Barrie Clement: Whatever happened to Prescott's plan?

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The Independent Online

There was little hint four years ago when John Prescott launched his grand plan for transport that the Government envisaged a major extension to Britain's motorways.

There was little hint four years ago when John Prescott launched his grand plan for transport that the Government envisaged a major extension to Britain's motorways.

The construction of more roads to satisfy the demands of an ever-increasing number of motorists was seen as piece of Thatcherite lunacy. The logical conclusion of such a policy would be that large parts of England in particular would be covered in concrete.

But yesterdayAlistair Darling, embarked on a motorway U-turn, a hazardous manoeuvre in any terms. The proposal for a new toll road is clearly not within the spirit or the letter of Mr Prescott's 10-year plan.

Mr Prescott, the Deputy Prime Minister, who combined a responsibility for transport with the environment, promised to boost the number of passengers using trains by 50 per cent in a decade. As part of his vision, motorists would be persuaded to abandon their cars for trains.

But the Strategic Rail Authority calculates the increase in passengers is likely to be nearer 25 per cent and next week the Government will acknowledge in effect the network's failure by shaking up the industry to streamline the chain of command. The relatively modest aim of increasing bus use by 10 per cent will only be achieved because of a substantial increase in patronage in London.

Perhaps yesterday's announcement is a sign that the Government believes the minority obsessions of the green groups pale into electoral insignificance beside the floating voters obsessed with their cars.

The Blairite Institute for Public Policy Research acknowledges that the environmental impact of the extra motorway capacity in the Midlands needs to be assessed, but argues that the principle is correct. "Without tolling, the congestion relief provided by extra lanes would be lost within a few years due to traffic growth," it said. "Tolls would keep the traffic free-flowing and pay for the extra lanes, while releasing funds for public transport improvements."

Mr Darling's plan clearly incurs the deep displeasure of those concerned about the environment. And it is unlikely to find universal support among motorists, many of whom will resent the imposition of another "tax" on top of vehicle and fuel duties.

A recent survey found that many Midlands businesses were saving three hours a week in travel since the opening of the M6 toll. But only a quarter of lorry fleet operators said they used the toll road because the £10 charge was too high.

The AA argues that if the Government presses ahead with such "expressways" elsewhere - and Mr Darling seems to be enthusiastic - ministers should review the whole question of how the roads are funded, including the possibility of lower taxation on cars and fuel. That, however, might defeat the object by giving more motorists the wherewithall to afford the tolls.

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