Yesterday I was invited to lunch in the House of Commons by the Thames Valley Economic Partnership.
It was the kind of invitation I usually decline, as I do not approve of lunches at the public expense for public servants. I went because the rules of the game to get approval and money for important transport projects in my constituency require that I express agreement with other MPs, Councils and quangos over the needs of the ??region?? in order to persuade the Minister to consider our case. The Minister came to the lunch. I did not wish to let the side down, and have to accept the rules of the game as designed by this present government.
The lunch began with a speech telling us
??We have all the stakeholders and all the people that matter in transport in the Thames Valley around this table??. The list comprised 6 local government officials, 1 Councillor, 6 MPs, 4 representing the Thames Valley partnership, 5 from central government and its quangos and 16 others mainly from private sector companies. Local and national government officials were well represented.
I bit my lip ?? surely the most important people are the passengers who use the transport system, and surely there are more than a handful of companies involved in delivering the complex transport services of our large region? Are these not important ??stakeholders??? I restrained myself from shouting out ??Lese-majeste to the voters??, or even ??These lunching emperors have no clothes??.
The Partnership explained to the Minister of State, Transport, that the region had three agreed priorities ?? more capacity on the M4, better north-south links and western access to Heathrow by train. All the assembled ??stakeholders?? agreed or kept their silence. Few of us had actually agreed to these ??priorities?? but it would have been pointless as well as churlish to complain again about these things being done in our name by unelected officials after the previous private rows about it all. Some of what they wanted made sense and it was our one chance this year to make the points to the Minister in such a forum.
The Minister told us that usually regions fail to reach an agreement about what they want. They also often fail to get all their Councils to speak from the same script. She had to overcome her surprise and see we were apparently united in seeking stated improvements to the woefully inadequate infrastructure of the Thames valley. Clearly these meetings normally end with the Minister giving the ??region?? a lecture on the need for regional harmony and unity, no doubt all part of the indoctrination programme to get people thinking of themselves as part of an artificial regional set up. Such a happy state of affairs from the Ministers point of view puts off all decisions for an other year or so and gives the government the luxury of blaming everyone else for the transport chaos.
The whole performance summed up admirably what has gone wrong with modern government. A large number of people drawing generous salaries from the state sit round endless discussing a problem which has obvious solutions. We are short of transport capacity so we need to provide more. As a result of this meeting it is unlikely the government will make any decision.
I pressed the Minister to tell us what she would do about the lack of capacity on the M4 . She asked all of us what our ideas were. I pointed out the M4 is a central government road. The Minister on our behalf owns it, regulates it, manages it and has all the power she needs to vote money to improve it and to change the law and regulations affecting it. Her colleague decides planning cases concerning it.
As I explained to her, the private sector will respond with technical solutions and with private money if she wants to make improvements, but it is her job to make some decisions so she can harness the private sector. If she wants new tolled capacity then the private sector can design and create it. If she wants a more traditional public sector scheme there will be plenty of bidders. If she wishes to use new technology to improve traffic flows and management there are plenty of systems to choose from. What she not expect the private sector to so is to waste a lot of their time and money on working out several different schemes and solutions without any guidance from government about what they want and what their time scale for action might be.
My betting is that next year there will need to be another meeting, and the most that will come out of this is more work for consultants to do some more feasibility studies. No wonder we are short of transport capacity, and no wonder public budgets dont go very far. If every time people agree on the need for some extra capacity the private sector is expected to juggle toll lanes, toll roads, design build and operate, private finance and traditional options without any clue from the government on what they want and without a Minister capable of making a decision we are going nowhere fast.
It is pathetic. Government is at a standstill. I proposed a scheme for redeveloping Wokingham Station and creating a transport interchange on the Network Rail land there early in the life of this government. It could have been paid for largely or wholly out of development gain on the public land. We are still waiting, because no Minister is capable of getting things to happen, and Network Rail clearly does not wish to exploit its property assets properly in places like Wokingham. We just have to put up with a slum station and inadequate parking at the site.