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28 July 2004Printer-friendly versionEmail a friend

Getting us nowhere fast
Think-tanks and pundits are now in the driving seat of Britain's transport policy.

by Austin Williams

A report by the Institute for Public Policy Research (ippr) that recommends the overhauling of road funding in favour of a national congestion charge was released at the same time that UK transport minister Alistair Darling launched his department's new White Paper, The Future of Transport (1), the government's second significant transport policy statement since 1998.

But it was the ippr report that stole most of the headlines: 'Car tolls to make £16billion'; 'Ten years of road chaos, then its pay as you crawl'; 'Motorists face road tolls of £1.30 per mile' (2).

The ippr report argues for charging based on how far you drive, at which particular time of the day and at which location. Effectively, it wants to price out congestion by making it cheaper to drive at uncongested times. There's a potentially fatal flaw in the logic of this proposal - that there'll be more congestion at cheaper times of the day - but the scheme will be variable to compensate for people playing the system. The prices will change to best affect our travel decisions, made possible by 'technological' gadgetry such as global satellite positioning to follow our every movement.

Monitoring aside, the ippr proposals are pretty draconian variations to the road taxation system. At the moment, £1.30 per mile is expected to be at the higher end of the charging scale, but this figure is the equivalent of six times the current price of petrol. If the idea goes through, the authors suggest that up to four times as much money can be made from this measure as is currently raised by the cumbersome road tax license. Indeed, they magnanimously suggest that the road tax be abolished to sugar the pill. It all makes the recent Independent Transport Commission (ITC) suggestion, from which many of these ideas are borrowed, that 'the only effective way of achieving a sustained cut in congestion appears to be to introduce some road user charging on our busiest roads' (3), seem rather tame.

Transport lobbyists often piggyback off high-profile events and so it is hardly surprising that the ippr stole some of the government's thunder on the day of unveiling its new White Paper. But on closer inspection, it appears that the ippr report is not in competition with the government's report; in fact, it represents a strategic companion document.

Normally (especially given the rules of participation set up under this government), interest groups would be consulted; asked to input; given advisory status, and their views incorporated into the government's own text. Six years ago, then transport minister John Prescott's original White Paper may have laid out a series of proscriptive questions to frame the debate, but at least there was a sense of leadership, assessment and interpretation. Not so with this White Paper. Here we have a subsidiary document by an unelected organisation that forms one of the central considerations within the government's official policy statement.

It is a sign of the times. The central change between this report and the previous White Paper is in the role of the voluntary sphere in developing and implementing policy. The new White Paper wants 'delivery partners to deploy smarter, innovative, local and regional transport strategies' - which could mean community organisations, quangos, local interest groups and environmental lobbyists sitting alongside local authorities and determining transport policy.

For example, the government wants to promote 'working with the voluntary sector to maximise their contribution to increasing walking and cycling'. Expect more educational intervention in schools to talk of the horrors of the school run. Voluntary groups in three trial areas will be implementing 'behavioural change programmes…to train [children] to walk and cycle'. The young, it seems, will be assimilated into healthy lifestyles whether they like it or not.

Expect long drawn-out participatory inquiries disputing the levels of harm of a new road
The new White Paper doesn't seem as anti-car as did Prescott's White Paper of 1998. Rather than baldly talking about 'reducing the need to travel' (4), Darling's document says, 'The ability to travel offers all of us very real benefits and extending mobility is important'. It goes on to say that a long-term strategic plan - for 30 years, not 10 years - is vital to set in train the necessary long-term adjustments to financial and construction programmes, but also to provide a vision of where transport planning and infrastructure spending should be targeted. About time, say those few transport commentators who aren't simply cynical about such ambitious long-termism.

However, reports of the premature death of Prescott's plans ('How Prescott's masterplan was dumped' (5)) are greatly exaggerated, and for all its warm words, Darling's proposals are in many ways more of the same. Not exactly business as usual, but whereas John Prescott's first role in Blair's government was as the head of the new (and short-lived) super-ministry the Department for the Environment, Transport and the Regions (DETR), whose aim was to balance the needs of transport provision with the needs of the environment, Darling's proposals allow new road capacity to be built, 'assuming that any environmental and societal costs are justified'.

This is the classic sustainability 'triple bottom line' criteria of marrying social, environmental and economic benefit. These three may be contradictory, but the process of discussing the options is now seen to be more important than actually reaching a decision. In this way, before anything is built, proposals will have to be vetted to show that any social benefit does not harm the environment and vice versa.

Darling's White Paper says that roads and streets now need to meet 'the needs of local people', encouraging local authorities to 'reallocate space to benefit pedestrians…designed primarily for the local community rather than traffic'. Notwithstanding the fact that roads are obviously designed to assist the mobility of the people who use them, the idea that they should be designed primarily to suit a local community is a rather parochial criterion. The notion of universal provision has been on the way out for some time, but now NIMBYism seems to be a primary determinant of government transport policy.

Instead of assessing whether a road or rail link improves the speed and efficiency of personal travel, bypasses 'should improve the quality of life for local communities but be designed in ways that offer environmental gains, reduce community severance and improve air quality'. A tall order. Expect long drawn-out participatory inquiries as competing interests dispute the various levels of harm that building a road will have. Cycling versus exhaust pipes, bunny rabbits versus roads, children playing marbles in the streets versus speed-freaks. Think tanks versus highways engineers. Meanwhile, expect many more tiers of intervention from local transport 'facilitators' to counsel us in our despair at our inability to reach our destination.

The government insists that 'we cannot build our way out of the problems we face' (6). Instead, it wants us to get involved in deciding how best to limit our aspirations to manageable levels. To do that, Alistair Darling says that he wants to involve 'all interested parties to see how we can move further and faster'. But this is just a rhetorical flourish - he doesn't really mean it literally.

Austin Williams is the director of the Future Cities Project and author of The Macro World of Microcars (Black Dog Publications, 2004).

(1) The future of transport, Department of Transport, 20 July 2004

(2) Car tolls to make £16billion, Daily Mirror, 21 July 2004; Ten years of road chaos, then it's pay as you crawl, Daily Telegraph, 21 July 2004; Motorists face road tolls of £1.30 per mile, Guardian, 21 July 2004

(3) 'Transport Pricing: Better for Travellers', ITC

(4) 'A New Deal for Transport', DETR, Transport White Paper 1998

(5) How Prescott's masterplan was dumped, Guardian, 21 July 2004

(6) The future of transport, Department of Transport, 20 July 2004

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