TAPAS.network | 20 February 2023 | Editorial Opinion | Peter Stonham

It’s people driving policy

Phil Goodwin

THE ANNOUNCEMENT of a tough new approach to road investment represents another step in the radical changes that the Welsh Government is making to its transport policies, and in setting a direction which many hope will be taken up elsewhere around the United Kingdom.

But such policy development – and carrying it through to delivery – requires the leadership and energy of someone brave, committed and persuasive, and Welsh Deputy Climate Change Minister Lee Waters, is demonstrably just such a person.

Those who were fortunate enough to hear Waters speak, and to socialise with him at the Local Transport Summit in Cardiff in December, will be well aware of his special style and presence. It was not a coincidence that Waters spent far longer mixing with transport professionals than is usually the case for politicians. He had clearly got his head round some of the important intellectual and technical arguments in support of approaches like reduced speed limits in urban areas and the proper basis of sustainable roads investment.

It is worth noting that his predecessor as Welsh transport minister has come out negatively about the new roads plans, and they quite obviously would not have been hatched under his tenure. Waters’ skills have included appointing an equally focused and tenacious adviser to lead the Roads Review panel in Dr Lynn Sloman, alongside the imaginative appointment of veteran senior civil servant Lord Terry Burns to chair the South and North Wales Transport Commissions, charged with coming up with new transport approaches rather than simply expanding and upgrading existing roads.

It is well worth recognising the combination of the achievement of the new Welsh policies, and the creation and stewardship of them. Interesting ideas abound, but are often armchair contributions rather than effectively developed and implemented measures achieving real change.

Waters has even shared the difficult trade-offs and compromises he is having to make – like policies on airport development in Wales (LTT861) in a refreshing and open way that underpins his belief in presenting the challenge of finding a better path forward, but working within practical limitations.

In a way, a similar tenacious and pragmatic leadership role in shaping a new route to delivery of sustainable transport has fallen to Professor Greg Marsden. Whilst not responsible for policy formulation as such, Marsden has worked within complex political and professional parameters to forensically challenge current DfT wisdom about road investment and its horizon-setting to reach stated Government Net Zero objectives. Marsden has even had to secure the release of relevant, but inappropriately withheld, information by grinding out a Freedom of Information request for the background data from DfT, and then analyse it. By so doing he has been able to demonstrate the incompatibility of current plans for roads investment with achievable processes designed to deliver decarbonisation. Readers of LTT will have tracked Marsden’s efforts and his consequent analysis in several seminal articles over the past few months.

The role of such careful argument presentation can only be played by a dedicated individual, in much the same way as Waters has done at the sharper end of politics. Meanwhile, Professor Phil Goodwin has found a new role recently in marshalling the arguments against National Highways’ plans for a new Lower Thames Crossing on behalf of Thurrock Borough Council. Goodwin cut his teeth on similar investigative and creative thinking when earlier projects, like the M3 at Twyford Down were being challenged in the 1990s.

There are other examples of individual leadership taking things forward in pioneering ways within the transport sector – but they are regrettably relatively rare. Breaking with convention and demonstrating that new outcomes are possible, as an example to be followed, requires a special kind of person and approach, equally unusual amongst both academics and politicians.

At the political level outside Wales, there have been a few other examples that most would agree upon – Ken Livingstone in London bringin in the congestion charge, is an oft quoted one. Those with long memories and years will recall how Barbara Castle reshaped conurbation transport in Britain back in the 1970s with the defining 1968 Transport Act which, amongst other things, saw establishment of the Passenger Transport Executives. These laid the groundwork for the current strong metropolitan mayoral leadership that is probably best embodied in Andy Burnham in Greater Manchester, someone else who has been prepared to lead from the front on reshaping an area’s transport agenda.

Not only did Burnham shape a vision, but he brought in an excellent person to help him deliver it in Chris Boardman, Olympic gold medal cyclist turned active travel advocate, and innovative transport leader. Moving on up, Boardman is now giving Active Travel England status and clout as a major agent of change. Indeed, his achievements have opened the door to a sequence of elite athletes rising up the ranks of transport leadership, including Dame Sarah Storey who has taken over Boardman’s role in Manchester and Ed Clancy, who has just filled her shoes at South Yorkshire, and who writes about his mission in this issue. The enthusiasm and motivation of these ‘outsiders’ in the world of transport is refreshing.

In the current Government, transformational change in transport has not been much evident, with a procession of ministers over the past few years and months not having either the time or apparent capability to get their head round the brief or push things forward with real leadership. New arrival Mark Harper appears to be yet to get a real grip on things, with his approach to the reorganisation of the railways seemingly on a loop line.

Former transport Secretary, Grant Shapps, appeared to be a ‘great survivor’ under different prime ministers and, after several new roles after relinquishing the transport brief, has now been entrusted with yet another one. Though not directly transport related, it seems set to be very important for it: a new Department for Energy Security and Net Zero under Shapps has been tasked with both long-term energy supply and leading the way in decarbonisation.

It has been noted in a number of quarters that this is the first time that achieving Net Zero has appeared in a departmental description, and Shapps should be acutely aware of its implications for transport, having authored the DfT’s decarbonisation policy document whilst in charge of that Department.

The other Whitehall changes are perhaps worth noting for different reasons, with establishment of a dedicated Department for Science, Innovation and Technology led by Michelle Donelan to drive the innovation that will deliver improved public services, boost jobs and grow the economy, and surely pick up on a lot of transport change too.

Meanwhile, a combined Department for Business and Trade, with Kemi Badenoch as secretary of state, is also designed to support economic growth by backing British businesses at home and abroad, and likely to embrace transport technology too.

Time will only tell whether the new structure or the new incumbents will have the defining effect of a Lee Waters with his Welsh Climate Change and Transport brief, but as ever, personal stewardship is arguably going to be just as important as policy – or indeed more so. Having someone of his capability and tenacity in place to drive forward genuine change where it is needed is demonstrably vital.

Peter Stonham is the Editorial Director of TAPAS Network

This article was first published in LTT magazine, LTT863, 20 February 2023.

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