Politics: Conservatives cash in on car drivers' fears

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THE TORIES are to become the car drivers' champions as party strategists seized an opportunity to cash in on motorists' fears that greener transport will cost them money. Sir Norman Fowler, Conservative transport spokesman, kicks off the campaign today with parliamentary questions and an attack on plans for new taxes on motorists.

It follows the disclosure at the weekend that an official from the Prime Minister's policy unit had complained of John Prescott, Deputy Prime Minister, becoming too anti-car. In a memo under Tony Blair's name, Geoffrey Norris suggested plans for an integrated transport policy which would help Britain meet the emissions targets set at the Kyoto summit in autumn were going too far.

In a subsequent television interview, Mr Prescott described Mr Norris as a "teenybopper" and dismissed suggestions that his views were shared by the Prime Minister. Mr Blair was behind the green agenda and was committed to Britain meeting its Kyoto targets, he said.

Spotting a possible opening through which the opposition might extract valuable political points, Sir Norman announced plans for his campaign. He argued that Mr Prescott's planned White Paper on integrated transport should have been produced before the local elections, because it is bound to prove deeply controversial. He is asking the Deputy Prime Minister to spell out his policies on the motorist, on car parking and on new road- travel taxes.

Among the proposals expected to be contained in the new White Paper, scheduled for early June, are plans to allow local authorities to charge motorists to drive into cities.

As an incentive, the Treasury has agreed not to claw back the revenues from the schemes but instead to allow councils to keep them.

Sir Norman said there was growing public concern about the Government's plans for new taxes on motorists. "As the No 10 Policy Unit suggested, the taxes will hit middle England hardest. They will hit the housewife going shopping as well as the factory worker using his firm's car park. The greatest scandal of all this is the way that this transport White Paper has been delayed beyond Thursday's local elections. Mr Prescott knows only too well that his proposals will be deeply controversial," he said.

A spokeswoman for the Department of Transport, Environment and the Regions said the Government had always planned to publish the White Paper at the beginning of June. It could not do so sooner because it needed to take into account the findings of select committee inquiries into air traffic and railways.

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