Gummer calls for a sea change in transport thinking: The Secretary of State for Environment tells Nicholas Schoon that creating a greener UK means an end to car-centred attitudes

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The Independent Online
'PEOPLE speak with forked tongues and I think politicians have got to recognise that,' says John Gummer.

Some might say that Mr Gummer has got it the wrong way round. But the Secretary of State for the Environment is talking about cars and he has a fair point.

'People are in favour of more public transport in order that other people can use it so that they can use their cars with less guilt and more comfortably.'

Transport is a key issue, perhaps the key issue, in a forest of long-awaited documents that the Government is publishing tomorrow. Several Cabinet ministers, possibly including the Prime Minister, are expected at the launch.

There are four reports: strategies for environmentally and economically sustainable development; for halting the warming of Britain's climate by changing carbon dioxide emissions; for preserving the richness and diversity of wild plants and animals; and for safeguarding Britain's forests. They were all promised at the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro.

Environmental organisations will be disappointed. They want new policies and commitments, firm targets for reducing the size of Britain's 'ecological footprint' on the globe.

Instead they will get a lucid, definitive analysis from Department of the Environment civil servants of what is going wrong with the world, and a lot of hints and hand-waving about the sort of changes which might be needed to put matters right. This is certainly the case for the section on transport, leaked to Friends of the Earth last week.

A few months ago, Mr Gummer and his senior officials were inclined to be modest about these documents, to avoid raising any great hopes of a government change of course. But last week he was perky. 'You'll see a degree of commitment . . . that is greater than people expect.'

There is likely to be a new panel to advise the Prime Minister directly on environmental matters.

There is also expected to be a larger council, chaired by Mr Gummer, with environmentalists, business people, scientists and councillors from local government among its membership. It will comment on the Government's progress towards sustainable development - economic growth that does not harm the prospects of future generations.

But it is the people, not the Government, who have to change, he says. 'People are deeply ambivalent - they are in favour of fewer cars generally and yet their particular habits lead them to increases (in car use).

'At the heart of the sustainable lifestyle is a change people will have to make in themselves. All of us will have to look differently at the world.'

So where does today's consumerism fit into the plan? 'I'm old enough to remember when a different thing obtained, when saving, looking after things, making them last a long time, was very much the mark of a properly educated person,' said Mr Gummer, who is 54.

He hopes people will come to 'spend money on things of greater quality, that last longer and cost more'. That way, the process of disposing of the throw-away culture will not be recessionary.

A top priority is to intervene more in applications for planning permission to stop the growth of out-of-town shopping centres, which he sees as encouraging traffic growth and sucking the life out of town centres. But after 15 years of explosive out-of-town development this may be a case of closing the garage doors after the Volvo has bolted.

Another great Gummer enthusiasm is to intervene in planning applications to stop large, ugly buildings going up in city centres in the forthcoming post-recessionary development boom. Such buildings include the three towers in Marsham Street, Westminster, one of which houses his own spacious office. The crumbling, white concrete headquarters of the Departments of Environment and Transport are to be demolished with the DoE moving to a new, environmentally-friendly building.

The three people who held Mr Gummer's post before him - Chris Patten, Michael Heseltine and Michael Howard - each left after 18 months or less. He hopes to be there at the next election. 'The environment will be a much more important issue at the next election than it was at the last,' he said.

(Photograph omitted)

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