I was on the panel of a fringe meeting at the LibDem conference organised by the Association of Train Operating Companies yesterday with Norman Baker who is the junior transport minister, although rail is not part of his brief. He was not, though, impressive.
First while lauding the construction of Workington North station in six days after the flood, he got the details wrong suggesting that the station had been swept away when, in fact, it was of course the road bridge which went and necessitated the construction of the station. It may be a bit harsh, but now that he is minister he should really be clearer on the facts.
It makes the criticism of him in David Aaronovitch’s book, Voodoo Histories, a tome devoted to debunking conspiracy theories, rather more persuasive. Aaronovitch takes apart Baker’s book on the death of Dr Kelly, highlighting various aspects where it does seem that Baker’s theory that the government adviser was murdered looks pretty fanciful. Certainly some of Baker’s posturings have little basis in reality.
The meeting, which was remarkably well attended with over 125 people present, did highlight the impossible situation that Libdem ministers like Baker find themselves in. For example, he stressed that the construction of railfreight terminals should not be stopped by local opponents, and yet his government is preparing a huge Localism bill which, precisely, will give local people much more ability to stop precisely those sorts of schemes. When I quizzed him on this, he merely admitted that, yes it was a dilemma.
The government’s local development proposals have received little media coverage but actually will have an enormous impact, basically ensuring that very little is built, and with local councils getting the blame. Transport, in particular, is a field where Nimbyism must be overcome through national imperatives – it will be interesting to see how the government balances localism with its intent to build high speed two.