This article appeared in the February issue of Total Politics
There has been plenty of recent discussion on the woes of the Conservative 2010 intake who have yet to be promoted into the government’s ranks. They are, of course, not the only ones dealing with frustrated ambitions in their party. Outside government, there are the older intakes now being forced to come to terms with their talents being permanently ignored by David Cameron. And inside government, there are the Conservative shadow cabinet members who missed out on the chance to sit around the large table in No10. Theresa Villiers, minister of state for transport, is one, relegated to a ministerial rather than a cabinet position when the coalition government was formed in 2010. She admits she “was disappointed”, but is mindful of “a lot of talented colleagues who were also displaced, some of whom haven’t ended up with any kind of role in government at all”. Villiers continues to sound hopeful, however, despite now serving under her second secretary of state after Justine Greening (who was in the same 2005 intake) was promoted from a ministerial role at the Treasury. “It seems to me that resilience and sticking power is a key quality in politics,” she says. “You never know what’s coming round the corner. It’s very important to be resilient, to stick in the job and do whatever job you’re given absolutely to the best of your abilities.”
Her transport role is a demanding, wide-ranging job, which, she says, is “keeping me busy”. Her remit includes rail policy, aviation and the Olympics. Talking to Total Politics in her Horseferry Road office, Villiers comes across as someone who does not relax easily. Our initial interview time was moved back a week. Explaining why, the transport minister, sounding like a student, jokes she had “an essay crisis” to get many of the documents prepared for the rail franchising decisions to be made in early 2012. These decisions – she calls them “my baby” – are now sitting on Villier’s small desk in bulging ringbinders, and she admits the work has left her feeling “a little bit tired”. Her office doesn’t appear to have much in the way of decoration, barring small sofas in the far corner, which we sit on – she jokes that these had to be dusted before my arrival because she hardly uses them. It is easy to imagine her burning the midnight oil in here, on the top floor of the Department for Transport, working laboriously on dry policy documents. There are certainly few distractions in the room.
Sitting down on the under-used sofas, with the Home Office visible through the window behind her, Villiers explains how the new rail franchises will last longer – most for 15 years – than the current deals. She claims they are “a good balance”, which “will be better for passengers, for taxpayers and the overall efficiency of the railways”. The details will be released in spring 2012, and while the franchises include longer-term issues of competency and efficiency of the train operating companies, there are political hot potatoes for her department to face right now.
“It’s confirmed that delivering something like this is always really, really difficult,” says Villiers about the now-confirmed HS2 railway line, which will run between London and Birmingham. The hugely controversial project could see Welsh secretary Cheryl Gillan resign from the cabinet, although the Chesham and Amersham MP has been assuaged by extra tunnelling for the line. It has also caused huge concern from backbench shire Conservative MPs in the Tory heartlands of Buckinghamshire, Warwickshire, Oxfordshire, South Northamptonshire and Staffordshire.
HS2 is a massive infrastructure project. The current estimated costing is £32bn, and Villiers calls it “one of the biggest decisions in relation to our transport network since the motorways in the 1950s”. No pressure there, then, for Villiers and Greening.
As shadow transport secretary, it was Villiers who announced her party’s HS2 policy in 2008, and she remains “very enthusiastic” about the benefits that HS2 will bring. Villiers has a message for backbenchers worried about the environmental impact of the new railway. She says: “HS1 [the line running from London to the Channel Tunnel] demonstrated that you can build these lines in a way that does actually mitigate and minimise the local impact. Inevitably, before something is built, people are really anxious about its impact but, very often, it proves to be far less damaging than they expect.”
She adds: “I’m absolutely confident that the reality [will only] be a tiny fraction as bad as people fear.” Interestingly, Villiers highlights another weapon in the government’s arsenal for use against colleagues stubbornly set against HS2, who might be thinking of rebelling against the Hybrid Bill for the railway in 2013. “What’s really important,” she says, “is maintaining the cross-party consensus, because if you have that, there are ways in which you can deliver, for example, the legislation in a more efficient, faster way.”
Aside from its environmental impact, one argument used against HS2 is that, far from boosting growth in the north, it will further tilt economic activity in England towards London. “That goes against all analysis,” retorts Villiers, adding: “It tends to be the regional economies, rather than the centre, which benefit more. The TGV network has helped Paris, but it’s helped people in places like Lyon and Lille more.”
The transport minister argues that “cities round the world fight tooth and nail to get themselves on the high speed networks” because “when you get a less economically-prosperous area linked with a more prosperous area, those improved transport links tend to have great economic benefits for the area that’s less prosperous”.
Again using the northern French city of Lille as an example, Villiers continues: “Because Lille is on the TGV network, it has one of the biggest office complexes now in the entire world. I just don’t see that it makes economic sense to think that improving transport connections to a place damages its economy. I have way more confidence in the north of England than ‘Stop HS2’ seem to. The north of England will thrive as a result of the opportunities given by HS2.”
She also decries the argument centring on reduced journey times between London and Birmingham and beyond. Villiers believes a point is being missed. “The west coast line is going to be full within 10 to 12 years. It is simply not going to be able to cope with the amount of traffic that the economy is generating. HS2 is not about journey times, though reduced journey times are important. It’s about capacity. We desperately need more capacity to meet the needs of our economy. So, leaving things as they are, sitting back and hoping for the best, will certainly be bad for the northern financial infrastructure because it will make it more difficult for people to get around.”
