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Breakfast with Frost
Sunday 13 July, 2003 , BBC Breakfast with Frost Interview with Alistair Darling MP, Transport Secretary

Please note "BBC Breakfast with Frost" must be credited if any part of this transcript is used

Transport Secretary, Alistair Darling MP

PETER SISSONS: Now the government here came to power determined to cut the use of cars and to encourage us all back onto public transport. This week it seemed to do a U-turn when it announced a seven billion pound road building programme. The Transport Secretary said it would ease congestion and get the country moving faster, eventually.

Parts of the M1, the M25 and the M62 have all been earmarked for widening and there will be new by-passes too, but the work will take many years - one newspaper predicted a decade of cone misery for drivers, "jam today and tomorrow" said another. All that and the trains still aren't running on time, in fact they're getting worse. Well the Transport Secretary, Alistair Darling, is with us now in the studio. Good morning Alistair.


PETER SISSONS: You do find people will talk of the government having an impact on health and education and the PM says he's proud of what the government has delivered in those areas, but transport policy seems generally regarded as a disaster area across the board.

ALISTAIR DARLING: Well it takes time to fix it, especially when, frankly, the problem we have in this country is decades of underinvestment. Both governments, both colours, have been guilty of not putting enough in on a sustained level over a long period.

PETER SISSONS: And five wasted years in your first term.

ALISTAIR DARLING: No - we've been putting money into both rail and road and into public transport. It is beginning to have an effect, for example the west coast mainline which we are spending some nine billion pounds on, the first serious investment since the Sixties and early Seventies, from next year you'll be able to see significant differences.

Unfortunately, ... when you're putting money into these big projects it does take time but passengers are beginning to see improvements, there's still an awful long way to go and it is frustratingly slow at times but it is making a difference.

PETER SISSONS: If you had to fight the election tomorrow on what you've achieved in transport you'd be in dead trouble.

ALISTAIR DARLING: I think the public will accept there aren't any quick fixes. What the public want to see is that you have a strategy that is coherent. Now we are putting money into both the railway - as I've said - we're also putting money into roads, because a lot of our road infrastructure is suffering as a result of increased usage, as people become more prosperous they buy cars, they have more reasons to travel, we've got to make sure that we put money into both road and rail and into other forms of public transport, to give people a genuine choice as to which way they travel. Now, we're not there yet but there is an awful lot more to do but we are putting that money in.

PETER SISSONS: Someone remarked this week you could smell the burning rubber on the U-turn over roads, all experience shows, however, that - say the experts - that building more roads builds more traffic.

ALISTAIR DARLING: Well what I said this week was: there are three things you need to do. First, you need to make better use of the existing road capacity that we've got and we're doing that at the moment. For example, rather than widening the M42 near Birmingham, we're going to allow at peak hour time running on the hard shoulder.

Secondly, you do need to expand capacity where it's needed: the M1, the M6, the M25 are all carrying far more cars than they were designed for. However, the third element of the strategy is that you can't continue to simply try and build your way out of the problems that you face, which is why I've said that we need to examine whether or not a new form of charging people for the way in which they use their cars, road pricing, is feasible.

Now if we could do that, that would allow us to make better use of the way in which we use our roads, because you could encourage people to use off peak times as well as peak time running: it would be far more effective, far more efficient. If you don't look at that, frankly, you either face trying to do what I think you can't do, which is build your way out of a problem, or you face even worse congestion. That's why I think we need to look at the possibilities that road pricing offers.

PETER SISSONS: Are you fortified in your determination to look at these possibilities by the success of the congestion charge in London?

ALISTAIR DARLING: Well only to a limited extent because it's completely different technology. Now the London scheme has worked far better than most people thought but remember 85 per cent of people coming into central London use public transport. There is no other British city even approaches that figure.

