Justine Greening’s troubled journey

Callum Jones

justine greening 300x225 Justine Greenings troubled journeySpare a thought for poor Justine Greening this week.  This time last year, she was enjoying a senior backroom role as Economic Secretary at the Treasury.  Monthly news channel appearances and the occasional head-to-head on a radio talk show were the height of that job’s duties in the public eye.

Things are a bit different now, though.  Ever since Greening entered the cabinet late last year after the exit of Liam Fox, she’s been putting out fires left, right and centre.  She was handed responsibility over one of the most divisive topics within the Conservative Party, and has frequently locked horns with it on the front pages ever since.  No, not Europe, immigration or the NHS – transport.

Quickly laying to rest the ‘token Tory cabinet female’ slurs from critics after her appointment, the new Transport Secretary got to work right away.  Implementing the same high level of political intelligence she used at the Treasury, Greening aimed to  make her mark swiftly.  She chose to do so by accelerating investment plans for High Speed 2, giving formal approval to the country’s most comprehensive transport enhancement project in decades.  Major improvements to the national rail network with a few positive economic and industrial knock-on effects – a policy about as contentious as free ice cream for children, right?  Wrong.

A significant number of Conservative MPs represent rural constituencies with large areas of natural beauty between the hustle and bustle of London and Birmingham (seventeen, to be precise).  The point of HS2 is to quicken the commute between these two cities, shedding about half an hour off the journey time.  This would mean a more direct route – straight through the pretty fields and tranquil scenery near the homes of some of Greening’s Tory colleagues.  Ice cream melts.

The subsequent controversy stretches from the safe distance of the backbenches to the uncomfortable intimacy of the cabinet table.  Secretary of State for Wales Cheryl Gillan has told her Buckinghamshire constituents to be “very, very sure” that she would defy the party whip on a Commons HS2 vote.  This would be the main strand of the debacle, if some members of the whips office weren’t so against the idea themselves.  However, another tempestuous railway debate has recently pushed this one to the back of Ms Greening’s mind.

Fresh conflict, this time over the operator of the West Coast Main Line, has hit the front pages.  Justine Greening isn’t at loggerheads with a fellow politician, though.  After she handed the operational rights of one of the UK’s most profitable train lines to First Group, the Transport Secretary is battling it out with Virgin Chairman, Sir Richard Branson.

If this was a balanced debate with a clear outlook, Greening’s path ahead would be relatively smooth.  On one side, First have won the process, and called it “rigorous” and “fair”.  On the other, Virgin lost the rights and complained about the “flawed” and “insane” bidding system.  But this isn’t a balanced debate, and the path ahead has more bumps than a Gloucestershire country lane.

Richard Branson is a knight of the realm and arguably Britain’s most famous entrepreneur.  Voters are familiar with Virgin, which followed the ‘rags to riches’ fairytale path which British society loves.  People don’t know FirstGroup, or its Chief Executive Nicholas Grimshaw half as well.

But before the work experience kid has a chance to pick up a bucketload of paracetemol for the Department for Transport, there’s one more issue for Justine Greening to tackle.  The Conservative Party is, once again, split over one of the most significant policies on her watch.  The Transport Secretary is adamant that a third runway should not be built at Heathrow, and to be fair to her, she initially had united support.

The 2010 Tory manifesto referenced the party’s plans to make Britain’s busiest airport “better, not bigger”.  At the first Prime Ministerial debate, David Cameron said “if you get a Conservative government, you absolutely know the third runway won’t go ahead”.  The coalition agreement states outright that a third runway will not be built.  I get frustrated when voters justify not turning up at a polling station with the ‘politicians say one thing and do another’ argument, but they’ve pretty much hit the nail on the head here.

From backbench MP Tim Yeo’s public call in yesterday’s Telegraph to the whispers within the Treasury that George Osborne is warming to the idea, Ms Greening’s anti-expansion army is losing soldiers.  She may believe that a considerable increase in noise pollution and other general disruptions would make life difficult for local residents, but she’s fighting a dangerous war.  Even David Cameron’s gone quiet now.

The Prime Minister’s true feelings over the future of aviation probably won’t come to light any time soon – there is a more important part to this story over the coming days and weeks.  Why does the Transport Secretary note the consequences of a potential third runway, but not HS2?  Because her constituency is only a little further than a stone’s throw away from Heathrow, and she won the 2010 Election with a pledge against a third runway.  It’s probably a safe bet that the Transport Secretary might be jetting towards a different position in the ever-looming reshuffle.

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  • George Johnston

    Greening also needs to sort out Britain’s transport issues with regards to utility cycling.

    Olympic and Tour de France success has given cycling a huge publicity boost in the UK but the government needs to invest in real protected cycling infrastructure all over the country (like in Holland, Denmark, etc.) if they want to see a corresponding increasing in cycling’s modal share of all transport journeys.

    Also, the government could get out of this whole Heathrow conundrum if they went ahead with Lord Foster’s Thames Estuary Airport (which they should do). If they break their election promise they’ll quickly be as unpopular as the LibDems are now.

  • Nostradamus_1

    What is being said here? Is this a PR piece so we feel sorry for her? If so then you are way off the mark. She is terrible and definitely need to go (and I don’t mean moved to another ministerial role).

