Leading Article: Prescott deserves a clear road

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The Independent Online
HOW WAS the bank holiday weekend for you? We hope that you weren't one of the poor souls who were delayed for 63 minutes on the Virgin Express from Birmingham to Edinburgh. Or caught in the nasty jams around Rothersthorpe services on the M1. Or any other of the ritual endurance tests.

Well, the Deputy Prime Minister, John Prescott, is the man responsible for sorting out, as much as any mortal politician can, the transport mess. In fact it might not be too great an exaggeration to say that all of John Prescott's life has been a preparation for the White Paper on an integrated transport policy which he is due to unveil next month. It is as if young Johnny has been up in his Whitehall bedroom for months grappling with his train set, strategically ordering his toy cars and planes and boats, and, most importantly, his bus collection, manfully trying to, well, integrate them. All this so he can unveil the tableau to the whole school and win first prize in the "Sixth Form Integrated Transport Policy" competition. It is even said that another of the prefects, Gordon Brown, has been allowed to cast an eye over things and thought that the plan to introduce charges on motorists to ease congestion a jolly clever wheeze. But, entirely uninvited, along comes that little squirt, Geoffrey Norris, from the No 10 policy unit nursery school down the road. He then presumptuously tells him - John Prescott - that the Headmaster, Mr Blair, has heard that the plans are too unfriendly to cars, which, doesn't he realise, are a liberating force.

It must have been hard to take. Mr Prescott is rightly wary of being patronised by people he might consider his social, political or intellectual equals, let alone the likes of Geoffrey Norris (Mr Prescott describes his sort as "teeny boppers"). But Mr Prescott must, once again, do what he has become rather good at - calm down, ignore the criticism and get on with the job. There will be more support for him than he might think.

It is hard to exaggerate the importance of the White Paper on Transport Policy. It will be the first look at the whole picture for 20 years. The projected growth in road traffic is unsustainable. By all accounts the White Paper will have some excellent and radical ideas on which Mr Prescott should indeed stand his ground. He should do this both for the sake of the policy itself and also for the good of new Labour. Mr Blair's party is in danger of being all-too-easily accused of running away from radical policy initiatives that might frighten middle England's horses, no matter what might be in the long-term interests of the country as a whole. Mr Prescott says that "hard and difficult" choices must be made. Some of the hints about what will be in the White Paper suggest that they will indeed be challenging ideas. They should be supported.

Local councils should indeed be given powers to levy "congestion charges" on motorists who bring their cars into towns and cities at peak times, and should also be allowed to place heavy taxes on "private non-residential parking", which would affect people who use their cars to go to work or shop. Shops, offices and factories should be charged for parking. The money raised can be used by councils to finance transport projects and should not be simply swallowed up by the Treasury, a point the Chancellor seems to have conceded. Mr Prescott does, however, need to look carefully at the potential problem of neighbouring towns competing to levy the lowest charges in the interests of stimulating trade. If workable measures were brought in they would also give the biggest liberating and reinvigorating boost to local government that we will have seen in decades.

Mr Blair and his policy wonks are right to feel anxious about the political impact of the proposals. But Mr Blair has shown himself both ready to engage in political argument and unafraid of the task of persuading people that changes which seem to be damaging are necessary, and in the long term also to their advantage. Of course the motor car is a liberating force. The automobile is not an "enemy". Would that we had a public transport system that could offer the same choices - and at cost that competes with the marginal costs of using a car. But we cannot afford to duck the hard issues, the problems of pollution and congestion, the inadequacies of public transport that many of us have to face every day. We all of us suffer as consumers of foul air, as parents and as commuters as well as road-users if we fail to tackle the issues. We must wind down gently our reliance on the car and boost decent public transport.

"John Prescott saves the planet" is not a headline we are ever likely to see. But his work at the Kyoto summit on the environment and his efforts to make a workable transport policy - which stretch back way into the years of opposition - deserve all of our support. Mr Prescott has shown that he can be an enormous asset to this government by eschewing spin and getting on with the job. Mr Blair should call off his bossy messenger boys.

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