Minister denies transport u-turn

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Transport minister Lord Macdonald today denied that the Government had effectively given up on promoting public transport or trying to cut congestion on the roads.

He was commenting as the Government announced details of a £280 million package of transport improvements, including better airport links.

About half the money will go on public transport but with cash also being set aside for road-building schemes.

Environmental group Transport 2000 described the extra money as "a pittance" and said government spending on public transport was now less than it had been under the Conservatives before rail privatisation.

Transport 2000 said spending in 1992-93 had been £4.27 billion while in 1998-99 it had only reached £3.08 billion.

The group went on: "It is expected that part of the £280 million will be used to accelerate the 37 road schemes in the roads programme. This is bad news as it means even less money for improving public transport."

Transport 2000 added that bringing forward road plans showed the influence of Lord Macdonald "and his determination to keep the roads lobby happy".

The group added: "Environmental groups fear this is the first instalment of a "back to the 80s" roads programme and that Lord Macdonald is tearing up the Government's White Paper."

Lord Macdonald hit back, saying: "I'm delighted to be thought of as the friend of the motorist and the haulage industry.

"But let's be quite clear ... we are spending £250 million to lever in almost £1 billion of extra spending, and two thirds of that is going to public transport.

"Some £500 million is going into the extension of the Manchester Metro link, the light rail system up there, to extend it outwards.

"I'm just going down to east London, to the City Airport, where we are putting £30 million down as a contribution to the cost of extending the Docklands Light Railway to the City Airport ..."

He rejected a suggestion that the Government was staging a U-turn over transport policy, saying: "I'm denying it emphatically - two thirds of the funds here are going into public transport."

The RAC's campaigning arm, the RAC Foundation, said: "We would like to see the Government start to address congestion hotspots.

"If the Government really wants to address the issue of car dependency, it must improve public transport and give motorists a real alternative to using their vehicles."

Today's announcement followed publication by the AA yesterday of statistics which showed that traffic jams caused by major incidents had worsened in the last three months of 1999.