Major silences report critics

JOHN Major intervened last week to stop Dr Brian Mawhinney's transport department from contemptuously dismissing the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution's call to revolutionise Britain's transport policy.

The department had planned to issue a statement by Dr Mawhinney, immediately after publication of the Royal Commission's report on Wednesday, describing its recommendations as 'hopelessly optimistic'.

John Gummer, the Environment Secretary, objected strongly to the statement and the PM's office intervened to force it to be changed. Afterwards Dr Mawhinney welcomed the report as 'an important contribution' and said that he would give the recommendations 'very careful consideration'.

As exclusively reported in the Independent on Sunday a month ago, the Royal Commission's report represents an unprecedented rejection of the Government's transport policy. The commission, which included some of the leaders of Britain's scientific establishment and two of Mr Major's advisers on the environment, called for a massive shift of spending away from road building towards public transport, and for big increases in the price of petrol and heavy cuts in pollution and noise from traffic.

Transport department officials privately expressed their fury at the recommendations and Dr Mawhinney's proposed statement was astonishingly dismissive even by Whitehall standards. It described the proposals for a massive increase in the proportion of journeys taken by public transport as 'unrealistic'. It added: 'We need to be sure that the targets are not hopelessly optimistic.'

The proposed statement continued: 'We need to look very closely at the report. Some of its recommendations seem to represent peaks of ambition rather than realistic medium-term goals.'

The planned statement gave a long list of 'significant progress' by the Government in combating pollution, improving the quality of life in towns and reducing noise, and concluded: 'We will need to test some of the assumptions behind the commission's targets before we decide if they are worthwhile and achievable.'

This contrasts with a speech by Dr Mawhinney to the Conservative Party conference this month followed by newspaper interviews, in which he attempted to indicate that he would be following greener policies.

After the Downing Street intervention the Transport Secretary issued a different statement, shorn of harsh criticism of the report. It merely noted that it was 'not convinced' by the commission's suggestion of a halt to the road building programme while the report was considered.

Bridge row, page 5