Alexander and the environment – is it real commitment?

There is the whiff of change in the air. At first the replacement of one rather dull Scottish lawyer by another as transport secretary was viewed as a insignificant shift that would leave previous policies intact. But Douglas Alexander is showing, within the limitations set by his friend Gordon Brown at the Treasury, that he is no mere Alistair Darling Mark Two and that his agenda is rather wider than simply keeping transport out of the news.

Of course there has been little time for the new man to do much, but several recent announcements suggest that policies may be shifting and, in some cases, surprisingly fast for transport where changes normally are likened to turning around a supertanker.

First, as reported in this magazine, there is no doubt that Alexander is showing a far greater interest in the environmental aspects of transport policies than his predecessor (Transport Times 20). He has emphasised this in his speeches and emphasised that road pricing is a matter of ‘when’ and not ‘if’. While admittedly so far this is a matter of words rather than action, it does feel as if there is a change in the mood on climate change and the role of transport, as witnessed by the recent independent inspectors report on the East of England Regional Spatial Strategy.

Secondly, one tangible change that Alexander has already made is the increase in funding for Cycling England. I have a vested interest here as a member of the board but even viewed totally objectively, that represents a real change in emphasis. Darling, faced with a request for a £70m budget for Cycling England, showed total disdain by merely tossing in £5m of existing funds. By doubling that at a time when the Department says money is tight shows real commitment by Alexander for an area of spending that is win-win for the government, not only reducing congestion but helping to make people fitter and healthier.

Thirdly, in announcing the base case for the new East and West Midlands rail franchises, Alexander made clear that they involved growth and expansion. Under Darling, the franchise policy had looked increasingly like trying to screw the most out of the train operators with the minimum of additional provision which already is bearing fruit in terms of First Capital Connect (the stupid new name for ex Thameslink and Great Northern) refusing to accept cheap tickets at peak times out of London and GNER doubling car park charges, but there is definitely a different flavour to the two Midlands ones. However, whether that will survive the bidding process is another matter.

Finally, there was the suggestion by junior minister Gillian Merron at the Commons Transport Committee, that the government may be willing, after all, to give councils new powers over bus services, something Darling refused ever to consider. As Ken Livingstone has pointed out, this could be a positive policy for Labour at election time and it has been difficult to understand why, given falling bus patronage in the provinces, this issue has not come to the fore before. A return to pre 1985 regulation is, of course, unlikely, but there are plenty of half way houses that could bring about an increase in bus usage.

There is a wider political context that explains why this might just be more than a few straws in the wind. Tony Blair’s authority is collapsing daily. The rigid rule from No 10 that pertained while Darling was in post can no longer be imposed and therefore departments have more room to operate independently. All of which suggests that transport policy may be rather more interesting than it was under Darling’s lengthy ‘don’t do anything to frighten the horses’ tenure.

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