IT’S six months since Alistair Darling landed the Government’s least popular top job: Transport Secretary. The post is disliked by politicians because the hapless minister attracts endless criticism for the mistakes of their predecessors – pace Stephen Byers. Transport policy is too long-term a proposition to offer ministers much popularity.
Darling, who was sent to transport with the limited remit of getting the issue out of the headlines and trying to make the trains run on time, has, through good fortune, been invisible: no major rail accidents, a slowly improving train performance and, best of all, plenty of action on the news agenda elsewhere, such as Iraq, the firefighters’ strike and so on.
He is the ultimate Teflon man, much more non-stick even than his bosses, Brown and Blair. Who, for example, remembers that it was on his watch that the 75p rise in pensions was sanctioned, or that in 1999 as Social Services Secretary he sanctioned cutting back the benefits of disabled people, provoking the largest backbench revolt of that Labour government?
But transport could be his undoing if he thinks that he can keep his head below the parapet for the next couple of years, which tends to be as long as anyone stays in the job. Sooner or later events will catch up with him and he will be the target of a media onslaught.
The nub of the transport problem is that there are simply too many people travelling: the roads, trains, Tube and airports are full. There are two solutions: reduce demand or increase supply. Darling seems unwilling to do either. In fact, he needs to do both. “Holes in the road” czars and extra lanes on motorways and trunk roads are all very well, but they do not address the fundamental issue. Our transport system is close to breaking down.
On reducing demand, there are lots of things that can be done, but they take a bit of courage. Congestion charging is probably the most important way, but Darling has sat on the fence over the London scheme. He knows that ultimately it is a sensible policy. It was, after all, the Labour government which introduced the legislation that allows councils to impose the charge. Yet, instead of endorsing the broad thrust of Ken Livingstone’s policy, he says he will wait and see whether it works.
In addition, there are countless more minor but worthwhile measures that would reduce the demand for car travel. Many businesses, hospitals and universities, for example, still encourage people to drive by offering free car parking – worth upwards of £400 per year – when they could be encouraged to suggest alternatives.
When the University of Southampton ran out of parking spaces a decade ago, rather than build more it decided to lay on a cheap bus service and put up lots of bike racks. The result: many students leave their cars at home and use the bike and the bus.
There have been successes in other towns, too. In York, there has been a 14 per cent decline over 20 years in morning-peak car miles, thanks to a host of measures which encourage alternative modes of transport. Everywhere else, traffic has risen. And York’s economy is booming because it has become so much more pleasant to visit.
This shows that the rise of transpor t use is not inevitable. But it takes a coherent political approach, something that has been sadly lacking ever since New Labour took office. One recent example is telling. Earlier this year, the train operating companies effectively scrapped the highly popular Network Card by imposing a minimum fare of £10. The card encouraged offpeak travel with a third off the fare. What did Darling do? Sit on his hands. Yet the move directly contradicted the Government’s policy of encouraging rail use and reducing rush-hour congestion.
On the supply side, while the occasional new road can help overcome specific bottlenecks, on the whole, especially in London and the overcrowded South-East, major road-building schemes are a political non-starter. So, to relieve overcrowding on the Tube and the railways, Darling needs to tap on his good friend Gordon Brown’s shoulder and ask him for money to build schemes such as the two Crossrail lines – total cost some £6 billion but worth it – and the proposed new North-South railway.
He also has to make a series of brave decisions. On the railways, he needs to realise that the franchising system hasn’t worked and that the operators need to be merged with the not-for-dividends Network Rail. And on the Tube, he should accept that the widely hated PPP is an expensive mess and that control of the system has to be given to the Mayor, however much that rankles.
The biggest trouble with Darling, and all his predecessors, is that they have had no vision of a better transport system and its importance to both the economy and the environment. Britain lags at least 20 years behind its competitors in Europe in trying to create a decent urban environment because of the failure to adopt proper integrated transport policies. Indeed, the very word ” integrated”, once so popular in Government circles, has been quietly dropped.
The 10-year transport plan launched by John Prescott two years ago has been an abject failure. Since its publication, traffic has slowed down, train performance has plummeted and overcrowding on all modes of transport has got worse. It is only when transport hits the headlines that the Government seems to realise the extent of the crisis.
Even the best plan in the world – and we all have our pet schemes – cannot work if the Transport Secretary doesn’t have proper backing from the Prime Minister. While Prescott floundered, what good ideas he did have were stamped on by Number 10 during Labour’s first term, and we have had five wasted years as a result.
Instead of trying to serve out his time by keeping in the shadows, Darling needs to lead from the front. He must persuade the Prime Minister that only with leadership and conviction can the Government overcome the transport problems of 59 million people on such a small island. If the Government loses its nerve every time there is a disobliging headline, it will never achieve anything. If the mud is not to stick on Teflon man, he needs his PM behind him.