Looking for Labour’s transport policy

Detecting a coherent pattern in the current government’s transport policy is rather like trying to find a free parking space outside my flat on an Arsenal match day. It is no exaggeration to say that the last time there was any attempt to knit together environmental and transport policies was when John Prescott was the second most powerful man in the land and ran a department which comprised both responsibilities.

However, even an old battle hardened hack like me was rather shocked to hear a speech from a senior Department of Transport official at a seminar on congestion at London’s City Hall speak about the government’s policy of ‘modal agnosticism’. This, to the uninitiated, means that the government does not care how you get there as long as you do.

I first heard of this type of thinking four years ago when at a Rail magazine conference I quizzed the then Transport Secretary, Alistair Darling, about supporting rail over domestic flights. He said firmly that it was not the government’s business to support one mode or another, and that in any case the government was not able to do so. This pretence of impotence in the face of market forces given the vast number of tools at the government’s disposal ranging from planning control to fiscal policy seemed disingenuous to me at the time but in my naivety I had not realised that it was actually a deliberate strategy.

It is scarcely credible that such an expression should be used to describe government transport policy. It is as if we were living in an age before any awareness of the environmental effects of transport had become apparent, sometime in the early 1800s possibly before the first steam engine rumbled across our green and pleasant land. The days when John Prescott put his reputation on the line by saying that he would have failed if he did not get people out of their cars and onto public transport seem just as distant.

Ruth Kelly, whose thinking is coloured strongly by her training as an economist, seems to have taken ‘modal agnosticism’ to new heights. It is now apparent that universal road pricing is not going to happen. There is no longer the fiction that it will be introduced in 10 years time and it is even doubtful whether any of the regional schemes will ever see the light of day now that government interest in the concept is waning.

It is difficult to trace exactly what has happened to change road pricing policy from the days when Douglas Alexander used to give strong speeches about its centrality to Labour’s transport policy. The start of the retreat can possibly be dated to the spring of 2004 when Alistair Darling, the cautious man whose caution has now got him into trouble, inexplicably scrapped lorry road user charging which would have been an excellent test bed for universal road pricing

Despite backing from the Eddington report, the crucial turning point was last year’s disastrous anti-road pricing petition on the Downing Street website which attracted 1.7 million signatories. That episode, too, exposed the government’s pusillanimity. Instead of pointing out that the petition was based on a falsehood – that the specific amounts people would pay per mile had been calculated at £1.30 per mile and that a £200 tag would have to be bought – Tony Blair did a ridiculous webcast with Richard Hammond of Top Gear in which he said, with his worst Bambi expression. ‘Gosh’, he said – or words to that effect – ‘someone told me there’s 6 -7 million more cars and over the next 20 years there are going to be lots more. No one in the jungle warned me about that!’  So we had 10 years of a prime minister who showed so little concern for transport policy that he did not know that there were more cars on the road every year. Mamma Mia.

When Alexander left when Brown became Prime Minister, the appointment of a minister who was on her way down and clearly was not in a position to put through difficult and controversial policies like road pricing set the seal on the abandonment of the scheme. With the continued support for the expansion of aviation and the scrapping of the environmentally road scheme at Stonehenge and of virtually all light rail projects, it is clear that there is no coherent policy within the Department on the trade off between transport and environmental considerations. Modal agnosticism rules OK.