Anyone hoping that this week's reshuffle would inject some much needed decisiveness into the UK's top transport and infrastructure projects will have been in for disappointment. The Department for Transport has had two of its ministers replaced, and the Shadow Transport team has had a change of leader. I believe that in neither team do the changes bode well for progress on airport capacity and high speed rail, the two greatest transport infrastructure challenges facing this Parliament.
Britain faces an impending connectivity crisis as the airports in the south east reach their full capacity. Everyone from the CBI to Policy Exchange, from the British Chambers of Commerce to the Transport Select Committee are agreed that the UK's aviation capacity has to be increased, and delaying decisions will continue to stifle the UK's growth and trade with emerging economies. However, it appears that the issue will continue to be kicked into the long grass, given the distinct anti-aviation and anti-Heathrow bias of the new Department for Transport ministerial team.
Baroness Kramer, who replaces Simon Burns, has always been a loyal supporter of the Liberal Democrats' policy against an additional runway at Heathrow, and as Zac Goldsmith's predecessor as MP for Richmond Park, resigned her place on the front bench in 2009 to campaign against the airport's expansion. Robert Goodwill, who takes Norman Baker's place, decided to twin his farm in Terrington North Yorkshire with Sipson, a village near the northern perimeter of Heathrow, as an innovative way to highlight the Conservative Party's distinctly anti-Heathrow expansion stance in the run-up to the last election. These new transfers join Stephen Hammond, who continues to remain concerned about airport expansion on behalf of his Wimbledon constituents, and Patrick McLoughlin, who we all know is no fan of flying!
The risk is that the new Ministerial team at the Department for Transport, hiding behind the safety of the Airports Commission, will continue to delay action on an infrastructure issue whose ramifications have wide ranging effects on Britain's foreign trade, international competitiveness and lucrative tourism industry.
The reshuffle does not give much cause for optimism about HS2 either, a political hot potato that is increasingly becoming a dividing point between Labour and the Government. Though the north-south high speed rail link began life as a Labour initiative, Labour has since grown colder to the project as the costs have soared and public opposition has become more vociferous. Labour still officially supports HS2, and thus far the new Shadow Transport Secretary, Mary Creagh, has supported the party line despite the fact that her constituency's Labour controlled Wakefield council stated that "the economic case for HS2 has not been made and the investment would be better spent directly in the district tackling outstanding issues."
At this year's Labour Party Conference, Ed Balls left a question mark hanging over HS2, when he said that Labour would not offer a blank cheque to the project, a stance which seemed to differ with that of outgoing Shadow Transport Secretary Maria Eagle, who made a point of emphasising that Labour supports HS2 in her speech. In the coming months, the party leadership will decide their position, and, as a solid media performer and a fresh face, Mary Creagh will be an effective spokesperson to articulate it. In her DEFRA brief, Mary Creagh exposed flaws in government policy on issues such as badger culls, flood defences and horsemeat, and she will bring her campaigning and attacking thrust to the Shadow Transport role.
Mary Creagh's first announcement as Shadow Transport Secretary called on the Government to get a grip on HS2, marking a strong position against the Government's big money project. I can see Labour ditching HS2 in support of improvements to capacity on existing North-South rail services. This would mean that the cross-party consensus needed to advance the project will be unlikely to materialise, causing further delays to HS2 and potentially even termination of the project, given the shaky support for it within the Government's own parties. Whilst policy will be decided by the two Eds, expect Mary Creagh to have a significant voice in developing and selling it to the public.
This week's reshuffle must be contextualised against the backdrop of the approaching general election. Increasing airport and rail capacity may be the most profound transport challenges facing this Parliament, but they are also the most politically polarising ones. With an election coming in just 19 months, the main parties want to keep themselves relatively uncontaminated by divisive public issues. At the time of the last election, this translated into a lack of action on airports in particular. So plan your journey accordingly; there are expected delays on the line.