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Special report: You simply couldn't make it up, Minister

ANYONE who thinks the political shenanigans at the former Department of Transport, Local Government and the Regions is a recent phenomenon should think again.

The resignation of Stephen Byers and the splitting up of the super-ministry following severe set-backs to the Government's 10-year plan to introduce an integrated transport strategy may have made May's headlines.

But as long ago as the early 1980s the intractability of the transport portfolio was being satirised by the brilliant political sitcom Yes Minister. Transport may have been largely nationalised and industries unionised in those days, but the problems were very similar to today.

The extract below, from the episode 'The Bed of Nails' is from a series broadcast in 1982. The talk even then was of under-investment in transport infrastructure, lack of joined-up thinking and integration between modes of transport, and the vote-losing capabilities of a ministerial job labelled Transport Supremo – or Transport Muggins by civil servants.

It should prove an interesting read for new Transport Minister Alistair Darling, and a bitter-sweet read for motorists stuck in jams the length and breadth of Britain. It might also lead Stephen Byers to nod his head ruefully.

From the diary of Sir Arnold Robinson, Cabinet Secretary, 10 Downing Street

April 11

Lunched with Sir Mark Spencer (Prime Minister's chief special adviser) today. He and the PM are keen to bring in an integrated transport policy.

I suggested that Jim Hacker could be the best man for the job, as he doesn't know anything at all about the subject.

The Secretary of State for Transport, who knows a lot about it, won't touch it with a 10-foot barge pole. This job was indeed a bed of nails, a crown of thorns, a booby trap - which is why I suggested Hacker, of course

He is ideally qualified, because the job needs a particular talent — lots of activity, but no actual achievement.

From the diary of Jim Hacker, Minister for Administrative Affairs

April 11

Summoned to meet Mark Spencer at Number Ten… and met Arnold Robinson, Cabinet Secretary.

They asked me for my views on transport. I had none, but I don't think they realised because I carefully invited them to explain themselves further.

'We've been discussing a national integrated transport policy,' they said.

'Unfortunately, public dissatisfaction with the nationalised transport industries is now at a high enough level to worry the Government, as you know. We need a policy. It is not good just blaming the management when there's an R in the month and blaming the unions the rest of the time.'

Sir Arnold, the Cabinet Secretary, chipped in. 'And unfortunately now they've all got together. They all say that it's all the Government's fault – everything that goes wrong is the result of not having a national transport policy.'

'So,' said Sir Mark, 'the PM has decided to appoint a Supremo to develop and implement a national transport policy.'

During the conversation it gradually became clear what they had in mind. All kinds of idiocies have occurred in the past, due to a lack of a natural integrated policy. Roughly summarising now, Sir Mark and Sir Arnold were concerned about:

1. Motorway Planning: Our motorways were planned without reference to railways, so that now there are great stretches of motorway running alongside already existing railways. As a result, some parts of the country are not properly served at all.

2. The through-ticket problem: If, for instance, you want to commute from Henley to the City, you have to buy a British Rail ticket to Paddington and then buy an underground ticket to the Bank.

3. Timetables: The complete absence of combined bus and railway timetables.

4. Airport Links: Very few. For instance, there's a British Rail Western Region line that runs less than a mile north of Heathrow – but no link line.

5. Connections: Bus and train services don't connect up, all over London.

They added that there are probably problems outside London too, although understandably they didn't know about them.

Hacker's diary August 12th

At an early morning meeting with Sir Humphrey Appleton , I told him I had good news. 'I've got a new job.' I began.

An extra job, developing and implementing an integrated national transport policy. At the special request of the PM. My Permanent Secretary did not seem pleased. In fact, he seemed to flinch.

'I see,' he replied. 'And what was the good news?'
I thought he must have misheard, so I told him again.
'So how,' he enquired dryly, 'if I may be so bold as to enquire, would you define bad news? Are you aware what this job would mean if you accepted it?'
'I have accepted it.'
His mouth dropped open. 'You've what?' he gasped.
'I have accepted it.' I went on to explain that it is an honour, and also that we need a transport policy.
'If by “we” you mean Britain, that's perfectly true,' he acknowledged. 'But if by “we” you mean you and me and this Department, we need a transport policy like an aperture in the cranial cavity.'

