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Prescott's progress

In two months time the most anticipated transport legislation for decades could be announced in the Queen's Speech. Varya Shaw examines the possible impact of the integrated transport revolution and analyses the all-important political battles still being

If John Prescott gets his way those who drive to work are going to experience a lot of changes in the next two decades.

Let us take the hypothetical Ms Smith, 35, of Cheshunt in Hertfordshire. She currently faces an hour's drive on roads in various states of congestion, dropping her son off at school before travelling on to her office in London's Euston.

She is already noticing changes to Cheshunt town centre. Speed humps, traffic lights and bus lanes have radically restructured the central roundabout. They are intended to make passage easier for bikes and buses. Unfortunately the level of cars remains so high the measures make little difference.

Once out of Cheshunt she joins the A10. This offers little opportunity to break the 40mph speed limit, and there are huge queues at every traffic light. Arriving in London she reaches an all time low, moving at 9mph or less on some roads. Luckily, her firm has a company car park, so she does not have to pay to use a private car park provider.

In 10 years time what might have changed? It is possible that Ms Smith will find herself paying tolls along the A10 and then charges to enter central London.

Congestion charging requires primary legislation. There is already provision for this in the Greater London Authority Bill, and if the new mayor makes this a priority, there is no reason why it should not go ahead swiftly.

For the rest of the country it will definitely take longer, even if road pricing is included in November's proposed transport legislation. Technical pilots are going ahead in Edinburgh and Leeds and the Department of the Environment Transport and the Regions has recently put out to tender the specification for the electronic tolling systems. But the winner will not be announced until next summer, and implementation of the schemes, which use virtual money, will only begin in 2000.

This is why many hedge their bets when predicting implementation of road pricing. British Roads Federation head of policy Andrew Tesseyman says: 'I don't think local authorities are going to rush into road tolling and I think it will be the next decade before you see this in the running. There's a lot of political risk involved.

'There are cities like Bristol which are quite ahead of the game but a lot of local authorities wouldn't touch it for a few years.'

AA policy director John Dawson agrees: 'In the real world it's difficult to see if any town or city will want to progress to road pricing without being pushed or bribed by central government. The history around the world is that there are lots of optimistic starts and very few finishes.'

However, Professor Phil Goodwin of University College London's Transport Studies Unit believes congestion charging in cities should come before motorway tolling. 'Thinking is more advanced in relation to what you need to do in urban areas. Inter-urban measures seem simpler but making it work coherently turns out to be more complicated. So many people are involved, the government, three or four local authorities, different agencies.'

Another difficulty is motorway users diverting to smaller roads which are not tolled, Goodwin suggests. It might only be a tiny proportion of the motorway's flow, but it would be a lot in relation to the capacity of the smaller road. This narrows down the routes available for tolling to new roads, for example, or roads with no alternative route.

Getting back to Ms Smith's future journey to work, she may find that when she gets to her office, she has to pay for her parking space. Workplace parking charges are likely to arrive at the same time as other kinds of road pricing, all part of the 'stick' aspect of discouraging car use.

But this may not matter too much. The revenue generated by road tolling and congestion charges may make it possible to provide superb public transport.

Goodwin says: 'When charging legislation comes into force then there simply isn't a financial problem [in funding improvement to public transport]. No good idea would be unaffordable if you had the charging powers.'

But he adds: 'Trying to do it without the charging powers is more difficult. Either we have plenty or not enough - the middle ground isn't there.'

So Ms Smith can take the bus. Long before congestion charging is instituted there will be investment in improved services. It does not require statutory legislation and is hardly a turn-off for the voters.

In fact, funding has already been provided by the DETR for more routes, better disabled access and bus information in rural areas.

Legislation is planned to make it a statutory requirement for bus operators to work more closely together, such as in the provision of through tickets.

Alternatively Ms Smith may decide to let the train take the strain. In the future trains should be running faster and more frequently because the new Strategic Rail Authority has ensured tracks are in peak condition.

Currently one of the biggest problems facing train operators is the poor condition of tracks which limits how often they can be used and how fast trains can travel. The SRA, which already exists in shadow version, will take an overview of the problem, directing funding towards improvements which allow greater use of the network.

The Strategic Rail Authority is widely expected to become statutory in this parliamentary session or the next, as it is included in the Railways Bill now being debated in the House of Commons.

Lastly, Ms Smith may no longer need her car to take her 12-year-old to school because charges mean the council has been flush enough to provide an excellent cycle network that even children can feel safe on. This improvement will be thanks to the council's local transport plan.

The LTPs are well under way as no legislation was needed and authorities submitted their first plans in July this year. Local Government Association head of transport policy Vince Christie says: 'LTPs should include a positive balance to encourage walking, cycling and public transport along with measures to discourage cars. How each authority balances the carrot and stick aspect is down to them.'

That, of course, is the Catch 22. One of the most important factors making walking, cycling and buses more attractive and viable is less cars. Road pricing is crucial to delivering reduced car use. But without better alternative means of transport, road pricing will remain unpopular with voters.

Goodwin adds: 'Something like this is on the scale of the really big nineteenth century labour reforms like free education and giving people the vote. Such things don't happen overnight. We're talking about splitting the main strategy for a large part of the twentieth century from something which is going to be important for a large part of the 21st century. Questions about whether it's October 1999 or March 2001 are not unimportant but it's not grasping the main point.'

Reports about the death of integrated transport seem exaggerated

If you believed all you read in the newspapers, you would think that Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott is struggling to put the ideals of his integrated transport White Paper into practice. We have all seen stories in the media about his battle to push road pricing through in the face of opposition from the Treasury and Prime Minister Tony Blair.

The view is backed by British Roads Federation head of policy Andrew Tesseyman: 'My suspicion is that the biggest priority for John Prescott will be road pricing and congestion charging. Reading between the lines it seems as if he has got a bit of a battle on.'

But Professor Phil Goodwin of University College London's Transport Studies Unit believes stories of opposition to Prescott from within Government are exaggerated. He is particularly unconvinced about reports of Treasury opposition to the idea of ring fencing revenue from road pricing for public transport improvements.

'Before the White Paper Prescott said 'don't believe this', and road pricing did get into the White Paper. Now people are saying it will never get in the legislative programme but the Greater London Authority Bill does have it in. There's no obvious reason why London would have it and not anywhere else.

'But my feeling is that there is a real Government commitment to these policies. This argument about dropping these policies has been exaggerated because it's a good media story.

'Where there is discontent about the Government's transport policies it's that they should be faster, not that they're doing the wrong things and should slow down. The government should welcome that sort of criticism.'

Sources close to Whitehall suggest Blair and Chancellor Gordon Brown are suspicious of Prescott's policies. But the Government has undergone a fundamental shift towards transport, placing it right at the top of the agenda. This is a crucial change.

Given the buoyancy of the economy the Treasury is for once well disposed towards giving the DETR the funds for some major projects. But it wants to be satisfied about the quality of these projects first.

If John Prescott can convince other members of the cabinet that his proposals really work, we will be seeing a lot more of them.

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