So Philip Hammond is the poor sap who drew the short straw as transport secretary in the new government, having missed out on the chief secretary to the Treasury job – presumably twice – which he shadowed because it was allocated to a Libdem. It is rather ominous that he put reviewing spending as the first of the tasks he has been allocated but hardly surprising.
We all know that the axe is going to be wielded and that transport is a prime target. Already in the first round of cuts, the £6bn, which was in fact entirely to show that the Cons rather than the Libs are in charge, transport took 11 per cent of the hit even though it represents only 4 per cent of government funding. Worse is surely to follow in the emergency budget and future spending reviews. So, what can poor Mr Hammond do to make any sort of mark – if, indeed, that is what he wants to do?
There is more scope than he might think. The lesson that can be drawn from the 13 years of Labour rule is that the character of the ministers and their ability and desire to get things done can make a tremendous difference. Crucially, it is not all about money. John Prescott may have been constrained by the financial situation and by the ’teenyboppers’ in No 10 – who must be getting their first grey hairs by now – but he did manage to save the Channel Tunnel Rail Link and produce a ten year plan which, if implemented by his followers, would have brought widespread benefits to Britain’s transport system.
Lord Adonis showed just what could be done with imagination and knowledge. He not only got the HS2 bandwagon on the road, but restarted the railway’s long dormant electrification programme and kept the train operators on their toes, none of which cost very much. Alistair Darling, on the other hand, was a sitting-on-his-hands transport secretary with a deliberate intent to avoid doing anything and consequently left no inheritance. Nobody will ever suggest naming a locomotive or train ‘The Alastair Darling’.
Transport secretaries tend to be either roads or rail oriented and undoubtedly Mr Hammond is of the later ilk. His expenses claims may not have attracted the attention of the Daily Telegraph but they were spotted by sharp-eyed Rail Professional columnist Paul Clifton who noticed that Mr Hammond spent only £225 on trains in 2008/9 compared with £1,800 on car mileage. What makes that all the stranger is that he is MP for Runnymede and Weybridge, typical commuter country but presumably, from these figures, it appears he actually drives into Parliament, something that most of his constituents, who do not have access to free parking, cannot do.
Mr Hammond said that when he was stuck in traffic jams, he used to long to be transport secretary and sort out the mess. Within a few hours of taking office, I suspect he realised it was a wish that might have been better never left unfulfilled. The fact that he had even considered congestion as easily solvable suggests he has a steep learning curve. There are, in truth, few quick gains on the roads since money is in short supply, big road schemes are now out of the question. Better to focus on the management of the system. The Highways Agency has improved immeasurably the operation of the trunk road and motorway network over the past few years but there is still much to be done. Mr Hammond’s hand will be limited to ensuring that the provision of information is improved, accidents are cleared up more quickly, new technology is applied to better effect – dull stuff perhaps, but far more effective than spending more than £1bn on one improvement scheme to the A14, a scheme which Mr Hammond will presumably soon drop.
On the railways, there may be more scope to please people, even with limited resources. Somehow, by cajoling and negotiating with the train operators, Mr Hammond has to persuade the train operators to be more responsive to consumer needs – kinder and gentler. As Adrian Lyons, former director general of the much-lamented Railway Forum put it at a recent conference ‘one searches in vain for any statement that pleasing the passenger is the purpose of the business [of the TOCs] and that poor service will be immediately recompensed.’
Indeed, the whole performance regime is something that Mr Hammond could look at. Currently operators are rewarded for disruption by Network Rail for improvement schemes that will benefit their passengers, while they routinely fail to ensure people entitled to refunds get them by failing to provide information on delayed trains. The system seems to be designed to incentivise the wrong sort of behaviour.
The other area of possible gain for Mr Hammond is Network Rail. As Mr Lyons suggested in the same speech, there is a need for far more openness and transparency in the rail industry, and much of that starts with Network Rail. The information it provides publicly is insufficient to ensure that the public – or indeed the government – knows whether we are getting value for money. There is, too, the case for the operators to stop hiding behind ‘commercial confidentiality’. Opening up the industry to more scrutiny will not cost anything and will undoubtedly highlight areas where there are huge potential savings.
So the question for Mr Hammond is this: will you go the way of Mr Darling and sit on your hands, chopping and slicing, or will you use the austerity period to be innovative? It is worrying that Mr Hammond has the same sort of Treasury feel to him as Mr Darling, but it is to he hoped that he will have more imagination than our ex Chancellor in making best use of resources and more political ambition to leave a mark.