Thursday, 10 October 2013

Yes, Minister - The Politics of Reshuffle

Ahh, the political "reshuffle".
The attempt to "freshen up" the party scene, give some Departments new impetus, and conveniently remove some awkward ongoing scenarios.
Some view this as inevitable. In Government, as in working life, it can seem like time is a continuous revolving door - the "reorganisation" in companies is often for similar reasons as political reshuffles.
That's as maybe. But sometimes you simply find the right person for the right job. And when you have that spark, and the person themselves is happy in the role, good things happen.
Take Roger French at Brighton & Hove. Until his recent retirement he'd been there donkeys years. But what us transport observers saw on the south coast was inspirational. The company was - and still is - almost always quoted in the list of how to "do" buses right. A little bit of magic whereby the parent company, Go Ahead, let him get on with it. Buses in Brighton are much more than "buses" - they are a real part of the fabric of society there, with Mr French involved in local business groups, etc. The list goes on. Having one of the best local bus operations in the country isn't down to one man, of course. But such leadership - and longevity in the role - creates confidence for the longer term; a block to build on. The bus users of Brighton are reaping the benefits of this little bit of magic.
Which brings me onto Norman Baker - now former Transport Minister.
Like many who take a keen interest in the public transport scene, I've seen many a Transport Minister and Secretary come and go. Many are unmemorable - Transport is often said to be a Department for those on the up, or on the way back down the greasy pole. But Norman Baker struck me as someone "in tune" with transport, and buses in particular. In the latest "reshuffle", he's gone to the Home Office after 3 and a half years in Transport. One of the longest-serving Transport Ministers I can recall. And yet really, it's no time at all.
Transport is a long-term thing. We all collectively sigh that some projects take too long to do - that is often the nature of the beast. But maybe the usual (apart from Norman) revolving of the door at DfT doesn't help. Transport needs long-term plans, and they need to be seen through. Change the politician and there is an excuse to change the policy. Norman Baker seemed to understand the bus industry, and the bus industry seemed to respect him.
Not to be outdone, Ed Miliband also had a go at shuffling his pack on the Labour benches too. Here, Maria Eagle has departed to pastures new and is replaced by Mary Creagh. This has made minimal news, but could prove to be very interesting in the World of transport - especially in the run up to the General Election in around 19 months time. Maria Eagle had made previous rumblings about making Quality Contracts easier to implement, and a few railway-related ideas in her time as Shadow to suggest that, should Labour win the 2015 General Election, we may see significant change to the way the UK's public transport is structured. Will that message change with Mary Creagh?
It's all "short termism" and for an industry like buses, it means that we never achieve full potential. We get the likes of Eric Pickles' knee-jerk ideas like cramming more cars into town centres. Populist? Maybe. But he obviously never even thought to discuss them with the likes of Norman Baker and others at DfT. Result? A complete lack of joined-up thinking that gives little confidence in transport governance for the longer term.
Oh to have political figures with a real passion and understanding of the brief kept in position for the long term! Norman Baker was an extremely rare example, and now he's gone. Lord Andrew Adonis is another political figure who has transport nous. He needs a real political transport role with teeth.
In the meantime, the transport industry must again keep one eye on the messages coming out of politicians with the transport brief. Will they have real passion for the role, or for them is it just another career fare-stage?

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