Road pricing runs into trouble with Blair focus group

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The Independent Online
JOHN PRESCOTT'S flagship road pricing policy has run up against fierce opposition from the Government's own mass focus group, a study revealed yesterday.

Nearly 60 per cent of the 5,000-strong People's Panel oppose Labour's plans to cut traffic jams and pollution by charging motorists pounds 2 a day to drive through town centres

The panel, which was set up by Tony Blair last year to make Whitehall more responsive to public opinion, was found to be overwhelmingly against increases in car parking charges and cuts in road building to fund public transport improvements.

The depth of opposition to Mr Prescott's key transport policies was revealed in a wide-ranging Mori survey of the panel's views, published by the Cabinet Office. The survey showed that the public were also highly suspicious of genetically modified foods, backed tighter controls on smoking in public places and wanted more directly elected mayors.

The panel, which is canvassed regularly on a rolling basis, criticised the Care in the Community programme and complained that most public services were secretive about their workings. However, it was the Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions' plans to raise extra funds for public transport that raised most objections, proving that the Government has a long way to go before winning popular backing for the measures.

Contrary to expectations, the study found that 60 per cent didn't think that traffic congestion was a problem in their area and 78 per cent didn't believe that air pollution was a concern. More than half of those questioned were against cutting road building, three- quarters opposed car park charge increases and four-fifths disliked petrol price hikes.

Mr Prescott sees road pricing and off-street car park charges as the best way of raising much-needed funds for public transport and the mayor of London is expected to raise millions through the schemes.

Yet the research shows that the poorest members of the panel fear Labour's plans more than the middle classes, with nearly 70 per cent against. The shadow transport secretary, Gillian Shephard, said: "This research vindicates our own stance. We shall continue to press the Government to change a transport policy that is ill-thought out and highly unpopular."

When asked about food safety, the panel's big concern was the long-term effects of pesticides and genetically modified crops, both ranking higher than BSE and food poisoning.

To respond to the worries over GM foods and other biotechnology issues, a series of workshops with the public is to be held by the Office of Science and Technology in coming weeks, officials confirmed. Half the participants wanted complete smoking bans in restaurants, with more than a third backing such measures for offices open to the public.

Cabinet Office officials claimed that the panel was a "world first" which used a representative slice of the population to keep ministers in touch with public opinion.

Jack Cunningham, Minister for the Cabinet Office, unveiled the figures with a pledge that the Government would listen to the concerns. "The panel has been established to seek people's view on improving public services. It is a unique development and will play an important part in shaping the Modernising Government White Paper, which I plan to publish at Easter," he said.