Tories signal U-turn on transport

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THE GOVERNMENT is to break new ground by publishing a review of the country's overall transport needs, raising questions about the respective merits of private cars and public transport that the Conservatives have long preferred to avoid.

The move could lead to an integrated transport policy - the bete noire of the Thatcher years. Lady Thatcher's view was that transport decisions should be left to individuals and that it was no business of the Government to encourage people to get off the roads.

Brian Mawhinney, the Secretary of State for Transport, will publish the document after Easter in response to the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution which reported on transport policy last year. It is likely to raise questions about whether the Government should introduce measures to restrict car use and give more support to rail and bus travel.

Dr Mawhinney has fought off opposition from the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Kenneth Clarke, who wanted the minimum government response to the commission. One suggestion was that just one Parliamentary debate should be devoted to it.

In several recent speeches, Dr Mawhinney has discussed the conflicting demands of the environment, economic growth and personal liberty in the form of freedom to drive cars.

The government document, which will be consultative, will set out the conflicting pressures and ask the public, industry and pressure groups where they want the balance to be struck.That will inevitably involve arguments over whether road or rail should have priority for funding.

One Whitehall source suggested the document meant an offer of partnership with environmental groups, another said it might presage the merging of the Department of Transport with the environmental responsibilities of the Department of the Environment.

In any case it marks the dramatic shift in attitude from the days of Lady Thatcher who backed the "great car economy"

Whitehall has noticed a change in the outlook in the Department of Transport since Dr Mawhinney took over last sumer. The new minister has approached policy as an intellectual and political puzzle, rather than falling back on the Department of Transport's traditional alliance with the powerful roads lobby.

Last year's Royal Commission report called for a restriction on the growth of car ownership and greater investment in public transport, particularly in cities. It also concluded that cars may eventually have to be charged for entering city centres as a way of controlling traffic.

The Treasury is anxious that the Government should not commit itself to the commission's targets for taxation on fuel or spending on public transport.

Transport ministers applauded the Royal Commission's analysis of the problems confronting Britain, but believe that its recommendations are not as valuable.

The department's response consultation document will deliberately pitch competing pressures against each other. One source said: "It will point out, for example, that you cannot have perfect air quality and no congestion at the same time as complete freedom to use your own personal motorcar."