    Fair enough she has been thrown to the wolves on a number of occasions, but that’s the risk you take when you sleep (metaphorically speaking) with them.

    The government needs to sort out its relationship with the EU along with its immigration and nationality policy before thinking of increasing the size of, or building new airports. We count them in however we do not count them out! Britain has become toothless at home as well as abroad. In trying to lead by example on Human Rights and Freedom of Information issues, it has left itself wide open to abuse.

  • mopdenson

    “spare a thought for poor Justine Greening”: is this article a joke? Justine has not shown an ounce of compassion in her mission to ram HS2 through parts of this country that quite frankly she ought to be ashamed of. Her only show of emotion comes when talking about Heathrow, as it would directly affect her own life. You only need to look at the array of legal disputes lining up to know that DFT are ‘robustly’ annoying a lot of people, not just Richard B. It is a sad fact that the only way Justine and her department will seemingly listen, is if they have to in court.

  • Clive Burgess

    Oh dear. Callum Jones needs to sort out his HS2 facts in two respects.

    He says “The point of HS2 is to quicken the commute between these two cities, [London and Birmingham] shedding about half an hour off the journey time.” Wrong. The point of HS2 is to provide rail capacity between London and many provincial cities including Birmingham but also Manchester, Liverpool, Nottingham, Sheffield, Leeds, Newcastle, Edinburgh and Glasgow. A by product of using current high speed rail technology is faster speeds, which will encourage modal shift and so reduce transport emissions. However faster journeys are not the main aim and it goes a lot further than Birmingham.

    If HS2 is not built we have three choices. 1 The main Inter City routes cannot take any more trains, so fares will rise to price people off trains. 2 We could upgrade the existing lines which would be more costly, provide less capacity than HS2 and cause years of delays. Fares will still have to rise. 3 More motorways. Is that what we really want? This is all set out in many Government reports written by HS2 Ltd, Network Rail and others.

    HS2 really is the only game in town if we are to provide extra transport capacity between our cities.

  • johnjefkins

    I agree – and HS2 could also be used to link Manchester, Brum, E. Midlands and Heathrow together to be able to share long haul flights between them.

    It takes 20 minutes now to just change terminals at Heathrow and it will only take 30 minutes to travel between Heathrow and Birmingham International (and about the same between Birmingham and either Manchester or East Midlands).

    As short haul flights (to Europe from Heathrow) and later domestic (to Scotland) flights switch to rail these airports would be only left with the Irish and long haul flights to share between them.

  • johnjefkins

    Getting Eurostar linked with Heathrow rather quicker than currently planned could provide not only relief for Heathrow, it would also provide some for Justine Greening.

    One third of Heathrow passengers are just changing planes from long haul to short haul and a large chunk of them are going to European destinations that Eurostar either already serves or is about to from 2015. Only a DIRECT link from an INTEGRAL station (eg by T5) would realistically tempt them from plane to train – but using CAA stats and typical transfer rates already achieved elsewhere for potential journey times it is not difficult to show that big numbers could be pursuaded to switch.

    Eurostar only gets about half its potential South East market from its St Pancras station now. If you are flying in to Heathrow on a long haul flight would you seriously take a train if it was running from St Pancras (or Old Oak Common). You’d only switch if it ran from the airport (like at Paris CDG or Frankfurt where the trains code share with planes)

    A tiny bit of HS2 (the Heathrow spur from T5 up by the M25 to W. Rusilip and
    link to HS1), could convert ONE MILLION short haul lights to long haul between
    2022 and 2032.(source CAA stats for short haul flights on journeys Eurostar will
    be running new direct trains to from 2015).

    The only difference from current plans (for HS2) would be for us to just get
    that small section opened early as a “sub-phase 1a” to enable it to earn revenue
    before the rest of HS2 even crossed the Chilterns.

    That would raise over £7 Billion in just the difference bewteen short haul
    and long haul Air Passenger Duty.(over 10 yrs from 2022-2032). And another £10 billion in the next 10 years (2032-2042).And a third £10 billion from 2032-2042 from extra domestic APD earned at both UK airports when the HS2 Y is able to win the domestic London-Scotland air market and free up domestic slots to enable more lucrative long haul slots to take their place.

    Just linking HS2 to Heathrow (and other airports) could pay for itself from just the extra APD it enables to be earned. And that’s before any rail fares pay back its costs. Remember that the whole Branson/First Group arguemet is about how PROFITABLE high speed rail is and how much of that PROFIT gets paid to the government.

    So the question for Justine is – “Why is the Heathrow spur still only planned
    for HS2 phase 2? You cannot seriously think that Eurostar from Old Oak Common
    is good enough, and you could get Eurostar from an open air platform by Heathrow
    T5 open rather earlier than Old Oak Common anyway”

  • johnjefkins

    HS2 will do this country a lot more good than yet another London runway.

    As said above, by just getting Eurostar linked (properly) to Heathrow, we could switch enough short haul flights (to Europe and later Scotland) to rail to free Heathrow up to take more long haul flights – with no need of runway 3.

    They would earn enough extra APD to actually pay for most of HS2 as well !
    HS2 also links UK airports together to allow us to spread the long haul load across the country – as one big network linked by the HS2 Y.

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