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A day in the life of Whitby’s transport chief

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Never before has Whitby been held in such high esteem among Britain’s corridors of power.

In October last year, the town’s MP was elevated to the position of Minister for Transport, but in his new role does Robert Goodwill still have Whitby’s needs at heart?

“I think a constituency keeps your feet on the ground,” Robert told the Whitby Gazette’s Karl Hansell when the pair met in London last week. “One of the strengths of our parliamentary system is you really can’t ignore what’s going on back home.”

Overnight Robert’s responsibilities rocketed from the 75,000 constituents of Whitby and Scarborough to multi-billion pound projects such as the new high speed rail network, road safety and aviation for the entire country.

He meets regularly with heads of commerce and industry, takes an active role in Commons debates, receives around 200 emails a day - of which 90 per cent are “complete rubbish” - and represents the Government nightly at events and functions.

So one would assume that the needs of the people back home could get forgotten in the haze. Or perhaps his position allows the minister to exert considerable influence to the benefit of the town?

We meet at York station on board an express train to the capital, where Robert spends Monday to Thursday before heading back to Scarborough for a constituency surgery on Fridays.

The journey barely takes two hours, a far cry from the sleepy Esk Valley.

“I know people would like a train to start in Whitby on a morning and that’s not gone without note,” he explained. “I think the fact the Esk Valley line is still running is a cause for some relief to many people. But in order to have a commuter service from Whitby you would need to employ another train driver and crew, it’s not just a case of putting on another train. It’s a significant investment.”

To be able to work so closely with trains and aviation is a coup for Robert, who has long been a lover of vintage machinery and vehicles.

He said: “I am very much a petrolhead, a coalhead. I am very much working in the area that I am interested in and when the Prime Minister asked me to become a minister back in October I was delighted.”

Whitby’s only previous minister was Leon Brittain, who up until 1983 represented the town when it was part of the Cleveland and Whitby constituency.

From King’s Cross we catch the Underground to Westminster, a legacy of Robert’s as he was involved in the decision to scrap ministerial cars, saving around £80,000 each vehicle per year.

But it does mean travellers are faced with the sight of a Minister for Transport squeezed on to one of the country’s busiest public transport links.

Prior to his appointment to the department alongside Secretary of State Patrick McLoughlin - a fellow Yorkshire farmer - Robert worked in the Whips office, responsible for arranging Parliamentary business and making sure members voted.

This role restricted him from speaking in the Commons, but he claimed it allowed him to be influential in more subtle ways, such as sitting next to the Chancellor of the Exchequer and whispering advice in his ear during meetings.

Now he is the minister, he is able to exert considerable influence and when speaking in the House, he does so from the Despatch box in the centre of the room.

He is, in his own words, “making up for lost time”.

It is now other MPs who seek to gain Robert’s attention for projects within their own constituency, hoping he will throw his weight behind their cause.

While walking through 1 Parliament Street, the building which houses MPs who don’t have offices in Parliament or separate government departments, Robert is collared by Tobias Ellwood, the representative for Bournemouth who is appealing for Robert to throw his weight behind a traffic calming scheme in the town.

In the Palace of Westminster Robert’s office is smaller than you would expect, with the green colour scheme of the House of Commons (the Lords is red) continuing into this building and giving it a fluorescent hue.

Unusually the office is empty as his secretary, Yuliya, was last week injured in a hit and run collision.

It brings the issue of road safety close to home, so when he visits nearby St Matthew’s School to launch a nationwide scheme, it is more than just a publicity stunt.

When it comes to local accident hotspots such as The Carrs near Ruswarp, Robert said he has left the county council in “no doubt” over what he feels should be done. He said: “Rural roads are our most dangerous. But every single fatality or life-changing injury is preventable”.

Following the press call, the main issue for diary manager Sian Adams is pulling Robert away before the conversation strays to vintage engines or vehicles, as it inevitably does.

The DfT building is located a five minute walk away from Parliament, where two large columns mark the former entrance to Minster House. The ground floor now features a Costa cafe, NatWest bank and off licence, as the government tries to raise money.

In Robert’s office there is a young staff of five, all civil servants who have their own specialities. These troops run the show while Robert is out and about.

Checking his daily diary, printed on a card and kept in his jacket pocket, meetings are held in these offices. These can be campaigners who have a new idea for driver testing or a media briefing to discuss some of the issues which will emerge over the next fortnight.

If a vote is called - a vital one is expected on the Care Bill about the closure of hospitals - MPs have just eight minutes to get to Parliament and cast their vote.

With a three line whip, there would be severe consequences for missing the vote, which can take place as late as 10pm, and so a fold-up bicycle is stored in one corner of the office.

Votes and debates can see Robert cycling from Parliament to the DfT office six times each day, but when free from these restraints, he takes part in official visits, accompanied by a small entourage.

At Gatwick, the MP for an area of the country with no easily-accessible airport nearby is given the red carpet treatment.

The 30 minute journey to the airport is used to read a briefing pack featuring biographies of the people he will meet and some of the questions they will ask.

“There’s a massive competition about who is going to build the next big runway and they are wanting to keep themselves in the shop window,” Robert explained.

He is given a tour of the airport, including a behind-the-scenes look at the control tower and a ride on some state-of-the-art firefighting equipment.

For steam fan Robert, this is a chance to see some boys toys. He said: “I remember when I went to the Yorkshire Show when I was about 10 and I used to love being lifted on to the tractors, so I don’t think anything ever changes.”

On the return journey, again with not a moment to lose, Robert is handed questions he has received from various MPs.

He gets around 15 per day and the answers are researched by officers and signed off by Robert.

His legacy as a minister in the Department for Transport may be defined by his success with the high speed rail network or airports, but it is the smaller victories of road side drugs tests and a levy for HGV lorries that Robert is most proud of.

But when asked where he will end up next, Robert remains grounded. He said: “Let’s just concentrate on doing what I can. If I mess up I’m back to the back benches. But if I do well, then who knows?”

Robert won the last election by around 8,000 votes, securing 42 per cent of the total, and so although there are no guaranteed safe seats, he will be confident of returning to Parliament following the next general election in 2015.

But for a man who shares his time between the busy streets of London and an idyllic North Yorkshire farm, who is the real Robert Goodwill?

“I was born a farmer and I will die a farmer,” he said, backing it up by revealing he had sold barley to his grain merchant just that morning.

 

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