The transport row: who is to blame?

Christian Wolmar goes behind the scenes of the Blair-Prescott split and argues that, if cars are to

At last, an issue on which there is more than a thin wedge between the main political parties. Last Monday, the Tories launched their motorists' charter, "a fair deal for the motorist", a cynical attempt to capitalise on Labour's image as the public transport party. On Wednesday, Labour countered with the official wheeling-out of the Integrated Transport Commission, a body that aims to improve the links between different parts of the transport network.

The Tories' initiative spells the end of the brief cross-party consensus on the need to restrict car use. It is pure opportunism, an attempt to gain the support of an increasingly vociferous motoring lobby. The Tories have spotted a rare opportunity for the kind of naked populism that they used to excel at. They have appointed a bright right-winger, Bernard Jenkin (son of a Tory minister who once advised voters to brush their teeth in the dark in order to save energy), as transport spokesman, as well as moving the most effective shadow cabinet performer, John Redwood, to be John Prescott's opposite number on environment. In fact, the Tories would no more rush back to a big spending programme for roads than would Labour.

But they believe - and the opinion polls confirm - that Labour is weak on transport. Its problems were highlighted when Tony Blair, caught in an M4 traffic jam between London and Heathrow, saw an empty lane and ordered his driver into it. It was Britain's first motorway bus lane, which had been proudly and loudly announced by Prescott only a week or two earlier.

Bus lanes are a good example of rational transport policy - even, dare one say it, of socialism - which restricts the freedom of some for the greater good of all. The M4 lane, though, was not a good starting point. Prescott used it to show his commitment to public transport but, as always happens with gesture politics, he got found out. Buses don't go on motorways much, so it's far more useful to have lanes for them in towns and cities. Nevertheless, the conventional wisdom that Prescott created traffic jams on the M4 is wrong. Things rapidly returned to normal, as always happens in such cases. Just as traffic expands to fill new road space, so it eventually contracts when space is reduced: that's what happened when the police put their ring round the City of London and when earthquakes disrupted the Los Angeles road network.

Edmund King, executive director of the RAC Foundation, says that Prescott missed a trick. Instead of keeping the lane for just buses and taxis, he should have included cars occupied by more than one person, making it a "high occupancy" lane, a common feature in the US. King says: "This would have been a recognition that in the integrated transport world which he wants us all to inhabit, the car, used sensibly, has a role to play."

And that is precisely why differences have emerged between Prescott and Blair, leading No 10 to brief against the Deputy Prime Minister (not that the dirty tricksters are above briefing against cabinet members for no reason whatever - they do it just to keep them in their places). As one insider put it: "Prescott has banged on about integrated transport but he hasn't recognised the sensibilities of the issue. You can't be seen to be knocking the motorist. Prescott has to come up with ideas that are good for both public transport and car owners."

It is still a bit rich for Blair to summon Prescott to his office and demand, as one paper reported, that he "get a grip" on the congestion crisis. While Prescott has made mistakes - of which more later - one of his biggest problems has been the lack of support for any of his more visionary policies from Blair and, indeed, from Gordon Brown, who has shown no interest in providing funds. First, No 10's policy unit watered down Prescott's white paper on integrated transport published last July, most notably by removing the idea of imposing charges on supermarket car-parking. Then, Blair did not allow Prescott any legislative time for transport, so that his plans to allow local authorities to raise money for congestion-charging were kicked into touch and the Strategic Rail Authority has to operate in shadow form until the middle of next year.

For Labour to have made any impact on a transport system that suffers from years of Tory underinvestment and to have achieved results before the next election, it should have started as soon as it took office. But Blair showed no interest in transport until recently, when it started popping up in focus-group discussions. As a senior minister put it, "as the economy is buoyant and there hasn't been much in the press about health and education, so attention turns to transport". And if the bloody focus groups think it is important, then it must be.

