John Prescott's integrated transport policy, trumpeted in July's widely welcomed White Paper, took a step forward this week when Price Waterhouse Coopers advertised for candidates to form the Commission for Integrated Transport. CfIT will be an independent advisory public body, to 'take the transport debate forward and continue to build consensus'. It will keep government in touch with how its new transport policy is getting on, and check that the results help health, education, wealth creation and build a fairer more inclusive society.
Nobody can argue that CfIT's aims are other than good.
The new commission chairman will be part-time, working three to four days a week and picking up 25,000 a year; the deputy will get 15,000 for devoting the same time, and 13 other members will get 5,000 for their trouble - two days a month. 'The new body is not going to be a talking shop,' according to the advertisement, yet details of the appointments warn than 10 one-day plenary sessions will be held each year, mostly in London. I wonder what they will do if not talk.
Generous spirits would say that the government is trying to get the job done on the cheap. Certainly, I know several commissioners on other public bodies like the Environment Agency and hospital trusts, who work far longer hours than most full-time jobs, and bring a wealth of experience which is positively beneficial to the supervisory or monitoring role required. Governments of all persuasions need a steady stream of appointments for patronage purposes, whether to serve as directors before and after privatisation, special advisers working towards their gongs, or commissioners and trustees collecting thin pay-packets.
Recruiting in this way for CfIT is to invite semi-retired worthies or people with time on their hands. Interviews will have ensured that they have retained enthusiasm and appetite for work. But if they do not conform politically, they will not get on. They are likely to be highly conscious of respect to their sponsor.
Integrated transport deserves more than part-timers. It needs a band of young Turks, not frightened of jumping on toes or overturning convention. They need to be led by a champion, someone who can be trusted with almost dictatorial powers. The prizes to be won are worth taking risks for.
Ken Livingstone says London's first Mayor must make an early impact. The same goes for integration. It must be seen to pay if it is to retain public support. This country's chaotic transport arrangements have formed largely at random and been fuelled by competition. The deterioration of public transport has been tolerated because most of us are selfish about our own travel.
Heads will need to be banged together to reconcile conflicting interests. Money will need to be spent. The champion will need to be backed by skilled teams capable of formulating improvements, identifying solutions and implementing them.
With a new name and new blood, the Highways Agency could adapt to the required role. Tenders should be invited from multi-disciplined consultancies with an open brief: tell us what you can achieve for 10M a year, backed by further funds of up to 500M a year for financing changes. Award two or three contracts - say England, Scotland and Wales - each for a three year term. Then appoint an independent commissioner to monitor progress, with the power to extend the contracts for good performance.
CfIT's prime objective is 'to help make integrated transport a reality', but the DETR seems set to create a shadow of what is required from a recipe for obfuscation.