The government has signalled it could cancel its plan to set up a new public body to manage Britain’s railways, over a year after it was first announced.
Speaking at a parliamentary committee on Wednesday the Transport Secretary said no “final decision” had yet been taken on whether to proceed with establishing Great British Railways (GBR).
GBR was announced by former transport secretary Grant Shapps and the body is supposed to be overseeing mainline rail services across Britain from 2024, with control over timetables, franchising, and fares.
The possible U-turn is a surprise as the government already has hundreds of civil servants working to establishing the transport authority, including a high-profile competition to choose where to locate its HQ.
Asked at a hearing of the transport committee whether it was still his intention to set up GBR, transport secretary Mark Harper said:
“It’s very much my plan to achieve the intention behind that idea, which is to get the railways to have a guiding mind behind them, to have a more integrated position between how the different parts of the industry work.”
But Mr Harper, who was appointed by Rishi Sunak in October, said he wanted to “take some time” to listen to “alternative viewpoints” about how this aim could be achieved.
Asked by MPs whether his answer meant GBR’s future was “up in the air”, he said: “I’m taking some time to just reflect on it and to make sure when we move forward that I’m entirely happy with what we’re doing, and I know there are a range of views in Parliament and I think it’s important that I take some time to listen and bear those in mind before I make any final decisions.”
Mr Harper’s signal that the plan could be scrapped or significantly altered comes after his predecessor last month announced it had been delayed.
Anne-Marie Trevelyan, who was transport secretary under Liz Truss, said in October that the planned transport bill that would legislate to set up GBR would not go ahead in this parliamentary session, though she indicated that the project would still proceed with a six-month delay.
Ms Trevelyan had also told the same committee that while the government had cancelled its main transport bill for this session, it would bring forward a slimmer bill to legislate on issues such as pavement parking, e-scooters, and self-driving cars.
But speaking on Wednesday Mr Harper indicated that legislation on these issues would now also be delayed.
“I think she confirmed to the committee that there wouldn’t be a transport bill,” Mr Harper told MPs.
“The department does obviously have some legislative priorities for the fourth session (after May 2023) and obviously we’ll be setting out our plans for that, but obviously, that depends on parliamentary time being available and those decisions are taken across government.”
Labour MP Ben Bradshaw, who sits on the committee, criticised the decision to delay the legislation.
“On so many of the issues that are in your department’s responsibility from pavement parking – which causes misery for millions of our constituents – to the fact that we are years behind as a country in regulating e-scooters, all of these things that are holding us back,” he said.
“Legislation and regulation on self driving vehicles, we also falling years behind our economic competitors, because your department has failed to do this stuff.”