So we're talking about, in regard to the roads as a whole, is a similar system to the one we're bringing in for lorries from 2006, whereby lorries will be charged on the distance they travel, we'll have the option to be able to charge them less if they use off peak times, more if they want to run, to bring a heavy lorry up the M6 at nine o'clock in the morning or something like that.

That technology will be here, it will be tried out from 2006. What we've got to ask ourselves is could you apply that same technology with the advantages it might bring to 26 million cars. Now no-one else in the world has attempted this, so we're early days yet but I do think that we need to look at it because the changes that technology is bringing along, there could be all sorts of advantages to drivers, offering them a faster, more reliable, less congested journey.

PETER SISSONS: Well the reality is that for the next ten years there is going to be more roadworks than ever before, probably. Is this a cunning plan to drive people out of their cars?

ALISTAIR DARLING: No. You're right, the minute you do any work on the road, whether you widen it or improve it, then there is bound to be some disruption. But look, our strategy involves making sure that people do have genuine choices - that's why we're putting so much money into the railways, nearly a third of all rolling stock in this country will be replaced in ... 5 years for example.

PETER SISSONS: Just remind us how much money, all up, is put into the railways - Network Rail, the operating companies - each year, by the taxpayer.

ALISTAIR DARLING: Well it's 73 million pounds a week - public money, matched by a similar amount of private money. It is a lot of money but remember the problems -

PETER SISSONS: So it's nationalised in all but name.

ALISTAIR DARLING: No it's not because, as I said to you, 73 million pounds a week is coming in from the public sector, a similar amount of money is coming in from the private sector, so it is both public and private. But the problem we've got in the railways is best put this way: BR used to maintain, to renew about five hundred miles of track every year.

In the midst of privatisation that had dropped to under 200. This year we will be replacing 740 miles and upgrading 740 miles worth of track. We are having to make up for decades of underinvestment. Now it is frustrating, anyone who travels by train knows that, but there is no quick way round it.

PETER SISSONS: But it took an accident at Hatfield to start the process of repairing the track. It could have been started five years before.

ALISTAIR DARLING: No there was money going into it before that. Now of course, if you go back to 1997, we as a government took the very deliberate decision to stick to the spending totals we inherited. If we hadn't done that, then today instead of being the only country where public spending is increasing, we would have been having to meet the huge bills of the debts that the last government left us would have resulted in.

So I, you know, I'm not going to go back and say what we did in 1997 was wrong - far from it. It was the right thing to do because the economic stability we now have, with the low interest rate, the lowest they've been for 30 to 40 years, that could not have been possible if we hadn't taken the decisions we took in 1997. But transport money, over the ten year period we'll spend something like 180 billion pounds. It will make a difference, what we are determined to do is to make sure we put money in continuously into both road and rail and other public transport. It will make a difference.

PETER SISSONS: Are you going to back the Crossrail project? Do you think it could be in place to make life easier for London's Olympic bid?

ALISTAIR DARLING: It was never going to be in place for the Olympics - we've made that clear right from the start, at the time we decided to put in a bid for the Olympics. The Crossrail is very important for the future or expansion of London.

PETER SISSONS: Ken Livingstone seems to think it can be done.

ALISTAIR DARLING: Well I - I think he knows full well it can't. What he says and what I think he knows may be slightly different.

PETER SISSONS: He got congestion charging right.

ALISTAIR DARLING: Yes but congestion charging was relatively easy to install. Crossrail is about building a new east-west rail link through a tunnel through central London. Now on any view that is going to take some time to do. Now the position is that we believe that it is essential for London's future expansion.

The big question is how is it going to be paid for, which is why the next stage will be to consult on the route and then go to the people in London who are saying yes we want to pay and say this is the time to get your cheque book out because it will have to get a substantial contribution from the private sector, because you're talking about a project that could be between ten to 15 billion pounds in cost. It is a huge project, one of the biggest the country would see - for the long term interest of London it's very important.

