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Let's have some action

Comment

Considering Tony Blair's track record of bold, controversial and expensive decisions over, for example, Iraq, the National Health Service and this week Trident replacement, he is remarkably consultative when it comes to transport policy.

Which is a shame because transport policy is crying out for a bit of controversy. Only by upsetting a few people will we ever see any real progress towards cutting congestion, reducing emissions and improving economic efciency.

It is possible. For example, when London Mayor Ken Livingstone drove through his congestion charging scheme in 2003 he did it in the face of erce opposition from the public and media.

And when the scheme is extended west next February it will no doubt continue to be attacked as an unjustified tax on personal liberty and an unnecessary cost on business.

But as a congestion busting and revenue raising device it has been a success. As I've said before, I think it's a very good thing. It makes you think about how you travel and if you don't want to think you simply have to pay money.

Draconian. Sweeping. Controversial. Like it or not, it really is the kind of transport policy that we need more of. Unfair perhaps. Not perfect certainly. But revenue raising and effective.

The result is that congestion charging is now the accepted reality - so we can and need to be even tougher. On this basis Sir Rod Eddington's transport study this week left me ever-soslightly disappointed.

Admittedly his report was an interesting and well informed read and a document worthy of shelf space in every transport professional's office. It makes a very strong link between transport and economic performance and contains some very compelling facts to justify investment.

And it does ag up national road user charging as something to be considered - although this is not a recommendation.

Yet after 18 months of research, investigation, discussion and consultation I cannot help but think that it ought to be more than an interesting read.

It is now up to Chancellor Gordon Brown (and presumably transport secretary Douglas Alexander will help) to actually formulate the policy. But they will do so without any real cast iron 'though shalt do' commandments. It is therefore hard to see how the views of Eddington the cautious businessman will translate into the 'savage and radical' policies that we heard Transport Select Committee chairman Gwyneth Dunwoody demand last week at Civils 2006.

Eddington says transport policy is 'not about picking winners but is about sustaining success'. He points out that 'prioritisation of transport spending must mean focusing on those schemes where the economic bene are more certain'.

These statements are of course true and very sensible.

But they are conservative and largely based upon the known. They are not enough to encourage a risk averse Chancellor (who wants to be Prime Minister for at least four years) to take radical decisions.

But Brown must do so if he is to create, as Eddington says, 'a modern, responsive and efcient transport system'.

The report is a line in the sand from which real policy must be built. Government must look beyond it and the needs of the Treasury towards the unknown, untested and even unpopular - to a new understanding so will bold transport decisions can be made for the nation.

Antony Oliver is NCE's editor

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