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Looking for local heroes Local authorities will be the key to turning the theory of integrated transport into reality.

Last Wednesday almost 270 councillors, planners, local authority engineers, transport operators, environmentalists, academics and civil servants braved the carbon monoxide fumes of Parliament Square to discuss the in-vogue buzz phrase - integrated transport.

The occasion was the first UK Local Authority Chairs of Transport conference, held at the Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre.

It was clear from the tone of the debate that council officials view this task with trepidation. Many will have to walk a political tightrope to get their electorate to leave their cars at home in favour of public transport, walking or cycling. But it is also clear that many are impatient and want to start getting things done while transport is still so high on the political agenda.

Local Transport Plans have been heralded as the centrepiece of the Government's proposals for an integrated transport system. But as yet the detail has been, to say the least, fuzzy. Local authorities are in an information vacuum and are unclear about what exactly is required of them, and what new powers they will have.

Speaking in an hour long session at the start of the conference, Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott was unable to enlighten them any further.

'We believe in devolving decision making where it makes sense,' he said cryptically. 'We want proposals to be ones that are wanted in the community, and we want more consultation to take place than has happened in the past.'

It seems there will be no end to the consultation, the White Papers, and the 'daughters' of White Papers that are intended to set out the plans in more detail. So far the process has taken the Government 16 months. And with no time left in this Parliamentary session for new transport legislation, whispers are already circulating that hard measures such as congestion charging will not be pushed until Labour is safely installed in its second term of office.

The fear is that the longer the process goes on the more the plans hailed as 'radical' by the broadsheet press will be eroded by the leader writers of the headline hungry tabloids. Reports that Tony Blair is uncomfortable with some of the ideas are already starting to appear.

Local authorities should not wait for this to happen.

There is much that can be done to reduce congestion and improve the air quality in our city centres that does not require legislation. And it is now clear that there will be no huge increase in government transport expenditure as a whole.

On the other hand, transport operators such as FirstGroup are queuing up to form Public Private Partnerships with local authorities. Speaking at the conference, FirstGroup chief executive Moir Lockhead said he was willing to match local authority infrastructure investment with new funding for buses, and in some cases contribute to infrastructure funding as well.

FirstGroup is already in discussions with 20 local authorities. More should now be looking to do this sort of deal with private companies to get measures such as priority bus lanes off the ground.

Harder measures like workplace parking levies and congestion charging will only be politically palatable if significant improvements are made to public transport first. Local authorities, in collusion with the private sector, are the only ones who can deliver this. Engineers and council members should put aside their trepidation and start the good work now.

Matthew Jones

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