The report below was received from Christina Ewbank who represents ACES (the Alliance of Chambers in East Sussex – of which Peacehaven is a member) and also Eastbourne Chamber of Commerce.
A meeting was held on Monday this week at the Department for Transport with the Rail Minister and his various advisers at the DfT. Those present included:
1. Paul Maynard MP and Minister for Rail
2. Caroline Ansell MP
3. Susan Evans Head of Strategic Communications
4. Emma Boon Special Adviser to The Secretary of State for Transport
5. Suzanne Edmonds Deputy Head of Communications Strategy
6. Sian Morgan Deputy Head of External Affairs
7. Natasha Siddiqi Assistant Private Secretary to Paul Maynard
8. Sian Morgan Deputy Head of External Affairs
Business was represented by:
9. Stewart Drew CEO of the De La Warr Pavilion representing Coastal Communities and Tourism
10. Martin Searle of the FSB representing 15,000 members across Sussex
11. Ana Christie of Sussex Chamber of Commerce representing BCC
12. Christina Ewbank representing 4,000 ACES members across East Sussex
(The meeting was also advised that Stewart, Martin and I are also business representatives on the SELEP board and part of Team East Sussex.)
As we had only 30 minutes with the minister we gave the meeting a series of questions that have been passed through by various Chambers and commitment was given that all these questions would be answered and sent to us as soon as possible.
Paul Maynard asked us to comment on the mitigating measures they have put in place to support commuters getting to work but while these measures are very important we asked if we could focus on the effects the strike was having on business and the local economy as we had only 30 minutes.
We explained that the current dispute is having a devastating effect on local business and that many of our members are now in serious trouble. We explained that we do not take sides and were not able to blame either the unions or GTR but had come to appeal to Mr Maynard, our representative in government, to ask him to take urgent action to intercede on our behalf, before it is too late.
Stewart, Martin and I briefly detailed some of the damage our members had made us aware of and asked what the minister could do on our behalf. The Minister put the blame squarely on the unions and in particular Aslef. We explained that we could not carry on for much longer and that we were encouraged when the BBC announced that Chris Grayling had asked for urgent talks with the unions without pre-conditions.
Unfortunately, Paul Maynard pointed out that this was not correct and that neither he nor Chris Grayling were prepared to speak to the unions until they lifted the strike. We explained that this would be very disappointing to our members and reiterated that we needed the Minister’s help to survive. We asked him, as our representative, to take control of the situation and meet the unions. He said that there was a precedent that no government minister would hold talks with any union while they were striking. He seemed quite annoyed that we were asking him to meet the unions and made it clear they would not break the precedent.
Caroline Ansell MP and the DfT team stressed that strikes needed to be ‘suspended’ before talks can happen. They were not asking for strikes to be called off completely, just suspended so that talks could take place.
Mr Maynard told us that it was up to GTR to negotiate with the unions, not government. We then asked about the GTR franchise as we understand it is different from other franchises. This is correct. GTR and Transport for London both have Government contracts to run their areas as government agents but not as franchises. The reason for this is that the DfT believed it would not be possible to find a company to run Southern as a franchise with the amount of network developments and disruption expected to bring the network into the 21st Century. We were also told that GTR have not made any money out of the Southern franchise although their parent company, Go Ahead, are being paid to put on buses during the dispute. We were told that the £100 million profit announced by Go Ahead recently was earned by the other franchises they run but not by GTR.
We were told that Southern was expanding fast and that GTR were managing a recruitment drive for more drivers and on board supervisors. Unfortunately the drivers take 14 months to train and so a reduced service is likely to run for some time.
Again we explained the damage to the local economy as 58% of FSB members were affected according to a survey this week. We also mentioned the businesses who were trading in the station premises and we were told to ask those businesses to approach GTR to ask for help.
We also asked for help to promote the fact that East Sussex is ‘open for business’ and we asked for infrastructure investments to be supported by the government. We explained that the rail situation is exacerbated by our very weak road infrastructure which cannot cope with the increased traffic and by slow rural broadband and mobile coverage making it difficult for commuters to work from home. The DfT team asked us to send across our suggestions and a formal request for this support.
Having heard our appeal the minister then went on to a later meeting to discuss our concerns with Chris Grayling and all the local MPs. (I am told that nothing new came out of that meeting.)
Stewart and I went on to meet with our MPs Caroline Ansell and Huw Merriman to push our concerns again.
While I cannot report a breakthrough I can confirm that we made the Minister very aware that this is not just about commuters. We explained that East Sussex is one of the top 15 counties in the country for economic growth but that these results would be reversed if the dispute were allowed to carry on. While he did not like the (polite) pressure we exerted he was made very aware of our plight.
We will keep you informed of any further developments.