Question Time

This is a guest post by Peter Delow: he blogs at HS2 and the Environment.

For a newly-appointed or reshuffled minister the task of rapidly assimilating all of the information necessary to function in the new role must be somewhat daunting. So Justine Greening, the new Secretary of State for Transport, would not have been too pleased to find that one of the appointments in her diary for her first week in post, inherited from her predecessor, was a session giving oral evidence to the House of Commons Transport Select Committee (TSC).

As it was the whole event went off fairly smoothly. The members of the TSC were very friendly and tolerant of answers where the Secretary of State did not have full command of the facts. The presence beside her of the Permanent Secretary of the Department for Transport, Lin Homer, must have been reassuring, although for the most part Ms Greening did not appear to seek prompts from her; perhaps they had already developed a telepathic bond. In all Ms Greening’s performance was impressive, indicating that she had already gained a good command of her brief, and she appeared to avoid painting herself into any corners or making rash statements. The transcript of the session may be found here (http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201012/cmselect/cmtran/uc1560-i/uc156001.htm).

I’m sure that I wasn’t the only person listening carefully to what Ms Greening was saying, in order to get some flavour of what kind of Transport Secretary she will turn out to be. My already attentive ears pricked up when I heard TSC member Graham Stringer, MP for the Manchester constituency Blackley and Broughton, ask her:

“You mentioned in your introduction that you were looking at green policies. We are all in favour of sustainable transport. Can you give the Committee your definition of ‘sustainable’?”

On the face of it this seems a straightforward and simple question, but it is really a very testing one. Politicians often use the word, since it has reassuringly “green government” connotations, but it is often obvious that they either do not understand the concept of sustainability in this context or prefer to misuse the word to satisfy their political agenda. This casual use of the word “sustainable” is facilitated by the general definition in the Oxford Dictionary, which is “able to be maintained at a certain rate or level”. However, there is also a more specific definition in that tome, which is the meaning applicable in the green government context; this definition is “conserving an ecological balance by avoiding depletion of natural resources”. This is not so different from the definition by the United Nations that I quoted in my blog The impossible dream (http://hs2andtheenvironment.wordpress.com/2011/03/14/the-impossible-dream).

For an example of using the word “sustainable” with its more general meaning, a speech was made by Ms Greening’s predecessor, Philip Hammond, to the National Rail Conference in July 2011. In the published text of this speech (available at http://www.dft.gov.uk/news/speeches/hammond-20110628) the words “sustainable” or “sustainability” appear a total of seven times. However, the speech was delivered in the wake of the McNulty Report and it is clear that Mr Hammond’s subject is not the environmental impact of the railways, but driving down costs and subsidies; when he says “sustainable” what he really means is “affordable”.

I suppose that we shouldn’t be too surprised by Philip Hammond’s (mis)use of the sustainability concept, he hardly qualifies for the accolade of an environmental champion even if he is a minister in the “greenest government ever”. However, let’s get back to his successor and her response to Graham Stringer’s question. The first sentence of her answer was:

“It means that transport is playing its role in ensuring that for us as a nation we meet our climate change targets.”

She then went on to list ways that the Government is seeking to move in this direction. Now this was a promising start. At least Ms Greening is associating “sustainable” with an environmental issue. However she still needs to do more work on understanding the sustainability appraisal process. There are eighteen “key sustainability issues” identified in the HS2 Appraisal of Sustainability of which “greenhouse gases” is just one (refer to my blog Scoring an own goal at http://hs2andtheenvironment.wordpress.com/2011/09/22/scoring-an-own-goal).

To be fair to Ms Greening, she did seem to indicate, when answering a question about “sustainable aviation” from Paul Maynard (MP for Blackpool North and Cleveleys), that she recognised that there was more to sustainability than reducing carbon emissions. She said:

“Whether you are talking about noise, carbon emissions or the broader environmental impact in terms of air pollution, aviation, like any other sector, has to be approached in a sustainable way. When you look at the low-carbon agenda, there is an obvious and particular imperative about delivering on it, but, more broadly, for me as an MP the general aspect of quality of life is incredibly important. That is where transport needs to play a role, ideally, in helping to enhance it.”

I think that Ms Greening may have been thinking here about her own campaigning on behalf of her constituents in Putney, Roehampton and Southfields seeking to reduce noise from Heathrow and opposing plans for a third runway. However, I’m not sure if she would be able to make the claim that HS2 was “helping to enhance” the “quality of life” of those on the route.

If you are interested in the environmental issues about HS2, please check out Peter’s blog at HS2 and the Environment.

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