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.