PETER SISSONS: Do you trust Ken Livingstone with the London Underground - he takes charge of it next week, doesn't he?

ALISTAIR DARLING: He takes charge Tuesday morning.

PETER SISSONS: The outgoing head of London Underground says he's lost the plot and actually held up Tube improvement. What side are you on?

ALISTAIR DARLING: It would have been much better if he hadn't spent all this time litigating, at huge expense to the people of London, which of course held things up. It made it much more complicated.

However the position that we're now is there's about a billion pounds going into the Tube every year - again it's an example of something that should have had money in it years ago, the money is now going in, it will make a difference.

Now we decided, three or four years ago, that the Tube ought to be devolved to London, it makes sense that all London transport is the responsibility of the Mayor and it will be transferred shortly after midnight on Tuesday and nothing's going to stop that.

PETER SISSONS: You'd expect me to turn to one or two other matters. The latest interview with Clare Short, which was screened a couple of hours ago, she urges Tony Blair to quit as prime minister. She says she doesn't mean it nastily, it's in the party's and the country's interest she says. What do you think her game is?

ALISTAIR DARLING: Oh I don't know. I mean she's said it before and I don't think it's got any support and, you know, frankly it doesn't surprise me.

PETER SISSONS: You sat alongside her in Cabinet, did you always look upon her as a bit of a loose cannon?

ALISTAIR DARLING: No, if you look at what Clare achieved over the six years that she was Secretary of State for International Development, she achieved an awful lot and, you know, she shouldn't almost downgrade that by the sort of things she's saying just now. Clare decided, after the war, that she wanted to resign - that's her choice - but, you know frankly, what she's saying, I don't think, has got much sympathy, certainly in the PLP or anywhere else for that matter.

PETER SISSONS: But she does seem to have put a finger on a problem which the polls show does exist, that two-thirds of Britons no longer trust Tony Blair.

ALISTAIR DARLING: Well trust is important and trust is something that governments have to fight for every day that they're in office. Yes, we're going through a bit of turbulence just now, but I think by the time of the next election people will see what we've delivered, on the public services, on the health service, for example, they'll have the choice between us and whether or not they want Iain Duncan Smith and his crew back in. I think trust is something that you've got to work for and you've got to build but frankly I don't think Clare's contribution is going to help one way or the other.

PETER SISSONS: Well she calls foundation hospitals a complete mess, you call it a bit of turbulence. Top up fees - an absolutely crummy policy. She says there is a lot of muttering going on on the backbenches, that's true isn't it?

ALISTAIR DARLING: Well, in any government you're always going to have a debate about policy but if you look at, well take, well since you mentioned it, the health service - we are putting increasing sums of money into the health service, the argument is how you best manage that to get the most out for patients.

In relation to universities and tuition fees, everybody knows we've got to make sure that we get enough money in to make sure it is properly funded. That argument isn't going to go away.

Of course you can argue how you do it but frankly I think what people want to see is a government that is determined, determined to deliver exactly what we set out to do at the last election: improve the health service, make sure that higher education is properly funded, that's what we're going to do. We're not going to be deflected from it.

PETER SISSONS: We'll pause there Alistair and we'll take the news and maybe come back for another question.


PETER SISSONS: Just very briefly, Tony Blair warned this week that the Tories could win the next election. Do you think that's a real possibility now they are getting their act together?

ALISTAIR DARLING: Of course any government that becomes complacent and thinks that the voters won't one day choose somebody else will be in deep, deep trouble. We've got to remind people that, you know, they were in for 18 years.

Now we've been here for six years, we're making many of the improvements that we set out to put in place, there's still a lot more to do, but at the next election people will have a very clear choice: that we carry on putting money into our public services, maintaining the stability which has seen low interest rates, low mortgage rates, we're going back to the instability, the divisiveness that the Tories are still committed to. In many ways, the Tories are actually more extreme than they ever were so Tony Blair is absolutely right, politics is about choices.

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