Nusrat Ghani - “In this country we build stuff. We build roads, we build rail tracks, we expand airports, and we need engineers to help us deliver our ambitions”
Nusrat Ghani's broad portfolio covers everything from busses and taxis to HS2, the enormous rail project that’s lately been called into question by aspirants for the Conservative leadership. She sits down with Geoffrey Lyons to discuss diversity, engineering, and why HS2’s naysayers will soon change their tune
The lobby of the Department for Transport has all the requisite trappings: a detailed map of London’s Underground, a bicycle-wheel-turned-clock, a glossy plaque on the history of the DVLA. In one corner, a folding bike is encased like a relic. But to see a five-foot model cargo ship, one needs to go a few floors up to Nusrat Ghani’s office.
The MP for Wealden is a year and half into her role as transport minister, the model ship a proud display of her responsibility for maritime. “It’s a great brief,” she says with a wide smile. “Our ports are doing some fantastic work and are expanding.” Ghani pauses as if to accentuate the impending “but.” “But while I thought that in Parliament we have an imbalance between men and women on the green benches, in maritime it’s even worse.”
Diversity matters a great deal to Ghani, the first Muslim woman to speak from the Commons despatch box. Rarely a week goes by when she’s not banging the drum for diversifying some sector or another. The House meets her on the same day she’s penned an article for The Times titled “We need to do more to get women into the rail industry” – a call to action for rail to hire more women in order to meet growing demand. Most of her arguments take this pragmatic approach. She tells The House that diversity brings more voices to the “top table” and provides organisations with a wider range of views. “Businesses benefit [from diversity] because they can plan bigger and they have different challenges to respond to,” she says.
But in a sector like maritime, she has her work cut out for her. Women make up only about 2% of the global workforce, with most female seafarers employed by cruise ships or passenger ferries. Not one to stand idly by, Ghani challenged the sector to do better and it has heeded her call: early last year Maritime UK, a body representing the UK’s maritime sector, created a task force to address the gender imbalance and a charter to ensure participating companies are committed to tackling it. “We've had a tremendous amount of people sign up who are quite keen because they know they need to invest in their women,” Ghani says.
Another “pale male” domain that Ghani’s been training her sights on is engineering, a field in which fewer than 10% of the UK’s professionals – the lowest proportion in Europe – are female. But 2018’s Year of Engineering, the campaign led by Ghani to address the engineering skills gap, was about much more than gender diversity. “It was basically an ambition across Whitehall to work out how we could put a firecracker under the whole field,” she says. “In this country we build stuff. We build roads, we build rail track, we expand airports, and we need engineers to help us deliver our ambitions.” The idea, then, was to make engineering as appealing as possible to young people considering career options. When the campaign launched, Ghani’s goal was to collaborate with a couple hundred companies to reach out to about a million children. “But the programme just snowballed,” she says. “We ended up working with 1,500 companies resulting in five million interactions with young people and their parents.”
Ghani is unquestionably enthusiastic about her work. The sheer multiplicity of issues around transport excite her and she seems to generate energy the more she talks about her sprawling remit (“I have a vast portfolio for a junior minister,” she chuckles). Her staff, too, appear to relish the pace of it all. One junior staffer speaks breathlessly about the department’s plans to revolutionise the way drivers find parking spaces.
But there’s one issue that’s too fraught for Ghani’s usual buoyancy. Directly behind her desk is a map dotted with post-it notes. It displays the 330-mile route planned for Europe’s largest infrastructure project, HS2, a considerable portion of the minister’s portfolio. In recent months headlines have called the £56 billion development into question. Chief Secretary to the Treasury Liz Truss told Spectator in April that HS2 wouldn’t be exempt from the upcoming Spending Review. A few weeks later the Lords Economic Affairs Committee published a report suggesting the project was in danger of “short-changing” the North. Writing in this week’s House magazine, Tory leadership contender Esther McVey pledges “if I become Prime Minister, I will scrap it” – something many have feared would be HS2’s fate if frontrunner Boris Johnson, a longstanding critic, moves into No. 10.
Ghani says it would be “foolish” to scrap HS2, but is she receptive to any of the arguments against it? That it’s too costly? Or that what’s really needed, as McVey argues, is more investment in Crossrail for the North? “No,” she says with the doggedness of one protecting their only child. “It’s a critical infrastructure project. It’s supported by all three political parties. Any large infrastructure project of this scale is going to face challenges.
“Lots of things happen in Westminster that don't always get a huge amount of coverage. So while we try to work together on delivery of Brexit, and as the Conservative party undertakes the process of selecting a new leader, day-to-day work continues. HS2 continues. We have about 9,000 people working on it, and that work just continues.”
Ghani is no longer sporting her usual smile. She says critics who argue that HS2 will only widen the North-South divide – the very thing it’s meant to be closing – fundamentally misunderstand the project. That in Birmingham, for example, the amount of ambition on the back of HS2 is “phenomenal,” implying that detractors need only open their eyes. She also suggests that hostility to HS2 is mostly drummed up in SW1. Critics need to “get out of their Westminster bubble”; the Conservatives need to “continue to deliver for the whole of the country.”
“At its peak, HS2 will have 30,000 people working on it, and most of those jobs will be outside of London,” Ghani says. “Once this plan is up and running in a couple of years' time, once people are buying their tickets, the naysayers will say, ‘well, you know, we always knew it was going to work.’”
Ghani has to rush to another appointment before she can be asked whether she’ll throw her hat into the ring for party leadership. One gets the impression that she’s not opposed to the idea, but that she’s currently too preoccupied with ministerial duties. Were she to lead her party, and by extension the country, there’s no question that she’ll make it a priority for the trains to run on time – really fast trains that she’ll ensure will be built.