Grant Shapps: Building back better must mean an enhanced sovereign space presence for Britain

14 Jun

Grant Shapps is Transport Secretary, and is MP for Welwyn Hatfield.

Take a trip to the Science Museum in London and there you will find a piece of space antiquity – the first and last home-grown British satellite launch vehicle, called Black Arrow.

It hangs on its side in the display hall, some 40 feet of shimmering metal, a sombre rebuke to this nation’s stillborn ambition to become an independent space power.

Black Arrow holds the dubious distinction of being the only UK launcher to place a UK-manufactured satellite into orbit. It did this only once, on 28 October 1971, when it inserted the Prospero satellite into low earth orbit.

Even as it roared skyward from the Woomera test range in Australia, Black Arrow’s death warrant had been signed. The United States was offering cheaper rides on its launchers and so, just as we ceded leadership in jet airliners to the Americans, we allowed our homegrown rocket capability to wither and die. The project was cancelled, and with it the hopes of British scientists and engineers who had nurtured ambitions of reaching the high frontier since the end of the Second World War.

In doing so, the UK achieved an unenviable distinction: being the only country to achieve independent satellite launch status and then abandon it.

So far, so bad. But, quietly, this country is experiencing a renaissance in space, one that this Government hopes will see the UK capture a ten percent share of the £400 billion market in satellite manufacturing, launching and servicing over the coming decade.

Space is where it is at. As our modern world becomes ever more driven by data, the satellites that collect and distribute this digital gold are rocketing skyward in their thousands. There are some 2,600 operational satellites in orbit, most of them American, Russian and Chinese. But this number will grow to tens of thousands in coming decades as mankind leans ever more heavily on these payloads for communications, commerce and earth monitoring.

Space is currently directly worth some £15 billion to the UK economy, a vibrant, expanding sector employing some 40,000 people directly. But its impact reaches far into the rest of the economy. The industry body UK Space estimates that it supports some £300 billion of national output through telecommunications and other services, and this figure is set to grow to £340 billion by 2030. There is nothing otherworldly about space – it is a vital national resource.

So, it was hugely exciting to join the Prime Minister at one of this country’s new spaceports, at Newquay in Cornwall, just before the start of the G7. In front of us lay a massive replica of Launcher One, which will propel a host of small satellites into orbit from British soil next year. Strapped to the inner port wing of a giant Boeing 747, the two-stage rocket will be carried from the Cornish coast to an altitude of some 35,000 feet over the North Atlantic before separating and igniting.

British spaceports are ideally located for small satellite launches, allowing insertion into sought-after polar orbits, and with ready access to the ocean, where launches can take place safely. We are determined to make the UK one of the go-to destinations for space launching, and with that in mind we have designed launch regulations that are the most flexible in the world.

There is more to come. This administration is committed to new vertical-launch operations from the Shetlands and Sutherland in Scotland and Snowdonia in Wales, as well as Cornwall.

The British space sector is one of the most innovative, highly skilled, and high-value industries in our economy. And it is spread around the country, seeding well-paid jobs in areas we are targeting as part of our levelling-up agenda.

As the Prime Minister said in his speech to the 2020 Conservative Party Conference, the country faces a clear choice as we embark on our economic recovery from Covid-19: to return to the status quo or to build back better. And better must mean an enhanced sovereign space presence.

Space is opening up. Once dominated by governments, it is now an expanding arena for private enterprise. As rocket and satellite technology becomes more compact and affordable, companies like Space X are getting in on the act.

The UK has benefitted enormously from joint ventures in aerospace. But we must not be afraid to go it alone – to mine our essential national genius for invention. In Brexit, we affirmed our position as a sovereign, independent nation, unafraid to pursue our own path. So, let’s not repeat the mistake of the past and, doubting ourselves, leave the prizes to others.

Satellites currently support around £52 billion of output in the North, for example, and over £40 billion in the Midlands. But future growth depends on decisive action by industry and government. Latest international figures show that we are trailing Russia, the US, India, Germany, China and Canada in the proportion of GDP devoted to space. This must change. We cannot have other countries controlling our access to the commanding heights of the future global economy – and those commanding heights are to be found above the atmosphere.

