Thursday, 28 June 2007

All change

“That's it. The end.” Tony Blair’s final words to the House of Commons yesterday may well have been true for his premiership, but for the government, and indeed the rest of the country, life continues to go on as normal. No one will be more acutely aware of this than Gordon Brown, who has, this morning, announced his new Cabinet.

Among the many changes, the transport brief has passed from the less than competent hands of Douglas Alexander to the, well, less than competent hands of Ruth Kelly. While it is unfair to judge Ms Kelly in advance of her tenure at transport, from her past performance as Secretary of State for Communities it is safe to say she is not renowned for her capability. The farcical introduction, then withdrawal then re-introduction of Home Information Packs (HIPs) is a testament to this fact. Ms Kelly presided over, but never quite accepted responsibility for, this dismal mess of a policy.

It is an error she must not repeat at the DfT, and especially not with the railways. The railways need three main things from politicians – vision, stability and honesty – and these must be Ms Kelly’s immediate priorities.

The vision part has nothing to do with spin. It is, in fact, a highly practical task of deciding how best our railways should be organised to deliver for the consumer and all of the other various industry stakeholders. Such a task is not easy, but it is desperately needed. A fundamental reappraisal of how the railways are structured and run is the one real change that would give, over the longer term, a much more responsive and successful railway network. As the holders of much of the power on the railways, such a reappraisal can only come from politicians and it is here than Ms Kelly must take the lead.

The stability part of the equation is less to do with long term strategic plans and more about leaving private train operating companies like First Great Western alone so that they can get on with delivering their franchise commitments. Under Douglas Alexander, the DfT not only set the terms of franchises agreements but also engaged itself in day-to-day activities such as setting timetables. The department has no business being involved in such tasks and is, in any case, notoriously bad at undertaking them. Ms Kelly must change this culture of micro-management at the DfT.

Honesty is an obvious one. The Department for Transport is a great stretcher of the truth: it makes decisions that cause problems on the railway network and then lets others, like First Great Western, take the blame while pretending it has nothing to do with situation on the ground. Not only is that dishonest, but it is unacceptable. Ms Kelly must ensure that the Department is transparent in its aims and objectives and that it takes full responsibility for its own actions. This is clearly something that Ms Kelly found difficult as Communities Secretary, but at Transport she has an ideal opportunity to make up for her past mistakes.

Standing outside Number Ten yesterday, Gordon Brown said, “…change cannot be met by the old politics.” Nowhere is this truer than at the Department for Transport: a better railway requires a new approach. Whether Ruth Kelly is the best person to deliver it is a question only time can answer.

1 comment:

Billyo said...

I've never been a politician, so I don't know how whitehall works, but I'd imagine you'd need to put a pretty strong character into DfT if you wanted some changes made.

Ruth Kelly is not a strong character, she has already shown this. She has the Sadim touch, as you mentioned she messed up the HIPs she also was a junior minister in Agriculture and Fisheries during the botched handling of the Foot and Mouth crisis. She side-stepped the oppertunity to reform the school qualifications system whilst education secretary, much to the dismay of most people within education. And finally she was made minister for equality, despite the fact that she voted against Gay marriage and gay adoption laws.

I don't know why Brown has chosen Kelly for the DfT, I hope it is not to boost his wimin quota. Whatever his reason, I'm afraid it shows that Transport is very low on his policy agenda.