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22 July 1998

No Deal for Transport

Austin Williams, co-ordinator of the Transport Research Group, is far from impressed with New Labour's proposed transport policy

New Labour's much-vaunted White Paper on Integrated Transport promised "A New Deal for Transport". Originally intended for publication in May, it was delayed and delayed to allow for extended lobbying by contributors to the consultation process. Virtually all suggestions have been eagerly adopted by the government for fear of being seen to offend anyone; or worse to be accused of forcing an unsolicited opinion on the public. Deputy prime minister John Prescott can now truly boast that "this is a White Paper that everyone can agree with".

Everybody from the greens in Friends of the Earth to the car lovers in the Automobile Association agree that, in principle, the White Paper was a vital day for transport in Britain: it was finally agreed by all sides that reducing the reliance on the private motor car was the key policy initiative. Self-confessed "petrol-head", Quentin Wilson, of the BBC's motoring flagship "Top Gear" proclaimed that "nobody can disagree that we have to do something about reducing the car". But then he went on to argue that the proposals were too hastily introduced. A curious criticism for such an overdue document. But why is it that there is such unanimity of approval for this document which, in the words of Gillian Shepherd, the Conservatives' transport spokeswoman, "contains no improvement for the travelling public"?

There are two reasons. Firstly, it has long been established that there is no money available for increased infrastructure, borne out by the governments comprehensive spending review which allocated the limited transport budget to highway maintenance projects. By effectively ruling out of the equation any improvements in road infrastructure (except for private finance initiatives), the government has asked for alternative suggestions to transport problems. Effectively, it's like saying that we've come up against the natural limits of road space capacity and if you want increased public transport it will have to be at the expense of car drivers.

Secondly, it is the consultative process itself which has drawn everybody into helping out. Britain's roads, it is argued, are in crisis and, in partnership with New Labour, we can all play a part in helping out. This is the great British Dunkirk spirit, in Prescott's disingenuous manner, "we are not asking for great sacrifices" while enjoining us to do our bit and walk to work. This is stakeholder Britain.

The White Paper holds the car responsible for everything from children's lethargy to adult heart disease, from climate change to community breakdown. If the car is the problem, then fewer cars is the answer, and through instruments like the Traffic Reduction Act and Local Agenda 21 initiatives, it is incumbent upon local authorities to reduce the number of cars in their area. Since it is recognised by everybody that the private motor car is the most convenient form of transport, the simplest and most cost effective way to reduce numbers is to make the car less convenient, thus "encouraging" us to use other modes of transport.

This is why recent survey results* indicate that local authorities are consciously pursuing policies of traffic bottlenecking by introducing bus lanes, peak time roadworks, cycle lanes and so on to frustrate motorists into considering other modes of transport. This is what is meant by "restraining the car", and under the new White Paper, measures such as these will be supplemented with increased penalties, speed restrictions and bans in certain designated areas. Prescott predicts raising UKP1billion of extra revenue from these new taxes on motorists and has managed to cement his friendship with chancellor of the exchequer Gordon Brown through such blatant policies. Through the policy of "hypothecation", (direct transfer of revenue to other transport sectors) or creative accounting as it used to be known, money raised is "pledged" to other transport sectors. However, it is not the intention to improve alternative modes of transport. As the White Paper says, "we are making an historic shift in road investment...by giving top priority to maintaining and managing our existing road networks". Instead of "predict and provide", we have "patch and repair".

But we shouldn't be surprised. This is an anti-transport strategy. What kind of policy for transport integration starts with the need to marginalise one section of the travelling public? More importantly, the White Paper is not just about making travelling more inconvenient; it's about questioning whether we should travel at all. The consultation paper posed the question: "What can we do to reduce people's need to travel?" and the White Paper answers that we need to assess whether our trip is necessary and whether we can make it by alternative means to the car; preferably, cycling and walking. Unnecessary trips will be deemed to be irresponsible.

This is not transport policy, but social policy. It is about encouraging good and responsible citizenship through the medium of transport. Importantly, the entire process of involvement, participation and partnership enshrined in the document is becoming the guiding principle and even overrides what was thought to be the central plan, i.e. improving the public's travel options. Keen to build on the unity of purpose surrounding the set of non-policy initiatives set out in the Paper, the government has announced at least nine other separate consultative documents on transport, from road safety to bus policy. The process it seems, is everything, the outcome irrelevant. Everyone will have an opinion, everyone will be encouraged to participate and everyone will be happy to have been asked. The fact that nothing will have improved is something that none of the transport groups seemed to have picked up on.

*"ATTITUDES TO TRANSPORT", TRG national survey released July 20th 1998

The Transport Research Group is an unaffiliated national body based in Newcastle upon Tyne. It has been set up to challenge the conflictual relationship between various transport interests so that the best possible opportunities are provided for the travelling public. For further information, please contact Austin.

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