Adonis in a hurry

This was supposed to be an interview with Theresa Villiers, the little known shadow transport spokeswoman but she proved to be an elusive character. After a dozen phone calls to her office which were answered by people called Giles and Phillipa who all seemed incapable of returning calls, the New Statesman was snubbed as, apparently Ms Villiers was not available for interview, as clearly she wants to remain an unknown unknown, as Donald Rumsfeld might have put it.

 So Lord Adonis was the replacement, but that was rather like having Cristiano Ronaldo on the subs bench for Ebbsfleet United. Despite being in the job for less than a year – although he was rail minister for a year before that – Adonis has gained almost legendary status as transport secretary, seducing even hardened critics of Labour to support him. The classic response when one asks people in the transport industry about Adonis is ‘if only he had been appointed a few years ago…..’

 There are exceptions, especially among the ever powerful roads lobby where he is less well regarded. Transport ministers can always be categorised as pro-rail or pro-road. Lord Adonis, who was an active member of the Cotswold Line Promotion Group in the 1980s, is definitely the most pro-rail transport secretary of the Labour years, with only John Prescott being anywhere close. Adonis, though is far more effective than his blustering predecessor, thanks to his knowledge of the way government works gleaned from his years as an adviser in No 10. His mild manner masks an ability to kick butt and his civil servants have been known to bemoan the fact he has no constituency to go to on a Friday as their workload mounts up.

 In virtually every policy area – rail, buses, roads, aviation, cycling – he has tried to ‘make a difference’, an expression he uses often rather than, in another favoured phrase, ‘minding the shop’, something which all the long line of transport secretaries since 1997 have mostly done.

 It has not all been successful by any means. Changing transport policy and, especially, outcomes, requires a long perspective and given Labour’s scant interest in the area for most of its 13 years in office, one can hardly, however, suggest that it is an area of Labour success. Roads are more congested, the railways are costing a huge amount and are also overcrowded, major rail schemes such as Crossrail and Thameslink have been held up for years and while cycling has increased in London and one or two other places, we are nowhere near the levels in some of our European neighbours.

 On the other hand, he has achieved far more than many of his predecessors did during much longer periods in office, especially on rail matters where he has produced a report on high speed rail which outlines in detail a route between London and Birmingham, he has relaunched the electrification programme and tried to ensure that numerous big projects still proceed despite the recession. He has been greatly encouraging of cycling, he has emphasised the need for better planning of bus services and, much to the dismay of environmentalists, he has endorsed the decision to build a third runway at Heathrow.

 His attitude towards rail privatisation is not like those of his predecessors, either, who seemed to accept it was, in the end, for the better, even if the actual way it was done was ‘botched’. Not so Adonis, who is pretty clear that he would recreate British Rail if he were allowed to do so. ‘Hindsight is wonderful and if  could rewind the clock, I would have done my best to have stopped privatisation by making clear that we would be renationalising the railways which might have stopped it before 1997, and after 1997 I would have moved  quickly to renationalise, but hindsight is a wonderful thing and none of us realised the extent of the collapse we would have in respect of Railtrack.

 Asked if Network Rail should have simply been renationalised when Railtrack collapsed in 2001, he does not, like other Labour ministers, simply dismiss the argument: ‘Nationalisation might have been the right thing to do, I’m not sure we necessarily did the right thing. There was a very big concern at the time of getting all of Network Rail’s debt on the public balance sheet.’ He smiled but did not say anything, because NR’s debt of £10bn at the time would hardly be noticed on the balance sheet today.

 Nevertheless, he sees taking over Railtrack in 2001 as the turning point in the fortunes of the railway ‘we have a railway that in terms of service quality, number of  passenger services and reliability is as good as the railways have been at any time in their history’. He has shown himself ready to intervene in the way that the privatised railway companies operate and has pulled no punches in his dealings with them. Whereas John Prescott railed against them very publicly but in practice did little to bring them to book, Lord Adonis has refused, for example, to allow South West Trains to close some of its ticket offices, foreclosed on the National Express East Coast franchise and taken it back into temporary public ownership, and recently threatened FirstGroup with losing its First Capital Connect with losing its franchise if performance did not improve. The Tories accuse him of micromanagement, but he argues that he is protecting the public interest and that ‘this is the right thing to do’.

