Motor Show 1993: Getting traffic in the capital up to speed: Steven Norris MP tells Russell Hayes about the plans and priorities involved in keeping London moving smoothly

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The Independent Online
WHY WOULD anyone want to drive to the London Motor Show? Motorists coming in from the west know they will waste time sitting in jams, be hemmed in by roadworks and have to circle like vultures for a parking space, yet they still do it. The future seems to offer a capital that cannot move - so what is the Government doing about it?

The Transport Secretary, John MacGregor, talks of car sharing, the Roads Minister, Robert Key, ponders instant speeding fines, but one man has the task of keeping London moving. Enter Steven Norris, 47, MP for Epping Forest, declared user of bus and tube.

Since April last year Mr Norris has had to answer for road, rail and underground as Minister for Transport in London. He has seen the introduction of a pilot 'Red Route' to speed up traffic flow in north London that will eventually be part of a 315-mile network. He has yet to face bus de-regulation and the privatisation of British Rail.

With talk of a clampdown on motorists, has the political tide turned against the car driver for good? 'It's quite wrong to see us as anti-car,' says Mr Norris. 'We shouldn't see projections of car ownership as some sort of road building and parking target but as an indication of what might happen if we don't take action to prevent additional private car use.'

Mr Norris realises that London does not need more roads. The current London roads programme extends to widening the M25, A406 North Circular, work on the A113 and the long-planned M11 extension. 'We don't perceive a large road building programme in London and we don't think there is much public support for it.'

For now, Red Routes are seen as a stopgap, not the final solution to congestion. All the same, Mr Norris talks proudly of the pilot five miles of Red Route along the A1 which as well as speeding up bus flow (journey times are down by eight minutes) has helped the car commuter by changing priorities and parking.

'The aim is not to increase capacity for cars but to smooth the flow, which is quite a different matter. It's a million miles away from the idea of urban motorways and it doesn't mean reducing parking for residents or businesses. There are something like 620 new parking spaces where there were previously yellow lines.'

Whatever the success of current schemes, Mr Norris admits that private car users will eventually have to be discouraged from driving into London. By his own figures, 14 per cent of commuters come by car because they have a place to park. Is a tax on office parking on the cards? 'An examination of parking has to be part of any attempt to control private car numbers. I'm not moving towards the taxation of parking spaces per se, as those on public roads are already taxed, but we'd have to look at on and off street parking to control congestion.'

This inevitably leads to talk of congestion-charging, to deter driving into London. Research into the details is due out next year but motoring organisations such as the RAC have already called it a four- wheeled poll tax. Mr Norris is quick to stress that congestion-charging is a long way off, and says published figures for toll avoidance fines and talk of a paper permit system are 'entirely formulated out of journalistic imagination'.

'The only comment I have about costs is that unlike tolling roads in order to raise revenue for better transport, the purpose of congestion-charging is actually to deter a certain amount of road use. We can't make a decision to put it in place today because the technology isn't available.'

But most of those frustrated drivers stuck in jams would much rather use public transport if it met their needs. Mr Norris' favourite analogy is a carrot and stick approach - the carrot is better public transport and the stick is congestion-charging.

'If you restrict the private car you have to balance that by making public transport more efficient and effective. We want to improve management of the system, which includes the whole issue of ownership. That's part of the process of privatisation and de-regulation.'

Here we have, along with road pricing, another political hot potato and Mr Norris has little patience with critics of the BR and bus break-up: 'The British have a wonderful habit of thoroughly denigrating every nationalised industry until we decide to do something pretty radical about it, at which point it suddenly becomes a great sacred cow. When stripped of the hype, I believe our plans for bus de-regulation will improve quality, choice and indeed price for Londoners. As far as the railways are concerned I see great advantages in bringing in private investment to a system that needs more investment than any government could afford to allocate at a time of severe pressure on public expenditure.'

He rules out dropping fares, as the GLC did in the 1980s, to get people out of cars: 'It's not the price of public transport that persuades people to leave the car at home. They'll use it even when it's more expensive because of the convenience it affords.'

(Photograph omitted)