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

 

 
So here we go with another transport review. This time we have a ‘Union Connectivity Review’ to be chaired by Sir Peter Hendy, the chairman of Network Rail. The review, we are told, will look at ways to improve connectivity between the four nations of the UK. Quite what has suddenly motivated this review I’m not sure, but I suspect it’s driven by concerns in No. 10 about the increasingly dis-united nature of our kingdom. This, of course, has nothing to do with transport per se, but is a political consideration pure and simple. It’s one way off trying to fight off the growing appetite for independence north of the border as well as concerns in Northern Ireland – much of which can arguably be attributed to er… No. 10.

Another curiosity is why the review isn’t being conducted by the National Infrastructure Commission, which you would have thought would be best placed to conduct a review into the adequacies of transport connections between the four nations of the UK. That’s absolutely no disrespect to Sir Peter Hendy who is one of the most respected figures in the transport sector. It just seems to me to be very odd that when you have a National Infrastructure Commission you set up an entirely separate review rather than take advantage of the resources and expertise that already exists. Looking at the scope for the review this is not some short, back-of-a-fag-packet task. Oh no.

I’ve a hunch that the prime minister will want the review to explore one of his more off-the-wall ideas, the feasibility of a bridge between Scotland and Northern Ireland

Sir Peter and his team must consider “in detail” the cost, feasibility, value for money, delivery arrangements and how any project the review recommends should be sequenced. And the review team must consult widely with relevant government departments and agencies as well as local authorities, industry, academics, engineering experts and, the general public. How do you consult the general public on a review as complex as this? I dread to think what whacky ideas Joe Public will come up with! Mind you, I’ve a hunch that the prime minister will want the review to explore one of his more off-the-wall ideas, the feasibility of a bridge between Scotland and Northern Ireland. So, in comparison, perhaps what Joe Public comes up with may not sound so whacky after all!

Sir Peter is trusted by the prime minister, whom he served when the latter was mayor of London. Indeed, Hendy and his Transport for London colleagues did a decent job of implementing a whacky idea when they delivered a New Routemaster, New Bus for London, Borismaster or whatever you want to call it. But setting out the case for a ‘Celtic Crossing’ would surely be a bridge too far.

This whole thing strikes me as a massive undertaking with Sir Peter tasked with delivering an interim report in January and a final report in the summer. That seems to be a very short period of time to conduct a review as comprehensive as the terms of reference suggest. Sir Peter faces his own personal lockdown in the months ahead – in his office!

The more I think about it the more I can’t help but conclude that this review is driven purely by political considerations which have more to do with concerns about keeping the union together than anything to do with transport connectivity. Mind you, if you are a unionist, as the prime minister passionately claims to be, then the underlying motivation for the Connectivity Review might be entirely justified, politically speaking.

Meanwhile, as I write, word reaches me that Transport for London is on the brink of going bust. That’s actually no surprise as we know TfL’s finances are in a dire state and the mayor has made clear he needs another substantial bail-out to keep the organisation afloat and services running. By the time you read this I have little doubt that the government will agree another bail-out as the idea of allowing TfL to go bust is too ridiculous for words. But it will be interesting to see what conditions are attached to the bail-out and, of course, we have yet to conclude the review of TfL’s structure and finances, a review which was a condition of the first bail-out made back in the spring. A Conservative government is surely going to make life for a Labour London mayor as awkward as possible, especially with the mayoral elections just months away.

Finally, I hear that Giles Fearnley is finally standing down from his position as managing director of First Bus. It’s always a shame when somebody with the wealth of knowledge and expertise that Giles has finally hangs up their boots. Something tells me, however, that we have not heard the last of him and I suspect the boards of any number of transport businesses will be keen to offer him non-executive director roles. Good luck, Giles!

 
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