Prescott makes major U-turn on roads

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The Independent Online

By Jonathon Carr-Brown

By Jonathon Carr-Brown

28 November 1999

The Government will go on the offensive tomorrow to pacify angry motorists by announcing more money for road building and attacking the green lobby's obsession with traffic targets.

Mr Prescott has called an emergency "road summit" for his advisers, representatives of motoring groups, trade unions and car manufacturers to press home the point that the Government is not "anti-car".

There were also signs last night that the Government intends to scrap plans to set targets and timetables for reducing the number of road crashes in Britain for fear this will also be seen as anti-motorist.

Sources close to the Deputy Prime Minister say he has been irritated by reports that he has "betrayed" the motorist and is determined to prove that his Transport Bill, due to be published on Wednesday, does not represent an assault on middle England's car owners.

He will tell the summit that a significant amount of money from the fuel escalator tax, from which he now receives revenue directly, will be used to speed up the building of 37 road schemes, including 19 bypasses. The money will also be used to bring back on stream those schemes that were shelved when the Government slashed 103 projects from the road building programme last year.

Mr Prescott has also ordered a list of congestion black spots to be compiled so that future dividends from the fuel escalator tax can be targeted quickly.

The Department of Environment, Transport and the Regions (DETR) estimates that even if Gordon Brown, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, sets the escalator as low as 1 per cent a year, an extra £300m would flow into the department's coffers.

A spokesman said: "People will say this is a U-turn but we don't mind accepting a bit of sackcloth and ashes on this."

The other shift of emphasis Mr Prescott will announce is the Government's rejection of traffic growth targets as a means of reducing pollution. The spokesman said: "We now accept that it is not the number of cars on the road that matters but how efficient they are."

Sources close to Mr Prescott say he is now persuaded that technology will solve the pollution problem, rather than government attempts to reduce car numbers. He has also become convinced that congestion pollution is a local not a national problem and therefore requires local solutions.

The news will be a blow to Friends of the Earth, but will amuse the Tory party, which has boasted the slogan "Technology not taxation will solve pollution" for some time.

Monday's charm offensive will also see Mr Prescott assuring the summit that he doesn't envisage the conditions being right for congestion charging for four or five years.

John Redwood, the shadow secretary of state for the DETR, described Mr Prescott's plans as "a staggering U-turn". Referring to the barrage of negative headlines that appeared after the Queen's Speech revealed the Government's plans to introduce road pricing, he said: "As soon as you hit this government in the headlines it goes on the run.

"Prescott made it very clear two years ago that people driving cars around were doing a lot of damage and had to be discouraged. Now he is trying to persuade us he's changed his spots, but he is going to have to make it clear he is reversing his policy before I believe this isn't just another New Labour PR exercise."

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