It was always likely that Philip Hammond, clearly seen as a Tory rising star, would get the first big job going but nevertheless, he must have been surprised himself that he managed to get out of Transport so quickly. He was seen as a safe pair of hands, but I think he was beginning to lose the plot with several recent decisions and, competent though he might have been, he had no long term interest in the area.
For example, the decision to continue with the structurally flawed Intercity Express Programme and, worse, to ensure it was a PFI project flies in the face of common sense and, indeed, evidence from the Foster review. The crazy idea that higher speed on motorways can be justified by the ‘business case’ was playing to the right wing gallery, as was the decision slipped through to allow longer lorries on our roads. He must, too, have been delighted to get out just as opposition to HS2 was warming up.
The appointment of Justine Greening, who is by all accounts very bright and strong minded, as well as highly competent, is therefore interesting and exciting. She has a steep learning curve given the complexities of the brief and her lack of ministerial experience. Hammond has left her a full intray, ranging from the IEP and HS2 to a variety of road schemes and an agenda on road safety that seems destined to send the casualty figures in the wrong direction for the first time in a decade.
There is no shortage of questions facing her. Probably most fundamentally there is the issue of whether she will continue with Hammond’s policy of ignoring environmental considerations which meant the Department’s decisions were based solely on economic factors. Unlike petrolhead Hammond who was too scared of London traffic and of crumpling his suit, Greening has been seen riding a bicycle and has a solid voting record on measures intended to slow down climate change. It will be fascinating to see if, too, she has less interest in allowing the boys to drive their toys faster as Hammond suggested. More fundamentally will she talk in a more environmentally friendly way, and, more important, will he policies actually reflect that?
Lots of questions, few answers so far. I will write about this more fully in the next Rail magazine, and in a big article in the next issue of Public Finance magazine. Meanwhile, it will be very interesting to have your thoughts on her agenda and what she should be doing and her likely impact.