Addressing the car pandemic

John Prescott denies he ever said it, which seems strange, because he should have said it: drivers need to be priced out of their cars, because if they are not, Britain will slowly come to a halt. Now, after presiding over a litany of transport failures, the government has awakened to the reality. Sweet talk and clever talk, combining appeals to self-interest and the good of society, have achieved little. The number of vehicles on the road rises inexorably, as do journey times, as do carbon dioxide emissions. It was Ken Livingstone who led the way with a congestion-charge gamble for London that Tony Blair and his cabinet were frightened of endorsing. Now that it has proved a success, ministers seek to proclaim it as their own, while cities across the UK and further afield prepare to emulate it.

Step forward Alistair Darling, Secretary of State for Dampening Down Troublesome Issues. He has accomplished the task in his three years in charge of transport by rarely raising his head above the parapet. Now he has finally embraced risk, with his pay-as-you-go proposal to charge drivers according to the route and time they choose - from 2p to £1.34 per mile. The idea of satellite tracking raises serious civil-liberties questions. Supermarkets already know far too much about us. The government does, too, and through its identity card plans, it is showing a rapacious appetite to know even more. The way the technology is used to monitor our car movements will have to take these concerns into account.

Other problems are raised. By reducing or abolishing the annual car tax disc, the government would remove an incentive to buy smaller models. That, however, could be addressed by taking the size of the car into account in any pay-as-you-go system. Then there is the politics, or rather the politics of candour that so often bedevils this government. The fuel-duty idea does not seem to have been cobbled together on the back of an envelope, so why was it omitted from Labour's manifesto? Only two months ago, voters were provided with a series of bland pledges to create a "modern transport infrastructure".

Still, the principles underlying the scheme are laudable. Demand management is a necessary tool in dealing with congestion, using financial penalties to encourage drivers to keep off certain roads at certain times. This, logically, must be extended to trunk roads and motorways during rush hours.

Darling has made a start, but only a start. As ever with this crop of ministers, they seek technocratic solutions to circumvent more difficult political decisions. We have a transport strategy only in name. There is little that integrates it with our environmental concerns. The investment failure of the 1980s, the privatisation failure in the 1990s have been followed by a failure of courage in the present decade.

Far from being too expensive - as the fuel protest rabble of 2000 claimed - driving in this country has never been cheaper. Just count the number of cars purchased each year and cars currently registered (a staggering 25 million, predicted to rise to 40 million within a few years). Our train services might be showing the odd flicker of improvement, but such has been the trauma that passengers still tend to show gratitude if they arrive at their destination at all, and given half a chance they would prefer to sit in lonesome gridlock on the roads. As for freight, hauliers now unthinkingly take the motorway option.

When in doubt, this government announces a review by an eminent outsider. Early next year, Rod Eddington, the outgoing chief executive of BA, will pronounce on the state of our transport system. If he confines himself to mediating between the number of new motorway lanes and bypasses, then he will follow an illustrious line of failures. If he seeks to appease the car lobby with proposals that are fiscally neutral, then he will have missed the opportunity to convey some hard truths.

If, however, he addresses the societal challenge of hyper-mobility - this generation's insatiable desire to travel anywhere, any time, at the lowest cost and irrespective of the damage done - then he will be on to something. Eddington might begin by looking closer to home. The aviation industry is one of the world's great polluters. Airbus and Boeing, aided by state subsidies, vie to go bigger and better. The cheap and cheerful airlines compete to send us away for the weekend at far less than the price of a theatre ticket. Britain says it cannot act unless Europe acts. Europe says it cannot act unless America acts, and there is more chance of a West Coast Mainline train arriving on time than there is of George W Bush acting against his ailing airline industry to help save the planet.

A Hogwarts school for politicians

You know Europe is in trouble when the Belgians and the Dutch are at each other's throats. An apology was sought, and given, after the Belgian foreign minister described the prime minister of the Netherlands as "a mixture of Harry Potter and inoffensive small-mindedness, a man in whom I detect no trace of charisma". The victim of this slight, Jan Peter Balkenende, is the spitting image of the nerdy, bespectacled boarding-school hero.

Surely we, in the land of HP, can do better than that. The NS offers the following roles: Jack Straw is Ron Weasley. Charles Clarke has the sartorial elegance of a Hagrid. Patricia Hewitt or Tessa Jowell as Professor McGonagall? What about Ruth Kelly, plus hair extensions, as Hermione? Gordon Brown bears a striking resemblance to Sirius Black. Tony Blair would make a perfect Draco Malfoy. As for He Who Shall Not Be Named, readers' answers on a postcard . . .

This article first appeared in the 13 June 2005 issue of the New Statesman, G8 protest: how far should you go?