Our Whitehall insider imagines what’s going on inside the minds of the mandarins at Great Minster House, home of the DfT

 
Would you believe it!? Despite the history of major rail infrastructure projects demonstrating that the vast majority of complex projects are always – I mean, always – delivered late and over budget we’ve managed to set up a Northern Transport Acceleration Board. Not only have we been silly enough to set up an Acceleration Board to deliver one of the most complex rail upgrades in the country – the TransPennine upgrade – which is surely going to be delivered late and over budget (so much for “acceleration”!) but we have also managed to put our secretary of state in charge of the Acceleration Board.

Who thought up this madness? Why do we appear so determined to put ourselves in a situation where we can now be directly blamed for failure when this project runs into difficulty? Have we learnt nothing from Crossrail, the Greater Western electrification project and so many others? Dear God! Of course, our current secretary of state probably couldn’t care less because it’s a racing certainty that when this project starts to run into trouble – and is anybody in the rail industry seriously going to suggest that it won’t? – he will have been long gone and some other poor sap is going to have to pick up the pieces and explain why a government department responsible for a Transport Acceleration Board redefined the meaning of “acceleration!

In any event, it’s far from clear to me why we need a new body to deliver rail projects in the north. The Northern Powerhouse Partnership and Northern Powerhouse Rail surely could do this, couldn’t they, or what’s the point of them? I would hazard a guess that officials working in these bodies are pretty unimpressed by our decision to set up yet another body to deal with rail in the north when we have plenty of bodies perfectly capable – or which should be perfectly capable – of delivering rail projects.

And what does it say about our confidence in Network Rail to deliver? Not a lot I would suggest! Why do we need an “Acceleration Board” to oversee a major rail project which Network Rail should be able to do in its sleep? Is this a vote of no confidence in Network Rail? It’s hard to see this in any other way. Yet at the same time we appear to be on the cusp of putting Network Rail at the heart of the new rail agency that the Williams Review has recommended. Talk about contradictory thinking. We don’t trust Network Rail to take forward a major rail upgrade, but we do trust Network Rail to oversee the management of the entire rail industry via this new agency. Confused? I know I am!

One of the reasons given for this new Acceleration Council is that it will give northern leaders “easier access” to ministers. We’ve got to be joking

But it gets funnier still. One of the reasons given for this new Acceleration Council is that it will give northern leaders “easier access” to ministers. We’ve got to be joking. Are we really saying that northern leaders – Andy Burnham, Steve Rotherham et al – don’t already have “easy access” to ministers. Of course they do. And if they don’t have they sure should have, new Acceleration Council or not. So this explanation is spurious, even disingenuous, to say the least. We already have a Northern Powerhouse minister in Jake Berry, so this doesn’t say much about our confidence in him either!

Then we also say that this new council is needed to cut red tape and bureaucracy. Well, let me politely point out that this was one of the reasons for setting up organisations such as the Northern Powerhouse Partnership in the first place. And anybody who says that putting a secretary of state in charge of an “Acceleration Council” – and therefore, by default, civil servants – is likely to cut red tape is either naive or has a terrible sense of humour!

This Acceleration Council must rank up there was one of the silliest things we have ever done. It won’t “accelerate” anything, it won’t give northern leaders “easier access” to ministers relative to the access they already have, it won’t cut red tape and bureaucracy, and it’s about as big a kick in the teeth to the competence of Network Rail, the Northern Powerhouse Partnership and possibly a number of other bodies besides, than I can think of. Nice job whoever dreamed this one up! It will give the press, the Public Accounts Committee and the Transport Select Committee rich pickings for years to come.

I end on one final example of a world gone mad. Sir Ian Botham, one of England’s finest cricketers, has been awarded a peerage. I can’t think of anybody less suited to being a member of the House of Lords than Ian Botham, notwithstanding his cricketing talents. But word reaches me that the Prime Minister misunderstood what Ian Botham, well know for his support for Brexit, had to say when they met a few weeks ago: “Boris” he said, “I love Lords and I want to be there for the rest of my life”. Boris has granted Ian’s wish, but I wonder if Boris really understood which “Lords” Ian was talking about!

 
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