Virgin Orbit is a US-designed system, but we can build our own pathway to space. And we have one which could be a game-changer. First, though, we have to learn from the past.

The UK was Western Europe’s leader in space in the 1950s and 60s. Blue Streak, a ballistic missile design, was turned into a reliable first-stage launcher but then abandoned. It was followed into the technological dustbin by other projects: Black Knight, Black Prince and that sad museum exhibit, Black Arrow.

Why did we squander our early space leadership in Europe? Well, money is always a factor. But it was also a failure of ambition in government. France suffered no such qualms and snatched European leadership in space launchers with Ariane.

We have scientific and engineering talent in abundance here in these islands. We just have to nurture it.

And that game-changer? Right now, British engineers are working on SABRE, an air-breathing engine that can transition to rocket mode, achieving hypersonic speeds five times the speed of sound. A spaceplane powered by SABRE would make most conventional single-use rocket launchers obsolete. London to Sydney would take two hours.

There’s a problem, though: engines operating at Mach 5 melt. So, our engineers have come up with a unique cooling system which can lower the temperature of the air entering the engine from in excess of 1000 degrees Celsius to ambient temperatures – and within 1/100th of a second!

Dan Dare? Not at all. This is British technology at its cutting-edge best.

Can we succeed in such ventures? Our vaccination programme is proof of what can be achieved when science and industry is backed by the power of the state. This Government believes in harnessing private and public enterprise to realise great goals.

Great nations do great things. Our mastery of the oceans brought us enormous wealth and influence. We need to do the same in the limitless ocean of space.

Grant Shapps: Our plan to supercharge the Union’s transport links can help make us Europe’s biggest economy by 2050

15 Mar

Grant Shapps is Transport Secretary, and is MP for Welwyn Hatfield.

When the Union with England Act was passed by the Scottish Parliament in 1707, creating “One Kingdom by the Name of Great Britain”, it could take ten days to travel the 400 miles from Edinburgh to London in the summertime, and a dozen in the muddy winter. Coaches lurched their way along the rutted track that was the Great North Road for hour upon unforgiving hour, their less prosperous passengers sitting up top, exposed to the merciless elements.

By the end of the eighteenth century, macadamized roads and more refined vehicle design had more than halved the journey time. Royal Mail coaches, introduced in 1784 and representing the high technology land transport of the day, were capable of nine miles per hour.

Things have improved somewhat in the ensuing centuries, but there are still hurdles to overcome. The A1, descendant of the Great North Road and the longest numbered carriageway in the United Kingdom, is still single lane in stretches, an enduring reproach to our national transport infrastructure.

There are other bottlenecks impeding travel between the four nations of our Union, such as the A75 which runs through the south west of Scotland, carrying traffic to and from Northern Ireland via the port of Cairnryan. A strategic route, heavily used by HGVs, it is single lane for most of its length. Congested roads impede access to north and south Wales, too. And trains between Scotland and the rest of Great Britain are slower than they could or should be.

This is not good enough if we are to remain in the top ten, the premier league, of economic powers in the twenty-first century. Faced with competitors counting their populations in hundreds of millions, the United Kingdom must work hard to maintain its place at the top table, maximising resources, human and physical, in all its constituent nations. We are 68 million facing competition from China (1.44 billion), India (1.38 billion) the United States (330 million) and Indonesia (270 million).

So we cannot afford to waste the talents and productivity of anyone, be they in Coleraine or Kirkcaldy, Caernarfon or Carlisle. Placing all our economic eggs in one basket – South East England – is not an option if we are to continue punching above our weight. A risk-averse infrastructure investment model that simply reinforces success, pumping money into projects serving London and her hinterland, will consign us to mediocrity. We must take a leap of faith, investing in transport links and new industries across the Union to mobilise our full national potential.

That is why the preliminary Union Connectivity Review, published by the Prime Minister last week, is so important. Its key recommendation is the establishment of a strategic transport network binding the UK into one closely integrated whole. Routes that serve this aim – be they the A75, the A55 in north Wales or the air corridors to Northern Ireland – will be accorded favoured status.

