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Green transport: Labour's green plans hit the hard shoulder

WHEN the new Labour Government swept to power in 1997, it promised 'things can only get better' and within two years showed how that mantra would be applied to transport.

The 10-year, £180-billion transport plan promised a revolution to ease congestion, protect the environment and keep business on the move.

But just three years later, the Transport Select Committee, dominated by Labour politicians, including its chairman, Gwyneth Dunwoody, has issued a damning assessment of progress so far, saying the plan is 'incoherent', 'incomprehensible' and failing to tackle congestion.

What targets have been set are not being met, vital areas such as reducing traffic levels have no targets to meet at all and the overall effect of the plan will be minimal compared to the results of car manufacturers, fleets and other road users cleaning up emissions themselves.

'We have little confidence that the balance of the plan is right or that it will offer good value for money,' the eighth report of the Transport Select Committee said. The plan estimates that by 2010, levels of national road congestion and carbon dioxide emissions from transport will be 'below current levels'.

Other key targets are to increase rail use by 50%, bus use by 10% and to double light rail use.

But in assessing progress, most of the projects are significantly behind schedule and policy seems to come to a dead-end after 2010.

The report adds that if the Government is serious about dealing with transport problems, then it must rely on the advice of experts.

'Blue skies thinking from casual enthusiasts such as Lord Birt is no substitute for a considered analysis of the impacts of future policies that the Government has hitherto been reluctant to consider,' MPs said.

Targets for congestion are attacked for being unspecific, and the committee said the Government must 'make explicit the changes that it will make to journey times and the day-to-day variability of journey times. This is the information required by business and the travelling public. The Department of Transport, Local Government and the Regions must re-examine the congestion measure on which much of the plan is based.'

Perhaps the reason why no exact figures were given was the true effect of the 10-year plan, revealed by the Transport Select Committee for the first time. Without the plan, there would be a 57.5% reduction in emissions of nitrogen oxides and a 45.3% reduction in particulate matter.

The measures in the plan provide a further 1% and 0.5% reduction respectively, 'which are almost insignificant compared to those offered by technological improvements', MPs say.

The plan therefore contributes reductions in toxic exhaust emissions of only one fiftieth to one hundredth the size of those that will be delivered by new vehicle technology.

The Government's efforts to encourage people on to alternative transport are also torn apart, as the committee investigation reveals the 10-year plan works on the assumption that public transport will become more expensive, while private travel will become cheaper.

Clear examples of this policy are shown in the killing off of regular increases in fuel duty and the New Cars Order 2000, which attempted to cut car prices by 10%. At the same time, rail operators announced regular increases in ticket prices.

The Government's approach to motoring costs is incomprehensible, according to the Select Committee. The failure to address falling motoring costs will make public transport a significantly less attractive option for the travelling public, they say.

If it is unacceptable to impose 'very significant costs' on motorists by holding costs constant, then this argument should also hold for public transport users, according to MPs.

The report concluded: 'The 10- year plan is undermined by the Government's failure to tackle the deteriorating relative costs of public and private transport.'

In damning the 10-year plan as 'ill-balanced', MPs claim it focuses on congestion at the expense of wider objectives such as safety and social inclusion, which must be included in any revisions.

The Government's appetite for an unpopular battle over congestion charging and workplace parking charges also seems to have reduced. The power to introduce local charging schemes was a cornerstone of the Government's Transport White Paper.

The 10-year plan assumed 20 such schemes would be implemented by 2010, but MPs said 'it is astonishing that such an important and difficult policy measure could be bracketed as an assumption. No more than a handful of large-scale congestion charging schemes will actually be brought forward by 2010'.

Even if major cities introduce charging schemes and other public transport improvements, they will still struggle to meet the Government's targets for congestion reduction.

The report added: 'Other policies alone will not bring about the required changes in traffic and congestion levels. The department has turned its back on local charging schemes rather than provide the leadership required to implement one of the most crucial elements of the White Paper.'

Even if the targets made a difference, the Government is far behind schedule. It seems that the estimates of congestion reduction are completely divorced from those who are responsible for achieving them, the report claims.

It added: 'It is not clear whether a 5% reduction in congestion is the best or most cost-effective objective to aim for. The Highways Agency is best placed to provide a strategic view of the inter-urban road network; it should perform that role.'

The Secretary of State at the DTLR is now responsible for carrying forward the plan introduced by Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott.

Officials defended the policy, amid claims they are about to overhaul the Government's plans. They said the criticisms were 'premature' and based on a misunderstanding of the intention of launching the plan in the first place.

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