Tom Richmond: Revealed – what Chris Grayling actually does to justify his existence as Transport Secretary as warning signs grow

AT last it can be finally revealed what Chris Grayling does – and why the calamitous Transport Secretary is still in the Government. He is now officially in charge of road signs.

Transport Secretary Chris Grayling is micro-managing policy on road signs.

Yes, that’s right. The Cabinet minister who said he was not responsible for running the trains during last year’s timetable chaos is taking a very hands-on approach over the sign on your street.

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This much became clear when the Department for Transport sent a belligerent email, signed by Mr Grayling, to every council chief executive rebuking them for permitting metric measurements in some areas.

One of Graeme Bandeira's many cartoons of Chris Grayling.

Yet, while the email reveals how Mr Grayling’s pedantry on the minutiae of this issue, a bone of contention for Brexiteers like him, contrasts with his inattention to detail over railway timetables or those Brexit ferry contracts to cite two failings, it is the response of appalled local government leaders which speak volumes. “They (DfT) employ too many staff,” said one Yorkshire-based recipient. “If only they could do something useful...”

Nearly two years after The Yorkshire Post first accused Mr Grayling of misleading voters in the 2017 election over the status of rail electrification schemes that he was already busy cancelling, his missive reaffirms my view that it would actually be cheaper to pay him to stay at home and do nothing.

After all, this is the same Mr Grayling who also ordered senior officials in January to delay confirmation of hold-ups to the upgrading of one of the North’s major railway routes until after a House of Commons debate had concluded.

His eve of Easter email was posted at 2.52pm last Thursday from a dedicated account used by transport ministers. The covering note began: “Dear Chief Executive, Please see attached letter from Chris Grayling, Secretary of State for Transport, regarding Road Signs. Regards.”

Yet, as curious council chiefs interrupted their Easter preparations in the mistaken belief that the missive was about an issue of national urgency due to its timing, they became incredulous. Mr Grayling’s two-page letter began like this: “I am writing to remind you that distances shown on traffic signs on public highways in Great Britain must be in imperial units, i.e. miles, miles and yards, or yards. Metric units are not permitted as a measurement of distance.”

Crisis? What crisis? He went on to tell them that “the prescribed expressions to indicate distances on traffic signs are set out in Schedule 18 Part 3 of the Traffic Signs Regulations and General Directions 2016”.

He then provided an internet link to 29 rules that can be downloaded individually, plus a further 19 legal definitions. As if these public servants had nothing better to do – like the social care crisis which the Government continues to ignore at its peril.

If this was not enough detail, Mr Grayling then suggested that they read the recently updated “Chapter 7 of The Traffic Signs Manual”. Yet this couldn’t be downloaded – those interested have to pay to order a copy, presumably because this book is a blockbuster (not). However officials did today point to other links where it is available for free.

And then the Macavity-like Mr Grayling reminded officials, in an accusing tone, that they – and not him – are responsible for road safety. “I would also like to remind you that as a traffic authority you are responsible for ensuring that traffic signs you erect on your road network comply with legislation,” he wrote before explaining these consequences if signs do not conform to his rules.

“Those responsible could lay themselves open to a claim for damages, for example if an obstruction is the cause of an accident or an injury in a collision, or if it adversely affects a property adjacent to the road by blocking light or impairing visual amenity.”

Now I don’t know about you but I’m struggling to remember the last time that I saw a sign here in kilometres, or metres, rather than miles or yards.

Yet, when I pressed the DfT on the scale of the issue, a spokeswoman confirmed – in an official statement – that this policy had come directly from Mr Grayling. “The letter reminder came about because the Transport Secretary was made aware of a small number of pedestrian route signs popping up which do not conform to standards and use metric measurements for distance,” she said before declining to reveal the frequency of such occurrences.

I have no idea how much it cost for some poor official to produce this letter – it also asks councils to email queries to [email protected] – before the Transport Secretary, presumably trying to justify his existence, signed off in his own pen ‘With best wishes, Chris’.

Yet I do know that he could – and should – have been writing to councils on issues like the status of Northern Powerhouse Rail or, on the day of Sir David Attenborough’s climate change documentary, policies to decarbonise public transport. Or, as Chris Grayling should have done long ago, a letter of resignation for being the most inept Minister of all. That he is still in a job is the saddest sign of these political times...