Tough choices for new Transport Secretary Patrick McGoughlin as Heathrow expansion decision looms


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Indy Politics

New Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin will be handling political hot potatoes in his new brief.

Returning to a department where he was a junior minister 20 years ago, Mr McLoughlin, 54, will have to wrestle with the Heathrow expansion issue.

He will also have to face down strong opposition to the Government's £32 billion London to Birmingham HS2 high-speed rail scheme, which will see new tracks pass through picturesque Tory heartlands.

Mr McLoughlin, a transport minister from 1989 to 1992, will inherit from his predecessor Justine Greening a controversial West Coast main line rail franchise decision which has prompted the defeated bidder Sir Richard Branson to take legal action.

Ms Greening, 43, MP for Putney in south west London, was Transport Secretary for less than 11 months and consistently opposed an extra, third, runway at Heathrow in west London.

A third runway had been ruled out when the coalition Government took power in May 2010 but there has been acknowledgment of the need for more airport capacity in south east England.

With a succession of leading Tories now openly advocating a third runway at Heathrow, there was constant speculation about Ms Greening's position.

Now she has gone, and Mr McLoughlin will oversee the publication soon of a consultation document about future airport needs.

The consultation will set out all the options, including London mayor Boris Johnson's plan for a “Boris island” new airport in the Thames Estuary.

Today, Mr Johnson hit out at the removal of Ms Greening, saying it meant the Government was intent on the “simply mad” policy of a new runway at Heathrow, and vowed to fight any such expansion “all the way”.

On HS2, where the £32 billion price tag includes a later Y-shaped extension to north east and north west England, Mr McLoughlin will have to make the economic case for the line at a time of economic constraint and in the face of opposition from many Tory voters who live close to the proposed route.

The new Transport Secretary will be under pressure to try to limit next January's planned 6.2per cent average rise in regulated rail fares, which include season tickets.

Ms Greening was instrumental in getting last January's fare rise reduced from RPI inflation plus 3per cent to RPI plus 1per cent.

But the RPI plus 3per cent formula is in effect for the January 2013 increase, with Ms Greening saying recently that she would try to persuade the Treasury to limit the rise again.

On roads, a feasibility study about investment is due out soon.

Campaign for Better Transport chief executive Stephen Joseph said: “Patrick McLoughlin inherits the brief at a critical time. Potentially contentious decisions on rail fares, franchising, runways and roads are all in the offing.

”Justine Greening understood that transport has implications for people far beyond Treasury targets. We hope the new Transport Secretary acts as a champion for a sustainable transportsystem that works for communities across the country.“

Mike Carrivick, chief executive of BAR UK which represents more than 80 airlines, said: ”The UK's economy has been hampered by the total lack of policy clarity for hub airport capacity, embracing global connectivity to existing and new markets, and the infrastructure to support it. The challenge facing Mr McLoughlin is to provide that missing clarity.“

John Sauven, Executive Director of Greenpeace, said: ”The appointment of Patrick McLaughlin to Transport Secretary, and Owen Paterson to Environment Secretary offers them the opportunity to stand up against the disastrous and polluting direction of travel that has been set recently by the Chancellor George Osborne.

“Owen Paterson must resist the temptation to become the minister for gas fracking, bulldozing the greenbelt and deregulation, and instead become the champion for rural Britain, as a minister who protects our countryside and wildlife.

”Patrick McLaughlin must stick to his word and follow his voting record in opposing a third runway at Heathrow.“

AA president Edmund King said it was ”a great shame“ Ms Greening had been ”pushed through the revolving doors of the Department for Transport“.

He said there had been six transport secretaries in the past five years alone.

He went on: ”The problem with ever-changing Transport Secretaries is that transport is about long-term planning. You cannot change things overnight.“

Bob Crow, general secretary of the RMT transport union, promised Mr McLoughlin that his union would mount ”an all-out political and industrial fight to stop railway job losses, fare increases, ticket office closures and profiteering“.

Friends of the Earth's executive director Andy Atkins said: ”Justine Greening is a victim of intense aviation lobbying over airport expansion - and an economic argument that simply doesn't add up.

“She's been shunted out of her transport job because of her opposition to a third runway at Heathrow.”