Wednesday, 5 September 2012

Musical chairs are no way to run a railroad

So Justine Greening was Transport Secretary for about five minutes before being replaced with Patrick McLoughlin. I am sure she just about got to understand her brief before being turfed out, aparrently because as a West London MP she was likely to represent the veiws of her constituents, who of course do not want more runways at Heathrow, and it seems to be becoming creeping, unofficial government policy to have more runways at Heathrow.

Much was made, in London cycing circles, when Greening was appointed, of the fact that a photo existed of her on a bike, taken when she was a subject of Wandsworth LCC's Movers and Shakers project to get leading community members on bikes.* Well, much good that did. But I suppose they had to try. As the Cycling Embassy of Great Britain had to try, when it sent her a letter welcoming her to her new portfolio last October, and suggesting, of course, she look at the untapped potenial of cycling in the UK. Now they will have to send a letter to the new man, but I'm sure it won't need to be adjusted much, as little has changed.

It is this kind of administrative insanity, as well as the kind of smaller-scale administrative insanity that I described in my last post, that tends gradually to sap the determination of those who campaign for saner transport policies in the UK. The "churn" of cyclists on the roads is often discussed, but it is linked to another "churn", that of people willing to campaign on the issue, when they see this game of mad musical chairs, when all the effort they had put into trying to convince one policitican of their case is largely thrown away as that politician is propelled elsewhere, or into obscurity, before they have had time to even attempt to change anything in the status quo.

Continually changing the peronnel at the top of government sounds like a recipe for radicalism, for continual shaking-up, but in reality it is quite the reverse. It is a recipe for nothing ever changing, a recipe for mainntaining the status quo in a very conservative country, because nobody who has the power to change anything ever understands properly the things they might change and what the consequences might be while they are in a position to make change, so basically very little does get changed, apart from administrative structures (for the NHS, local government, watchdogs, regulators, the railways etc.) which get changed with wearying frequency. But changing these does not change fundamentals.

Politicians respond to the mood of the media and what they perceive as the populatr zeitgeist, but beyond that, beyond progressing towards any more rational, evidence-based policy making, there is little hope in a system as short-term as ours. For as soon as they realise things might not be as simple as they first thought, hey presto, a new man or woman is in with all the popular prejudices and misunderstandings that have to be corrected once more. I quote a Tweet from railway journalist Keith Barrow:
Germany has had three transport ministers since 2002, so has France. Britain now on No. 8. No wonder transport policy is a mess.
I have no idea what former Chief Whip Patrick McLoughlin's views on transport are. He could be very enlightened for all I know, so I can't criticise him personally. But I can find nothing to say that he has ever taken much interest in the subject, though he was a junior minister for aviation and shipping under Margaret Thatcher for three years 20 years ago.

The last Transport Secretary we had who actually did anything much was Andrew Adonis, who decided to build a high-speed rail line at least as far as Birmingham (welcome to the Europe of the 1970s, Britain), and, to his credit, actually cycled round London trying out the cycle parking at all the mainline stations, condemning it as inadequate, which did lead to some improvements.

Justine Greening made no impact at all. I recall reading an interview with her in The Standard when she was appointed, and people on the greenish side of politics were being quite enthusiastic about her, because she had once been photographed on a bike. But it was obvious from this article that she had no vision for her new post. Her big idea seemed to be flexible use of the M4 Olympic Lane. She joined in the popular campaign against Westminster Council extending parking charges to weekends and evenings, not condemning it outright, but in a mealy-mouthed, coded way (Westminster subsequently dropped the plan). She never condemned nor contradicted the rhetoric of her predecessor, Philip Hammond, on the War on the Motorist. I considered blogging about her, but never bothered. On her watch, plans for large-scale road building revived (though it seems likely that the Chancellor was the main one behind that).

I'm not sure that any Conservative Transport Secretary is likely to do much differently. Most people consider that the big transport issues are Heathrow (or other airports near London), high-speed rail, and motorways, not how our children get to school and housewives (or husbands) get to the shops, and ministers absorb that popular concept. That priority needs to be inverted if we are to get joined-up transport policy making for the long-term social, economic and environmental good. The millions of unnecessary sub-two-mile car journeys should be the top priority for any new Transport Secretary to address.

