With a new Prime Minister comes a new cabinet, which sees the role of Transport Secretary filled by Grant Shapps, a former Tory party chairman and strong Boris Johnson supporter in the recent leadership election. While Shapps has previously held cabinet positions and portfolios on housing and international trade, this is his first transport role. So, what could his appointment mean for motorists and the sector as a whole?

In the final few weeks of her premiership, Theresa May committed to net-zero UK carbon emissions by 2050, meaning the country would balance the CO2 it produces by absorbing an equivalent amount from the atmosphere. The incoming government, led by Boris Johnson, has indicated it will honour the commitment, meaning Shapps will be under considerable pressure to spell out how his department will help the UK achieve this target.

The new Transport Secretary may choose to introduce further low-emission zones, which typically exclude older, more polluting vehicles – a system that has been in place in London since April 2019. However, the automotive industry will be hoping the Department for Transport (DfT) instead moves to create further incentives for the take up of electric and plug-in hybrid vehicles. This was certainly the message earlier this week from, Mike Hawes, the Chief Executive of the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT), following continued growth in the electric vehicle market so far this year.

No-deal, for real this time?


A no-deal Brexit could cause severe disruption at the UK’s borders, including for the trains, trucks and aircraft that carry thousands of people and goods in and out of the UK every day. Planning on how to minimise this disruption if a no-deal Brexit does occur will be a pressing concern for the new Transport Secretary with the City, the tourism industry and travel industry looking to him for details on how they can prepare.

An agreement is already in place with the EU to allow planes to continue flying to the EU, and another 17 countries (travel to which is governed by EU rules), for a year after Brexit occurs. This ‘basic connectivity’ agreement will prevent the immediate grounding of planes and a similar agreement for vehicles will allow people to drive from the UK to the EU (and then within the entire Schengen area) without additional checks until 31 December 2019. While this gives Shapps a little breathing space following no-deal, organisations such as the Road Haulage Association are already urging the new leadership to provide more help to the country’s freight operators in preparing for a no-deal.

Road safety reform?


Road safety is another pressing concern facing the incoming Transport Secretary, in the wake of recent statistics showing a flat-lining in the reduction of road deaths according to DfT’s own Road Safety Statement 2019. Keeping people safe on the road is a pressing concern for any Transport Secretary, but especially one serving a Prime Minister as pro-cyclist as Boris Johnson, when cyclists make up a substantial number of those killed and injured on the road.

A reformed transport network?


Boris Johnson has already made substantial spending promises to improve transport links across the country. However, it not yet clear what form this might take. Shapps is a keen advocate of Heathrow Airport’s expansion, meaning his appointment likely signals an end to Boris Johnson’s once fearsome opposition to the plans. Rail and road improvements are also planned across the country, with particular focus on connecting northern cities and towns as they trail the country in economic growth, but more on this below.

Regional regeneration?


As Transport Secretary, Shapps is expected to oversee several of the large-scale spending commitments for renewed transport infrastructure made by Boris Johnson, including a new rail link between Manchester and Leeds. This is intended to ‘turbocharge’ growth in the North and is part of the wider plans for regional regeneration set out by Johnson. Further funding for improvements to transport links in the north is planned, and Shapps will be key in shaping how this money is spent, including how much money will be committed to road improvements or expansion. The HS2 project, long in doubt, has not been scrapped by the new government, meaning Shapps will have to tackle ongoing concerns regarding the project from the public, business and other members of parliament. As well as ensuring the project’s costs do not continue to rise above budget.

So, what does it all mean?


Shapps has relieved businesses who were concerned that either Heathrow expansion or HS2 could be cancelled, but how he chooses to improve road safety and tackle vehicle emissions will be decisive in how the motorist industry perceives him. Incentives for electric and hybrid cars would be welcomed by the industry and represent a definite sea-change in the way DfT has tackled the issue under outgoing leadership. However, history will surely judge whether Shapps’ tenure as a success or a failure depending on how he manages disruption in the months following Brexit, should the UK exit the EU without a deal later this year. Only time will tell.


Written by Callum Doolan