Am I in the right place?

It is a feature of the Coalition Government that the Liberal Democrats have claimed a share of ministerial posts across government departments. The token Liberal Democrat in the Department for Transport (DfT) is Norman Baker MP, who holds a place on the lowest rung of the ministerial ladder as Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport.

His portfolio is rather diverse and reads rather like the list that nobody else wanted. Well O.K., I’m being rather unfair saying that because it does include some very important topics, such as regional and local transport, including buses, taxes, concessionary fares and light rail and trams. The portfolio also includes some “green” topics, such as walking, cycling, natural environment and traffic management.

The most intriguing subject on Mr Baker’s list is, however, “alternatives to travel”. In an article on the Telegraph website dated 10th July 2010 (here) Mr Baker explained “part of my brief as a transport minister is to sometimes encourage you not to travel”. Split infinitive aside, I think that Mr Baker may be on to something here. According to the Telegraph, Mr Baker believes traditional travel patterns have to change if the Coalition is to create the low-carbon economy it promised and has instructed officials to work out how his ideas can be brought into practice.

Some of the ideas that the Minister and his officials have come up with to reduce pressure on our transport network are working from home or satellite offices for some of the week, being more flexible about working hours, making season tickets less rigid, using internet technology to avoid travelling to business meetings and using discounted ticket prices more intelligently to manage travel times.

The DfT has also published Alternatives to Travel: a Call for Evidence (available here), which is basically a survey in order to assist with the development of a longer term alternatives to travel strategy; it runs from 6th April until 29th May 2011. The reasoning behind this step is explained in the guidance document published by the DfT in the following words:

With this Call for Evidence, we are seeking contributions from a wide range of businesses, sectors, organisations and individuals, which document experiences and impacts of, and the future potential for, using alternatives to travel. In addition, we are interested to hear from those not currently making use of such alternatives about the reasons behind this.

The Call for Evidence will inform the development of a longer term strategy on alternatives to travel. And this in turn will ensure that alongside improved local sustainable travel choices, alternatives to travel can play a key role in creating economic growth and cutting carbon.

In Mr Baker’s words, as quoted by the Telegraph: “Twenty-first century transport choices should fit a twenty-first century world where we shouldn’t just use smart cards to travel, we should be smarter about when we travel and when we use office technology for virtual travel instead.”

The much missed, at least by me, Sustainable Development Commission has also made a contribution to this debate. Its report Smarter Moves: How Information Communications Technology can promote Sustainable Mobility (available here) has some valuable advice for the Government on how to bring about the reductions in travelling that Mr Baker is seeking.

I can’t help thinking however that the question at the head of this blog must cross Norman Baker’s mind every time that he steps over the threshold of the edifice in Marsham Street that is home to the DfT. The plate by the door says Department forTransport and that is clearly the case. After all his boss, the Transport Secretary, is enthusiastically supporting the HS2 proposal, which has a business plan that requires a very substantial increase in travelling punters in order for it to make any sense. As well as predicting a substantial and prolonged growth in passengers, the HS2 business plan also postulates that twenty-two percent of journeys on HS2 will be ones that would not have been undertaken if the HS2 service were not available (the source of this figure is given in my blog of 7 Apr). The Transport Secretary has helpfully explained that many of these “extra” journeys will be the result of long-distance commuting, made feasible by the shorter journey times offered by HS2. Oh dear Mr Baker, he does seem to be rather pulling the rug away from under your feet.

So what are we to make of this absurd situation? My take on this is that Norman Baker is there to make us think of the DfT as an environmentally aware department of the “greenest government ever” (David Cameron 14th May 2010). However beneath this façade nothing has really changed. The DfT is still intent on pushing unsustainable projects like HS2 that do not fit well with Mr Baker’s vision of a “twenty-first century world”.

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