Leading Article: Now, Mr Prescott, what about doing something concrete?

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The Independent Culture
IN A BEERBOHM caricature, a small child, seeing a pompous literary type, turns to her mother and asks: "Mama, what is that gentleman for?" We should ask the same question about John Prescott. Documents pour out of his grandiloquently named Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions. But not much action follows. Yesterday his Urban Task Force, under the architect Lord Rogers, produced a report, Towards an Urban Renaissance, with over 100 recommendations. Will it just add to the pile that already includes a transport White Paper and a draft Bill on local government reform?

Having concluded their labours, the team of distinguished advisers observes: "The starting point is the forthcoming urban White Paper... the first for 20 years." This, the task force reckons, "represents a great opportunity to make a landmark statement of purpose". This may be a triumph of hope over experience. In his introductory note to the report, a smiling Prescott offers this ringing battle cry: "It provides a wide range of interesting and forward-thinking recommendations to feed into ongoing work across Government and beyond." It is hard to think of a phrase of Whitehall-speak to dampen enthusiasm faster.

Admittedly, there are points where one can understand his caution. Schemes to cut VAT rates on construction will not produce whoops of joy at the Treasury. Nor, after sitting angrily in Prescott's brand-new traffic jam, created by his M4 bus lane, is the Prime Minister likely to smile on proposals for further cuts in road spending. Past government policies already risk creating a huge pent-up demand for more and better roads.

One must be wary, also, of photographs in the report which contrast touristy Covent Garden (apparently good) with standard family houses in suburbia (apparently bad). A recurrent message seems to be that if only the British were more like the Dutch or the Catalans, all would be well. So many planning disasters of the past have sprung from trying to dictate how people should live.

The report also contains much good sense. It is no use, as it notes, totting up derelict land nation-wide and saying it can all be covered with new housing. Often it is in the wrong place. Housing follows jobs, which have slithered south. An empty site in Hartlepool is little help if you need to commute to High Wycombe. The report is also right to attack ludicrous council allocation policies, which put all the most vulnerable on the same estates, and offers some sensible solutions to regenerating brownfield sites.

But action? For all his bluster, it is hard to point to many of the Deputy Prime Minister's achievements. This is either Mr Prescott's chance to show his worth, or, more likely, the final proof that nothing concrete will emerge to help our inner cities without a change of minister.