Written by Gavin Devine, Managing Partner Newgate Communications
An abridged version of this article appears in this month’s Transport Times.
1,409 days. That’s how long Patrick McLoughlin was Transport Secretary. That’s how long he was a safe pair of hands, pressing quietly ahead with HS2, kicking the airport capacity can down the road, damping down the headlines about Network Rail and CP5, and avoiding controversy like the plague.
If only his successor could do the same. has taken up the reins at a pivotal time for his Department and for transport policy more generally. Most urgently he will have to decide soon whether to make a decision about Heathrow. He faces a landscape where potential investors in big transport projects have been spooked, first by Brexit and then by the Prime Minister’s abrupt decision to relook at Chinese investment in Hinkley Point. And – at least at the time of writing – the confrontation between TOCs and rail unions on Southern and elsewhere seems to be growing, not going away.
Grayling’s challenge is to lift up his eyes and look beyond the immediate issues he faces. He simply has to look at transport in the round and for the long-term, rather than be distracted by his in-tray, and by the temptation to set short-term policies for rail, road, aviation and the rest. He has to be thoughtful, and he has to be brave. There is much to do.
It has been a truism for years that we have not had a proper transport strategy. John Prescott and the Commission for Integrated Transport tried to look holistically at the sector, but with only partial success. The DfT has become expert at badging lists of initiatives for specific modes as ‘strategies’, but these have been limited and siloed, creating a world where ports policy takes little account of plans for road and rail, where aviation seems divorced from freight, where intermodal is a slogan and rarely a reality. As a result, navigating Britain’s transport network remains frustrating and inefficient for most users.
This has always mattered, but it is all the more important now. One of the few legacies of George Osborne that has not been questioned under the new regime is his focus on productivity, and the UK’s lack of it. Our confusing and often creaking transport hodgepodge is a key part of what is holding us back. The need for change is self-evident.
Now is the right time to be bold and imaginative. By telling the Business Department that it must now develop an industrial strategy, by talking about reforming capitalism, and by generally being in thrall to the story of Joseph Chamberlain, Theresa May has indicated that she will be far less laissez faire than most of her predecessors. The Chancellor has said that with borrowing costs so low now could be the time to invest. Technological advances, particularly in autonomous vehicles, are shaking up the whole industry. In short, the time is ripe for a much more muscular and interventionist transport policy.
That policy has to be truly a national one, not least to chime with another clear steer from Grayling’s boss. Despite some initial confusion No10 has said that the Government still backs the Northern Powerhouse; why wouldn’t it, when the electoral calculations that underpin it remain sound? It is, though, apparent that the new administration’s ambition is bigger, and that all cities and regions outside London should receive similar attention and support. Transport links are crucial in this context; ensuring that they actually work effectively is all the more difficult as devolution deepens.
So developing a holistic, nationwide, seamlessly integrated transport strategy would not only be timely, it is a necessity. Yet Grayling’s challenges don’t stop there. If he is genuinely to address the productivity gap, if he wants to establish a package of policies that will seem visionary and that will last, he must put transport in a broader economic, social and institutional framework.
For Britain to work better the way we get from A to B must be considered alongside things like superfast broadband, housing development, education and training, and yes, that forthcoming industrial strategy. The DfT needs to work closely with a host of other Departments and with others from the public and the private sectors. It must become more flexible and more open, and officials need to embrace what could be quite dramatic changes in its structure, its culture and its role. Its leader must set out and pursue a very clear vision for the Department itself, as well as for the transport sector it supports.
Once he has developed his strategy and set out his vision we can only pray that he is given the time to implement it. Transport has been a revolving door, with only Alistair Darling (another classic safe pair of hands) lasting longer in the job than McLoughlin in the last 40 years. Implementing a new strategy, embedding it across modes and evangelizing for it throughout local, regional, devolved and national organisations will be a hard slog. Grayling has to be here for the long haul.
In his Ministerial career to date Chris Grayling has not really been given the chance to leave his mark, to stamp his authority on his policy area. He now has a golden opportunity. Let’s all hope he takes it.