Pity (or not) Grant Shapps, who will be mulling his rather full in-tray today as the rest of us look forward to August. Fortunately for him, he will have longer than the usual 30 minutes set at interview.
On rail priorities alone there is a very long list, including the review of HS2. Perhaps, however, this can be safely ignored given that ex-HS2 Chairman Douglas Oakervee is leading it and has previously said cancelling HS2 would be disastrous. Then there is the Blake Jones Review, rushed out at the end of last week, which, as reported elsewhere in DevoIntelligence, recommends an improved ‘Passenger Promise’ and clearer lines of accountability – delivering those admirable twin goals are a huge challenge in themselves. Of course, the overall imbalance of regional transport funding remains a controversial subject with even the East of England recently calling on the Government “to commit to raising transport investment per head of population to the England average during the Spending Review period”. It’s not just the north who are demanding more.
But perhaps most pressing item in the in-tray, and arguably the most important, is the Williams Review. Commissioned in September 2018 to examine the structure of the rail industry and make recommendations for the reform of its delivery, prioritising passengers and the taxpayer it has been tasked with proposing radical, fundamental change – ‘revolution not evolution’ – not least to head off the growing popularity of Labour’s nationalisation (centralisation?) policy.
Led by an independent chair, Keith Williams, former chief executive of British Airways, the idea is that its findings and recommendations will be published in a government White Paper this autumn, with legislation in 2020. But at a Northern Powerhouse Partnership event in Bradford where an update – or, rather, sneak preview of conclusions – was given, it was pointed out that whilst the civil service is preoccupied with Brexit preparations this may be a tall order. To ensure implementation the Williams Review needs stability, the one element in short supply currently across Westminster and Whitehall.
We shall see how much progress Grant Shapps wants to, and can make, in due course. What is not in doubt is that much of what Williams recommends would find wide ranging support including from those who are positive about devolution. His starting point is an acknowledgement that the chaos of the new rail timetables in May 2018, the ‘misery and huge disruption’ it caused for thousands in the north, means that the objective must be to ‘create an industry that is built around its customers, the communities and local businesses it serves.’ Of course, the rail system must also provide value to the taxpayers who provide a significant amount of its funding and has ‘heard’ the complaint that many passengers feel that train companies are prioritising profit over customer service. But referring explicitly to the north, Williams said that there should be more opportunities to control services in local areas.
Henri Murison, director of the Northern Powerhouse Partnership, said, “one of the ways to better meet the needs of the people and businesses of the North is to give control of our railways to our civic leaders and mayors.” Linking this to calls for further powers over transport and budgets being held locally in order to develop northern infrastructure, he noted that such proposals would “improve productivity, delivering on the Northern Powerhouse as the funding levels are significantly enhanced following decades of underinvestment.”
This echoes last week’s calls from the Labour Metro Mayors and Mayor of the West Midlands Andy Street for further powers in a wide variety of areas, including transport. Murison also urged a radical devolution of transport funds for projects that directly benefit the north, such as Northern Powerhouse Rail, and HS2. There is hope that Boris Johnson will attend the Convention of the North in mid-September, a forum now seen as key to moving this discussion forward.
Further recommendations will almost certainly focus on simplified fares and ticketing, , a new commercial model and new proposals for the workforce and a restructuring of the industry with – possibly/probably – an arm’s length body to run the railways. But taken overall the Williams Review and its recommendations are clear – the outdated franchising system is no longer fit for purpose and requires a full overhaul.
However, what is not addressed is the vexed question of transport funding – not only how it is divided up but also the overall size. Arguably it should be larger, but then police, nurses and defence are probably higher up in the queue. If anything, the new Cabinet will be reducing spending not increasing it. For a successful policy, Shapps will have to argue that the future of rail cannot depend on centralised powers running and developing railways across the country. The need for major projects like HS2 will also have to be delivered — but improvements will cost money. In particular the (city) regions will not be happy until they receive their ‘fare share’. City regions including Greater Manchester and Leeds City and pan-regional structures such as Transport for the North and Midlands Connect stand ready to provide more leadership but to do so they need powers and resources not warm words and certainly no more delays.