Parliament: Transport: No town car tolls for four years, Prescott promises

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JOHN PRESCOTT yesterday insisted town centre road tolls would not be introduced for at least four years, to reassure motorists he is not anti-car. The Deputy Prime Minister said congestion charges would not only require a substantial improvement in public transport, they would need a consultation process which could include local people.

The move will make road tolls more difficult to introduce and prevent the Government taking the blame for the controversial charges.

Mr Prescott told a meeting of motor manufacturers, unions and lobby groups: "Congestion-charging everywhere tomorrow is not on the agenda."

The Transport Bill, to be published in the Commons tomorrow, will give local authorities the power to introduce a levy on motorists entering urban areas and on parking at work. But Mr Prescott did not envisage widespread charging schemes for at least four or five years.

"They must satisfy me that they have the transport choice, the technology and the consent of the local people," he said. Mr Prescott said pounds 1.4bn would be spent on 37 road schemes over the next few years, 19 of them involving by-passes. He had also asked the Highways Agency to investigate other "bottle-necks", but they would be funded on the basis of the availability of money.

He denied his emphasis on roads was a U-turn, "more a shifting of gear", he said. "In future, there is going to be more for the motorists to cheer about."

Income from road charges and parking levies at local level would be used for better local transport, he said. The Government had also ended the 6 per cent fuel duty escalator and was to ring-fence any real increases in road fuel duty for transport. But he added: "I intend to invest that money in roads as well as public transport. It is not a choice between investing in better roads or investing in public transport - both are vital to a modern transport system."

The Transport Bill is also designed to pour billions more investment into rail, air traffic Control and local transport.

Sources at the Department of Transport, Environment and the Regions confirmed that surpluses earned by train operating companies and fines levied on Railtrack by the Rail Regulator would be ploughed back into the industry under the Bill's provisions.

Progress on measures to improve rail safety in the wake of the Paddington disaster will be reported to the Government today.

Mr Prescott will meet industry leaders, including rail managers and union officials. They will tell Mr Prescott if progress has been made in implementing a seven-point action plan agreed at last month's rail summit.

"This is a very important meeting because it shows that the Deputy Prime Minister is not allowing the crucial issue of rail safety to rest," said an official from the Rail Maritime and Transport union.