If your train is late, you should blame Gordon Brown

The attacks on Prescott are nothing more than old-fashioned snobbery and class prejudice
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The Independent Culture
ANDREW GRICE, The Independent's esteemed political editor, is my favourite for the journalistic understatement awards. Commenting yesterday on reports that Tony Blair is to order John Prescott to "get to grips" with transport, Andrew concluded that "such comments will infuriate Mr Prescott." I should think the effect in the Department of Employment, Transport and the Regions was more akin to a nuclear explosion. I doubt whether John has yet come down off the ceiling.

The targeting of Prescott by "senior Labour sources" is just one of several examples in the last week of members of the Cabinet popular with the wider labour movement being briefed against in the run up to the reshuffle. Even Mo Mowlam has been getting a bit of it. The worse case has been Frank Dobson, who it is claimed has been told that he will be out of the Cabinet and faces political oblivion if he does not stand as the "Stop Ken Livingstone" candidate for mayor of London.

With Glenda Jackson, the Minister for Transport in London, also being rubbished as "on her way out", transport is beginning to look like an albatross around the Government's neck, instead of one of our strongest assets. The party of public transport is being hammered on the issue by the Tory press.

The press attacks on Prescott are nothing other than good old-fashioned snobbery and class prejudice. But for aides associated with the Prime Minister to have a go at Prescott is bizarre, because John has been tussling with Gordon Brown and others for two years to be allowed to "get to grips" with transport. It's all very well for the No 10 teenyboppers to start complaining that the voters are getting fed up with the chaos on Britain's roads, railways and the London Underground, but perhaps they would like to explain why time has still not been found in the Parliamentary calendar for the Transport Bill.

Prescott's inheritance from the Tories is a nightmare. The promised investment of pounds 27 billion by Railtrack into the rail network was exposed as a sham in The Economist - almost two thirds of it is routine maintenance. It is predicted that the rail service is likely to worsen and prices rise. Railtrack must stand as one of the most hated companies in the country. Its "Project Destiny" review of investment policy suggested that the company would save money if it used "patch and mend" to prolong the life of existing assets instead of renewing them.

Again, according to The Economist, Railtrack's only big investment project - with Richard Branson's Virgin Trains - is turning into a shambles. Railtrack have undertaken to improve the west coast line by 2005 under a revenue- sharing scheme under which Virgin must introduce new improved rolling stock. But rumours in the industry suggest that Railtrack will only complete on time by "skimping on quality, storing up future problems." Others just think Railtrack won't even meet the deadline.

The situation on the London Underground is even more dire. The failure of investment in the past means that there is a vast backlog of improvements. London Underground estimate these will cost over pounds 550 million every year for seven or eight years, and then pounds 400 million every year after that. John Prescott rightly rejected outright privatisation, but is hemmed in by the Treasury's dogmatic refusal to let the Underground raise the resources to invest in its infrastructure. We all know that when John settled on "Public Private Partnership" (PPP) as the means to raise the resources, it was because it was the only option the Treasury would sanction. It gets worse - the private bit of the partnership is Railtrack.

Not only that, but the Government saw fit to make Helen Liddell the minister for London Underground. She is the Member of Parliament for Airdrie and Shotts, in Scotland. This only compounds the feeling that London is run by remote Ministers with little interest in their problems. Helen Liddell was mercilessly lambasted this week after she announced on Friday a long list of new Tube shut-downs.

All the independent observers agree that PPP will cost more than the alternatives. The House of Commons Select Committee on Transport concluded: "there might have been advantages to be gained from retaining the Underground as a vertically integrated railway rather than separating its operation and its infrastructure." The London School of Economics Greater London Group said PPP was "flawed in principle and impracticable," and "threatens to impose burdensome long term pressures on Underground operating revenues, including the prospect of continually rising fares in order to pay back up front investment by private contractors."

The tragedy is that there is actually a cheaper alternative, if Treasury rules could be changed, that would enable LU to raise money through borrowing or bonds. The unions agree, pointing to New York, where the Metropolitan Transport Authority was allowed to issue bonds secured by revenue, and to sell tax credits, providing two-thirds of the necessary funding for modernisation. What is more, these policies are cheaper than PPP. The Government has already changed the rules to allow Manchester Airport to finance investment on similar lines.

Every declared London mayoral candidate - myself, Trevor Phillips, Steven Norris and Jeffrey Archer - is against PPP. The consensus - ranging all the way from Max Hastings to Jimmy Knapp - that the Tube should not be privatised, part-privatised, mortgaged off or given to ghastly private companies like Railtrack to run at the expense of the travelling public, is a stark warning to the Government; it could easily be mobilised against Labour in the elections for the mayor for London.

No one believed me when I warned that Jeffrey Archer was positioning himself to exploit Labour's difficulties should I be barred as Labour's candidate for mayor. But he is also positioning to be able to attack the Government from the left: "It is a rip-off and it is not going to happen. I will not honour any deal that involves Londoners paying out more for shoddy service." The Treasury's dogmatism is fitting nicely into Jeffrey's strategy.

It isn't John Prescott who needs to get to grips with transport, but the "anonymous liars" (as Frank Dobson memorably called them) who are trying to undermine him. It is their pro-car prejudices and economic orthodoxy which have neutered the Government's transport policies. I am sure that John will be saying much the same - once he has come down off the ceiling.