Prescott deserves sympathy. He has a thorough grasp of the issues and he was deeply hurt by a London Evening Standard leader which suggested that he lacked the intellectual capability to deal with Britain's transport crisis. Given a bit of cabinet-level support, he would have made more progress. He has also been damaged by a poor media image. He lacks a spin-doctor, a fatal mistake, and he is deeply inimical to journalists, whom he sees as out to get him. He is so thin-skinned that he is prone to ringing up editors after the publication of critical articles and berating them for half an hour or more.

Prescott, though, must bear some responsibility for the crisis. His worst trait is an inability to make decisions, and his dithering over the London Underground has got him into deep trouble. He has given Railtrack favourable treatment by granting the company sole bidding rights to run the sub-surface lines, in return for a vague promise that it will link in the Underground with the national rail network. But the whole basis of the arrangement - the public-private partnership - appears expensive and unworkable. Bids for the other two contracts, for the deep Tube lines, are only now being sought, and yet there is no money for investment in the system after March next year because the deals were supposed to be signed by then. Instead, an embarrassing bail-out by Brown will be necessary.

Prescott - who deep down would love to renationalise the railways - has also shown a bizarre ambivalence towards the private rail companies. His generosity towards Railtrack is all the more strange, given his public criticisms of the company. Indeed, he has played a poor hand badly on rail. His repeated public criticisms of the railway companies have merely demonstrated his impotence: the Tories had sewn up the contracts and created a light regulatory regime, ensuring that little could be done to change them.

Prescott has begun to repair the damage, calling a rail summit earlier this year which was very successful in bringing the disparate elements of the rail industry together for the first time and stimulating several joint initiatives. To show that the government is doing something on transport, the draft bill on rail legislation, giving a few extra powers to the regulator (and to Prescott himself) and, more important, giving statutory form to the Strategic Rail Authority, has just been published, although it is unlikely to get to the statute book until the middle of next year.

It will then form part of the bill that will give local councils the power to impose congestion-charging in town centres, the measure that Prescott hopes will get people out of their cars and on to public transport.

It is, though, also the issue that Blair thinks will frighten the (motorised) horses. If congestion-charging is to be politically possible, two things need to be done. First, all the revenue raised has to be spent on transport projects. That is what happens in Norway, the only European country to have implemented the idea successfully. In Britain, by contrast, we have a fudge. The Treasury agreed that the revenue could go to transport, but only for the first ten years.

Second, congestion-charging needs to be introduced alongside policies more friendly to the motorist in other respects. One possibility is to end the fuel tax escalator, whereby it goes up annually by 6 per cent above the rate of inflation, allowing the Treasury to rake in the equivalent of 1p on income tax every year.

If the car is to be curbed, it has to be seen as a worthwhile sacrifice. Our cities must become the kind of pedestrian-friendly environments commonplace on the Continent. Our residential areas should have 20mph zones where children could again play safely on the streets. Our public transport needs not just integration, but investment, seed-funded by government. Yet, despite Prescott's protestations, his transport budget has been cut. Spats with Blair over the public sector serve, as with his rows with the rail companies, to show his impotence. Prescott needs to create a vision that will excite people. It is not an easy task, especially with the populist Tories at his heels.

Prescott is too powerful to be sacked in this or any future reshuffle. But the spinning against him demonstrates his weakness. And it is a silly tactic. With the Tories trying to steal the initiative, Labour needs to row together rather than play silly games. Transport ought to be a natural Labour vote-winner: disaffection among suburban commuters surely helps explain the party's outstanding results in the outer London suburbs and South-eastern counties at the last election. But now the government is heading for paralysis, pleasing nobody. The Tories' approach may seem cynical but at least it will win them a few motorists' votes.

Christian Wolmar is an award winning writer and broadcaster specialising in transport. He was shortlisted as a Labour mayoral candidate in the 2016 London election, and stood as Labour's candidate in the Richmond Park by-election in December 2016. 

This article first appeared in the 19 July 1999 issue of the New Statesman, The transport row: who is to blame?