TRANSPORT GROUPS have reacted with dismay to New Labour's third ministerial transport team reshuffle since May 1997.
Lord MacDonald replaces Helen Liddell as Minister of State for Transport, while Keith Hill takes over from Glenda Jackson as the portfolio's junior minister. Across England, Scotland and Wales 15 different MPs and Peers have now held jobs as transport ministers since the Government came to power.
ICE president Roger Sainsbury said: 'There is a worrying mismatch between the Government's avowed commitment to introduce an integrated transport strategy and the constant reshuffling of the ministerial team.'
British Roads Federation director Richard Diment was concerned that the new ministerial team's lack of experience might delay the introduction of the promised integrated transport legislation. 'Unless we get consistency, nothing is going to happen,' he said.
Transport 2000 spokesman Steve Hounsham agreed: 'The Government is saying all the right things, but there is a great need for action and rapid changes in the ministerial line up don't help.'
AA policy director John Dawson said: 'There is a huge underestimate of the scale of the executive task needed to implement the integrated transport policy. Someone has got to get a grip. We've had a series of good ministers - trouble is they haven't lasted.'
Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott's ministerial team has been in constant flux since he took over the transport brief.
Gavin Strang was a surprise choice as his number two at the Department of Environment, Transport & the Regions following Labour's election victory. He was sacked after 14 months. John Reid looked a much better long term bet as Minister of State, but was moved to head up the post-devolution Scottish Office after 11 months. The 'ruthless' Helen Liddell then seemed just the sort to get transport policy moving. She has now gone to the Department of Trade & Industry after just three months.
MacDonald has impeccable New Labour credentials (see box) and his promotion is being widely interpreted as a move to improve presentation of the integrated transport policy. Observers say he will make a particularly strong effort to 'correct' the perception that Labour is 'anti-car' - bringing potential conflict with Prescott.
At junior ministerial level things have been no more settled. Glenda Jackson this week quit the London transport portfolio, held since the election, to stand as a candidate for the capital's new mayor. Baroness Hayman lasted less time in Transport, serving as Government spokesman in the House of Lords for only 14 months before moving to Health. She was replaced by Lord Whitty.
In Scotland the transport brief was held by Malcolm Chisholm, Henry McLeish and Callum MacDonald in the run up to devolution. It is now the responsibility of the Scottish Parliament, with Sarah Boyack MSP holding the portfolio. In Wales, devolution saw the transport baton pass from Welsh Office minister Peter Hain to Welsh Assembly cabinet member Peter Law.
RAC spokesman Ed King commented: 'When Prescott was put in charge of transport I said we would finally get some consistency after years of constant change under the Tories - I'm afraid I'll have to eat my words.'
King also expressed concern that transport was becoming 'a political football' with the Opposition targeting the subject as the Government's weak spot.
The Conservatives this week followed up their 'Motorists charter' (NCE 15 July), with a 'Summer standstill watch'. Opposition transport spokesman John Redwood said he would chronicle stories of commuters stuck in trains and traffic jams.
Prescott is also feeling the heat. Following Commission for Integrated Transport chairman David Begg's attack on Government commitment to the issue (NCE last week), the House of Commons transport select committee last week published a critical end of term report on Prescott's DETR.