The week before the Conservative Conference, the Department for Transport announced its “Long-term plan to back drivers”, a plan to “put the brakes on anti-car measures” and “address drivers’ everyday concerns” featuring an array of policies from limiting 20mph speed zones to an oddly conspiratorial backlash against the 15-minute city.

Politically it is pitched as part of the reaction to the Uxbridge and South Ruislip by-election and from a comms perspective, it was a populist pitch of ‘everyday drivers’ and ‘working people’ against some conception of a ‘train-using elite’. 

So, does the Drivers’ plan do much to stop the anti-car operations of Local Authorities around the country? 

No, not really. 

If you scratch the surface, most of the plan is made up of reviews and consultations that will likely go nowhere. Partly, because the Conservatives may not be in Government by the time they report but probably more importantly to enforce many of the proposals Central Government would also have to legislate to deliver them, which although possible, doesn’t seem particularly likely.

So what does it amount to, other than a commitment to wasting bureaucratic time?

When you boil it down, the only strong policy commitments that remain are those with some technocratic rationale behind them. The only actual policy prescriptions in the Drivers’ plan were deeply incremental, technical and, dare I say it, a bit boring: around lane rentals and the National Parking Platform (NPP).

Lane rentals have been around for a while and, whilst not revolutionary, are sensible policy. The NPP however, whilst on the face of it just a massive parking database, could actually represent something more exciting.

In the first instance, it simplifies a consumer problem – the frustration of having multiple parking apps to pay for parking in different places, which can change from street to street as you cross local authority boundaries. Instead, with the NPP the Government will create a central service which parking apps and providers connect to, allowing consumers to pay for parking via their preferred app of choice.

Rationalising a confusing app market is undoubtedly a benefit, but hardly the stuff of policy dreams. However, if you start to think conceptually about what else it might allow for then the NPP starts to become more interesting and potentially an indicator of where a data-led government can change behaviour.

The NPP is based on open-data principles, which means in theory that anyone can access the data in real time. This could mean that Waze (other GPS services are available) could take you not just to your destination, but to the nearest place to park with available space or even predict where spaces will be at the time of your arrival. It might even be able to route you to the cheapest available parking for the time that you need and pay for the parking all within the one app.

But the possibilities of the NPP are still wider. 

The NPP might be able to link into other modes of transport, suggesting where it might be quicker or cheaper for you to park and take public transport instead, or the most carbon-efficient multi-modal trip available. It might be able to integrate EV charging and parking into a single payment system, which in turn could enable the Government to relax its regulations mandating contactless payment systems on all EV chargers. It might enable new business models around surge charging for parking which would essentially work like peak hours for public transport or surge pricing on ride-hailing services.

Access to better data on how people move around areas might also unlock other benefits such as improved town planning, scheduling logistics when the roads are quietest or helping plan local services.

What the plan for drivers understands is that driving is a necessary and fundamental transport solution for millions of people around the country and we should be thinking about how to optimise it. Yes, that will always involve fixing a few potholes, but actually enabling better and more efficient use of vehicles based on open-data principles, whilst not necessarily headline grabbing, is actually quite good policy.

With an election on the horizon and road use clearly being set up as a political dividing issue, let’s hope that whatever the outcome of the election, the NPP survives.