Transport is probably the policy area least suited to Parliamentary democracy. The pain is all short term, the gain long term. That is probably why it is the department that has seen the greatest throughput of ministers in recent decades.
In and out they shuffle, having barely scratched the surface of an area that is both highly complex and replete with controversy. Moreover, over the years the department has grown, amoeba-like, gathering other functions only to split, amoeba-like, as a by-product of last week’s reshuffle.
Alistair Darling’s task, therefore, is an unenviable one. Prime Minister Tony Blair made the mistake in his first term of thinking that transport was a government backwater and that throwing a bit of extra money at it, together with making the right mood music, would bury the issue.
Bad mistake. Transport is now an important policy area, as Byers’ tribulations showed. After all, if Byers had been in charge of a low-profile department, he might have got away with not sacking special adviser Jo Moore after her infamous e-mail was made public.
By appointing what commentators call a `safe pair of hands’, but which in reality means someone dull, safe, able and loyal, Blair is clearly hoping that he can put the lid on an issue that threatens to get out of hand. But that is naïve. The fascinating thing about transport is that the railways – the mode that attracts only a bare 6% of overall mileage – is considered far more of a hot political issue than roads, which are the basis of more than 90% of journeys.
Byers’ tenure was so dominated by the problems of the railways that little attention was paid to roads. It was only at the end of his year in office that his failure to develop a strategy on congestion was exposed by a hugely damning Commons’ transport committee report.
Darling will have to be cannier. His immediate agenda will be dominated by the railways because there are several pressing issues in his in-tray, but he must be prepared to formulate a much more coherent approach to the problems on Britain’s roads.
He will be helped in both tasks by the separation of transport from those other vital but politically less high-profile bits tagged on merely to appease John Prescott’s ego when Labour gained office in 1997.
One of Byers’ last acts was to brief journalists after the publication of the highly critical assessment of the ten-year plan by the Commons’ transport committee. Byers took a very robust line, making himself out to be the motorists’ friend who was not in the business of `punishing’ them.
This was in stark contrast to the early days of Prescott’s regime, when he made a concerted attempt to reverse the inexorable rise in the number of cars on the road. Indeed, Prescott stuck out his neck to the extent of saying he would have failed if, by the end of his term of office, he had not persuaded motorists to use public transport. He did fail, of course.
Combined with the subsequent fuel protests of the autumn of 2000, ministers now live in even greater terror of alienating motorists. Congestion charging has been sidelined – except by the renegade Ken Livingstone in London – despite being introduced by Labour legislation, and road tolling kicked far into touch.
Darling, therefore, should use his absence of a track record on the subject to re-examine the issue. Restricting the freedom of motorists is, ultimately, in everyone’s best interests. It can be done in towns through 20mph zones, traffic management schemes favouring pedestrians and cyclists, and huge injections of cash into supporting bus services. Simply to allow the AA and the RAC to continue to dictate policy would be a big mistake.
On the railways, the task is more urgent and just as difficult. He must ensure that the ugly duck of Railtrack is transformed into the elegant swan of Network Rail as quickly as possible, a difficult task especially as the Treasury is desperate to keep the railways off the balance sheet.
The prime minister has set the simple agenda of running the trains on time, but the task is much greater. It is to give direction to an industry that has been battered by a series of accidents that have compounded the difficulties caused by a botched privatisation. Replacing the profit-maximising Railtrack with the not-for-profit trust Network Rail is a start, but it does not address the fragmented nature of the industry, highlighted yet again by the Potters Bar crash. Creating a more integrated and stable structure for the railways will test Darling’s ability to the maximum.
There are other issues lurking in the cupboards of the department, most notably aviation, where a decision will have to be made over an extra runway for the Southeast. Darling may have been able to hide in Work and Pensions for the past four years, but now he will have to emerge blinking into the limelight ready to appear regularly on Newsnight.