The Tories in Bournemouth: Mawhinney leans to green side of tracks: Colin Brown talks to the minister under pressure to do more for the environment and the railways

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A SHIFT towards protecting the environment - with the emphasis on curbing exhaust emissions - is to be announced to delegates by Brian Mawhinney, the Secretary of State for Transport, in what may be a watershed for transport policy.

Kenneth Clarke, the Chancellor, is expected to follow up in his Budget with increases in taxes on petrol and diesel of up to 10 per cent in real terms. The pressure on ministers to do more to shift the emphasis from roads to rail will be intensified by the publication of the Royal Commission on Environmental Protection report which calls for measures to restrict traffic growth, including higher taxes. Dr Mawhinney was responsible for instituting an inquiry into the links between pollution and the surge in cases of asthma, when he was Virginia Bottomley's deputy at the Department of Health.

Having been moved to the Department of Transport in its crumbling tower block in Marsham Street, central London, he has already taken action to rid the ministry of its reputation as the 'Department for Roads'. One of his changes was to merge responsibility for roads with rail.

'People will listen to the mood music from my speech and take their own judgement about me. When I came into here people asked me, 'Are you going to be a road minister or a rail minister, because the media will want to buttonhole you'. The first thing I did was make John Watts roads minister and rail minister. It had never been done before. Then I reorganised the Civil Service in here so that one group is responsible for roads and rail.'

Unlike his predecessors of the last 15 years, who lasted an average of about 18 months, he is perceived as a politician on the way up. Dr Mawhinney may establish a reputation as being more 'green' than those who have gone before.

But he is not about to declare war on the 'great car culture'. The Treasury may seek to cut the roads programme, but he is not about to surrender his pounds 2bn a year roads budget. Nor did he accept the demands of the Rail Freight Group which wants to end the requirement on the railways to produce a return of 8 per cent on capital - about pounds 500m a year - to win back more freight traffic from the roads.

Instead, he will be the first Secretary of State for Transport to announce that the state no longer has the sole responsibility for transport infrastructure, either roads or rail. Road pricing - tests on the technology are to begin next year - could encourage more private roads to be built, but may lead to a downturn in road use.

But he wants to create national forums between the anti-road lobbyists and the pro-road campaigners to reach a consensus about road strategy, settling the contentious issues of economics, freedom of choice and environmental protection.

'If you are going to have an element of tension between these three approaches, the balance point can be located in here (the Departmentof Transport). But that doesn't have to stop people talking to each other,' he said. Indeed, the department is setting up environmental conferences before local roadbuilding schemes. Dr Mawhinney now wants that to happen more at a national level.

(Photograph omitted)

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