 Despite Labour’s at best patchy record on transport, Adonis is happy to rattle off a number of areas where he thinks Labour has made a difference. He starts with London and there is surprising praise for Ken Livingstone: ‘London is a fantastic success. We have recreated the Herbert Morrison empire with the reassertion of democratic control over transport in London which in the hands of Ken Livingstone has produced big reform. The congestion charge was a brave but correct reform, and there has been significant investment. It has been the most significant series of reforms  since the 1930s all made possible by the creation of the GLA and the mayor. A great success, a combination of structural reform plus the inspirational leadership of Ken Livingstone – I don’t come from the same part of the party but I believe he is one of the best Labour reformers we have had in past ten years.’ He contrasts Livingstone with the ‘minding the shop’ attitude of the current mayor, Boris Johnson, who has scrapped the western extension of the congestion zone and whose obsession with getting rid of the bendy bus attracts the comment that ‘the idea you can define a transport policy by the design of a bus is a terrible mistake’.

 Adonis, himself, is a reformer who is desperate to get things done. Even those who one disagree with his obsession with high speed rail one, has to admire his ability to have driven things forward so quickly. While all his predecessors mentioned a north south high speed line as a vague idea for the future or dismissed it as unworkable, Adonis managed to get a comprehensive report commissioned and written within a year, and similarly he put electrification of railway lines back on the agenda, just two years after a key government report had suggested there was no business case for doing so. He puts forward the completion of the first high speed line, between the Channel Tunnel and St Pancras as another success. The scheme created by the Tories was based on private sector funding but collapsed in 1998 and was rescued by John Prescott, the then transport sector. Adonis emphasises the role of the state: ‘Crucially, John Prescott gave a public guarantee, accepting that the scheme could not be done solely with private money. That was important not just in its own terms, as it would have been a terrible failure to have a half-built railway, but also in the long scheme of things, that has made possible HS2′.

 His focus on railways will take money and attention away from roadbuilding and has not impressed the powerful roads lobby, but he makes no apologies for that. The corollary of support for a high speed line barely mentioned in the press coverage is that, according to Adonis, ‘we have called it a day on the building of new intercity motorways. I see the provision of a high speed network as integrally linked to the decision not to build new motorways. The next generation of transport capacity between our major conurbations will be rail capacity and not either road capacity or aviation. That is one of those transformational moments in transport policy’. He argues that this is the norm in western Europe and now the UK has caught up.

 Cycling is a source of pride: ‘One of the things I am proudest of is the cycle to work guarantee which major employers have signed up to. This is a very simple guarantee: to provide enough cycle storage, changing facilities and a cycle repair facility. It’s based on a GSK scheme in Brentford, which resulted in a trebling of the proportion of staff cycling to work. There is no reason why we could not treble or more the proportion of people who cycle to work if every major employer took this on. We just need to be organised.’ Getting organised is, indeed, a key theme and he recognises, too, that most measures in transport are simple and well-known, but just need implementing.

 He admits, though, that, as I put it, cycling is not yet in the DNA: ‘I agree. You have eye opening moments – and I was in Copenhagen where 50 per cent of journeys are made by bike. They have taken co-possession of the roads, and you see that in every aspect of traffic policy. For example, they do not have that much roadside parking in Copenhagen – because they are cycle lanes. When people say there is no space for cycling lanes in London, that is not correct. There is space but most of it is given over to parking, and why is that – because it is a very lucrative form of provision for local authorities.’

 Apart from the railways and cycling, his list of claimed successes is rather thin. He accepts that the continued decline of bus services outside London is a failure, but places lots of faith in new legislation, not yet enacted, which will make it easier for local authorities to determine the route network in their area, but many councillors still feel that their powers over the private bus operators will not be sufficient to regain control.

