15 January 2000
No U-turn on transport
Prescott may be gone, but his anti-car policies live on, argues Austin Williams
In a series of presentational disasters, John Prescott's two-year stint as
supreme authority of the Department for the Environment, Transport and the Regions super-ministry came to a close with his acrimonious
demotion in favour of his deputy.
Within days, commentators started to criticise Lord MacDonald for
rolling over under pressure from pro-car pressure groups. Lord Gus was
chastised for offering a Right to Reply to the motoring lobby - suggesting
that cars should be more affordable, resuscitating the road-building
programme and stating that the government will only reduce the rate of
growth of car ownership rather than reduce the actual numbers of cars. For his
pains, he has been accused of undermining Prescott's anti-car rhetoric,
damaging the possible uptake of public transport and ignoring the legacy
of Two Jags' reign. So is this a real U-turn in government policy?
Absolutely not. As MacDonald pointed out recently, all of the above are
are consistent with Prescott's previous pronouncements on the subject. Only
the presentational spin has changed.
Gus MacDonald is New Labour. A mediator; able to preside over an
established process. Prescott, on the other hand is Old Labour. He couldn't spell 'mediation', though his career depended on it. Prescott's historic
function has been to ruffle feathers and ensure that a variety of transport
interests were brought into the negotiation process. His tub-thumping style was
ideal for raising a crowd, but now the snake-oil salesman must take over. Just
as Mandelson stepped into Mo Mowlam's shoes at a time when the peace process
was in train and the parties committed, so Lord MacDonald can drive the
transport mediation through with a certain detatched elevation. This is only
possible because everybody agrees with Prescott's agenda that we have to reduce our
reliance on the car.
Prescott is not exactly the Blairite vision of New Labour Man in the New
Millennium. In order to distance himself from Prescott's anachronistic
delight in bans and penalties, MacDonald simply wants us to appraise
whether our journey is necessary, and if so, can we possibly make that journey
without the car? Having a car is not a crime, but wanton use of it is
thought to be a problem. How reasonable. MacDonald cites the European model where
there are more cars than in the UK, but people drive less.
Sounds good. The difference is that when you visit those European
countries - often cited by transport commentators as having reduced reliance on the
car - it is apparent that the space allocation for all modes of transit has been
built into the overall urban schema. In Britain, however, we have a policy
of chalking lines on the already narrow pavements and calling it a cycle
lane, or creating vast tracts of sterile paving in the name of
pedestrianisation. Unless and until space is freed up, by a structured programme of urban clearance masterplanning, there will always be a battle for space in
urban landscapes that have been designed in previous eras for other uses. Unfortunately radical solutions are not on the agenda. Under New Labour
the consultative process is more important than the outcome.
Whether the 'car lobby' has scored a point over the 'pedestrian lobby', or whether grammatically-incorrect Prescott has been sidelined in favour of electorally-incorrect MacDonald, one fact remains constant - the
government has succeeded in creating a new hierarchy of transport. This hierarchy prioritises walking and cycling over all other forms of mobility.
Regardless of the vicissitudes of the debate at any given moment, that discussion is
not open to question. Nobody dares.
What a sad indictment of the lack of vision for transport in the New Millennium. If there are limited resources available, it is obvious that self-restraint is the only possibility. This, after all, is for our own good.
We will all have to tighten our belts and the government's walking and cycling exercise regime will enable us to tighten them more than normal. Let's be honest, John Prescott could never have got away with that one. Fortunately, Lord MacDonald's Scottish piety is well-suited to the task.
Austin Williams is director of the Transport Research Group
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