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Subject: Fw: Official: Blair's carhead government
Date: Tue, 28 May 2002 11:41:23 +0100

Blair's carhead government

Gridlock to last 10 years

Government slammed for transport policy chaos

Byers faces new fury from MPs

Gaby Hinsliff, chief political correspondent
Sunday May 26, 2002 - The Observer

A devastating report into the Government's transport strategy last night revealed that Britain's roads will remain gridlocked and its railways in chaos for the rest of this decade.

Branding the Government's entire transport blueprint as 'ill-balanced' and a waste of taxpayers' money, a powerful committee of MPs also bluntly warns that there is little prospect of raising the 34 billion needed from private firms to restore the crumbling railways by 2010.

In a damning blow for Stephen Byers, the Transport Secretary, the committee states that measures to combat congestion on the roads will also not happen in time, leaving drivers stewing in traffic jams, while the strategy pays only 'lip service' to safety.

Lord Birt - the former BBC chief hired as Tony Blair's transport guru - is witheringly dismissed by the Labour-chaired transport select committee as a 'casual enthusiast' whose 'blue skies thinking is no substitute for a considered analysis'.

The MPs demand action to force more drivers out of cars, despite fears of a backlash. They warn that even if the Government's targets to reduce congestion are reached they will shave an 'almost insignificant' time off car journeys anyway. 'We can expect to remain top of the European league table for longest commuting times and greatest car use,' says the report.

The committee makes clear the scale of the challenge, attacking almost every part of the Government's strategy. 'We have little confidence that the balance of the plan is right or that it will offer good value for money,' it concludes. 'No one shares the department's confidence about the ease of producing the planned scale of private funding. There are particular concerns over the levels of resource and the public-private funding balance for rail.'

Passenger groups have warned that such a shortfall will mean fare rises for rail travellers. As few as a quarter of the expected number of congestion charging schemes - Labour's key weapon to ease traffic gridlock by making motorists pay to drive through city centres - may go ahead by 2010. The report says that letting bus and train fares soar while refusing to hike taxes on motorists is 'incomprehensible', giving drivers no incentive to leave cars at home, while government targets to boost passenger rail travel by 50 per cent are unlikely to be met. Several projects also appear to be behind schedule.

Committee chair Gwyneth Dunwoody conceded, however, that the plan was a 'remarkable first attempt' at long-term thinking. Byers, who is expected to try to seize back the initiative on Wednesday by highlighting a crackdown on shoddy maintenance workers in the wake of the Potters Bar rail crash, insisted the criticism was unfair.

'I am not in the business of punishing the vast majority of people who choose to travel by car,' he said. 'The top priority is to put in place measures that will improve our public transport system.'

The Department of Transport attacked the report for 'misunderstanding' the plan, adding that several points raised were being tackled in Byers's review. Ministers are studying ways of forcing bus operators to lay on extra services and run later to discourage car use.

But the Tories immediately redoubled attacks. 'Labour has made car ownership the most expensive part of the family budget while presiding over a shambolic public transport system,' said Shadow Transport Secretary Theresa May. 'Gimmicks such as appointing a transport tsar have served only to confuse matters.'

Friends of the Earth said the attack was a 'brick-by-brick demolition' of Government policy.

Birt refused to appear before the committee. The MPs retorted that this showed 'the lack of accountability of such projects - and the quality of their resultant outputs'. Witnesses who appeared before the committee had described Birt as on a 'steep learning curve'.

Byers is now preparing to perform what insiders say will be 'radical' surgery on the Government's 10 Year Plan for transport improvements by 2010, in a frank admission that the original strategy was badly flawed - and that much of the committee's criticism is well aimed. The new version, to be published in July, is expected to centre on faster, cheaper bus and train travel to lure motorists out of cars. 'There are going to be some pretty fundamental changes,' said one source.

The committee also concludes that the French government is 'quite capable' of stopping illegal immigrants besieging Channel Tunnel trains, blaming British Ministers for not pushing the issue.

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