 Outside London, especially on the motorways, highways management has undoubtedly improved, but little has been done to improve congestion in cities outside London. The loss of the vote on road congestion charging in Manchester effectively put paid to the notion that schemes could be introduced anywhere else. Adonis accepts this, and argues there is a need for radical reform of local government in order to carry through such policies: ‘You cannot carry through radical transport reform without strong political leadership. You don’t have a mayor of Manchester and there is no strong political authority. The moral I draw, which is controversial inside the Labour party, that the big cities should have mayors and one of their key functions should be transport.’ He then asks me to name the leaders of the second, third and fourth largest cities which I, like everyone else he has asked, singularly fail to do: ‘To make radical changes, you must be known and you have to have a democratic mandate. It’s not just a question of investment, nor of regulatory powers. It needs the creation of much stronger city authorities – with a mayor or some equivalent political authority who is known to carry out radical transport policies.’ He admits, though, that this is not universally accepted in the Labour party, especially among councillors.  

 If he has an Achilles heel, it is that his pro-business attitude towards aviation has attracted flak from the environmentalists. It is Heathrow where they suggest he has let the side down by supporting the notion of a third runway, the one issue where the Libdems take issue with his policies, and it is here that he is most hesitant of his ground. Expanding Heathrow, he says, would make no sense at all if it were about domestic transport capacity. But its not as there is very little domestic traffic. The argument for expanding Heathrow is about international and especially long haul traffic.’

 His argument is slightly tortuous. It is not, he emphasises, about a ‘predict and provide policy’ as then there would be the need for several new runways. However, if Heathrow is not going to be expanded, then ‘It is, he argues, a far more modest expansion than was suggested in the Aviation White Paper of 2003. But he says, if we are to accept there will be any growth at all, then it must be at Heathrow:‘ It is there that airlines want it and where passengers want to fly from, and that’s why in my judgement we need a third runway’. That is consistent, he stresses, with the report of the Committee on Climate Change which said that a fall in emissions by 2050 could still be achieved despite a 60 per cent rise in passenger numbers and a 54 per cent increase in flights, an argument, however, rejected by environmental groups. Yet, he concludes, ‘There are two issues – should we adopt a policy of containing growth of aviation which is much more robust than our previous policy; the answer is yes. Does that mean no third runway? Answer if there is to be any additional capacity at all, the place for it is Heathrow and if it is not provided there, there will be more interlining to European airports which have more capacity.’

 Another source of anger for environmentalists is that Labour has clung on to a couple of major road schemes that have been retained, especially the enormous A 14 scheme in Huntingdon costing £1.3bn, for a few miles of widened road and various junction improvements. Again, he justifies this on the need to support the economy: The A14 came straight out of the Eddington report [on the UK’s infrastructure needs] and is a main freight route, and I was persuaded that improving both road and rail links to the ports was important.

 The Libdems are in the same position of us , they are on board with us except over Heathrow. No one seriously believes that the Tories would invest more than us on transport, that they would favourable to regulation than we are , that they would take a more strategic approach than we take to transport planning, it s madness.  You don’t need to look at a crystal ball; look at the record whenever they are faced with options, they want to privatise, balkanise, break up – that has always been the Tory strategy. That is what they would do next time. We need long term strategic investment, and we need sensible private public partnership, and we need a government that believes in the positive power of the state. I believe in that  I believe in the positive power of the state when it comes to transport planning. The Tories don’t. For all those reasons, despite the difficulties of the time, who is more likely to safeguard investment in transport its obviously us.

 Let’s, though, scotch one rumour. The notion that Adonis would join a Tory government and remain as transport secretary should the Conservatives win the election is fanciful. He is simply out of kilter with Tory thinking and not at all in tune with their ethos. Asked about why voters should be attracted by the Labour offer on transport, he goes on the attack: ‘No one seriously believes that the Tories would, for example, invest more than us on transport or that they would favourable to regulation than we are. You don’t need to look at a crystal ball; look at the record whenever they are faced with options: they want to privatise, balkanise, break up – that has always been the Tory strategy and that is what they would do next time.’

 This is not the approach of a man who would walk across the chamber. Indeed, he seals that with his next remark: ‘We need long term strategic investment, we need sensible private public partnership, and we need a government that believes in the positive power of the state.’ That is not the kind of language one expects from a man who once headed Tony Blair’s policy unit in No 10. Despite rumours about meetings with David Cameron, one thing is certain. Lord Adonis will not be joining the Tory benches if they win the general election. Instead, during the election campaign he will be touring the country by train in the hope that he will be able to stay in his dream job.

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