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All the wrong signals

Christian Wolmar on Labour's non-policy on transport

Transport has been one of the most abject failures of the Blair government. Congestion on the roads is rising, the railways are becoming overcrowded and costing five times more than under British Rail and aviation is being allowed to let rip, with little concern about the environment.

One reason is that Blair has never taken an interest in it. Transport has barely been mentioned in his speeches and little thought has been given to developing a coherent policy. Transport ministers have come and gone with regularity and with little impact. The exception was John Prescott, who was at transport for the whole first term and who at least tried by setting out a ten year plan, promising to 'get people out of their cars' and creating the Strategic Rail Authority. But he was always a weak minister, there more for his 'old labour' credentials than his abilities, and he was unable to push through any major changes because of resistance from the Treasury. His ten year plan collapsed when the Treasury became aware of the spending implications, the 25 tram schemes he promised have dwindled to, at best, two and the Strategic Rail Authority has been abolished.

Transport has been seen as a by product of other policies, rather than as an important policy area in itself. Whole rafts of government policy have transport implications whether it is encouraging more choice on schools, building large centralised hospitals to replace smaller local facilities or allowing supermarkets to open up on the outskirts of cities rather than in town centres. Yet, the transport implications of these decisions are rarely allowed to influence them, let alone determine them.

There is another fundamental reason for Labour's failure. No one in the Labour government seems to have worked out the position of transport within the economy and, specifically, whether it should be encouraged or not. While there is some talk about the problems of global warming and the other environmental damage caused by transport, on the whole the overall impression given by ministers is that the more people get around, the better. Transport, therefore, is seen as an important contribution to the GDP and yet for most people transport is a by-product of some other activity - whether taking the kids to school, commuting to work, shopping or going on holiday.

The actual transport component of this activity is generally unwanted and the sooner the journey is over, as far as most people are concerned, the better. Even better, they would like not to have to travel so much and to have facilities more readily available near their homes. Therefore a rational government policy - one could even venture to call it an ethical transport policy - would be to encourage certain forms of travel such as those which are environmentally least damaging or to areas where tourism is essential to the local economy, but discourage other journeys.

Road pricing is, of course, a step in the right direction but there are serious doubts about the ability of the government, even if re-elected, to push it through. Already there is a petition on the No 10 Downing Street website which has attracted a million plus signatures against it. The government has made little effort to sell the idea of road pricing and to place it firmly in the context that it is an imperative from an environmental point of view to introduce it. Moreover, the proceeds of road pricing have to be made available to support other more environmentally-friendly modes of transport. Unless road pricing is presented in that way, it merely looks like an extra tax. After all, it is difficult to take the concerns of the government seriously given it has a predict and provide policy for aviation that everyone knows is the most damaging form of transport.

An ethical transport policy could start with an emphasis on social inclusion. That would mean putting more money into buses, funding light rail schemes that serve deprived areas and targeting subsidies more towards the poor rather than merely providing blanket support for senior citizens and teenagers. It would also mean putting serious resources into reducing the death toll of poorer children on the roads (kids from lower income families are far more likely to be involved in fatal road accidents) and massively increasing the number of home zones where 20 MPH limits allow kids to play on streets. None of this is rocket science, but the depressing conclusion after ten years is that the Blair government never gave any serious thought to these issues.

The key question is will Gordon Brown? Unfortunately the signs are not good. It was Brown who pushed through the ludicrously expensive PPP on the London Underground and who has also ensured that rail franchises remain all within the private sector when it would have been possible to take back one or two in house to act as benchmarks. Brown is also wedded to the PFI concept for developing light rail schemes, which has made many prohibitively expensive and has stalled over committing himself to the Crossrail scheme desperately needed to relive capacity on the London Underground. Brown, too, has allowed rail and bus fares to soar while keeping down motoring costs and he also sees the aviation industry as a key driver of the economy which is why he has been so timid in making the industry pay for the environmental damage it causes.

The only hope is that the growing concern about the environment will influence his policies but don't bank on it. Brown, quite frankly, promises much of the same as Blair which, in transport terms, means not very much at all.