Billions to be spent on new roads

Ministers are to launch a huge 10-year programme of road building this summer as part of a major injection of cash to try to address Britain's transport crisis. The move represents a U-turn from the policies on which the Government was elected, and will be strongly resisted by environmentalists and home owners.

The details have yet to be finalised, but ministers are planning to widen parts of the M1 and M6, a proposal that Labour denounced as "motorway madness" in opposition and rejected in government two years ago. They will also give the go-ahead to bypasses and other schemes dropped when Labour came to office, as well as giving money for maintaining existing roads.

Treasury ministers have been telling MPs privately that they will be surprised at the amount to be devoted to transport in the spending review. The sum to be spent on roads has not yet been fixed, but a figure of £20bn over 10 years is being discussed. Even more is to be spent on the railways, and friends of John Prescott will cite this as proof that his priorities have not changed.

Road design and construction firms are now busily recruiting to get ready for the new programme. Clive Livingstone, divisional director for highways at road designers Mott McDonald, said last week that it planned to increase its transport division by up to 15 per cent immediately, with a view to enlarging it further. He predicted that it would be "back to business as usual".

The plans, which are being drawn up for Gordon Brown's comprehensive spending review in July, are the brainchild of Lord Macdonald, the Transport minister, and represent a rebuff for Mr Prescott, who came to office promising to reduce traffic levels.

The road building programme of the last Conservative government - billed as "the biggest since the Romans" - had to be cut sharply in the face of an extraordinary alliance of radical demonstrators and middle-class protesters from the shires. Labour denounced it in opposition and promised during the election to "reduce and then reverse traffic growth".

After the election, ministers imposed an immediate moratorium on new construction while reviewing the road building programme, and then cut it by two-thirds. Mr Prescott instead drew up wide-ranging plans to reduce traffic and boost public transport. A public consultation showed "overwhelming agreement" for the need for change, and the anti-road pressure group Alarm UK disbanded, citing "an extraordinary turnaround in policies".

But Mr Prescott's plans were fatally undermined by the Prime Minister and his staff. First they denied him the money he needed for public transport, then they forced him to water down his plans, and then they blamed him for not doing enough to tackle the transport crisis. Finally, Lord Macdonald was put in post to implement Mr Blair's priorities.

Ministers are trying to minimise opposition by selecting roads that do the least environmental damage and where they believe there is public support, but campaigners say that there is bound to be conflict.

Meanwhile, first blood went to the new Mayor of London, Ken Livingstone, in what is likely to be a long and bitter battle between him and Mr Blair over congestion charges.

At Prime Minister's Questions last week, Mr Blair signalled his dislike of the charges and promised to ensure that Labour members of the London Assembly would stand by Frank Dobson's manifesto commitment not to introduce them in the short term.

But Nick Raynsford, the Environment minister, later had to admit to the Commons that Mr Livingstone had the power personally to decide whether they should be introduced.

There is little doubt that, after campaigning heavily on the issue, Mr Livingstone will do so.