Page last updated at 12:09 GMT, Monday, 18 January 2010

What happened to the 10-year transport plan?

John Prescott on a bus

When Labour's £180bn, 10-year transport plan was unveiled by John Prescott in 2000, there were high expectations that it was to usher in a new era of light rail, road pricing and a much-improved bus service. So what happened, asks Chris Ledgard.

Looking down from their ivory towers, professors of transport studies get a good view of the road, rail and bus networks below.

Watching us all struggle from A to B and back again, they can devise systems, predict outcomes and offer solutions. Fascinating work, but if it's to make the journey from academia to the outside world, politicians need to get on board.

In the late 1990s, they did. "It was an incredibly exciting period - it was a revolution," remembers Professor David Begg, who chaired the Commission For Integrated Transport.

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"There was that feeling", says Professor Phil Goodwin, a former head of transport studies at Oxford University, "I had it personally and a lot of people associated with the re-thinking of transport policy felt the same thing… a feeling that yes, this was the first time maybe that professionals and politicians were seeing eye to eye."

The thinking that brought them together has been dubbed the "new realism", a rejection of the idea that transport problems were solved by building roads.

The theory of induced demand said new roads created new journeys. Whenever space opened, the demand to use it outpaced predictions - the M25 was an example. Therefore, the argument went, demand must be managed, and congestion charging was an obvious tool.

'Stepping stone job'

If there was a high priest of new realism, it was Phil Goodwin. When the 1998 White Paper on transport was being drawn up, Professor Goodwin chaired the panel that advised the new super ministry, the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions and its leader, the ebullient John Prescott.

Tram in Croydon
Trams were earmarked for 25 towns and cities

"He had a weight not all transport ministers have had. Sometimes it's been a job either for young ministers on the way up who can hardly wait to get a better job, or for old ministers on the way down who resent that they've been demoted."

The deputy prime minister wasn't like that, says Phil Goodwin, and the White Paper with its strong emphasis on public transport and paying for road use bore the stamp of the new thinking. But not everyone at those DETR meetings bought the idea of discouraging road use.

"This was not a done deal… there was a Downing Street minder who said almost nothing but glowered every time we had that discussion."

In the summer of 2000, the government launched Transport 2010, the 10-year plan. "It wasn't", says David Begg, "the implementation plan that'd naturally follow from the 1998 White Paper."

The plan talked of 20 towns and cities bringing in either congestion charging or a levy on parking at work. But the new realists were disappointed at the amount - a third of the £180 billion budget - earmarked for road schemes.

The focus of Transport 2010 was congestion. The trick it tried to pull off was cutting congestion while - by investing in public transport - allowing actual traffic to grow. The target wasn't traffic itself, but the effects of traffic.

'It succeeded'

Then events intervened - one in particular: the fuel protest. "That's where the backlash came." says Professor Begg.

"The fuel duty protest is burned on the memory of people like Gordon Brown… you cannot have a dispassionate conversation with the prime minister on road pricing without memories of that 2000 protest."

FOUR 10-YEAR TARGETS
50% increase in public transport use, measured by passenger kilometres
Congestion reduced below 2000 levels, particularly in large urban areas
Up to 25 new rapid transit lines in major cities and conurbations, more than doubling light rail use
Eight of our largest towns and cities to introduce congestion charging schemes and a further 12 to bring in workplace parking levies

So what happened to the consensus, the "seeing eye to eye" of the politicians and the professionals? Some, including David Begg, doubt there ever was this philosophical coming together.

Transport spending, he argues, is particularly vulnerable to the economic climate - easier to cut a road scheme than close a school. So what happened in the 1990s wasn't a falling of the scales from politicians' eyes - they just ran out of cash. Then there's John Prescott.

"The thing about that 1998 White Paper was you didn't have cabinet buy-in. They weren't that interested - it's transport."

While the deputy prime minister ran transport, Professor Begg argues, the rest of the cabinet gave him leeway. "The worry with that is that when John Prescott went from that portfolio as he did in 2001 you didn't have continuity… in fact you had the opposite."

The former deputy prime minister (whose office shelves are full of model ships and trains) agrees his successors didn't share his approach.

"I don't think others that came after me had the same conviction and they came up against difficult problems. Certainly, the road lobby and the fuel crisis put some extra pressure on.

"Secondly, people were very nervous about my plan of shutting down on the road-building programme."

Shift in behaviour

Transport ministers, Mr Prescott says, are generally waiting to move on to something more exciting.

"Most ministers of transport who don't know transport tend to go along with it… it's about keeping your nose clean… transport has suffered from that for a long time."

Fuel protest in 2000
The fuel protests in 2000 unsettled political thinking

Transport 2010, says Phil Goodwin, had "a lifespan not of 10 years, but of two or three years". Commentators were quick to pronounce it dead. But despite the failings - the forgotten congestion targets, the lack of road pricing and shortage of light rail schemes - John Prescott claims it was successful.

The government, he says, stuck to the investment plan, and achieved a shift in travel behaviour.

"It got people to think about how we use our roads more effectively… I got pilloried to a certain extent because I said I wanted to see more people on public transport than on private and that would be a judgement for me. We did get more people on public transport. What I underestimated was that there would be seven million new cars."

For Phil Goodwin, though, it was a missed opportunity. After the White Paper was published, he and his team went out for a celebratory lunch. Maybe the champagne should have been kept on ice.

"What you have is a continually repeated cycle of thinking we can do it without restricting traffic growth, being persuaded eventually we can't do it without intervening, backing off, forgetting the message, and starting the whole cycle again."

"Are we still there?" I ask.

"Yeah, we're still there", says the professor, gloomily.



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