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Oiling the wheels of change?

The Commission for Integrated Transport has told the world about its first year of scrutinising Government's transport policy in its annual report. But is it an effective independent watchdog or a Prescott puppet? Damian Arnold reports.

Fourteen months after the Commission for Integrated Transport was set up to watch over Government transport policy, it is coming under fire for failing to have much of an impact. Critics have questioned its ability to influence policy and recently the Conservatives lambasted the CFIT as a bureaucratic waste of space.

CFIT chairman Professor David Begg disagrees, claiming the Commission is evolving into a powerful, if low profile, behind-the-scenes policy fixer.

Begg points to how the Government has followed CFIT's advice on several issues. These include a decision to set regional rather than national road traffic reduction targets. He also claims that CFIT persuaded the Government to respecify local transport plans to make them more accessible to a wider audience. The Commission has produced more reports in its 14 months than any other Government body, says the ex-transport chair at Edinburgh City Council.

Director of Transport 2000 and CFIT member Stephen Joseph agrees that CFIT has done vital work but is disappointed at its lack of public impact because of continuing Government paranoia at being perceived as anti-car.

'The Commission has reached a consensus on a range of issues but in another political environment it would have been more helpful than it has been, ' he says. 'It's disappointing that it hasn't been more in people's faces. A view has been taken that it should be more behind the scenes.'

The Commission's diverse group of members has also reached consensus on the introduction of widespread congestion charging in cities and on trunk roads in return for lower fuel taxes and higher subsidies for public transport. But the restraining hand of Whitehall policy is diluting the message, says Joseph. 'CFIT increasingly says things that the Government does not want to hear, such as a greater push towards congestion charging to restrain traffic.'

Begg promises a more prominent public role for CFIT in future and shrugs off criticism that it is a 'cafeteria commission' with the Government picking up on the recommendations it likes and ignoring the rest. He retorts that the Commission - which includes shadow Strategic Rail Authority chairman Sir Alastair Morton, Highways Agency chief executive Tim Matthews and Motorist's Forum chairman Sir Trevor Chinn - has already played a key role in helping to produce the 10 Year Transport Plan.

Assessing how to deliver the 10 year plan is CFIT's priority this autumn. It will advise how £56bn of private finance can be levered in over 10 years and how the profession can get the trained people it needs to do the job.

'The skills shortage is a big problem for the railways and there is a concern about civil and signalling engineers. It's no doubt difficult to change gear suddenly, ' says Begg. 'In the short term we will need higher wages to attract more people. It will take time and start to have an impact on the supply of skilled engineers. Then we will be in an ideal position to help out with the rail expansion of other European countries.'

Begg is quick to praise the Government after his Commission was initially critical of the lack of parliamentary time made available to get the Transport Bill through and the lack of investment in transport. He is also pleased that Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott has persuaded the Treasury to commit £123bn of public money for transport over 10 years.

'It's the biggest boost to transport planning since the Victorian era. Such long term financial planning from Government is unheard of. Historians will look back to 2000 as a watershed.'

Though delighted with the £180bn plan, Begg warns that the Government's transport agenda will fail unless bus and rail fares are reduced. 'There is a big question mark over fares. Rail fares have gone up 70% in real terms in the last 20 years and bus fares 50%, ' he says. 'Our transport is 10% subsidised by the taxpayer rather than the continental average of 50%. That's why fares tend to be higher in Britain than in any other European Country.'

Hissolution is to wait for the market to deliver lower fares resulting from the increased patronage that will come from more attractive services. But if after three years fares are still too high, Government subsidy would be needed, especially for socially excluded groups, he says.

Post 10 year transport plan euphoria is also threatened by land use planning policies entrenching the motor car as a continuing must for everyday life, he says. The Government must not be duped by the commercial gains of allowing lowdensity developments and must follow the recommendations of Lord Rogers' Urban Taskforce in its forthcoming Urban White Paper. Begg says: 'One of the reasons we are in so much trouble is disastrous planning policies. We must have more developments on brownfield sites and higher density developments in urban areas close to good public transport corridors.'

The Government's next landmark, according to Begg, will be to grasp the political nettle of trunk road congestion charging to address the worsening black spots expected to result from an anticipated 30% rise in traffic over the next 10 years.

He says: 'The Government has been right to give local authorities autonomy on the issue of congestion charging but at some point it will need to introduce congestion charging on the trunk road network.

'CFIT believes more extensive trunk road congestion charging is just. It may be that the fuel duty and vehicle excise duty will have to be reduced to make it politically acceptable.

There will be problems with political acceptability but I would certainly put trunk road tolls within a 10 year time frame.'

What must be done?

The Government should take steps to allow more transport interchanges to be built on green field sites, says Commission for Integrated Transport chairman Professor David Begg.

He says: 'There is a strong case for building on the green belt where there are very good public transport reasons for doing so such as more park and ride sites or high density developments along rail corridors.'

Existing interchanges such as railway stations also need improving. 'It's not just a question of building better interchanges but improving the many existing ones, ' he says. 'For example at many rail stations there is a case for increasing the car parking spaces despite opposition from many local authorities.'

According to Begg, integrated transport policies are being undermined by the Government's luke warm attitude to walking and cycling which is rendering its own target of quadrupling cycle use by 2012 increasingly unlikely. More cycling priority schemes are needed but some local authorities are not taking it seriously, he says. 'At Edinburgh City Council we doubled cycling in five years which shows what can be done.'

Begg is also concerned about the threat of interticketing smart cards being incompatible and calls for resources to be pooled into one smart card product (NCE last week).

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