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

Parliament’s back from recess and watching proceedings during Prime Minister’s Questions last week – not something that I normally bother with – was a surreal experience. Just 50 MPs allowed in the Commons chamber in order to comply with social distancing requirements, and 150 participating from home via video links. Actually, seeing MPs peering down into the chamber from a large bank of screens on either side of the Commons when they were called to ask their question remotely was truly weird, and it rather gave the impression of a scene out of George Orwell’s novel 1984!

But what I really enjoyed was the opportunity to peep into our MPs’ living rooms, kitchens and other sundry rooms now doubling up as offices. Seeing their taste in wallpaper, curtains, pictures and all the rest was quite entertaining – and I have to say that some tastes left a great deal to be desired! All very voyeuristic! I might actually watch more of this so I can see what other weird and wonderful tastes in home décor our elected representatives enjoy!

But actually, this “virtual parliament” is all a bit lacklustre. The intensity in debate is simply not there, and the usual buzz of the Commons simply can’t be replicated – the aside remarks made from a sedentary position, the interruptions and jeers, the supporting “here here”. It’s all gone, and while there may be no option but to conduct parliamentary business in this way, I’m not sure it really works. It’s the same with the Select Committee sessions which are now conducted remotely. All very stilted and really very tame indeed.

But to more serious matters.

One of the issues that is clearly going to emerge from all of this is a renewed debate about the environmental impact of travel

One of the issues that is clearly going to emerge from all of this is a renewed debate about the environmental impact of travel, given the huge drop in air pollution that we are seeing in London and our major cities as a result of the lockdown. Sadiq Khan, the London mayor, has produced a report showing the dramatic improvements in London’s air quality as a result of a halving in traffic volumes. I can see that the environmental lobby will be quite active in picking up on this, and I see that a certain Professor Stephen Holdgate, a Royal College of Physician Special Adviser on Air Quality, has used Sadiq Khan’s report to call for efforts to be made to see how we can retain some of the cleaner and greener habits we have developed in recent weeks. I have little doubt that this will be one of the backdrops against which we will take forward our decarbonisation initiative.

But the environment lobby needs to be careful. This new context in which the environmental debate will take place needs to be overseen and led by the mature and informed side of the environmental movement, not by the likes of Extinction Rebellion, if it is to have any serious impact on policy development. It needs to be led by the science, if I can use a phrase we have become all too familiar with in recent weeks.

And the fact that we now have a legal challenge against our road building programme, following the success of the legal challenge against Heathrow runway 3, will be another reason why the environmental debate will, in my view, become a central feature in our policy making going forward. Perhaps it was going to anyway because of our net zero objectives, but it will have a new impetus, I suggest. That said, the urgent and absolute necessity to reboot the economy must be the number one priority, so the environmental arguments must be sensitive to this.

A friend of mine who works for a major bank tells me that businesses have seen a major drop off in productivity and efficiency during the lockdown

Meanwhile, of course, we are all wondering what the world will look like when the lockdown starts to ease. Will rail and bus travel recover quickly to pre-lockdown days, or will we see that our newfound love of home working is here to stay? I had rather assumed that office-based corporate businesses might see the opportunity to substantially reduce their office space, and save a fortune in the process by having, say, half or two-thirds of their workforce working from home on a rota basis. But a friend of mine who works for a major bank tells me that businesses have seen a major drop off in productivity and efficiency during the lockdown, with staff being asked if they would be happy to return to the office en-masse as a result.

And the reality is that video-conferencing, while it certainly has it merits, is no substitute for proper face-to-face meetings. You can’t have a proper discussion, or build rapport, via a computer screen. And nor can you have those impromptu discussions across the office floor or at the coffee machine to get a colleague’s opinion on a particular issue, or to bounce ideas around. As for the number of people who have told me they are looking forward to getting back to the normal office routine, well, all of this suggests to me that while yes, there will be some increase in home working, it won’t be on anything like the scale that some may have initially thought.

And if the desire to get back to the office is strong once the lockdown starts to be eased, but also while social distancing rules are still in place, I’m intrigued to see how the train operators are going to manage social distancing in trains and on busy railway stations. That’s going to be quite a challenge I suspect. Still, at least nobody can complain about overcrowding, for now at least!


Nick Richardson: The new world facing transport

Sharon Hedges: Looking out from the lockdown

Claire Haigh: Decarbonising transport after Covid-19

Giles Bailey: Transport world faces ‘critical disruption’

Great Minster Grumbles: Bus industry bailout raises questions

Great Minster Grumbles: Will office culture be a thing of the past?

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