Nine months into the new parliament, and the Department for Transport is busier than ever. The coalition years were about turning round our economy, and establishing a long-term transport plan to make Britain stronger, fairer and more prosperous. Now is when we start to deliver the infrastructure that will allow local economies to grow, by making it easier to get around and do business. In the next few years alone, we will open Crossrail, complete Thameslink and the Northern Hub rail networks, bring thousands of new carriages into service, begin HS2, and start work on the biggest road and motorway upgrade programme for a generation.
But that presents a distinct challenge for an industry that's more accustomed to maintaining old infrastructure than building new. We have to attract and train thousands of engineers, designers and construction professionals. We have to expand the supply chain. And we have to minimise disruption on the existing network while improvements are being made.
But any government with ambitions to renew the transport fabric of Britain faces an even more fundamental question. How do we guarantee – in a country which has long demonstrated a deep-seated aversion to new infrastructure – that the projects we work so hard to develop are not killed off at a later date?
This is why we've been so thorough with HS2. Six years of intense and painstaking planning, the biggest consultation in government history, listening to people's views, perfecting the design, making sure HS2 is the very best it can be, with minimum impact on the countryside and people's lives. It is why we've travelled the country, explaining the case for the new railway, town by town, region by region. And it is why we have sought the widest possible cross-party support for HS2 in Parliament.
If problems arise as schemes are developed, they must be dealt with immediately. My first job as Secretary of State was to sort out the West Coast franchise mess. I accepted responsibility on behalf of the department, and then took swift action. Three years on, franchising is in a much better place. When it became clear that Network Rail had fallen behind schedule with its upgrade programme last year, I had to pause two electrification projects. But by appointing Sir Peter Hendy to conduct a review, and working with the industry, we got the programme up and running again fast.
The key objective now is to learn the lessons from these experiences, and improve resilience
as we review the regulation and structure of the railway.
A similar determination to make good our promises was the reason why, before Christmas, the Government delayed a decision on the location of new airport capacity in the South East. Of course I know that many in the industry were disappointed. But it was the right and responsible thing to do. No other transport issue is more contentious, or as crucial to Britain's long-term competitiveness.That is why I asked Sir Howard Davies to lead the Airports Commission review in the first place. To risk any chance of failure at this stage would be unacceptable. It's my responsibility to make sure from the outset that we will get the job finished.
So when opponents of expansion hailed the delay as some sort of victory, they could not have been more wrong. In fact we took a big step forward by accepting the commission's case for expansion. It showed that the debate has moved on from whether a new runway should be built, to where. We also agreed to choose one of the three shortlisted schemes, and to meet the commission's requirement for an additional runway by 2030.
We're using this time to make the case for new capacity even more watertight. It means we can test the commission's work further against the government's new air quality plan.
This is additional work to test compliance and build confidence that expansion can take place within legal limits.
We're also doing more work on carbon, particularly during construction, and we're dealing with concerns about noise. We want to make sure that communities get the best possible mitigation deal. Finally, we're ensuring that the runway will create as much growth and as many jobs as possible.
This is crucial. We don't just need new runway capacity to compete more effectively with Paris, Frankfurt or Dubai. We also need it for the benefits it will bring to our wider economy.
One of the most persuasive arguments for new capacity is the links it will provide to the rest of the country.
So there is a huge amount going on at the DfT. But there is also a real sense of purpose. We know the next few years will be crucial for transport in Britain, and the success of our programme will ultimately depend on how thoroughly we prepare. The country desperately needs a modern, efficient transport system, and that is what we will deliver.
Reference: Transport Times, March 2016 Issue