Chris Grayling: In a tunnel with a very dim light

 

Transport secretary Chris Grayling has not had an easy time in office. Based on his speech to delegates at the Conservative Party conference this year, his troubles are far from over.

Highlights of Mr Grayling's time as transport secretary include the breakdown of the entire rail timetable system, the failed Southern franchise, constant arguments with unions, having been asked to resign after he was discovered to have blocked rail devolution on purely party political grounds and knocking over a cyclist by opening his car door without looking.

Sometimes it feels when fate is against a politician, first it sends in the gods of the sketch writers to conspire against them.

”Local
Transport secretary Chris Grayling

At conference time that could mean forcing them onto windy beaches for instance. In Chris Grayling's case, he naturally arrived minutes late for his own speech, sadly not late enough to deliver any compensation to the audience members under the current rail system. Although if they didn't warrant compensation at the start of the speech they might have had a case by the end.

Mr Grayling spoke about the failure of Monarch airlines - as he did in 2017. The contingency planning and delivery in the aftermath of the company's collapse was one of the genuine success stories of his time in office, and one could forgive him revisiting this excellent work.

What seems slightly less understandable is his description of this as a shining example for Brexit to follow: 'I am proud to live in a country where our industries and our businesses instinctively know how to adapt and grow following changes.

'That ladies and Gentlemen is what will happen to this country after Brexit, regardless of the outcome of negotiations.'

Ignoring the casual dismissal of the entire Brexit negotiation process as unnecessary, Mr Grayling himself made the point just moments earlier that it was government that helped orchestrate the UK's largest repatriation exercise in peacetime. 

At another point in his speech he stated: 'We have launched the biggest roads upgrade programme for decades, investing every penny you pay in car tax back into improving the roads you drive on.'

Firstly there is no such thing as car tax. If he means VED, as is usually the case, this is also inaccurate. The DfT has committed £6bn to local roads from 2015/16 to 2020/21 and £15bn from 2015-2020 to Highways England. A total of around £4.2bn a year.

In 2016-17 VED brought in around £5.8bn and the Office of Budget Responsibility expects VED to raise £6.2bn in 2018-19.

From 2020 all VED will be ringfenced and go towards the National Roads Fund, but we are not there yet and it is important that - in the absence of the transport secretary - someone is keeping time.

He also used his speech to announce the first schemes on the new major road network. Mr Grayling's mutation of this excellent concept into what is widely regarded as a bypass fund that will put more pressure on maintenance budgets is muttered about by the sector like someone facing the dentist - with the weary groan of someone accepting agony as invitable.  

However he made his announcement without actually revealing what the network would be. The actual government response to the consultation on this framework will be released in 'due course' - Whitehall speak for go away. 

The initial concept cleverly defined what a strategic road is in terms of connectivity and productivity. Is it wrong to suggest Mr Grayling saw a strategic road as one that leads to votes?  

Mr Grayling also announced a 'one click' compensation payments for rail - a welcome change indeed except that he cannot deliver it. This can only happen through new franchise agreements. So this is another area of national policy where holding one's breath would result in death before delivery.

In the nearer future, he referenced plans for a major rail review led by the former chief executive of British Airways, Keith Williams - surely one of the larger beneficiaries of the government decision to expand Heathrow.

Mr Grayling told delegates 'wholesale change' is needed and that a white paper outlining 'a rail revolution' will be released next year. This is a light of sorts at the end of the tunnel, but a very dim one that could be held on the platform to help balance out the post-Brexit service.

[Clarification]

This article initially referred to Highways England running a £2.9bn overspend based on the Office of Rail and Road report of July this year. That report stated: 'The company’s forecast total costs for its RIS1 major schemes are currently £2.9bn higher in road period 1 and road period 2 than originally assumed.'

Highways England contacted Transport Network to update us on this. A statement said: 'Over 80% of £2.9bn major scheme cost pressure is caused by 6% of the 112 road improvement projects included in RIS1. In fact around 45% contribution to this cost pressure comes from two schemes, where clarity of the scope of work has now been more fully developed.

'As of March 2018, by taking further opportunities to more accurately define scheme requirements and challenge costs we have reduced this significantly to around £465m. We have identified plans to reduce this further to around £300m by 2020. Given the size of Road Investment Strategy 1 investment, this is not a significant percentage.

'We have made significant steps to reduce cost variances by around 60% and have plans to increase this reduction by 75% by March 2020. We regularly review the performance against existing cost reduction challenges and assess opportunities to make further savings over the remainder of Roads Period 1 for all aspects of the capital investment portfolio.'

In response ORR told Transport Network that the £2.9bn figure still stands because it refers to the full 112 schemes over RIS 1 and RIS2., while Highways England are referring only to RIS 1.

Highways England has previously pushed schemes back into RIS2 through a 'reprofiling' of its investment plans.

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