That means widening roads, extending high-speed rail and reducing Air Passenger Duty on domestic flights. It could – could – also mean a fixed link from Scotland to Northern Ireland, and a feasibility study into a tunnel or bridge is being carried out. Madness, say some. The most natural thing in the world for an ingenious and enterprising people to consider, say I.

If this Government has a motif then it is surely an open-minded pragmatism, a willingness to experiment with varying mixtures of private and public investment to produce the desired outcome. As Conservatives, we don’t believe in governments trying to pick winners – we leave that to business.

But we can help build the racetrack, providing the transport, telecommunications and green energy infrastructure firms need to compete successfully. Government in this country should never again seek to dominate the commanding heights of the economy through traditional nationalisation – that way lies failure – but it can incentivise, incubate and facilitate business.

Willingness to experiment requires self-confidence. We British have lost some of ours over the past decades, maybe due to our psychological dependence on the European Union. In our post-imperial malaise, we sub-contracted our destiny to a supranational entity for almost half a century, and it is scary for some of us to be going it alone once again. Britain is not capable of independent greatness, argue the naysayers.

I beg to differ. Stand-alone countries like South Korea (population 51 million) and Israel (nine million) do not fear to chart their own course, and we are a much bigger player than either. They nurture native industries, cultivate partnerships across the globe and trust their own judgement in terms of national self-interest. This despite chaotic or threatening neighbours.

A true Tory should never learn his or her place. We believe in the individual’s power to mould their own destiny, to realise their ambition. So it should be with our country. Let’s stop agonising about our place in the world or fixating on the past and head towards the future with a spring in our step.

Following the long dark winter of Covid, the shoots of future success are appearing. The tremendous success of the vaccine programme shows what this United Kingdom can do when it abandons self-doubt, rolls up its sleeve – literally – and gets on with it. We succeeded precisely because we were prepared to act swiftly and unilaterally – and were legally free to do so. How would an independent Scotland be faring now with vaccination if it were hitched to the EU, as the SNP desires?

Those who believe Brexit will condemn the UK to stagnation and decline should look at the latest survey of 5000 company chief executives by accountants PricewaterhouseCoopers. These hard-headed businessmen, not given to flights of unjustified optimism, now rate the UK fourth in the world – behind only the USA, China and Germany – as a preferred destination for investment. This is up one place on last year, the UK having overtaken India. American and German companies look favourably on investing here. So let’s stop doubting ourselves.

I’ll stick my neck out. I believe the UK will be the largest economy in Europe by 2050. What was once the workshop of the world can be its laboratory – a scientific superpower, as the Prime Minister puts it.

Certainly, we can retain our position among the top 10 economies, even as rising living standards in populous emerging economies like Indonesia, Brazil and Mexico propel them into this club. Free of euro-sclerosis, we among the current four G7 economies in Europe have the best chance of remaining in this top tier.

So long, that is, as we stick together as one United Kingdom. Our four nations, the most successful joint venture in history, are so much stronger together, sharing our talents, supporting and protecting each other. We know this to be true because we have been through so much together in our long island story, and not only survived but triumphed.

Tradition is a wonderful thing and we Brits do it so well. But here’s one tradition I suggest we ditch as we trade the status of stately old nation for disruptive economic streetfighter. Let’s stop making a virtue out of losing gracefully. And win.

Grant Shapps: Why I’m in Manchester today to help kick-start better, greener and more modern transport for the North

23 Jul

Grant Shapps is Transport Secretary, and is MP for Welwyn Hatfield.

Forgive a Conservative Cabinet Minister for citing a Labour Prime Minister in approving terms, but one of my favourite quotations on railways comes from the opposite side of the House. Not a real Prime Minister, to be accurate, but a fictional one. Harry Perkins, the Sheffield steelworker’s son who takes on the Establishment and loses in A Very British Coup.

Asked by a reporter if he intends to abolish first class rail travel now that he is in power, at the head of a radical Left-wing government, our Harry replies: ‘No, I’m going to abolish second class rail travel. I think we’re all first class. Don’t you?’

