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What's waiting in the new Secretary of State's in-tray?

Former campaigner's picture
palace of westminster

Brexit aside, some of the thorniest issues of the current Parliament revolve around transport. While the new Secretary of State ponders what to do about massive infrastructure projects like HS2 and Heathrow, he should reflect that everyday transport - buses, pot holes, rail fares and the like - matter far more to most people's lives and deserve a far higher priority.

As Chris Grayling sits down to his first day as Secretary of State for Transport, top of the list of things to tackle will be those he actually has little formal control over - HS2, a third runway at Heathrow and air pollution.

On HS2, those campaigning against the scheme will hope the change of Prime Minister and Chancellor will revive Parliamentary opposition. The new Prime Minister has, however, diligently supported HS2 to this point and seems unlikely to backtrack given the project partly rests on tackling economic inequalities - a core part of her pitch for the top job. Grayling's role will probably therefore be to reign in costs while making sure important elements of the scheme aren't lost, like city centre stations that connect with the existing rail network for example. 

With the economy threatened by recession, the pressure will be on to make spending cuts. While HS2's £56bn price tag puts it in the firing line, the bloated Strategic Road Network budget arguably offers better opportunities for savings. There is a slew of controversial, environmentally damaging and arguably unsafe road projects on the drawing board, and a review of the multi-billion pound Road Investment Strategy process is surely apposite. With ClientEarth's air pollution case heading back to the Supreme Court in October, such a move would help reduce the appalling death toll caused mainly by engine emissions and give the Government's strategy much needed coherence. 

The assumption remains that Heathrow's third runway will get the go ahead, but only when a politically expedient moment can be found to push the button. But there is reason to question this. May's Maidenhead constituency is near the flightpath, Chris Grayling's Epsom seat is only 10 miles away, and there are a number of high profile opponents of the scheme in the Cabinet. With impacts on surface access, carbon emissions and local environment still unresolved, some are even holding out hope that the Prime Minister will reject the Heathrow option - and perhaps the case for a new South East runway altogether. This welcome - if unlikely - scenario is based on negative comments May made about airport expansion back in 2008, and a more likely task for the new Secretary of State will be working out just how Heathrow can be expanded without gumming up London and the South East, and exposing communities to unacceptable pollution and noise.

Whatever the decisions on HS2 and Heathrow, Grayling's role will largely be confined to taking the flak for the political decisions of more senior colleagues. Just as toxic, but more pressing and firmly within the Secretary of State's remit is Southern Rail. A botched franchise, chaos caused by engineering projects and multiple industrial disputes mean a threadbare emergency timetable and thousands of irate passengers. Numerous backbenchers from across the political divide will be on Grayling's case to do something. But it is not immediately clear what that should be. Simply stripping Southern of their franchise will not solve the problems causing the delays. The DfT needs to agree a clear deadline for when services will be back to normal. If this is missed then serious consideration should be given to bringing in the state-run Directly Operated Railways to take over, with Southern's suburban services handed over to Transport for London. 

All this should presage a look at franchising more generally. Twenty years since the first franchises started operating, their scale and complexity means very few companies are now in a position to bid (just two companies are currently competing for the South Western franchise), and very few passengers understand or contribute to the process. With Brexit potentially giving the Government a freer hand in how services are run, the time is right for root and branch reform giving more flexibility in who can run services, increased local accountability and strengthening the voice of passengers. 

What about the everyday transport that people rely on to live their lives? Year on year bus cuts, a completely under-powered plan for cycling and walking and a £12bn pothole black hole bear witness to the lack of consideration this important area gets. Local authorities see devolution deals as an opportunity to reverse the cuts and plan properly for the future. But George Osborne's departure from the Government could take the impetus from the devolution deals currently being negotiated. With mayoral elections due next May, it is essential that the DfT works with the Treasury and Communities and Local Government to keep things on track and to ensure as many local authorities as possible benefit from the Bus Services Bill currently working its way through Parliament. A welcome first step would be an announcement from the new Secretary of State that improving essential day-to-day transport will take priority over grandiose infrastructure visions.

Fortunately Chris Grayling is not entirely new to all this. His role as Shadow Secretary of State for Transport ten years ago during the previous Labour government should help him get to grips with this portfolio quickly, assuming he can remember back that far!

I end this blog with a word for the outgoing Secretary of State, Patrick McLoughlin. The archetypal safe pair of hands, he brought important stability to a role that had previously seen six Secretaries of State in six years. Pretty much his first task was to minimise the fallout from the Intercity West Coast franchise fiasco and although there were other testing times along the way - think Network Rail's cash crisis, for example - he found time to speak at Campaign for Better Transport's 40th birthday bash, describing us as 'a useful irritant'!


Image curtesy of SuzieQ via Flickr.