Both critics and supporters of the government claim yesterday’s reshuffle will not change government policy. But for those of us who are concerned about the government’s promise to be the greenest government ever, it looks like accelerating the move away from thinking about long-term policy towards short-term and desperate measures to get the economy moving. This will be at the expense of higher carbon emissions and damage to our natural environment.
Both the Department for Transport (DfT) and the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) have seen almost all their ministers cleared out – leaving only Eric Pickles from the previous DCLG team and the capable Norman Baker from the DfT team left. Both departments have run up against the Treasury in the last year.
The DfT has been resisting a push from the Treasury to give the go-ahead to lots of new road schemes. This is despite the fact there is probably only one more scheme that hasn’t already got the go-ahead that’s anywhere near ready. There are also plans mooted for private toll roads, or even privatisation of the Highways Agency.
DCLG, meanwhile, ended up offending Osborne and the Treasury by refusing to completely dismantle the planning system through the new streamlined National Planning Policy Framework. We now have Policy Exchange founder Nick Boles in charge of planning and two new bills proposed to have a second swing at the planning system. Both these changes could mean a new push for “concrete and tyres” to boost the economy.
The above is not in itself necessarily a political point. Looking back to Keynes, some on the left also backed such an approach. But we are in a very different world to the 1930s with a well-developed roads network. The challenges now are to unlock our cities through better public transport, walking and cycling and to cut carbon emissions from transport.
While we haven’t always agreed with recent policy from the Department for Transport, there has been a recognition of this in recent policy with more of a focus on the users of transport and a new more strategic approach.
The impact of Patrick McLoughlin’s arrival at transport is harder to gauge. Despite being an MP for more than a quarter of a century, McLoughlin’s views on many issues, transport included, are something of a mystery.
This is because the new Secretary of State has spent 15 years in the shadowy world of the Whips Office. To have survived in such an environment for a long period does, however, suggest two qualities: first, he is a party loyalist who can be trusted not to go native; second, he is experienced in driving through difficult and unpopular decisions.
It is not just Heathrow which could present headaches for the new Secretary of State. On rail fares, the government policy is highly contentious – to raise rail fares by an eye-watering 6.2 per cent come January. This will hit Home Counties commuters in Tory marginals particularly hard. It should be a pressing priority to ensure the chancellor heads off a revolt amongst commuters and Tory backbenchers alike.
Most of the network’s rail franchises are also due for renewal before the next General Election. With Richard Branson agitating through any means available, McLoughlin will need to ensure decisions are both transparent and in the interests of train users as well as the Treasury.
On roads, there is a need to rein in plans for privately funded schemes, the push for more toll roads and even privatising the Highways Agency (see the recent Campaign for Better Transport report (pdf on private roads). These have the potential to blow up in the coalition’s face, with the Treasury and No. 10 seemingly unaware new roads will trigger protests from environmental and local groups (including Conservative supporters), as they did in the 1990s.
As an aside, Simon Burn’s move to transport seems also designed to raise heckles over the government’s direction of travel.
So far, we are second-guessing what the ministerial changes signal. There remains an important job to be done.
Transport can play a role in supporting the economy, cutting carbon and tackling social exclusion but it needs a clear strategic vision and strong leadership to do that. Having had eight transport secretaries in the last ten years, there’s now a real need for consistency and to make sure the Department for Transport works for transport users and isn’t just a delivery arm for Treasury policy.