“Why is this man transport secretary?” On the naked partisanship of Chris Grayling

Lawyers hold a Chris Grayling puppet during his tenure as justice secretary. Image: Getty.

Oh good, there’s more.

Yesterday, the Evening Standard revealed that transport secretary Chris Grayling had decided to block the expansion of Transport for London’s rail empire, describing it as mere “deckchair shifting”. In our report on the topic we speculated about three possible reasons for this: practical concerns, ideological ones, or nakedly political ones.

In today’s Evening Standard, there’s another top scoop on the subject, by Pippa Crerar. It begins as follows:

The Transport Secretary was today accused of putting party politics ahead of commuters after a leaked letter revealed he opposed handing over control of suburban rail to keep it “out of the clutches” of Labour.

(...)

...in a letter written before the new Mayor took over, he admitted he was against rail devolution to keep services away from any future Labour mayor, rather than because of the impact on commuters.

So. That settles that one.

The letter dates from 2013, when Conservative Boris Johnson was still mayor. Here’s the key passage:

“While I am generally a great supporter of what you are doing in London, I would not be in favour of changing the current arrangements – not because I have any fears over the immediate future, but because would like to keep suburban rail services out of the clutches of any future Labour Mayor.

Obviously similar concerns apply over a future Labour government as well, but the continuation of the system we have at the moment does at least mean that MPs and local authorities from outside the London area would have a remit over train services in our areas, which I would not like us to lose.”

Three thoughts on this:

1)  This is partisanship of the most shameless and disgusting sort. Chris Grayling is meant to be transport secretary for the entire country, not just for people who vote for him. That he would take a major policy decision based not on what is best for Britain’s commuters, but on how to best undermine his opponents, speaks volumes about Grayling’s statesmanship – and explains the level of esteem in which his achievements in previous ministerial roles, at justice and work & pensions, are held.

2) It also doesn’t really stack up on its own terms. As things stand, there are already a fair few commuters towns outside the London boundary, which are dependent on Transport for London for their travel arrangements: Amersham, Watford, Epping, Brentwood. They seem to get along fine: indeed, they seem to have better train services than most commuter towns that sit outside the TfL empire.

No mayor of London, of either party, has ever had a policy of running fewer services outside the city boundary, so as to boost those inside it. Partly that’s because it’d be stupid, but largely it’s because railways simply don’t work like that:  service levels are dependent on boring physical factors like track arrangements, signalling, the location of sidings and so forth. Political boundaries have nothing to do with it.

Does Grayling not understand this? If he doesn’t, why on earth is he transport secretary? And if he does, what on earth is he wibbling about?

3) While we’re on the topic of things Chris Grayling doesn’t seem to understand: why does he think that MPs and local authorities have any remit over franchising arrangements at the moment?

Okay, MPs can annoy the transport secretary, who can in turn annoy the train companies. But that’s a pretty indirect and weak form of accountability, as demonstrated by [insert example of terrible train service of your choice]. Local authorities, meanwhile, have no ability to control train services at all that I can see.

So why does Grayling believe that giving TfL a role in service commissioning would weaken accountability?

Once again: why is this man transport secretary?

I’m not the only one wondering that this afternoon. From the Standard:

Tory former minister Bob Neill called on Mr Grayling to stand down saying he had “lost confidence” in him as Transport Secretary.

The Bromley and Chislehurst MP told the Standard: “My discussions with him indicate to me that he’s acted for party reasons and not acted in the interests of London commuters.

“It’s pretty clear that he has a dogmatic opposition to rail devolution and I don’t think that’s a legitimate basis on which to take a decision. It demonstrates that he’s acted extremely badly. I don’t have confidence any more in him as Secretary of State.”

Bromley is of course a London constituency.

It takes a special talent to change a policy for nakedly partisan reasons, and still manage to alienate MPs from your party.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @jonnelledge.

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Pembrokeshire's innovative new eco-hamlet is great. But it should be the size of a city

The eco hamlet. Image: Western Solar.

The opening in January 2017 of an “eco-hamlet” for council house tenants in West Wales is great news. I have nothing but praise for a development which builds houses with a low carbon footprint, using locally grown wood, to make homes which are well insulated and powered by solar energy. It was also quick to build, with large sections being made in a factory and then assembled on site. And it was relatively cheap – at around £70,000 to £100,000 per building, it is certainly comparable to the costs of more conventional builds.

These houses are an inspiration to the construction industry and an aspiration for the home owner. After all, who wouldn’t like to live in a house that had yearly utility bills of £200, rather than the national average of £1,500?

So the problem is not the six wonderful solar houses at Glanrhyd, Pembrokeshire, or the lucky people who will get to live in them (and enjoy shared use of an electric car). The problem is that we’ve seen all of this before – but nothing changes. What we really need is far, far more of them.

Pentre Solar in Pembrokeshire. Image: Western Solar.

I’ve been involved in sustainable construction for nearly 25 years and seen many inspirational developments like Glanrhyd. There’s Julian Marsh’s home in Nottingham, Susan Roaf’s Oxford Ecohouse and the Hockerton Housing Project, to name but a few. The list is long.


Yet while many individuals continue to build these innovative and inspirational structures, we have a construction industry which still responds to these buildings with disdain. One executive from a large well-known house building company told me recently: “This is a new, expensive and untested technology. We just can’t risk building something so new with all the risks to the consumer and at a higher cost.”

But the situation is even worse than the disdain from the mainstream construction industry. Rather than being welcomed, the latest versions of these sustainable buildings are challenged at every turn. The initial response to the Welsh eco-hamlet plans were concerns about the materials, the technology and the design. The houses at Glanrhyd then had more than 20 planning conditions placed upon them. The CEO of Western Solar, the company behing the hamlet, freely admits that nearly half of their research budget went on solving problems they encountered along the way.

Thinking and building big

So it seems this kind of development just isn’t celebrated enough. There is a general atmosphere of mistrust from construction professionals. It is seen as too complex, too expensive, too risky. Yet there are positive reactions, too. Welsh politician Lesley Griffiths had this to say about the new houses in Glanrhyd:

This scheme ticks so many boxes. We need more houses, we need more energy efficiency, we want to help people with fuel poverty. It’s been really good to hear how they have sourced local products. It’s great they’re using local people to build the houses.

Surely we need to take the eco-technology we have and start rolling it out on a much larger scale. To do so would be a massive step in meeting the significant housing shortage (an estimated 125,000 extra new houses are needed every year). It would also address the disrepair of our current housing stock, and help refit the millions of houses in good repair but requiring improved performance in order to achieve the government’s 2050 carbon reduction target.

We must not forget that the 2050 Climate Change target is not some arbitrary political policy, but one based on the environmental challenge facing all of us. We need to play our part in slowing down the speed of climate change and adapting to the changing natural, social and economic environment.

The solar houses in Pembrokeshire are wonderful. But until we start building huge numbers of buildings with similar credentials, we are just celebrating a cottage industry rather than restructuring our urban environment for an uncertain future.The Conversation

John Grant is senior lecturer in natural and built environment at Sheffield Hallam University.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.