LM Comment
  3:09 am GMT
Current Archive Subscribe
Comment Current LM Web review Mailing
lists Discuss Chat Events Search Archives Subject index Links Merchandise Overview FAQ Feedback Toolbar
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

Join a discussion on this commentary



Mail: webmaster@mail.informinc.co.uk