The Welsh Government’s deputy minister for climate change used the National Transport Awards to hit back at critics and issue a rallying cry

Lee Waters: ‘We have to make the right thing to do, the easiest thing to do’

The National Transport Awards is a great opportunity to recognise those who are going above and beyond across all modes of transport. It’s also an opportunity to consider the challenges that the sector faces and present a vision for the future.

The latter is usually done by a UK transport minister, but none were available to attend the 20th National Transport Awards in London on October 5. It perhaps wasn’t surprising given the flurry of announcements that week at the Conservative Party conference in Manchester.

On Monday, transport secretary Mark Harper had followed orders and led an assault on initiatives that constrain car use – the kind of initiatives that his government had previously supported. These are also the kind of initiatives that the National Transport Awards have always provided recognition for – a well-deserved pat on the back for transport professionals and politicians who have overcome opposition to create better places for people – and not just cars.

Two days later, Harper’s boss, the prime minister, used his conference speech to axe HS2 north of Birmingham and produce a ‘Network North’ blueprint that was riddled with errors.

Harper may have believed, quite understandably, that his tilt towards populism would not have made him popular among the 600 people assembled in the ballroom at the Westminster Park Plaza hotel for the National Transport Awards. So it fell to a junior minister to appear instead – in the form of a pre-recorded video.

“It’s like a hostage situation!” declared the event’s host, broadcaster and keen cyclist Jeremy Vine, before introducing Richard Holden’s video message.

Conveying an admirable level of enthusiasm, Holden said: “I’m sorry, I can’t be there in person. Sadly I am at a roads conference in Eastern Europe.”

I later discovered that, although the XXVII World Road Congress was indeed taking place in Prague that week, Holden was actually appearing on the BBC’s Question Time show, live from Wolverhampton, on the night of the National Transport Awards. Aside from that, there’s nothing much more to say about Holden’s pre-recorded contribution.

If the room was looking for a rallying cry, Lee Waters, deputy minister for climate change in the Welsh Government, provided it.

“I’m afraid the roads conference in Eastern Europe was fully booked,” he joked. “So I hope you’ll put up with me.”

During his party conference speech, Harper had attacked the Welsh Government for “blanket 20mph speed limits, an ideological ban on road building and plans to charge people to drive on the M4”, and Waters did not miss the opportunity to return the favour.

There’s no strategy, it’s all tactics and pretty grubby ones at that

“Now, despite the slogan, there’s no longer a pretence that this government are thinking about long-term decisions,” said Waters. “There’s no strategy, it’s all tactics and pretty grubby ones at that.

He argued that the decision to use £1bn of the money saved by cancelling HS2 north of Birmingham to electrify the North Wales Main Line illustrated the government’s short-term thinking.

“They’ve clearly learnt nothing from HS2, or from the broken promise to electrify the main line to Swansea,” said Waters. “Then, as now, there was no development work behind the announcement, no plan, no costings. I heard [chancellor] Jeremy Hunt asking why it cost 10 times more to build a railway in this country than just across the Channel in France. Well, that’s why.”

He continued: “I was particularly disappointed to see Mark Harper, who in my dealings has been a decent and reasonable man, drawn into spreading misinformation about what we’re doing in Wales and legitimising conspiracy theories about ‘15 minute cities’ involving local councils deciding how often you go to the shops. 

“Now this is playing with fire and if one of the most reasonable Conservatives has been drawn into that type of dangerous culture war, I do worry about how we’re going to respond to the profound challenges that are ahead of us.”

For Waters, those challenges are centred on the response to the climate emergency.

He challenged the audience: “Just as our parents’ generation asked their parents, ‘what did you do during the war, mummy/daddy?’ We need to be ready with an answer when our own grandchildren ask us, ‘What did you do when you were given the evidence of catastrophic climate change; when you were shown flood maps, showing sea water rising by two metres; when you saw that 40% of species were in long-term decline; when you were told that all the coral in our waters were on the absolute brink of devastation; when every year broke the record for the warmest temperatures? What did you do? What did YOU do?