He went on to describe the job as a bed of nails, a crown of thorns and a booby trap.

'The reason that there has never been an integrated transport policy is that such a policy is in everybody's interest except the Minister who creates it. It is the ultimate vote-loser. Minister, this hideous appointment has been hurtling round Whitehall for the last three weeks like a grenade with the pin taken out.'

'In the meantime,' he continued, 'formulating policy means making choices. Once you make a choice you please the people you favour but you infuriate everyone else. This is liable to end up as one vote gained, ten lost. If you give a job to the road services, the Rail Board and unions will scream. If you give it to the railways, the road lobby will massacre you. If you cut British Airways' investment plans they'll hold a devastating press conference the same afternoon. And you can't expand, because an overall saving is the Treasury's fundamental requirement.'

Hacker's diary August 17th

We have had the most extraordinary meeting today, the one that Sir Humphrey had promised to arrange with the Under-Secretaries from the Department of Transport.

I can't remember all their names, but each one was from a different division – one from Air, one from Road and one from Rail. It was extraordinarily acrimonious. The one thing that they were all agreed on was that, somehow, my proposals were deeply misguided.

The man from Road Transport, Graham something or other, suggested that it should be government policy to designate road haulage as its own principal means of freight transport. He was promptly interrupted by Richard somebody with a rather irritable thin tired-looking creased face – not surprising when you consider he's been trying to modernise the railways and battle with BR, the NUR and ASLEF for most of his career.

'With the greatest possible respect, Minister, I think that such a policy would be, not to put too fine a point on it, unacceptably short-sighted. It is rail transport that must surely be the favoured carrier under any sane national policy.'

Piers, a smooth fellow from Air, interrupted so fast that he scarcely gave himself time to utter his usual courteous but meaningless preamble. 'If-I-might-crave-your-indulgence-for-a-moment-Minister, I have to say that both those proposals are formulae for disaster. Long-term considerations absolutely mandate the expansion of air freight to meeting rising demand.'

Graham (Roads) put down his pencil, with a sharp click as it hit my mahogany reproduction conference table. 'Of course,' he snapped, 'if the Minister is prepared for a massive budget increase…'

'If the Minister will accept a long and unbelievably bitter rail strike…' interrupted Richard (Rail).

And Piers butted in: 'If the public can tolerate a massive rise in public discontent…'

'Hold, on, hold on,' I said. 'We're the government, aren't we? We're all on the same side, aren't we?'

Piers put up his hand. I nodded at him. He said: 'I hardly think the end of the national air freight business is best for Britain?'

'I find it hard to see how Britain is saved by the destruction of the railway,' Richard remarked bitterly.

And Graham, not to be outdone, added with heavy sarcasm that it was not immediately apparent to him how Britain would benefit from a rapid deterioration of the road network.

Hacker's diary, August 23rd

(Attempting to extricate himself from the Transport Supremo mantle, Hacker and Appleton devise a two-pronged plan, firstly to make their proposals politically unpalatable by suggesting a bus depot on the site of a park (next to a railway station) in the Prime Minister's constituency, and secondly to advance high cost solutions to the transport problems.)

I was somewhat downcast, as I still appeared to be landed with this ghastly job. To my surprise Humphrey was in good spirits.

'It's all going excellently, Minister,' he explained. 'We shall now produce the other kind of non-proposal.'

I asked him what he had in mind.

'The high-cost high-staff kind of proposal. We now suggest a British National Transport Authority, with a full structure of Regional Boards, Area Councils, local offices, liaison committees – the lot. 80,000 staff, and a £1bn a year budget.'

'The Treasury will have a fit,' I said.

'Precisely. And the whole matter will certainly be handed back to the Department of Transport.'

  • 'The Complete Yes Minister' by Jonathan Lynn and Antony Jay is published by BBC Books, priced £8.99, ISBN 0-563-20665-9

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