WHEN it comes to moving quickly, the Department for Transport (DfT) knows how to do it. The only problem is that it is transport ministers who move rather than fed-up motorists on the congested A1 Western Bypass.
An analysis by The Journal has revealed that 26 transport ministers, including five Secretaries of State, have passed through the DfT’s revolving door since Labour came to power in 1997.
Campaigners and MPs say ministers simply do not have enough time to get to grips with portfolios, casting the key issue of improving the transport network adrift in shake-up after shake-up.
Current Transport Secretary Ruth Kelly only took the hot seat last June when Gordon Brown became Prime Minister, following on from Douglas Alexander who himself only served in the post from May 2006.
And the transport portfolio has been subject to more than its fair share of Whitehall overhauls and political headaches in the past 11 years, accompanied by a confusing array of departmental names that could only have been dreamt up in Westminster.
John Prescott’s “super-ministry” of the Department for Environment, Transport and the Regions (DETR) was created in 1997.
But it was replaced by the Department of Transport, Local Government and Regions (DTLR) in 2001 before a dedicated Department for Transport (DfT) was established the following year.
Tyne Bridge MP David Clelland, a member of the Commons Transport Committee, said: “If the Secretary of State is not in position for a reasonable time, it doesn’t give them time to get used to their briefs.”
Stephen Joseph, who heads the Campaign for Better Transport group, said the rapid transfer of ministers was a problem because it changed transport policy when there was a lack of an underlying strategy.
“If you had that, it wouldn’t matter if you had a revolving door for Transport Secretaries,” said Mr Joseph.
North-East Minister Nick Brown pointed to a wider issue of ministers not having long enough in posts, saying: “The average length of service in any one post for any one minister is 18 months and it really isn’t long enough.”
Conservative transport spokesman Stephen Hammond warned of the need for “continuity” of policy both in Government and opposition, warning of a damaging “not in my time” view amongst politicians.
“We need to put transport up with health and education as the biggest issues that affect us. Transport is quality of life and our economic infrastructure,” said Mr Hammond.
Calling for stability, Peter Lawrence, president of the Railfuture campaign group, said: “We never expect to see a Transport Secretary for never more than two years. But by the time you get any relationship going with the Transport Secretary on campaign issues, they are moved on so you have to start again.”
Dermot Finch, director of the influential Centre for Cities think-tank, said that the fast turnover of ministers was not only a problem for the DfT but for other departments across Whitehall.
He pointed to a succession of Trade Secretaries, most recently with the present Chancellor Alistair Darling being replaced last year by John Hutton at the head of a new Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform.
And junior ministers are also shunted around, not least following the reshuffle forced on Gordon Brown by the resignation last month of Peter Hain as Work and Pensions Secretary over a donations row.
Mr Finch said there was a view that ministerial changes happened too much and that the “annual ritual” of the Cabinet reshuffle was not helpful, but warned the British political system appeared to like regular overhauls.
He added Gordon Brown intended to keep Secretaries of State in post if he could, including Ruth Kelly.
But it remains to be seen whether another shake-up won’t be just around the corner soon given Whitehall’s track record.