Darling shows his contempt for railways and the environment

It was perhaps inevitable, but the way that Alistair Darling has completely ignored the opportunity to produce a pre budget report with any significant environmental measures is shocking. In particular, his allocation of an immediate £700m to spend on roads confirms what we knew about him when he was transport secretary: that he had no interest in developing the railways or greener methods of transport, and was only keen to pander to the motoring lobby. His only sop to the railways is to speed up the introduction of 200 new carriages, which were going to be bought anyway and which may well not be able to be produced any more quickly due to capacity constraints at Derby. Buying foreign coaches would hardly stimulate the economy.

I never shared the enthusiasm for Darling shown by sections of the rail industry. He was put in there to keep things quiet after the disaster of Byers and did as he was told, managing to keep rail out of the headlines, and maintaining its existing structure which guaranteed that many millions of subsidy were wasted. Now rather than dusting off light rail schemes, bringing forward infrastructure schemes and announcing studies into electrification or even a high speed line, he has focussed his report on expanding motorways. But as I said at the beginning, it is nothing more than we all expected.

The wider concern is that the failure to adopt a green agenda for this report shows that the New Labour has learnt nothing from this crisis. In stimulating the economy, they should have focussed on sustainable economic development, trying to ensure that the whole mad borrowing and spending binge does not start again. In a world of limited resources, surely this crisis should have taught politicians that capitalism will eventually burn itself out without strict regulation and an emphasis on sustainable products.

In any case, economic growth may not be achievable. He has no more idea than you or me whether economic growth will return by the end of next year, yet that is what he has promised in his statement. So why not come clean and say, perhaps we cannot go back to a world in which economic growth is the driving force behind all our policies and that perhaps redistribution and spending on sustainable projects has to be the priority. I know that is not an easy platform on which to get re-elected, but someone has to start saying it soon.

  • Steve Bacon

    The VAT reduction aids the road lobby directly by lowering fuel costs, whereas there is no VAT on fares. It would have been far better to raise the threshold on income tax if the idea was to put money in people’s pockets. Best of all would be to invest in something tangible that would reduce reliance on the car, providing real jobs and stimulating the economy. There are any number of light-rail schemes that are well-researched and could be delivered relatively quickly, to say nothing of Crossrail, which surely could be completed far earlier if built during a recession rather than in boom times.

  • Peter Wright

    Surely the paucity of thinking in (higher) government circles id there for all to see. The reason the tax cuts, either by increasing thresholds or by lowering the monetary bands, is that the Revenue & Customs officials rule the roost. It’s the tail wagging the dog again.You can hear the argument – can’t do that – can’t do this.- too quick e will need at least 6-9 months to implement that. Problem is you can change Ministers but the behind office staff th so called Civil?? Servants don’t change they just keep on truckin’.

  • Dan

    It is very poor. Christian – after reading Nigel Harris’ interveiw with Minister Adonis I wondered what your own take would be on the new Minister? Too early to say I guess so no doubt you reserve judegment, but Adonis certainly seemed to have the measure of Nigel and must have been relatively well briefed – or had briefed himself – or Nigel would have been more circumspect. Maybe Adonis does not have the influence any more to put forward the schemes he seemed keen on.

    I seem to recall that in the 1930s govt boosted the economy through things like the Underground New Works programme, electrification on the SR and probably works on the other national railway networks. Sadly our crew seem to not even have the vision of our less than bold inter war leaders…

  • Andy Sapir

    I agree with every word you said Christian. I’m a Labour member but this government’s record on the environment and the rail network is an unmitigated disaster and I feel ashamed. I’m thinking of resigning from the party in protest.

  • Kevin Steele

    Yes – agree totally. And what’s all this about “bringing public infrastructure projects forward” But what exactly?? More roads?

    No mention at all about the grand plan about railway electrification that Hoon was talking about only a few weeks ago. All seems to have been forgotten about now.

    Like Andy I’m a Labour supporter but this government is a total failure when it comes to transport and I’m sorry to find myself sympathising with some of what the blue party is talking about.

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  • Colin McKenzie

    Agree completely. If there is to be a spending spree, let’s spend on projects that will reduce our dependence on fossil fuel – not just in transport but also in buildings. Such schemes look eexpensive, but will give Britain a real advantage when the recovery comes and oil demand starts to exced supply again. They are also generally quite labour-intensive to do.

  • Its a bit rich to be whinging about lack of capacity to build new trains when all the way through the 1990s commentators were squealing for new trains to be introduced ASAP. Perhaps if the replacement of rolling stock had been more gradual many of those companies who have now gone under could have survived in the longer term. The rot really set in when Thatcher closed the likes of Swindon and Horwich in the 1980s.

  • Kevin Steele

    Yes and no – the reason why all the old workshops were closed was largely because when BREL was broken up they came under foreign ownership (ABB, Bombardier, Alstom etc) who could manufacture trains in foreign plants. Britain was indeed unique as BR was the only major state owned railway corporation that still made (or at least designed then outsourced the construction of) its own rolling stock.

    I don’t agree however that train building capacity will be a problem – the new batch of Pendolinos for the WCML will be made in Alstom’s plants in Italy for example – the Siemens Desiro trains which are to be bought for the latest rolling stock replacement programme in Scotland are made on the continent as well.

  • Exile

    I’m afraid I don’t blame Darling really. Like all chancellors before him since the 1950s he sees the railways as an enormous black hole down which taxpayers’ money disappears whilst its customers never cease moaning. The Tories imagined that by privatising the railways the government could shrug its shoulders when voters complain about train services – instead the government ends up paying double the subsidy in real terms, cannot control how the money is spent, still gets the blame for poor service (most people still refer to “British Rail”!) and can’t afford to renationalise.

  • Bob Battersby

    Darling is just one of long, never ending line of politicians defending an unsustainable status quo. When Peak Oil hits, he knows he’ll be out of the picture.