*Update: I have been informed that that photo was not in fact taken as part of the "Movers and Shakers" project, but on an earlier occasion during a Bike Week treasure hunt on Putney Embankment. This does not alter the thrust of the post though.


  1. I'd also add at this point that one of the new junior ministers in Transport, Simon Burns has a previous conviction for breaking a cyclist's neck, outside Parliament no less.

  2. A major issue with our system of government is that it tends to offer little incentive for ministers to think beyond a maximum of five years ahead (other than the occasional big project which they hope will immortalise them, such as HS2). Much like changing the road environment changes the decisions people make regarding transport modes, perhaps changing the political structures our politicians find themselves in would change the decisions ministers make regarding their portfolios.

    The question is, how would we do this?

  3. Well, EF Schumacker sure as hell ain’t in the current cabinet. The one thing you can say with certainty about all top-flight politicos is that they have massive egos and total unshakeable self-belief. Yes, i am sure they want to leave a legacy, and grandiose gestures probably do make a bigger impression, if not a lasting one. Boris will leave us with an awful lot of blue paint, on the roads and on a clutch of bicycles, plus a cable car. He hopes to bequeath us another of those “Eagle” comic fantasies of the 50s and 60s, cycle lanes in the sky – not unlike all those monorails and flying cars of popular sci-fi fantasy a few decades ago. Pity it’s not original – was it not you yourself who put an old “Punch” cartoon of the 1930s on your blog, the one with bicycles on elevated paths beside the road?

    I suppose HS2 is rather a grandiose scheme, although it does strike me as having some merit alongside more runways or more motorways. Other grand legacies include the Hindhead Tunnel on the A3, which does admittedly improve my quality of life as I live nearby.

    However, if we want to illustrate the power of small things, softly softly catchee monkey, what better example can you find but the Team GB cycling squad at London 2012? The reason, we are told, why they were able to achieve such a stunning medals tally is not because they had a big idea, rather that they had literally thousands of tiny ones.

    Looking at our new ministers, It does strike me that Cameron probably had to move Greening, in fact I don’t understand why he appointed her in the first place. For a minister in charge of a department to have so public a position on a matter of fundamental interest to that department is not sustainable – m’learned friends would have a field day. At least you can say of McLaughlin that he has apparently never said anything one way or the other about Heathrow’s third runway (fourth actually – the third one runs NE/SW across the other two). Perhaps he will stay that way, and not be seduced by a couple of lovelies from the Daily Telegraph into mouthing off an opinion about it like Vince Cable. Jeremy Hunt may have turned out to be even more biased the other way but he managed to be discreet about it.

    As for Jeremy Hunt, he does ride a bike – he evidently finds it a convenient way of escaping the reptiles when he doesn’t want to talk about Murdoch and Leveson. He also apparently believes in Homeopathy, and while you might raise an eyebrow at that, perhaps it means that he perceives health as more than just an absence of sickness, which is more than most mainstream medical practitioners can accept. I like to hope that he doesn’t really buy the Olympic Legacy crap about our couch potatoes suddenly becoming avid sportsmen, and will see the virtue in getting people more active in a practical, productive way, like active travel?

  4. Chris, we know the answer to your question. Consider this quote from the Vole himself (Some more thoughts on Dutch cycling):

    "You can't change everything at once, and it is important to realise how the Dutch got to where they are now. They started by doing the easy things, and that is what we will have to do in the UK. They then kept working on it and improving things, little by little. As David Hembrow always says, you just have to start, and then keep working on it, like the Dutch did. But you do have to start."

    Cycling: the way ahead says the same thing in the foreword:

    "The handbook Cycling: the way ahead for towns and cities stems from the idea that the worst enemies of the bicycle in urban areas are not cars, but longheld prejudices. The handbook therefore corrects some of the prejudices connected with the use of the bicycle as a regular mode of transport in the urban environment. It also suggests some simple, inexpensive and popular measures, which could be implemented immediately. Certainly, the task is ambitious, but the essential thing is to take the first step [my emphasis] because, while use of the bicycle is a choice for the individual, it is essential to launch the process by which your city builds on the initiatives and habits of some of your fellow citizens for a healthier urban environment."