Mawhinney's transport vision takes to the road - in a rush-hour jam

Christian Wolmar joined a coach trip to Oxford where the debate centred on cars
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The Independent Online
The first attempt by the Government for 20 years to establish a coherent transport policy was disclosed yesterday by Brian Mawhinney, Secretary of State for Transport.

Launching the second phase of the transport debate that he initiated in a series of speeches earlier this year, Dr Mawhinney said that a consultation paper on the Government's transport plans would be published "probably by the end of the year".

Anxious to demonstrate that he is seeking a genuine debate on the crisis facing transport as roads become more congested and pollution increases, Dr Mawhinney invited a group of journalists to accompany him on a coach trip to Oxford yesterday, where he was due to chair a debate on transport at the Sheldonian Theatre.

But the early-morning ridecame up against one of the problems for which he is seeking to find possible solutions: the rain and rush-hour traffic combined to slow the coach to a crawl and it took an hour to reach the outskirts of London. Why hadn't they allowed the train to take the strain? Dr Mawhinney's bag man quickly interjected: "It would not have been possible to brief the journalists on the train."

Dr Mawhinney tried to inject an element of controversy in the debate - in front of a 700-strong audience - between Phil Goodwin, head of Oxford University's Transport Studies Unit and a leading exponent of the need for traffic restraint, and John Dawson, group director of the Automobile Association.

However, there was more consensus than expected, because, as Dr Goodwin said, the "road-building alliance is now very much softer and more diffuse than it used to be" and no longer expects half of Britain to be concreted over in an effort to meet demand from increasing traffic.

Dr Mawhinney sees the debate as reconciling three main strands of opinion on transport: the environmentalists who argue for restraint; the economists who say that new roads and other infrastructure is vital for industry, and the libertarians who say that people must keep the right to have total unfettered freedom to travel.

He has sought to put himself above the fray, listening to conflicting opinions and attempting to go beyond the sloganising which, he says, has characterised discussion of transport issues. Critics argue that the Government is not a neutral umpire, but is tied to a number of controversial policies, such as the pounds 2bn-per-year programme and rail privatisation.

Certainly at yesterday's debate, Dr Mawhinney seemed to take on Dr Goodwin harder than Mr Dawson. He pressed Dr Goodwin on why he had only talked about cars and had used the term the "love affair with the car" in a derogatory way.

"Because," came the reply, "in any analysis, it can be seen that cars are the greatest cause of pollution and congestion". Dr Goodwin said that ultimately, the fact that people were prepared to use their cars even when it was quicker to walk was not a rational use of resources or of running the economy.

Dr Mawhinney accepts that there is a long way before any consensus on the issues can be achieved. But he said that recently the British Road Federation, the pro-roads group, and Transport 2000, which lobbies for better public transport, had set up a joint committee to make a joint submission to the debate.

However, by the end of yesterday's first session at the Sheldonian, Dr Mawhinney admitted that he had concluded before it started that it would be "a messy process" and "raise more questions that we answered". But, he added: "We did pretty well."