The Tories can change their spots

The Tories’ transport policy has not exactly has not exactly set the world alight in recent years. Indeed, it seems to have been almost non-existent which has been a big wasted opportunity since transport has not exactly been one of New Labour’s success areas.

There has been plenty of scope for attack, notably the chaos on the railways, the decline in bus usage, growing congestion, the lack of infrastructure investment and the failure – until very recently – to reduce the death toll on the roads.

The Tories have, however, consistently failed to understand what to do when they are not in government. The art of opposition is to scrutinise carefully everything that your opponents are doing, pick holes in it and come up with decent alternative ideas. Simple really.

But the various Tory transport spokesman I have spoken to over the past few years have shown little detailed knowledge of the subject and no understanding what to do about it. The manifesto commitment to ‘end Labour’s war on the motorist’ was a vacuous bit of hot air that made zero impact. And in any case, what war? The one that has, at last, resulted in a significant reduction in road deaths thanks to speed cameras and road humps?

Alan Duncan, the latest incumbent in the hot seat of shadow Transport Secretary clearly has very little interest in the job. After three months in the job, he famously responded to a journalist’s enquiry about the replacement for the High Speed Trains fleet, by saying he did not have a clue and wasn’t it all a matter for the train operators and therefore nothing to do with government!

Therefore when I went to a fringe meeting being addressed by Duncan at the recent Tory party conference, I did not expect to be much enlightened about Tory thinking on transport strategy. I was right. Duncan managed to completely ignored the rather interesting advertised topic which was ‘Local transport for local people; who should run transport?’

Instead he gave a 20 minute peroration on…..street furniture and how there was too much of it. Now, on that he has a point. There are too many signs and they often ruin the townscape. (although could someone explain to me why there are very few signs explaining parking rules and those that do exist measure about six inches by four even though they are on enormous solid poles?)

But in the scheme of things, street furniture is a minor issue. Some of Duncan ‘s local party activitists were infuriated by his speech because they had come for a proper debate on what is quite a difficult issue – who exactly should make decisions on transport matters that effected their constituents.

The one interesting part of his speech was when he cited the excellent work being carried out by Conservative-controlled Kensington & Chelsea which has removed much of the street furniture and the hated anti-pedestrian pens on crossings in High Street Kensington, turning into a much better shopping area. He explained how the councillors had to do battle with their own highway staff to get the scheme through and that a councillor had to sign off the scheme personally because it supposedly represented a greater risk than conventional street treatments.

There is cycle parking in the middle of the High Street and I thought this was a particularly interesting example because I remember when the GLC was abolished nearly 20 years ago, the then insanely right wing council leader Nicholas Freeman – who was also responsible for the demolition of the lovely old town hall on a Bank Holiday Monday in order to avoid his own council safeguarding it – removed all the cycle lanes arguing that cyclists were a menace.

The lesson I draw from that is that the Tories can change their spots. I said as much at another fringe meeting, arguing that the Tories should not automatically just follow a slavish pro-motorist agenda, just because we are all motorists. Conservative values, I suggested, may indeed lead to measures which require the motorists’ freedom to be more circumscribed than at present. The applause I received highlights, of course, the division within the Tory party between purely business interests and those of many of the rank and file activists who aspire to the bicycling vicars vision of Britain espoused at times by John Major. Others in the audience mocked my ‘wetness’.

However, one of the Tory frontbench spokesmen, Julian Brazier, asked if I could come and have a cup of tea with him in the Commons should he retain his job in the post-Howard era. That suggests there may be people in the Tory party more open to new ideas than the hapless Duncan, who presumably will find himself on the back benches if Howard’s successor bases his shadow ministerial appointments on past performance in the job.

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