Pay up and pay the game
New Labour was elected on a simplistic anti-car platform; increasing public transport would replace car usage. After the 1997 general election, the spectacularly incompetent Transport Secretary, John Prescott, said, “I will have failed if in five years time there are not … far fewer journeys by car. It’s a tall order but I urge you to hold me to it.”
In December 1999, he promised: “We’re going to have a transport system to rival the best in Europe” (only to telephone a senior official the next day for the facts and figures about how far behind Europe our transport system was).
The following year, in his 10-Year Plan, he then promised congestion would be reduced by up to six percent by 2010. Despite massive spending on public transport, local bus use was to decline by 11 percent on the decade and even with over £1 billion in subsidies, fares would increase by 20 percent. Gordon Brown’s extra spending simply failed to prevent the remorseless rise of vehicle ownership, from 26.3 million in 1996 to 29.7 million in 2001 and to 33.4 million in 2006.
By the time Alastair Darling took over in 2001 he could do nothing other than admit the obvious: Prescott’s policies had utterly failed. Darling conceded defeat and announced that he expected a 20 percent rise in congestion by 2010.
To deal with this, however, was going to require expensive new roads – a complete U-turn in New Labour policy – and, as long as Gordon Brown was paying the bills, this was never going to happen. The new Transport Secretary, therefore, came up with an answer – universal road charging, imposing pay-as-you drive charges on every motorist in the country.
The only way such an ambitious scheme could work though was to adopt relatively new and untried technology using satellite positioning, such as the GPS system that was being provided free of charge by the United States government. On the grounds that there were doubts about whether GPS would be continuously available, Darling gambled on the EU developing a rival system Galileo.
In 2002, he and his EU colleagues staked £3 billion on its development; this has so far cost the UK taxpayers an estimated £500 million.
Then, in June 2005 he announced his intention to launch his nation-wide scheme, with trials starting in 2010, the charges eventually replacing road tax and petrol duty. The change was needed, he said, if the UK was to avoid the possibility of “LA-style gridlock” within 20 years.
Nevertheless, Darling was not to see the plan through. He gave way to the current Transport Secretary, Douglas Alexander, who said in one of his first speeches in office that he considered road pricing “a personal priority” which could be introduced nationally by 2016.
He proposed a series of regional trials, “to inform the debate” in return for substantial payments for local infrastructure improvements, from a new Transport Innovation Fund. His declared aim was to move “…the debate from ‘why’ to ‘how’ we might make a national system work in practice”.
However, public opinion was moving the other way and Alexander was confronted with 1.8 million signatories to a Downing Street petition who called for road pricing to be abandoned. Meanwhile, the technical wheels were coming off Gordon Brown’s transport wagon.
Tomorrow, I explore the reasons for this.
Owen Paterson is MP for North Shropshire and Shadow Minister of State for Transport