There is always, always, a reason for maintaining the status quo. Always a short-term argument for maintaining a business model, for doing just the minimum that’s required by the regulations, for going with a grain

“There is always, always, a reason for maintaining the status quo. Always a short-term argument for maintaining a business model, for doing just the minimum that’s required by the regulations, for going with a grain.”

Waters acknowledged that change is difficult, and he spoke of his own experiences. Nearly half a million people have signed a petition calling for the Welsh Government to abandon its 20mph speed limit in built-up areas, and Waters has faced an (unsuccessful) no confidence vote in the Welsh Parliament.

Furthermore, he’s had security cameras installed in his home, has a police patrol calling by, and has been asked to stay away from events in his constituency.
He took aim at those who argue that action to mitigate climate change will harm our economy.

“Your operating environment is going to be turned on its head,” he said. “By the time my children are my age, the science tells us that most of the towns on our coast will be flooded. Our rail infrastructure, our roads, underwater … Now, what’s that going to do to our economy? How is that going to impact on your business model?”

In Wales, the response has been to place transport alongside planning, housing, regeneration and environment in one climate change department, to try to achieve the elusive policy join-up.

“To be in with a chance of hitting the 2050 target, we need to cut emissions in the next 10 years more than we’ve managed over the course of the whole of the last 30 years,” Walters said. “More than three decades worth of cuts in under one decade.

“That’s hard to do and transport must play its part. Now, since 1990, the base line used by the UN, we managed to cut carbon emissions from waste by 64% from industry by 36%, the same from the energy sector … But transport has decreased the least, just 6% since 1990, and that’s even with the advances in technology that we’ve had in the last 30 years. 

“So if we continue to move at that pace we’ll be sunk, literally.”

Technology alone will not be our saviour, Waters warned.

He pointed out the UK Climate Change Committee, the independent advisers to all the governments in the UK, have said that the move to electric cars is necessary, but not sufficient.

“We also need to shift behaviour,” he continued. “And that’s why the Welsh government has put modal shift at the heart of our transport strategy.”

The Welsh Government has set targets. It wants 30% of people to work remotely on an ongoing basis. And it’s aiming to switch the number of trips by sustainable modes from the current 32% to 45% by 2040. To achieve this,

key policies include fewer new roads, bus franchising and a new £1bn metro system (see below).

We have to make the right thing to do, the easiest thing to do. And thankfully that’s doable. There is a way – but the question for us all is, is there a will?

Waters concluded: “We are close to the point of no return with climate change, but we’re not there yet. We still have choices. There is still hope, but pulling back from this point will be a challenge for us all … We will only be able to bring people with us if we make it easy for them to get around. If we expect people to make heroic sacrifices, we will fail. We have to make the right thing to do, the easiest thing to do. And thankfully that’s doable. There is a way – but the question for us all is, is there a will?”



Waters’ view on key Welsh Government policies

“Building a road cannot be the default answer whenever we face congestion or have an accident black spot. As well as consuming tons of carbon from all the steel and concrete … roads quickly fill up with traffic again and deepen the cycle of car dependency.”

“There is hardly a nerdy manual that is not infused with car dominance. There’s nothing unconscious about that bias. We need to rewire our systems to make sure they’re focused on modal shift, to make sure our high-level goals are aligned with delivery mechanisms.”

“It’s the biggest change in the rules of the road since seat-belt wearing became compulsory in 1983, and just as with that change there is pushback – but there’s no going back … Average speeds are already down and as a result we can expect to see fewer accidents, fewer deaths, fewer tragedies.” 

“Our planned system of franchising will finally reverse the fragmentation of bus privatisation, it will correct the market failure which has seen bus use steadily fall to the point that half of us have never set foot on a bus. Simply put, our plan is for one network, one timetable, and one ticket, bringing people before profits.”

“We’re building a £1bn metro system for the Cardiff city region, a project that the former chair of Crossrail, Terry Morgan, said was the most ambitious project on the UK railways today.”

This article appears in the latest issue of Passenger Transport.

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