When Highways met the minister

13/11/2018
Dominic Browne

When he arrived at the ministry, Department for Transport (DfT’s) officials said they were impressed with Jesse Norman's sense of purpose in tackling the brief and its many potholes.

This week he received a promotion to minister of state after just 16 months in the department, following the resignation of Jo Johnson.

Mr Norman certainly came to the department with a new perspective if his CV is anything to go. It includes working as a director at Barclays and on a ‘charitable project in communist Eastern Europe’.

He also researched and taught philosophy at University College London and has written a book about Adam Smith.

The recent Budget announcement showed the DfT's political team is advancing a strong argument with the Treasury over the need for roads funding. Perhaps the influence of Mr Norman - tipped as a rising star in the Conservative party - has had an impact, on top of secretary of state Chris Grayling's of course, a close ally of the prime minister's.

At a recent industry event, Mr Norman suggested he had not lost any of his energy and was understandably proud of the Budget success his department had secured.

‘We are making real progress. The Budget was a real indicator of the level of support and commitment that this government is making in helping [this sector] create the road network this country deserves. In many ways it was a monumental budget for road transport – the biggest investment programme for a generation.’

He described his brief as ‘a lot of fun and a lot of work’, and stated he was ‘focused on transforming the way we think about roads’.

He added his ‘biggest challenge’ was changing society’s mind-set about roads and called for a new ‘ecology of the road’ that could help them be seen ‘as green arteries of technology’.

This is a project the industry and the department has come alive to in recent years, dating back to least 2015 and then minister John Hayes’ speech ‘beautiful roads’ – any speech that references Nietzsche, Edmund Burke and the Boston Manor viaduct is worthy of note.

With Jesse Norman the department has a fresh face and bright mind to drive this agenda forward. Highways had the chance to talk with Mr Norman at a recent industry event, where he was on bold form, buoyed no doubt by the Budget success. He towered over the crowd gathering around him when he came off stage, shaking hands with Jim O'Sullivan, the first to speak to him, and confirming a meeting with an aide. 'We have Jim booked in for next week don't we?'

Even to a journalist he appeared remarkably friendly, introducing himself as 'Jesse', and eager to talk, time allowing.

In the Budget the chancellor said we would get no more PFIs, which was originally slated to finance Stonehenge the Lower Thames crossing. How will we pay for these schemes without private finance?

The chancellor said he was ending PFI he did not say he was ending private finance. The question now is what is a sensible basis on which private finance can or should be deployed in road schemes and I think the government is perfectly clear whatever the changes that are going to be made as a result of his announcement, they are not going to effect the deliverability of schemes we have in process.

Much of our supply chain and workforce does come from Europe, how are we going to make up that shortfall come Brexit day?

We are very confident there is going to be a deal and it is going to involve not just fluid movement of freight but also sensible arrangements that will allow the industry to continue to flourish.

Will there be special arrangements for highways?

This is a Home Office matter I can’t comment on that and I am not privy to that. But it is certainly true that we are focussed on making sure all sections of industry continue flourish after it. And as you see the UK economy despite many of the gloomy predictions continues to grow and actually rather fast for this point in the economic cycle.

Do you think there is a danger of induced demand in some of the schemes we are putting through at the moment?

Let's be clear when we say induced demand what you mean is, people using them.

More people than might have otherwise.

Right but listen we want people to move effectively, smoothly and efficiently around and I said it is very important to make sure transport is properly integrated both across different modes and with new developments to ensure that flow is smooth. Some of those concerns people have about induced demand are reflective of schemes where that hasn’t always been the case in the past.

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