The new rail franchises will, according to Villiers, provide “greater certainty and help, therefore, to generate more private sector involvement in the railways”. They fit in with a larger government plan to improve levels of passenger satisfaction in both railways and aviation. The customer experience is an important priority for the coalition, and for the railways, that means introducing requirements into the franchises to, in Villiers’ words, “hold them to account on those demanding targets in terms of what passengers want, how they feel about things like stations and trains”. But the government will also back off on certain current requirements, such as “how many cycle parking spaces they might need to have”. Villiers claims that the previous Labour government “was taking more direct control over the railways than in the days before privatisation”, and that control will be loosened to allow more flexibility for the train operating companies.
The transport minister knows, too, that the cost of the rail industry needs to come down. Taxpayer subsidies are far higher now than in the days of British Rail and fares have also shot up. Villiers says she understands public concerns about rail fares and points to a key period between 2014–19 when the government will “certainly be pushing for major progress, but we’re working right now on measures to start delivering those cost savings”.
The government is hugely in favour of expanding the rail industry, with commitments such as new railway lines and electrification. Villiers says George Osborne “has recognised that continuing to invest in the transport system is one of the best ways to grow us out of our current economic difficulties”, but it is less clear what the government’s attitude is to aviation. The draft Civil Aviation Bill will be the Department for Transport’s major legislative reform for 2012. That is described as putting “the passenger at the heart of airport operations”. This might be heartening for those fed up with lengthy passport queues, but questions remain as to whether this government is pro or anti-aviation. Transport secretary Justine Greening is the MP for Putney, a constituency under the Heathrow flightpath. Having taken her seat from Labour in 2005, she will not be willing to change policy and consider a third runway. With Boris Island remaining a pipe dream for the London Mayor at the moment, and London’s airports running at close to full capacity, there appears to be a question waiting to be answered: what is the government’s strategy for aviation?
I ask Villiers to sum it up in a maximum of two sentences. She replies: “We’ve got a detailed process underway to develop a framework that enables aviation to grow and support overall economic growth, but which also addresses its local environmental impact and plays its part in addressing climate change. You asked for a sentence… it was a long sentence.”
It was, but doesn’t it reveal that the government is engaged in a holding pattern – like the planes circling over London, waiting for Heathrow’s two runways to clear – until it works out a long-term strategy? Villiers lists a number of points. These include setting up a taskforce with “industry stakeholders” to make airports in the south east better and making the best use of already existing capacity. She claims that “while Heathrow is very full, there are ways we can improve it as an airport and enhance it as an international gateway that are independent of a third runway. A third runway is not on the agenda.” Instead, her focus is on new operating practices at Heathrow, designed to improve reliability, reduce delays and lessen unscheduled night flights. As with HS2, Villiers reaches for the comfort zone of a cross-party consensus and points out that Labour agrees with her.
The reaction of some in the business world to this has been dismay. They see investment draining away to European rivals who have hub airports boasting more than two runways. “The industry knows where we stand on that,” says Villiers firmly. “As far as I’m concerned, the issue is settled.”
Villiers is a London politician. Previously MEP for the capital between 1999–2005, she represents the Chipping Barnet constituency, a key north London suburban area in the ‘doughnut’ that elected Boris Johnson to the mayoralty in 2008. As the minister with responsibility for Olympics transport, she has seen the mayor – the subject of much recent speculation regarding his prime ministerial ambitions – close up, and has been impressed by his negotiating style. She says: “He’s very determined, very persistent. As in all other aspects of his life, the fact that’s he’s engaging and charming probably helps in negotiation as well.
“Boris had lengthy discussions during the spending review with the chancellor – I could tell you a thing about those negotiations [Villiers won’t go into details] – but he secured the funding for those tube upgrades.” She believes the way to see off Ken Livingstone − “a nightmare for the suburbs” − will be to persuade Conservative supporters to come out to vote in the May elections.
“We were war-gaming the Olympics only recently,” says Villiers in a response to a question about testing the transport system’s reliability ahead of the event later this year. “It was an exercise called Black Chariot. It is literally a drill for scenarios that goes from Cobra level right through to Network Rail and the train operators.” Disappointingly, it was not Boris, a Classicist, who named the exercise, but the transport infrastructure is “broadly in place” for the Olympics. Villiers defends the controversial ‘Games lanes’, which will appear on London’s roads as “essential for getting the officials to the Games on time”. She adds, “We won’t want to end up like Atlanta [in 1996], where people who might have trained for 20 years missed their events because they were stuck in a traffic jam.”
She concedes that the transport system in London will come under “significant pressure”, so the challenge is to “get people thinking about choosing a different route or working from home if possible”. She uses Sydney as an example of how it is possible to alter day-to-day routines for those two weeks.
The three areas of rail, aviation and the Olympics are providing plenty of work – and Villiers is a self-confessed workaholic – but the treadmill life of a minister can still feel unceasing. “No matter how enthusiastic one is, no matter how much of a workaholic, the volume of stuff to get through, correspondence and decisions, is pretty massive. I enjoy the job, and am happy to devote pretty much all my working waking hours to it, but it’s certainly demanding, there’s no doubt about that.”
The transport minister is hoping that her appetite for work will get her noticed, or maybe even win her a medal or two.