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Grant Shapps: A bridge from Scotland to Northern Ireland isn't "the slightest bit controversial"

Transport secretary Grant Shapps | Alamy

10 min read

In the gloom of the pandemic, transport secretary and occasional aviator Grant Shapps exudes optimism about the future. He tells Kate Proctor the Scotland to Northern Ireland sea link is a no-brainer, new bus services will be “amazing” and his favourite road – the A66 – is getting a £1bn upgrade. The only thing he sounds nervous about is his next time in the cockpit

“I’ve been a pilot for 26 years, but I don’t think there’s ever been a time where I’ve spent less time in the sky,” says transport secretary Grant Shapps. The coronavirus pandemic put paid to his favourite pastime: flying his single engine aircraft Piper Saratoga. Technically he can play pilot again on 12 April when domestic restrictions are lifted, yet he sounds a little nervous about an imminent return to the airfield.

Laughing, he says: “I think the first thing, as with all pilots who’ve been grounded, is to get back in practice. Before you take family or anyone else.” 

“You have to be current before you can take any passengers,” he says, referring to the process where a pilot must carry out three take-offs and landings in a period of 90 days. 

His dream journey these days would be a trip to a beach in France. Six years ago, it was his escapades flying around the UK in his own plane while campaigning in the 2015 general election which captured the public’s imagination. 

But before he allows himself to linger on his flights of fancy in his plane, which is now 36-years-old, he switches back to his brief, rattling through the coronavirus restrictions which will remain in place for the next few months saying, with caution, that any international travel won’t be happening until 17 May at the earliest. 

“It’ll be dependent on how vaccinations are going here but also abroad. And things like testing. So there’s a lot to do before people will be able to start to spread [their] wings.”

I suggest it’ll be a while then before there’s a family trip to his local flying club with his wife Belinda, son Hadley, and twins Tabytha and Noa. 

“Afraid so. I also have a wife who doesn’t much like going flying, that’s also a disadvantage!” 

Shapps, 52, is known for his upbeat personality and gives off a powerful amount of positivity for a politician being interviewed over Zoom. The quality of the video call is so crisp, the lighting so perfect, I wonder if he has a TV studio in his home in his Welwyn Hatfield constituency. He has the standard decoration of a Union flag in the background.

He clearly loves being transport secretary – and is something of a round peg in a round hole. He can talk as passionately about aviation, as you’d expect for a long-time pilot, as he can about buses, different types of eco-fuels, trains, motorways and even the Prime Minister’s plan to connect Scotland and Northern Ireland, an infrastructure project which has raised more than a few eyebrows. 

A source close to him said you turn up to a Zoom feeling exhausted, and he’s still always friendly, chatty, never grumpy. 

His good humour and enthusiasm might explain why he has become a regular face in the coronavirus response, often fronting the Downing Street press conferences and sent out to bat for the government on difficult morning media rounds, particularly around quarantine and international travel into the UK. 

He’s certainly aggravated television presenters  – notably GMB’s Kate Garraway – with the ease with which he bats away difficult questions, but he’s rarely dropped the ball when it comes to delivering government lines. 

No one blinks an eye at the fact that we built a fixed link between ourselves and the continent. Why is it so odd that we might want to link up our own country?

On Johnson’s proposal to link the union with a tunnel or bridge spanning the Irish Sea, he is adamant, despite the criticism and potential £20bn cost, that it’s a “brilliant” idea and asks rhetorically “why would you object?”

“No one blinks an eye at the fact that we built a fixed link between ourselves and the continent. Why is it so odd that we might want to link up our own country?” he says.

“When we talk about left behind communities, and not just piling everything into the south east, this is what we mean. If you live in Northern Ireland and supply is an issue because most goods come from the might want a fixed reliable link, possibly not impacted by the weather.”

“I can’t even imagine why the thought should be in the slightest bit controversial.”

He said “separatists” in Scotland are not interested in this proposed transport link, nor are they concerned with improving the A75 road that runs through Dumfries to the former ferry port of Stranraer. (Ferries now leave from Cairnryan, a 12 minute drive from the A75, up the A77). 

“I understand that it may not be the Scottish government’s priority, which is indeed why it’s important to have the United Kingdom government, making it the priority,” he says. 

Professor Doug Oakervee, who led a review into HS2 for Johnson, and engineering expert Professor Gordon Masterton have been asked to carry out a scoping study of a fixed link between the two nations.

Asked if he had a preference between a tunnel or a bridge, Shapps said: “I imagine with the form of weather in the Irish Sea that you probably need to go down and create a fixed link under the sea, but I don’t know, and that’s the point of having the review.”

It’s not just the weather. Engineers would also have to consider how to cross Beaufort’s Dyke, a sea-trench that contains one million tonnes of munitions, including unexploded WW2 bombs.

