environment through the processes and outcomes of travel, maximising use of renewables and minimising impact on environment and ecology.
» Socially coherent - Public transport as part of broader policy encouraging and supporting personal, family and community solidarity and coherence, challenging social isolation and loneliness and supporting personal and social networks.
» Based on socialist principles - This is about socialising public transport but not just about re-nationalising and recreating British Rail, etc. as a nationalised industry in the old-style state run/top down industry/ command and control style.
» Based on devolution/localism - These are policies agreed on across the political spectrum. For them to be transformational we need local decision making and accountability to achieve true integration.
» Transformational and Equalising - Public transport needs to be seen as an economic and social regenerator providing jobs, training and social inclusion opportunities. It needs to be socialised as well as localised - delivered by co-operatives and not-for-profit social enterprises which are owned, managed and rooted in the workforce, community and social need.
» Democratising - It also needs to actively engage with and co-produce integrated transport plans with passengers, commuters, community groups representing interest groups, eg. older and disabled people, poor and marginalised communities, etc. Public transport is about connecting us and our communities.
One thing that quickly becomes apparent is that the kind of progressive, sustainable transport policy we now need is one that is itself closely connected with all our other progressive social, economic, personal and political principles and now above all these must be harmonised with environmental sustainability and safeguarding the long term future of the planet. This must be our direction of travel! 16
Mark Harrison is director of Social Action Solutions, and Senior Research Fellow in Social Action at the University of Suffolk.
Peter Beresford is co-chair of Shaping OurLives, the disabled people's and service users’ organisation and network, and Professor of Citizen Participation at the University of Essex.