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RAC slam successive governments' neglect of transport

Transport has been sidelined by governments of both parties in the post-war years, with the average transport secretary in his or her post for just 22 months, sabotaging long-term planning says new research from the RAC Foundation.

The research, carried out by David Bayliss, examines the pledges of successive transport secretaries over the past 50 years.


The research shows that 28 different ministers have been responsible for transport, their tenure ranging from Tom King's four months in the post, to Earnest Marples' five years. The average tenure is 22 months.

The RAC Foundation say that such regular shuffling at the top has had a detrimental impact on pushing transport plans through, as consultation and planning times tend to be longer than any one minister may be in charge.

Vote winner?

Director of the Royal Automobile Club Foundation professor Stephen Glaister, said: "Transport failures upset people but transport is rarely a vote winner.

"This is clear to see when looking back over fifty years of party political transport manifestos. With a general election on the horizon, all parties should consider the importance of transport in general and roads in particular.

"A lot of improvements have been made over the past half century, but a great deal more could have been achieved from a more purposeful and coherent policy regime.

"Current and future transport advisors should read this synopsis of past transport manifestos and note the achievements. Learning from past successes and failures, will avoid future administrations falling into familiar traps. A consistent approach to national policy is key to future success," he said.

The research suggests that transport has crept up the agenda over the decades, and that Labour has had the most to say overall, followed by the Liberals and then Conservatives.

Where parties stand

Parties have gone through periods of agreement and disagreement over the years, with consensus on improving safety, creating more efficient ports, reducing road congestion, increasing railway efficiency, providing more effective traffic management and enhancing rural transport.

Disagreements surfaced over public/private ownership and the intensity of transport regulation. Policies on airport development and roads policy have changed the most.

Railways have been mentioned the most in the last 50 years, followed by public transport, roads, road safety, and aviation.


Parties have agreed, and then moved to disagreement on building and managing the country's road infrastructure. They agreed from the 1950s to the 1980s, with the exceptions of the publication of Buchanan's 'Traffic in Towns' in 1963 and again with the 1973 oil crisis.

Developing a national roads network faced:

  • In the 1950s a network of variable quality and under strain from rapid traffic growth;

  • Weakening of consensus in favour of roads following the 1973 oil crisis and London Motorways rejection;

  • Roads programme subject to periodic public expenditure cuts;

  • Growing sophistication of the opponents of roads

  • Subjective road assessment making evaluation difficult;

  • Failure, or very limited success, of attempts at national transport planning;

  • Cost escalation, partly due to complex and extended planning;

  • Changing attitudes to how major transport schemes should be financed, and;

  • Fragmentation of responsibilities for the strategic road network and the shrinking of the 'national' core network.

Key trends by decade

  • 1950s: There was general agreement that the transport system needed improving following the Second World War. All main political parties agreed that improvements to the road system, including new road building, were required. Labour promoted retaining public ownership and regulatory policies, whereas the Conservatives favoured a more commercial operation of the national railways. Rural transport and bus use was a concern for both the Conservatives and Liberals, who had major rural constituencies.

  • 1960s: All parties subscribed to a plan for improvements to the national road network. The urban traffic problem highlighted by the late 1950s 'Traffic in Towns' report also took centre stage. The Conservatives and Liberals identified motorway construction as a priority, whereas Labour put more emphasis on coordination, regulation, public transport and halting the programme of branch closures contained in Beeching Report. The Liberals continued with their particular concern for rural areas and began advocating the use of toll roads, following the publication of the first road pricing study. The regionalisation of decision making was also discussed by both Labour and the Liberals.

  • 1970s: The Conservatives and Labour retained their commitment to improving the national road network. Party differences on the issue of state control or private enterprise remained. Ports, aviation and road haulage were the main transport issues raised. The oil crisis in 1973 appeared to change the attitudes of all three main parties. Public transport and the railways began moving to centre stage. By the mid 1970s, discussions on roads focused on lorry routing and Labour argued against the development of urban motorways. By the end of the 1970s transport policy was turning against road building.

  • 1980s: Liberalisation and privatisation were the key themes of this decade under the leadership of Conservative leader Margret Thatcher. The environmental effect of lorries became an important policy aim, but the manifestos off all three main political parties lost the focus seen in earlier promises. The Conservatives remained committed to improvements to the motorway and trunk road network and concentrated on the efficiency of the transport sector. Labour were instead committed to improving public transport, with no mention made of roads. Vehicle Excise Duty (VED) was replaced by increasing fuel duties and a National Transport Authority was created. The Liberal/SDP Alliance had a positive attitude to public transport, and accepted the need for some road building, especially new bypasses and lorry routes.

  • 1990s: A common policy developed amongst the three main parties on improving road safety, the conditions for pedestrians and cyclists, better traffic management, improvements in road vehicle fuel efficiency and improvements in emissions performance. The Conservatives kept to the themes of liberalisation and the Liberal/SDP Alliance became less supportive of road building. By the late 1990s Conservative policy was keen on privatising the London Underground and the National Air Traffic Service as well as engaging the private sector in road building. Labour's 1997 manifesto dropped its traditional position of state control, for a more liberal position, accepting the benefits of regulated competition and public - private partnerships. Labour was cautious about the road programme and the Liberal Democrats focused increasingly on the smarter choices agenda. In 1999 the creation of an elected assembly in Wales and an elected parliament in Scotland allowed for regional public transport, road and rail links to gather support.

  • 2000s: Views on road construction diverged at this time. The conservatives made no commitments on improving the road network, but reversed their policy on fuel duty escalation and promised to cut fuel duty, along with other motorist friendly policies. The Labour Party promised improvements to the motorways system, including a hundred new bypasses and the Liberal Democrats were against any significant new construction. Better public transport; more walking, cycling and use of rail (and waterways); greater safety; reductions in fuel consumption, and; cutting vehicle emissions were common currency amongst the main parties.

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