And the picture in the devolved nations is mixed, Shapps admits. He says if you ask the Democratic Unionist Party’s Diane Dodds, minister for the economy in the Northern Ireland Assembly, she will say it’s important. If you ask the Social Democratic and Labour Party’s, Nichola Mallon, who is minister for infrastructure, there will be a less glowing reception. 

He said: “As in all parts of democracy you’ll get differing views. What do I think? What does the PM think? It just shouldn’t be a controversial thought.”

Shapps is certainly one of the more unconventional characters around the Cabinet table. He grew up in Watford and said he knew he wanted to be an MP aged 14. His cousin, Mick Jones, was a founding member of The Clash, and then formed Big Audio Dynamite, with Shapps’ brother Andre playing with them for a time. 

He studied for an higher national diploma in business and finance at Manchester Metropolitan University and was national president of Jewish youth organisation BBYO. In 1989 he had his first brush with death when he was left in a coma for a week after a car crash in Kansas. In the late 90s, two years after marrying his wife, he developed Hodgkin’s lymphoma, and underwent chemotherapy. He recovered a year later.

His printing business, set up in his early 20s, was lucrative, and by 2005 he had achieved his teenage ambition of becoming an MP, then swiftly embedded himself as a Cameroon favourite and was appointed party chairman in 2012. 

There have been some major career lows too; he resigned from the party chairmanship in 2015, over allegations he had not taken sufficient action over serious bullying complaints. In the same year it also emerged he’d maintained a second job in the first year he was an MP under a pseudonym Michael Green, where he advised people on how to get rich quick online. 

Six years later and he’s back in cabinet, in charge of a brief that, during coronavirus, has seen him front quarantine rules and debates around closing down borders. Yet clearly his department has continued working on a host of domestic policy.

The day this interview takes place, he and the Prime Minister announced a £3bn investment in buses and a strategy to change how services are commissioned – a marked departure from the Conservatives’ controversial 1986 policy of deregulation. 

The Prime Minister said the fully commercialised market will come to an end, and instead bus companies and local councils will enter into statutory “enhanced partnerships” that might mirror Transport for London’s set up, or franchising agreements.

Ambitious reforms include changes to fares, with daily price caps, contactless payments, more services on evenings and weekends, and integrated ticketing so people can move from bus to train without paying twice.

There will be hundreds of miles of new bus lanes and 4,000 new British-built electric or hydrogen buses that will be zero-emissions. He said the future of bus services will be “amazing”.

Cuts to the country’s bus network were an obvious and early symbol of austerity, with Campaign for Better Transport statistics revealing that by 2016, 63 per cent of councils had cut funding to services, and 44 per cent of councils had withdrawn services. In 2019, funding was £400m a year lower than it had been a decade previously. 

Shapps also attended cabinet as minister without portfolio between 2012 and 2015. Though he was not a secretary of state, he was at the top table when long-term strategic decisions were being made on local authority funding.

Breezily, he said: “I’m not here to defend the past. I’m here to talk about the future. If the argument goes ‘things haven’t been perfect in the past,’ then basically I agree, but we can make them one heck of a lot better in the future.”

Did the cuts go too far to local authorities? “I’m the transport secretary for now. I don’t want to talk to a different era.”

A discussion of buses in the current climate is not complete without reference to Johnson’s curious claim in 2019 that he likes to relax by making model buses out of wine crates.  

“I imagine if he has time tonight he’ll be spending the evening painting some wine cases with buses to celebrate today’s great announcement,” Shapps said, tongue in cheek.  

Announcements on the horizon include the much-anticipated news on Northern Powerhouse Rail, the scheme that improves east-west train travel between Liverpool and Hull, which is due later in the spring, he said, as the government’s integrated rail plan needs to be released first. 

There has to be a leap of faith. That’s what transport is all about

The Prime Minister recently came under fire for saying in the Commons there had not been a cut to the quango Transport for the North’s budget. The reduction, of £4m, had been described by TfN finance director Iain Craven as disappointing, and was seen by some as a breach of the government’s pledge to level up the north. 

However, Shapps said the reduction was to the quango’s administrative fund, which wasn’t given the same amount because it has money in the bank, unspent as a result of coronavirus. 

“It’s rather an aside to the £70m [they have], which is an increase in their actual budget,” he said.

Reeling off more from their record on northern investment, he says his favourite road in Britain – the A66 between Penrith and Scotch Corner – is also having a £1bn upgrade, and he claims £29bn has been spent on upgrading transport in the north since 2010. 

Shapps says when it comes to the north the government has to “get away from [the idea that] every pound you have to spend, you’re always going to get more bang for your buck if you spend it somewhere in the south”.

It involves brave decisions, and they will be political judgements, he said.   

“There has to be a leap of faith”, he said. “That’s what transport is all about”. 

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