As Gordon Brown's comprehensive spending review looms, the Department for Transport this week put road tolls back on the agenda. Antony Oliver asks why.
TRANSPORT SECRETARY Alastair Darling's latest consultations on toll motorways and multiple occupancy vehicle lanes make good headlines.
But the reality is that, as with so much of the UK's transport strategy, we have been there before.
The Tories came up with a plan for a privately financed Birmingham to Manchester toll road in their 1989 Green Paper New roads by new means.
'I think we're firmly committed to widening the M6 with public money, ' then transport secretary Paul Channon told NCE. 'But if someone came forward with a [privately financed scheme] we'd have to look at it, ' he added (NCE 25 May 1989).
The Green Paper was published alongside Roads for Prosperity, a White Paper outlining a bold £12bn, 10 year motorway construction programme. Widening the nation's main arteries, preferably with private funding, was the great new plan to update the UK's motorway capacity and create the construction 'boom of the century'.
Since then we have seen most of these aspirations relegated to the back burner or beyond as government priorities moved away from road construction in line with public opinion and budget restraint.
So for a Labour government to return to such plans surely raises a smile among transport watchers and lovers of the film Groundhog Day.
Coming so close to the comprehensive spending review, the rail review and the 10 year transport plan update, we can only assume the real purpose of this week's announcements. The news seems designed to deflect media attention away from the real issue - that government remains unwilling or unable to spend public cash on the nation's transport infrastructure.
Perhaps tolling a widened M6 was a good idea back 1989. Perhaps the Tory government should have stuck to its guns and pressed forward for delivery.
Perhaps the Green Paper was just one more giant kite flown by a government seeking direction after two terms in office.
It is hard to see Darling's latest proposals as anything other than a repeat of the latter.
The fact that the Highways Agency - the Department for Transport's highway delivery agent - seemed to know little about his plans speaks volumes.
Consultations, after all, buy time and test the political water.
The stark reality is that from the public's point of view, more consultations, although useful and important to the democratic process, do not get us any closer to solving the UK's transport problems.
Instead they simply introduce a new batch of disparate ideas.
As NCE's 'Stop the Transport Cuts' campaign has made clear over the last few months, government momentum must drive forward transport projects whether they are funded with public or private cash. And as we have shown, there are a number of clear-cut candidates for immediate funding and immediate delivery.
Our list of key projects does not pander to any single mode of transport. Nor does it back private transport over public.
We are pressing for a proper mix of modes and have identified the top 10 schemes to bring quick and vital wins.
It is clear that the public wants a transport system that works consistently and efficiently. There is nothing wrong with breathing life into old schemes - Crossrail, Thameslink and M1 widening as promoted by NCE's campaign are cases in point. But what we really need now is delivery - not new consultations.