My blueprint to end the transport misery in London

If the Government can begin to change transport behaviour patterns, it will be a vote-winner
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The Independent Culture
WHAT IS Labour's Achilles heel? The latest opinion poll suggests that it may well be transport. Just 35 per cent of voters think that Labour is doing a good job. This will, no doubt, serve as grist to the mill for all those anonymous Millbank Tendency snakes in the grass whose current favourite pastime is rubbishing the Deputy Prime Minister.

John Redwood has scented blood and gone on the attack, as the "motorist's friend". Unfortunately for Redwood, his proposals merely advocate a return to the disastrous Tory policies that got us into this mess in the first place.

Throughout her entire 11 years as prime minister Mrs Thatcher never made a journey on a train. The Channel Tunnel was delayed for years because of her preference for a bridge which motorists could use, even though many of them might have been blown into the sea during bad weather. The Tory response to congestion was to build more roads.

Tony Blair is understandably nervous that a Labour government seen as being anti-car would lose millions of votes. He is right. When I was drawing up Labour's transport policy for the 1981 GLC election I firmly rejected anti-car proposals in favour of improving the quality of public transport and cutting fares. This policy was successful beyond my wildest dreams.

After cutting bus and Tube fares by 35 per cent, we saw a 70 per cent increase in passenger miles. This meant that, overall, we generated an 11 per cent increase in fare revenues in real terms. One person in 20 left their car at home and switched to public transport, with an easing of congestion, pollution and accidents.

This solution will not solve London's problems today because, unlike the situation in 1981, there is no longer any unused capacity on the Tube. The problem facing Labour today is how rapidly we can increase the capacity and reliability of the transport system to attract motorists out of their cars and on to public transport.

But there is one vital lesson from the 1981 fares cut. A few days before we cut the fares by increasing the rates, Thames Television commissioned an opinion poll that showed that 64 per cent of Londoners were opposed to our policy, and only 24 per cent supported us. The Labour group realised that opinion polls cannot make policy and we went ahead with the fares cut. Within a few weeks the polls had turned round, and two-thirds of Londoners supported us. The real lesson for Mr Blair and the Government is that we have to lead. We cannot expect public to support in advance. They will have to judge us by results.

If the Labour Government can begin to change the transport behaviour patterns of the last 50 years it will be seen as a dramatic triumph and a huge vote-winner. Sadly, nervousness in the No 10 policy unit has meant that John Prescott has been held back from introducing the changes in time for them to show real results before the general election. Instead, we now have the worst of all possible worlds. Traffic congestion is continuing to worsen and it is now almost too late to bring in changes requiring legislation before the next general election.

Fortunately, John Prescott managed to get powers to tackle transport written into the legislation that has set up the new post of the mayor for London. All opinion polls show that Londoners' top priority when they elect their mayor on 4 May next year is transport.

The first big problem is finding the money to modernise the Tube, and here John Prescott has been lumbered with several Treasury albatrosses around his neck. Instead of allowing London Transport to raise the pounds 7bn required to bring the Tube up to scratch by issuing bonds, the Treasury is trying to force Londoners to pay over the odds with a private finance initiative (PFI) - the Public Private Partnership. If this is anything like the funding of hospital construction, it will force Londoners to pay through the nose for 30 years. Treasury-backed bonds could raise money at 3.5 to 4 per cent interest, whereas the PFIs are coming in at 11 to 15 per cent interest.

Modernising the Tube is a 10-to-15-year programme. Something needs to be done much more rapidly and dramatically than that, to improve capacity on public transport.

John Prescott managed to get two new taxes for London's mayor in order to raise the funds to improve public transport. As well as a tax on company car parks, the new mayor will have the power to introduce a congestion tax on cars driving into central London.

The mere idea of a congestion tax has already launched John Redwood back into orbit around planet Vulcan. The more measured response of London's industrial and commercial leaders shows that they are not prepared to play politics on this. London's business community is recommending a congestion charge of pounds 5 a day on cars that want to travel through London between Hyde Park and the East End. London's cabbies are proposing pounds 7.50 a day - with an exemption for black taxis.

John Prescott has been able to get a guarantee that all money raised from these taxes must be spent on improving public transport for at least the next 10 years. I believe that they will have widespread public support, provided that they are pitched at a moderate level. It is not necessary to ban all cars coming into our cities in order to solve our transport problems. The GLC fares cut in 1981 needed to attract only 5 per cent of car drivers back on to public transport for the system to work. I believe the same will happen with the congestion tax. We don't need to set it at a punitive level in order to discourage all drivers. At a moderate level it will encourage just enough drivers to switch, in order to free up our cities. The key issue is to get the level right.

The monies raised can then be used to run more overland trains and buses, put in the bus lanes, and get conductors back on to the buses - so that we get a reliable, safe and clean service. Since we would be increasing the cost of motoring in central London, we must encourage motorists to switch back to public transport by giving a guarantee of a four-year fares freeze. In that way, every motorist can make a personal calculation about whether it is in their financial interests to leave the car at home.

Thus, Labour could resolve the first hurdle in the transport crisis by a slight regulation of market forces without the need for vast bureaucracy or punitive anti-motorist policies. If these policies can be made to work in London, they could form the basis of a successful transport strategy for Labour's second term. Labour can cover its Achilles heel.