Steve Richards: Take a bow, Mr Darling - you have come up with this government's first radical policy

His appearances until now have been as rare as a Tube on London's Northern Line
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Out of the blue comes a genuinely bold and big idea. The subject area and the courageous promoter of the policy add to the sense of astonishment. Today, the Transport Secretary, Alistair Darling, will deliver a speech outlining in more detail his plans for road pricing.

Mr Darling must be extremely committed to this speech as he has highlighted its main themes to the media in advance. Normally, his overwhelming objective as Transport Secretary is to keep out of the newspapers. Mr Darling's appearances have been as rare as a Tube on London's Northern Line. We have been waiting a long time for Mr Darling. Now he is everywhere.

Transport policy has been the Government's biggest domestic failure. The narrow limits of New Labour's ideology and its extreme pragmatism could not respond to the crisis in transport. Ministers had no sense of which buttons to press or whether they should be pressing any at all.

After the 1997 election, the Government was ready to modify Thatcherite reforms in public services, but was fearful of doing much more than that. Any proposal, however incremental, was checked in advance with focus groups and opinion polls. No policy could be adopted that would risk alienating business leaders. In the specific case of transport, nothing could be done that risked even the short-term anger of the motorist.

This timidity produced the absurd juxtaposition of a crumbling transport system and a hopelessly weak Transport White Paper in 1999 that was hailed by ministers as "historic". The puny proposal they chose to highlight on the day of publication was the importance of reducing school runs. More bravely during the first term, John Prescott dared to describe the privatised railways as a "national disgrace". Tony Blair disapproved of this outburst, presumably on the grounds that it might appear "anti- business".

He summoned John Reid to become Transport minister in order to work with the railway companies. The companies felt more concerned about their shareholders than the views of Mr Reid or indeed any other minister. Again, New Labour's light ideological baggage could not cope with this. When Mr Blair summoned Railtrack executives to Downing Street after one rail crisis, there was genuine bewilderment on both sides. The multi-millionaires from Railtrack were accountable to their shareholders, not Government.

Meanwhile, in the Treasury, the senior official who devised the break-up of the railways under the Conservatives was something of a hero to Gordon Brown and his ministerial team. The same official - knighted for his efforts - set to work on dismantling the London Underground. The chaos of the subsequent public-private partnership is an under-reported scandal. Private companies have made small fortunes while parts of the Underground are in crisis. On most days of the week, there is appalling disruption because repairs on lines are not completed in time for the early morning rush hour. This story will get bigger in the coming months.

A more self-confident government would have cited that transport nightmare in 1997 to make a bigger political point: this is what happens when the state steps too far back, spending too little, deregulating and privatising too much. If the Government had acted then, we would be noticing the differences now. Because we all depend on transport, I suspect a range of bold reforms at the beginning would have made a greater impact than the improvements in health and education. Fewer voters rely on schools and hospitals.

Still, belatedly, Alistair Darling has chosen to lead the crusade. Mr Darling's predecessor, Steve Byers, who had a great interest in media management, had been fatally successful in making transport a subject that screamed across the front pages. Within minutes of Mr Darling's arrival, the creaking trains, the high fares and the congested roads ceased to be a news story. There were still creaking trains, high fares and congested roads, but Mr Darling had a genius for arousing waves of indifference in the media.

Now he is performing an altogether different role. He has made the front pages. More than that, I get the impression Mr Darling is serious and seriously on to something. In The Independent on Sunday at the weekend, he stated that he wanted to stay on in this thorny brief largely because of his commitment to the road pricing proposal. He is daring to take on the motorist partly for the sake of the motorist. Action is required to prevent gridlock in this overcrowded island. Here is a solution.

There is also in this idea the hint of a new approach to taxation and public spending. It has become almost politically impossible to raise taxes in Britain in spite of the persistent demands for better public services. As Paddy Ashdown once declared in a brilliant soundbite: "We have reached the point where there can be no taxation without explanation". Road pricing produces the immediate benefit of fewer nightmarish traffic jams and, possibly, the revenue to go directly into improving other transport schemes. This is a powerful explanation for taxation.

During the Government's second term, there tended to be a bleak pattern in relation to reform. First there was a declaration of boldness as if this was a governing philosophy, then a policy was unveiled, apparently courageous but checked first with the focus groups. After that, there was a big row within the Labour Party as if this in itself affirmed the boldness of the measure. Finally, the policy was diluted to the point of meaninglessness in order to get it through parliament.

One of the exceptions to this was the introduction of the increases in national insurance in which the ground was carefully laid, a consensus established and the policy implemented. There was no need for a proclamation of boldness because the policy was genuinely bold.

Mr Darling appears to be following a similar course. He has outlined the context - gridlock in a crowded island - and proposed a possible way through, posing the decisive question: Has anyone got a better idea? Already he has been rewarded by some senior Conservatives, showing signs of a new political maturity, acknowledging the scale of the transport crisis.

Mr Darling should be more ambitious in his time-scale. He speaks of 10 years at the earliest before a national scheme could be implemented. Even those of us with the bodies of athletes (as a result of cycling everywhere because all other options are dire) will be middle aged by then. He is a cautious politician who, in a crisis, tends to call for a review of the situation, followed by a review of the review.

Still, he can take a bow for initiating a debate about a revolutionary policy that, if implemented, will have a more life-enhancing impact than any of the proposals crammed into the current legislative session.

s.richards@independent.co.uk

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