Leading Article: Mr Prescott: a minister on the right road

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The Independent Culture
IF ONLY there was a magic wand waiting to be waved. At a stroke, all our transport problems would disappear. We would have reliable, affordable and comprehensive public transport. Traffic would flow. Road rage would disappear. We would all drive environmentally friendly cars. The sun would always shine, and ... but there is no magic wand. There is no "solution" to our transport problems, only a series of measures that can help alleviate one of this country's most intractable problems

The decision to delay the publication of the white paper on transport until the completion of the comprehensive spending review in July is a good one. A result of the newly minted love-in between John Prescott and Gordon Brown, it means that when it is finally published it should be better able to answer the question: where's the beef? The decision that transport should join health and education as a spending priority for the next three years is welcome and shows that the Government realises that the transport infrastructure has knock-on effects well beyond the speed with which we can travel from A to B.

As our report today shows, the Government appears to have learnt the lesson from the hammering its first (leaked) proposals took, that progress in transport does not mean simply attacking the motorist. Rather it means helping to bring about a balance. Often motorists are portrayed as if they are some sort of alien species, whose interests are destined always to frustrate the more worthy objectives of the rest of us. But we are almost all motorists, and the point is not that there is a divide between motorists and the rest, but that transport policy should instead offer us an alternative between the car and public transport. There are very few of us who use only one form of transport.

The Government's approach of promoting a series of different measures rather than a grand sweeping corporate plan is sensible. The White Paper will propose, for instance, greater security for the car parks which make park-and-ride schemes possible and which are now often an open invitation to car thieves. Again, small-scale schemes, such as the cycle bridge built over a railway line in Leicester that enables hundreds of children to cycle to school in safety, are a tiny but significant contribution towards cutting back on the congestion caused by the school run.

The plain fact is, however, that most worthwhile improvement - and certainly the necessary investment in public transport - costs money and takes time to have an effect. Congestion charges, increases in petrol duty, road charging and charges on parking at out-of-town supermarkets are all possibilities. But Mr Prescott should avoid the superficial attractiveness of hypothecating extra revenue towards extra transport spending. Why stop at transport? Why not defence? Or social security? If the case for extra spending is so compelling, then he should be confident enough to make it on its own merits.

More attractive is the idea of a motorists' charter, which would set out the rights and responsibilities of those bodies such as the Highways Agency and the DVLA that look after our roads and the cars that travel on them. We all have horror stories of major road works which are concentrated on the rush hour while the site stays deserted on a Sunday evening. But the balance is again crucial. Local authorities tend towards a rigid application of rules and are often responsible for so-called traffic-calming measures which do little except incite road rage. In all these areas, the key point is to be flexible and to go with the flow.

These caveats aside, Mr Prescott's thoughts are on the right lines, and he deserves support.

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