Limiting local authority powers doubles down on Britain’s climate inaction

Analysing language used by Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and other cabinet ministers at this week’s Conservative Party Conference leads us to one question: where from here?

yellow and black train

In recent weeks the words ‘Manchester’ and ‘transport’ have dominated national headlines. Sadly, often for all the wrong reasons. 

It began with the first stage of the Bee Network going live. Greater Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham’s big plan to ensure the country’s second-largest regional economy remains competitive and primed for further growth revolves around improved links. And not before time.

Initially, this means putting bus services back under council control, allowing the combined authority to dictate routes, timings, and frequency. In doing so, the city region has become the first place in the country outside London to have that luxury since the Transport Act 1985. 

Currently, just a handful of services are changing, but within the next two years this will spread across Greater Manchester’s two cities, ten metropolitan boroughs and 2.8million inhabitants. It will also incorporate  rapidly expanding active travel network, and, finally, the hugely successful Metrolink tram system, and commuter rail provision throughout the county. 

It’s easy to feel optimistic about all this. The impact of investment into Greater Manchester’s public transport has been profound. The city no longer develops its core alone, hence myriad districts that have established themselves as hotbeds for employment, entertainment, hospitality and homes. There’s also the proven benefit to the environment, with less people jumping into cars and more choosing to rely on buses, trams and trains. In order for that to happen, though, these travel options must be reliable in themselves. 

people walking on sidewalk near buildings

As such it’s disappointing to hear rhetoric coming out of the annual Conservative Party Conference, which is currently underway in Manchester. Yesterday, news hit the long and painful process surrounding England’s second high speed rail line – HS2 – was about to get even more painful. The only route north of Birmingham, connecting Manchester Airport and the city centre’s Piccadilly Railway Station, is to be axed as a result of exponentially inflated costs.

The fact homes have already been sold and lives upended to make way for this infrastructure apparently means nothing. Nor does the detrimental effect this will have on regional economies and levelling up, which has pushed Birmingham’s mayor, Conservative Andy Street, into threatening to walk out of his job in protest. That other major train project, Northern Powerhouse Rail, was also supposed to share sections of track with HS2 in the north, meaning some are now questioning how the latter’s cancellation might impact long-overdue work to bring the north of England’s railways into the 21st Century. 

Last week the Prime Minister threw more petrol on another transport row with a speech on Friday promising to ‘end the war on motorists’. His pledge to limit local and regional powers over things like speed limits, low traffic neighbourhoods (LTNs), and operating hours for bus lanes is a clear attempt to win support from vast parts of the country that rely on cars. This follows a significant watering down of net zero promises which had already jeopardised the nation’s chances of meeting legally-binding targets by 2050.

The irony is, better public transport would reduce the need to use cars, potentially swinging the balance of influence towards those that want less traffic, cleaner and safer streets. Meanwhile, Sunak’s attack on LTNs specifically, which included his view these schemes are used to ‘aggressively restrict where people can drive’, nods to conspiracy theories about a UN-sanctioned clamp down on travel rights. The first step towards a dystopian future in which all movements are tracked. 

brown concrete building under blue sky during daytime

Back in June, to mark Clean Air Day, we ran an op-ed about a march against the office of Theresa Villiers. MP for Chipping & Barnet, and former Environment Secretary, she had been accused of facilitating the spread of conspiracy theories by allowing placards and banners disputing environmental science at a protest to stop the expansion of London’s Ultra Low Emission Zone.

All these examples should ring alarm bells about the methods and messages this Government is willing to use to bolster plummeting public support. And that’s before we mention Home Secretary Suella Braverman’s comments this week about a ‘hurricane of immigration’ heading our way in the not-so-distant future. 

Of course, there’s a chance she may be right, and the less decisive steps we take on air pollution, carbon emissions, biodiversity loss, and marine protection increase the likelihood of climate-related migration rising significantly. It’s just a shame those currently dictating policy fail to see the connections between issues they are attempting to drive support with. And that’s precisely why the situation is so frustrating.

On the one hand, we have a vast city region that has spent years campaigning, lobbying, and fighting court battles to win comprehensive ownership of its own transport, with both accessibility and the environment standing to gain. Whether this will improve things or not remains to be seen, but it is unlikely to make transport provision worse than it has been under privatisation. On the other, there’s a Government consistently backing out of its own climate-aligned schemes looking to curb local authority powers that might be used to take action on the crisis.

A week ago we published news of a fresh report from the Conservative Net Zero Tsar Chris Skidmore, which identified regional governments as essential for environmental progress given Downing Street continues to fail in this area. Now it seems that even this idea might be watered down by a Prime Minister focused on winning a 2024 General Election that looked unwinnable years ago. So the real question is: how much long-term damage will inaction inflict before change happens?

More features and opinion: 

How local government pensions are fuelling regional green investment

Business as usual: How post-lockdown aviation is set to change

Inside Cheshire East’s lower carbon highway service


Images: Matthew Waring (top) / Fraser Cottrell (middle) / Chris Curry (bottom)


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