Leading article: Stuck in first gear on the road to nowhere

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The Independent Online

Since the day New Labour came to power, it has lacked a coherent policy on transport. Such neglect of an important department of state would have been deplorable from any administration. But coming from a Government that claims to be deeply concerned with both the improvement of public services and the environment, it is doubly disappointing.

As the House of Commons Environment Audit Committee pointed out in a report yesterday, New Labour's record in promoting environmentally friendly forms of transportation has been woeful. Progress in encouraging the purchase of low-carbon emitting cars has been "microscopic". The attempt by Gordon Brown to gain some green credibility in his previous Budget by raising road tax on less fuel-efficient cars was feeble. The new rate is nowhere near high enough to deter 4x4 drivers. And we should not forget that it was the Chancellor who capitulated in the face of protests six years ago and suspended the "escalator" on fuel duty.

Nor is it just on the roads that the Government has failed to use its influence. Emissions from air traffic have risen dramatically with the rapid expansion of the budget airline industry. Transport is now the only sector of the British economy in which carbon emissions have continued to rise consistently since 1990.

The committee's recommendations for reversing this damaging trend are broadly sensible, and similar in essence to those recently advocated by the Liberal Democrats. Only a dramatic increase in vehicle excise duty for the most polluting cars and a downward sliding scale for greener engines will encourage people to make environmentally sound choices. The same argument supports a reactivation of the fuel escalator. The committee also calls for higher aviation taxes, with a duty on each flight rather than each passenger, as at present. This is reasonable because it would encourage airlines to be more efficient in filling their services, rather than just impacting on passengers directly through higher ticket prices.

The Government's only specific policy on aircraft travel is for aviation pollution to be included in the EU emissions trading scheme. This has its merits, but it will not solve the problem of rising emissions on its own. And on road transport, there is evidence of disarray. The new Transport Secretary, Douglas Alexander, wants to proceed with a national road-pricing scheme. This is worth exploring, but road charging must not become a crude new tier of tax, which would have the effect only of disproportionately penalising the poor. It must tax emissions, rather than just usage, or its environmental impact will be negligible. Mr Alexander needs to make clear that he understands the distinction.

As the committee points out, for all its rhetoric the Government lacks a properly joined-up approach to transport issues. Why, for instance, are more roads being built when ministers say they want to get people out of their cars? Where are the major public transport improvements launched under this administration? What has been done to encourage people to travel by foot, or by pedal-power?

The state of the rail system provides more evidence of failure. True, the trains are getting better, and the number of passengers is going up. But there are serious issues over pricing and the complexity of using the system. It is simply cheaper and more convenient for many people to travel long distances by car or by aircraft.

Britain looks as far from solving such problems as it was in 1997. It remains just as vital, both for economic and environmental reasons, to have an adequate transport policy. Instead, this government has simply stood still in the face of adversity.