Perkins may have had the wrong Idea about many things, but he was right on this. For years now, the successful South East, and particularly London, has sucked in rail investment. The argument in Whitehall goes something like this. London is the cash cow; the goose that lays the golden eggs.

Spend on infrastructure there, and in the prosperous hinterland supplying its commuters, and you will get bang for your taxpayers’ buck. The “business case” is overwhelming. Why risk spending in the North or other supposedly far-flung places, when you can be sure of a good return on your investment by shipping white-collar workers into the City?

This is one of those circular arguments that ensures nothing changes. Reinforce economic strength and punish relative weakness, and you get what I call the transport deficit, resulting in a lopsided rail network that impedes the spread of prosperity.

While commuters into London enjoy new trains, their counterparts in Manchester and elsewhere have in many cases put up with old or second-hand rolling stock. And the routes these trains run on are more likely to be narrower, more congested and more prone to delay.

For far too long, the North, cradle of the Industrial Revolution, has had to put up with rail infrastructure bequeathed from that time. Take the Trans-Pennine route from Manchester to Leeds. This corridor through rolling moorland is completely inadequate as a link between two great cities and the other cities – Liverpool, York and Newcastle – that connect through it. Much of it is two-track, meaning that fast trains must jumble up with local stopping services, slowing everything down. It is badly in need of electrification to speed services and make them greener.

I’ll let a regular user of this line describe her experience of this route, using it to reach Manchester from her home in Marsden before she gave up in frustration.

‘Standing room only at peak times is a given. Home time is worst – trains regularly cancelled, so it means platforms are crammed with two or three trainloads of stressed-out people, and when the train eventually arrives it is every man and woman for themselves. People just surging forward knowing that if you don’t you will be left on the platform. Then the poor conductor comes round to throw people off who’d otherwise be hanging out of the doors.

There are fights – not surprisingly. People just want to get home after a hard day. Most people are amazingly restrained, though, given the appalling service and the huge sums of money they pay to use it. A sort of “What do you expect? It’s the North”. A hellish commute, which is why I started to drive in.’

Many people in the North took a chance on the Conservatives at the last election. They put aside old loyalties, not only because of Brexit, but because they saw a glimmer of opportunity – a Prime Minister prepared to tear up the rulebook of North-South politics. Go on,they said, prove us right.

Which is why I’m in Manchester today, surveying the view from Piccadilly Station with Andy Burnham, the Labour mayor of Manchester. Politically, we are the odd couple – hardly natural allies.

But we share a desire to rectify this transport deficit, and get things moving. This is practical politics, getting together to solve problems that do not discriminate when it comes to party affiliation. But this emphasis on delivery will work for Conservative MPs across the North, too. Particularly those who helped to demolish the Red Wall ,and who now occupy marginals in which expectations are high.

There will be more of this with the Northern Transport Acceleration Council, which I formally announce today. This will bring together ministers from the Department for Transport – junior ministers or me – and mayors and council leaders, Tory and Labour, to thrash out ways to cut through red tape and build new transport infrastructure quickly, in the life of this parliament. NTAC is about doing.

We are “doing” already. Today, this Government committed some £600 million to kickstart the upgrading of the Trans-Pennine Route and begin the process of ending commuter misery. Four tracks will replace two on key stretches initially, easing congestion. And there are plans for full electrification, digital signalling and more four-tracking in future.

We know projects like this must proceed, despite the blow delivered by Covid-19 to the economy. Growth is the key to our recovery, and that means infrastructure: green infrastructure that future-proofs our transport system as we face the challenge of climate change.

Burnham was generous in his praise for these initial steps, describing them as a gear change. The best aspect of this Government is it willingness to experiment, not only with solutions to problems that affect us all but in relationships with others who may not fully share our beliefs.

Pragmatism must be our ideology. Conservatives are best when they tackle problems in a rational, practical way. It’s what people expect of us.

At the last election, former Labour voters in the North and elsewhere lent us their votes in a gigantic experiment. After decades of barely-managed decline they are hungry for success. They only desire the tools to get on with the job. We must supply them and set the North free.