The 2015 parliamentary campaign in the Guildford constituency is already well under way. Almost every day there is some sort of local Labour Party event. Yesterday I took time out to visit Westminster and attend the Labour Southern Group of MPs. Its chairman, Ben Bradshaw, invited Prospective Parliamentary Candidates (PPCs) from the South East, South West and Eastern regions to attend.
The guest speaker at the meeting was Mary Creagh MP, Labour’s Shadow Transport Secretary.
This was brilliant news because transport issues are so important in Guildford and Surrey generally, as well as in the South East. Also, I’m particularly interested because I have worked in the transport industry for the last 14 years as an airline pilot.
The Department of Transport (DfT) has an annual budget of around £13 billion, spread over a huge range of activities and including many executive agencies like the Highways Agency. Mary was completely on top of all the detail for every part of the brief. It was great to listen to how each part of the transport portfolio meshes with the others and joins up with key policies in other departments, such as housing and the environment.
What really struck me was how positive Labour’s positions on transport are. There is great scope to improve how the transport budget is spent and sustainable transportation, planned properly, could have a massive benefit to a huge number of people.
I had travelled to Westminster by train and tube after parking my car at the station car park. The preceding five days saw me fly 14 flights in and out of Heathrow, spending nights in Munich, Zurich and Newcastle. I hadn’t used boat transport recently, but I felt I understood some of the challenges we were discussing anyway!
In Guildford, we have been campaigning for a cap in the rise of rail fares. This petition has received a great response from local commuters. A big part of the discussion with Mary was “How do we get a better rail network for commuters?”. This is rightly a priority because commuters have been ripped off since 2010 and the service is inadequate. We need a “3rd way on the railways” I think. The private Train Operating Companies seem concerned only with short term profits. I was interested to hear about how they neglect the recruitment and training of new drivers. A high proportion of drivers were trained (very thoroughly) by British Rail. Where will the next generation of skilled drivers come from if the TOCs don’t take responsibility for this?
Bus deregulation has failed many communities including in Surrey. Mary spoke about how communities will have greater say in how their bus services are re-regulated. The centre of Guildford gets gridlocked frequently and only proper local transport planning can alleviate this. Sadly, for residents and businesses, Surrey County Council is not up to the task. I agree that national government should have “last resort” powers to intervene. We saw during the Christmas floods that poor transport planning and traffic gridlock actually endangered lives and property because emergency supplies could not be moved by road around Guildford.
I asked Mary about runway capacity in the South East. Many constituents depend on Heathrow or Gatwick directly or indirectly and those of us who work there are very proud of the contribution we make to the economy of the whole country and continent. David Cameron has been incredibly weak by instructing the Davies Commission not to report its findings until after the 2015 election. Hopefully there will be some progress, such as ruling out Boris Island, before then.
While HS2 has not come up on the doorsteps of Guildford yet, it is a critical issue elsewhere. Instinctively I’m in favour but we need to ensure public money is well-spent too. This is an example of the interconnectedness of transport policy. Rail connections to northern cities are vital to mitigate the overcrowding and housing problems in London and the South East. Without HS2 I don’t see a solution.
We covered so many other issues in a fast-moving stimulating discussion: cycling, transport access to hospitals, home to school transport, bio fuels in aviation, concessionary bus fares for young people to go to college, level crossings, ports and freight transport.
The key message I took was that transport policy needs to be taken by the scruff of the neck, not left to wander wherever the market takes it. It is really pleasing that Mary Creagh is so enthusiastic about what could be achieved and so positive about how we will do it after 2015.