It is ten years since the relatively new Labour government issued a remarkably sensible document entitled A new deal for transport which was supposed to bring in a different approach to transport policy. Rather than the old ‘predict and provide’ model favoured by the Tories, which had resulted in the biggest road building programme seen since the Romans, the idea was that transport had to be ‘sustainable’ with the unstated but clear sentiment that mobility might have to be constrained or limited in order to protect the environment.
Together with a ten year plan produced a couple of years later, Labour was to reverse years of transport policy based solely on the needs of business. As Iain Docherty and Jon Shaw, the editors of Traffic Jam, a new book assessing Labour’s record on transport since 1997 put it, New Deal was supposed to signal ‘the return of proactive state intervention and social conscience to politics after 17 years of neoliberal-inspired marketisation’. The old Tory obsession with the market was to be ditched in favour of a policy tailored to the new environmental concerns being widely expressed among the electorate.
In practice, under John Prescott, Tony Blair’s first transport minister, aimed to ensure that people would get out of their cars and onto public transport by shifting resources and, crucially, government attention, to more sustainable means of travel. The expressions ‘integrated transport’ and ‘sustainable’ became all the rage. To provide the basis of where to invest, multi-modal studies were commissioned looking at key transport corridors. Rather than, as under the old model when the solution was always simply building a road, the studies would examine alternatives and bring forward a coherent.
So what happened? Or rather, where did it go wrong? As the book edited by Docherty and Shaw shows, transport policy has been one of Labour’s worst failures, lacking any strategy or coherence. Analysing each mode separate, the conclusion of the various authors is almost identical. Any notion of sustainability has been abandoned ‘in favour of a form of pragmatism…that is not only devoid of principle or consistency but which also descends further into little more than shopping lists of transport projects, many of them abandoned as their escalating costs come into conflict with their expected achievements’. So not only has ‘sustainability’ been abandoned, but all we have been left with is congestion and the other negatives of a failed transport policy
The multimodal studies are an interesting example of this failure. The various studies put forward a variety of schemes and all argued that it was no good simply implementing part of the programme, such as the new roads, but the outcome would only be effective if the whole package were implemented. So what did Alistair Darling, Labour’s transport secretary between 2002 and 2006 do? He did precisely what the studies said should not happen: he picked out the most favoured road schemes and simply ignored the rest of the ideas.
Indeed, at the time, the now deceased Strategic Rail Authority (note the first word of its name!) had no connection with the multimodal studies, and no budget for allocating rail schemes proposed in the studies. Yet, ‘joined up government’ was one of the watchwords of first Blair administrations.
No one suggests that devising a transport policy that manages to be both environmentally sustainable and offers reasonable mobility to both people and business is easy. However, one of the recurring themes of the book is that Labour has had long enough, over ten years, to sort out a transport policy that at least gets some of the way there. In fact, Labour seems to have come up with a dead end.
Labour has flirted occasionally with the idea of a national road pricing scheme, the only truly rational transport policy, but shied away from it as soon as it met any kind of opposition, even the mad rantings of the ignorant motoring brigade. Indeed, if anything characterises Labour’s approach to transport policy, it has been its readiness to shy away from anything that makes it look anti-car. Labour even ditched the publication of a walking strategy, a perfectly sensible idea, because Labour politicians feared that it would be ridiculed in the right wing press as a ‘ministry of silly walks’.
Transport has been a neglected area of policy because governments have traditionally refused to face up to these sorts of difficulties. Yet, as this book demonstrates, transport is not just important because we all need to get around and want to do it as quickly and efficiently as possible. Transport affects people’s lives in all kinds of other ways. For example, people living in busy streets have less contact with their neighbours and therefore form less good communities than those on quiet streets. Transport can even contribute to obesity and ill-health, as well as killing 3,000 people on the roads every year, and transport is responsible for between a quarter and a third of global C02 emissions.
So can we hope for anything better in the next ten years? It seems doubtful. Just take the immediate reaction to the rising price of oil. While high oil prices may indeed be painful in the short term, they are necessary for several reasons. First, they will encourage people to use other modes – note how people flocked to using trains and, especially, buses when the price of petrol soared in the summer. Secondly, they will reduce overall consumption as demonstrated during the period of the fuel tax escalator, abandoned by Labour in 2000, which was the first time in a generation that car use stopped rising. And thirdly, high oil prices are doing the motoring industry a hidden favour since they will encourage not only the development of alternative fuels, but the exploitation of oil reserves that are more expensive to extract.
But what did Labour do when oil prices started rising. Panic, nakedly, and scrap the fuel tax rise scheduled for the autumn which would, of course, have passed completely unnoticed as prices were plummeting, demonstrating precisely the point express throughout the Traffic Jam book: transport requires a long term approach delivered by a government which knows what it wants and where it is going. And that seems a distant prospect.
Iain Docherty and Jon Shaw, Traffic Jam, ten years of ‘sustainable transport in the UK’, Policy Press, £25.