July 25, 2019
Yes, Britain has a new prime minister. But more importantly, it has a new transport secretary. What can we expect from Grant Shapps, the man appointed by Boris Johnson to head up the Department for Transport?
Grant Shapps: What can we expect from Boris Johnsons new transport secretary, from HS2 to Heathrow?
Shapps doesn't have the best reputation as a politician: he ran a get-rich-quick scheme under a false name, and was caught misleading the public about it. Last year he resigned from a role at a property website after allegations of a "secret pay deal" worth up to £700,000. As a shadow minister he took donations from companies relevant to his portfolio, which some argued amounted to a conflict of interest.
But none of these questionable activities apparently bar someone from holding public office in this country, so let's look at his transport policy views.
Shapps is a major proponent of expanding Heathrow airport: the latest sign that Boris Johnson, historically a major opponent, may not be all that fussed after all. The new transport secretary isn’t just someone who happens to support a third runway: he’s about as vociferous a supporter of one as you could find.
In 2016 he described plans for a mere free vote on the issue as a “fudge and a dodge” and also organised a letter to Theresa May calling for her to hurry up and make a decision (preferably in favour). He was pushing the policy even when the Tories were opposed, as far back as 2012 calling for David Cameron to ditch his then opposition. It should probably come as no surprise that he’s a keen pilot himself, reportedly owning a six-seater Piper Saratoga plane.
One major theme running through Shapps’ transport views is his support for infrastructure projects, of all kinds. Indeed, he chairs the British Infrastructure Group of MPs – which mostly advocates for aviation and high-speed internet.
Other than Heathrow, HS2 will be the other biggest item in the new transport secretary’s in-tray. Compared to his advocacy for airport expansion, Shapps hasn’t been quite as vocal about his support for the new railway, but he’s voted for it every step of the way. With major HS2 supporter Sajid Javid as chancellor as well, the prospects for the project actually look pretty good.
Johnson’s nominal opposition to the line seems to have been for the benefit of Tory members. Notably, the new prime minister has also appointed Douglas Oakervee, former HS2 chairman, to lead his independent review of the project. Oakervee said in 2013 that cancelling the project would be “catastrophic” and has spelled out that he clearly understands the capacity arguments. “He’s had it explained to him,” one railway industry insider said of the new prime minister. Changes, particularly to the project’s later phases in the north, could still come – but the new prime minister’s actions so far are not those someone keen to bin it.
Shapps also has a wider interest in rail. His constituency of Welwyn was hit hard by the Thameslink timetable fiasco and in 2018 he was calling for the franchise holder, GTR, to be dropped immediately, claiming that the company was obviously breaching its contract. Welwyn is also notably the site of one of the worst rail bottlenecks in the UK – the Digswell Viaduct. The two-track structure constrains capacity on the East Coast Mainline, and sorting it out would genuinely be a good thing and allow faster and more frequent services. As its local MP Shapps must be as aware of the issue as anyone.
One particularly interesting area to watch out for will be rail devolution, notably to Transport for London. You may remember that TfL occasionally asks the government to let it take over running suburban lines into the capital as part of the London Overground. The idea has been on ice for some years now, apparently because of Chris Grayling’s complete opposition. Shapps, however, is a fan – last year he called for TfL to take over the Great Northern line to Welwyn, his constituency. As Mayor of London, Boris Johnson himself was an advocate. TfL has huge ambitions to run metro rail services around London, and if Shapps gives it the green light it could be a major legacy. If, that is, partisanship and the presence of a Labour mayor in city hall doesn’t get the best of the idea.
Of course, it's entirely possible that none of these past statements and views matter. How much influence the transport secretary has on big strategic decisions like HS2 or Heathrow where the whole cabinet wants to pitch in is debatable. And in 2012 Shapps explicitly argued that his new boss Boris Johnson didn’t have the right “set of skills” to be prime minister: so if he can change his mind on that, the rest of the details should be relatively easy.
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