Sorry Mr Prescott, the worst has yet to come

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The Independent Culture
IRON NERVE, thick hide, and 24-hour-a-day commitment needed to work with sometimes abrasive and problem-beset top Cabinet minister; to turn round a major department's negative image on what has unexpectedly become crucial domestic policy problem for New Labour; to defend occasional but spectacular U-turns; and to condition voters to the idea that the above mentioned problem is going to take a lot longer to solve than the Government thought when it first took office.

That is not, in fact, the wording of the current advertisement for a new Director of Communications at the Department of Environment, Transport and the Regions. But it just might be. For John Prescott, who yesterday published his long-awaited Transport Bill, is the minister most used as target practice for those eager to demonstrate ways in which the Government has failed to match achievements with expectations.

Last week it was reported that plans to reduce the speed limit on rural roads were likely to be abandoned, or substantially modified, because of fears, especially lively in Downing Street, of upsetting motorists. This week there was a heavily spun shift of rhetoric designed to persuade the roads lobby that the Deputy Prime Minister did after all recognise that transport public expenditure would have to contain provision for new roads. On Tuesday, he scrapped plans to include Railtrack among the likely candidates to run the London Underground infrastructure. Now he has been faced with a good old-fashioned wave of discontent among Labour MPs against his plan to privatise air traffic control.

The problems all this reflects need some unbundling. For a start, there is not some sudden crisis in transport visited on the travelling public by the Government, which came into office on May 1, 1997. Traffic is bad but it is certainly not exponentially worse than it was before the election and probably better than it is in - say - Tokyo or New York. Rather there has been a belated recognition of some unpleasant but inescapable facts.

Because significantly fewer than 10 per cent of all journeys are made by public transport - and some orbital, rural and multi-destination journeys never will be - the motorists' lobby remains an electorally potent force. It follows that there are serious political risks in seeking to lure drivers off the roads until public transport is efficient and user-friendly enough to make it an attractive alternative. And that while in some services it can be achieved in self-financing ways - lowering fares on London buses that are currently running below capacity, is a good example - it cannot on the whole be done without a substantial increase in investment, including public investment.

Nor, as it happens, has Mr Prescott personally been as ineffective as he is sometimes characterised as being. (It would hardly be possible). The Strategic Rail Authority contained in yesterday's bill is a welcome innovation; the plan to transfer surpluses through it to rail investment, rather than straight to the Treasury, even more so. Indeed, Prescott has succeeded where no spending minister has succeeded before him, by securing ring fencing for transport purposes of increases in fuel duty and congestion charges (when they finally come in).

Some of the short-term problems he faces, moreover, can and should be solved. Take two very different ones. Ministers deny that the heavy hand of Downing Street lies behind the reluctance to reduce the 60mph speed limit on rural single carriageways to 50mph. But Lord MacDonald, the first transport minister Prescott has actually got on with, and helpfully an ally of Gordon Brown's, is intelligent enough, as he completes his speeding review, to be aware of Downing Street's nervousness. If ministers don't have the collective power to persuade them that a demonstrable reduction in child deaths is worth the change, they shouldn't be in politics. For every motorist in a hurry, there is at least one parent worried about a child's safety. It would also be a welcome example of leading as well as following public opinion.

Similarly on air traffic control, on which Prescott is almost certainly right. If Labour MPs really lie awake worrying about a privatisation that will actually provide, as the Treasury can't, the investment needed for improved safety and create a highly exportable system, then it's a safe bet their constituents don't.

None of this, however, is to say that Prescott's problems are exaggerated. Rather that the worst is still to come. For the stiffest tests for Prescott, the ones that will really decide whether his transport responsibilities should be reallocated, will come between now and next summer.

The first is spending. Christian Wolmar argued persuasively in these pages on Tuesday that only an urgent reversal - and much more - of the pounds 400m cut in rail subsidy since the election can begin to accommodate potential passenger growth. To achieve what is needed Prescott will have to show in the Public Spending Review negotiations with the Chancellor - including for the year 2001-2 - that he has elevated public transport into the premiership league hitherto reserved for health and education.

The second is London. At his meeting with Labour MPs yesterday Prescott remained as bullishly determined as ever to drive through his cherished and much criticised Private/Public Partnership for the Underground. The official view - apparently shared not only by Glenda Jackson, one of the scheme's principal architects, but also by her fellow mayoral candidate, Frank Dobson - is that with Railtrack out of the way, PPP is the way to go. Perhaps. There are ominous signs that the PPP is going to be much more difficult to conclude by next year than originally hoped. If so, it is going to be much more difficult to sustain that position in the teeth of Ken Livingstone's relentless clamour for bonds as an alternative.

True, the PPP, if it happens, is now reckoned capable of generating another pounds 200m a year, in addition to the pounds 600m for maintenance and investment available from Underground revenue. But Stephen Glaister, the Imperial College, London, academic, on whose work the Livingstone plan largely depends, has argued persuasively that the final decision should have been left to the new mayor and that pounds 250m of the tube's annual revenue would bring in an immediate pounds 3bn after a bond issue.

Dobson, unlike Jackson, is not personally and irrevocably linked to the PPP option. But he believes that a private partner would be better than leaving it to the Underground to manage new investment - a judgement strengthened by the overdue and over-budget Jubilee Line. But if I were Frank Dobson I would not close off my options altogether. At the very least, he is surely owed some real money by the Treasury if he wins the Labour nomination to lubricate the introduction of the PPP. The mayoral contest still has a fascinating, volatile capacity to bust open a number of government assumptions - not least on transport. John Prescott has a long tough winter ahead of him.

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