The resignation of Liam Fox led to a cabinet reshuffle last night which had the result of removing Philip Hammond from the post of transport secretary. He accepted the more high-profile position of defence secretary.
On Twitter and Facebook and on blogs, active travel campaigners cheered the departure of Hammond, an ultra pro-car transport secretary in the already massively pro-car Department for Transport.
Bizarrely, when he was appointed as transport secretary soon after the formation of the Coalition Government, Hammond said he was "ending the war on the motorist."
He abolished Cycling England and his last move as transport secretary was to start the ball rolling to increase the speed limit on motorways in England and Wales, a move that transport experts said would lead to more road deaths, more carbon emissions and hardly any time savings.
His replacement is Justine Greening, formerly a lowly Treasury minister (she was number five in the Treasury team). PM David Cameron couldn’t replace Hammond with a LibDem (cycling, walking and local transport minister Norman Baker has zero chance of promotion at the DfT) and had to find a hardline Tory to keep the balance of his cabinet. Theresa Villiers was the shadow transport secretary, knows her brief really well and, by rights, should have been the transport secretary after the formation of the Government. She was demoted by Cameron, with Hammond taking her place.
With Greening’s appointment Villiers is again overlooked for a Cabinet position but, as transport expert Christian Wolmar said on Twitter last night, "Cameron doesn’t rate [Villiers]."
Villiers is sympathetic to public transport, walking and cycling. Greening is known to have campaigned for better Tube facilities in her Putney constituency and, in 2005, the year of her first election to Parliament, she turned up to a picnic of the Wandsworth Cycling Campaign on a Brompton [pic above by Simon Merrett].
Greening has worked as an accountant at Price Waterhouse, pharmaceuticals giant GlaxoSmithKline and gas company Centrica. AA president Edmund King said she had also worked at the AA, although this is not on her online CV.
Her time at GlaxoSmithKline might have influenced her views on active commuting and workplace parking. GSK is one of the UK’s most proactive cycle to work companies and understands less car travel doesn’t just equal healthier, more productive employees it leads to massive cash savings, too. The company has found that each cyclist, not requiring a car parking space, saves the company £9,900.
Greening was born in Rotherham, South Yorkshire, where she attended a comprehensive school. She is one of the few cabinet members not to have been privately educated.
Chris Hill, who runs the CityCyclingEdinburgh.info forum, said: "I hope the new minister will make a difference but she’s already talking about using transport as a way to get ‘economic growth’.
"I suspect this is part of Governments’ mindset problems. People who walk and cycle are likely to spend less on petrol and car repairs – so GDP goes down!
"In Scotland, the Government is planning to spend less, including cutting money for more Sustrans routes. This is in spite of the fact that the finance minister is a leisure cyclist and talks about ‘preventative spending’.
"Cycle campaigners keep hoping that governments will ‘get it’ – like most countries in mainland Europe. But it’s still just that, a hope."
Mike Cavenett of the London Cycling Campaign said: "We welcome any cabinet changes that help put cycling and walking at the heart of transport policy."
Katja Leyendecker of Newcycling, the Newcastle Cycling Campaign, said:
"Recently the Newcastle Cycling Campaign received very disappointing replies from road safety minister Mike Penning.
"We hope that his new boss can bring about a more coherent and holistic view on road safety.
"For road safety to be successful for society, modal shift must be taken into account as well. The current approach to road safety is counter-productive: it scares people into their cars, and seems to make people entirely dependent on their cars.
"The challenge of transport in the future does not lie in perpetual road building to serve private car journeys. The challenge now is local, and is in making active travel possible for everyone. Only cross-departmental working will bring this about and we look to our new minister to inspire a people-friendly active transport future.
Jim Davis, chair of the recently formed Cycling Embassy of Great Britain, welcomed Greening’s appointment:
"We sincerely look forward to supporting and working with her and other cycling organisations to get the bicycle accepted as a serious mode of transport for all ages with all the benefits to society that it brings.
"We urge her to go for a bicycle ride over Blackfriars Bridge and around Kings Cross to realise the massive challenges she faces just beyond Westminster and repeated across the country."
Greening’s appointment has also been applauded by Richard Hebditch, campaigns director for the Campaign for Better Transport.
He said: "Justine Greening is very welcome as Transport Secretary…She faces several challenges – we’d like her to revisit the planned increases in rail fares and cuts in bus funding, and to resist siren calls for renewed road building from parts of Government and from some local authorities.
"But one of her first challenges is over which local transport schemes get funding from national government – will she invest in public transport, or spend yet more on road schemes that lock us into dependency on foreign oil imports and add to carbon emissions."
Despite public sector job losses and massive spending cuts, it’s not quite true "we’re all in this together": new road building is still being funded. £897m is to be spent on road schemes, many of which are wasteful of public cash, damaging to sensitive environments and of questionable economic benefit, say campaigners.
The position of secretary of state for transport is not a juicy one. It tends to be a stop-gap position, partly because it’s unsexy and partly because it’s a poisoned chalice. Greening’s rapid elevation from a lowly Treasury minister to becoming the all-powerful transport chief has more to do with David Cameron’s desire for political equilibium than a desire for a go-getter to get to grips with a famously tough department.
Looking on the bright side, Greening may come to the job with very little bias and may have less of a windscreen view of the world than any of her recent predecessors. With luck, she may understand it’s the Department for Transport not the Department for Motorised Transport.