When he returns from his week-long foreign journey next Tuesday, Tony Blair intends to get to grips with the travel problems faced by the rest of us. As if he does not have enough on his domestic plate with foundation hospitals, the school budgets crisis and the euro, the Prime Minister will turn his attention to transport.
When Alistair Darling was installed at the Department of Transport a year ago last Thursday, the task for his ultra-safe pair of hands was to steady a department that had suffered a collective nervous breakdown during the bitter feud between Jo Moore, the spin doctor who said 11 September would be a "good day to bury bad news", and Martin Sixsmith, the civil service communications chief. The saga cost them their jobs and their political boss, Stephen Byers, followed.
But now the ship has been steadied, the smoke signals from Downing Street suggest that Mr Blair wants Mr Darling to start moving it forward. Our "decisive" post-war Prime Minister, it seems, wants to "get radical" on transport.
Given the Government's poor record since 1997, I have always been puzzled why Labour has not paid more of a political price for the terrible state of our roads, railways and London Underground. True, Labour had a rotten inheritance. But things have certainly not got better.
A less well-documented failure is that the Government's policies are helping the better off rather than the poor. The Government's own figures show that 38 per cent of the benefits of its much-heralded £180bn, 10-year transport plan will go to the richest fifth of people, because most of the money will be spent on rail and roads. Only 12 per cent of the spend will benefit the poorest fifth in society. The richest fifth are four times more likely to travel by train than the poorest fifth, who in turn are three times more likely to use buses than the richest.
The inequality extends to safety. A study by the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) think-tank found that a child from the poorest 10 per cent of council wards in the UK is three times more likely to be hit by a car than a child in the richest 10 per cent of wards.
Tony Grayling, the IPPR's associate director and a former special adviser at the Department of Transport, told a seminar this month that the 10-year plan needed fundamental reform because it was "modest, regressive and promotes mobility, not accessibility". Its unintended consequences include more traffic congestion and pollution, urban sprawl and car dependence, social exclusion and inequality. "There has been a loss of overall sense of direction on the plan," Mr Grayling told me.
There is scope for a rethink. The 10-year plan is due to run to 2011, but was quickly knocked off course by the fuel price protests and the Hatfield rail disaster. There is an opportunity to revisit the plan - possibly extending it by a further four or five years - when the Government carries out a spending review next year.
The obvious radical step is to reduce demand by extending road pricing. Mr Blair has always been nervous about offending motorists, but his aides sense that drivers accept we can't go on as we are. As Mr Darling says, we can't build our way out of traffic congestion with more roads.
The congestion charge introduced in central London by Ken Livingstone in February appears to be working and may now embolden the Government. The only reason ministers will achieve one of their targets - to increase bus use by 10 per cent - is because the Mayor of London has ploughed the proceeds from the charge into the capital's buses, which account for a third of all bus journeys.
Supporters argue that the congestion charge is not regressive because nine out of 10 people who drive into central London are in the top half of the income scale. Whatever they may think of Mr Livingstone, ministers cannot afford to ignore the lessons of his pet project. Road pricing has an inevitable logic to it. The privately built M26 is another straw in the wind. Ministers have ruled out charging on other motorways until 2010, but extending the life of the 10-year plan would allow for more charges after 2010.
Will the Government grasp the nettle? It could "sell" congestion charges as an environment-friendly move, sugaring the pill by cutting or even abolishing road tax. Channelling some of the proceeds into buses and trains would make public transport a more realistic alternative and help the poorest in society.
Perhaps under pressure from Downing Street, Mr Darling has called a seminar to discuss congestion charges next month. It is a welcome sign. Sooner or later, as somebody once said, the Government will realise "there is no alternative".
¿ Evidence reaches me that Mr Blair is encouraging Britain in Europe's campaign for an early euro referendum. The other day, three MPs turned up at Downing Street with a banner asking whether Mr Blair had "the bottle" to call a referendum. But they were denied admission by a policeman.
A telephone call to the press office made no difference. So the MPs appealed to Alastair Campbell and were let in. The occupant of No 11 will not be amused.
¿ A few weeks ago, I reported that the Labour Party high command blamed its local election losses on a failure to communicate with ordinary people. A loyal reader of this column notes that, in the same edition of this paper, Labour modernisers preparing for a "Progressive Governance" conference in July were using just the sort of gobbledegook that party chiefs were disowning. The reader was right, but there is more to come. The mods' latest idea is "disciplined pluralism".Reuse content