Friday, July 24, 1998 Published at 14:55 GMT 15:55 UK
Fuel-burning questions: Prescott replies
Earlier this week, the Deputy Prime Minister, John Prescott, unveiled ambitous plans to boost public transport and end the nightmare of congestion on Britain's roads.
Now John Prescott answers some of your questions - submitted before publication of the Transport White Paper - on everything from scooters to school-buses, cycle parks to company cars.
Two wheels better than four?
Motorcycles and scooters use far less petrol, produce lower emissions and take up less parking space. What are Labour going to do to encourage people to move from their cars into two wheeled motorised transport, and how do you plan to make these journeys easier and safer?
JP: The environmental and congestion implications of two wheeled motor vehicles are not clear cut. Much depends on their size, whether the journeys are in addition to or a substitute for journeys previously made and whether they substitute for journeys previously made by car, on foot, by bicycle or on public transport.
The safety record of riders and passengers of powered two wheelers is a matter of great concern and it is clear that all road users need to abide by all the rules of the Highway Code. One of the concerns raised by motorcycle groups is that the high casualty rate of motorcyclists is due to vehicle drivers not taking enough account of their needs. We have introduced more questions in the driving theory test to increase awareness of vulnerable road users, including motorcyclists. We are also considering what, if any, improvements need to be made to the practical car driving test.
I am from London, but recently moved to Sydney, Australia. I used to cycle everywhere in London and found it to be the fastest way to travel around, but security was always a concern. Why aren't there more secure bike parks? The Government should enforce that every car park has an area for locking up bicycles which is under constant security. Cycle Lanes in London are a travesty, there is no integrated system. Lanes often stop for no particular reason and often at dangerous intersections when they are needed most. Is there going to be an integrated plan for cycle lanes for London?
JP: Improving security of bicycles is recognised in the National Cycling Forum as a key influence in encouraging people to cycle more. The National Cycling Forum have instituted a number of actions to deter cycle theft, and to aid the recovery of stolen bikes. A code of practice has been established for cycle mark and registration schemes, a leaflet has been issued by the Home Office giving general advice to the police on the security of bicycles, and a set of standards is nearing completion that will enable cycle locking devices to be graded in terms of their efficiency.
We want local authorities and employers to make better and more secure provision for cycle parking. Our experience with a number of cycle challenge projects has shown how this can best be done. We are soon to publish guidance on the establishment of Cycle Centres, and on cycle parking equipment.
It seems motorists will be charged even more excessively than they are today with public transport costs still remaining high. These charges will fall equally on everyone with transport needs regardless of their income - a kind of 'Mobility Poll Tax'. Given that the Government is committed to a flexible workforce, isn't this at odds with Government employment policy?
Would it not make more sense to reduce the amount of travel required rather than to juggle an overstretched transport system? Many people could work more efficiently at home using telecom links (ISDN, telephones etc) what plans do the Government have to encourage firms to employ more tele-workers?
JP: The Government is concerned that being unable to afford transport can limit everyday life and that, currently, easy access to jobs, training and education opportunities is not available to everyone.
This is why the policies contained in the transport White Paper are aimed at producing better public transport and providing easier access to workplaces and build a more inclusive society. Revenue from any new charges will be used to improve all forms of transport serving the area where the charges are levied so that there is a link between paying the charge and getting better transport choice. The White Paper also sets out the Government's approach to the planning system.
This is aimed at containing the dispersal of development so reducing the need to travel and improving access to jobs and services. The Government is encouraging employers to prepare Green Transport Plans aimed at reducing car use for travel to work and for travel on business.
A plan is typically a package of practical measures to encourage staff to choose alternatives such as car-sharing, cycling and travelling by bus.
Teleworking, along with teleconferencing and cutting out unnecessary meetings, can be an important element of a Green Transport Plan by contributing to an overall reduction both in journeys to work and in business travel. But teleworking needs to be carefully considered - it can lead to increased car travel from home and more car-dependent people living in the countryside.
Each day rush hour congestion is made worse by parents taking their children to school by car. Cheap or free school buses provided by the Government or LEA funding could make a massive difference. Would the Government consider providing a free public transport to school for all children rather than only those who live several miles from the school?
JP: Free home to school transport is already provided for children under 8 living more than two miles from the nearest suitable school, and for children over 8 living more than three miles away. Special needs or religious preference may sometimes mean that the nearest suitable school is not the nearest. Children are increasingly being driven to school for a number of reasons, including pressure of time and concerns about road traffic and personal safety. Another factor is that parents driving to work or the shops often drop children at school on the way.
Increased provision of school buses over shorter distances would therefore risk replacing journeys currently made on foot or by bike, while leaving car journeys to school, and the resulting congestion, largely unaffected. The White Paper sets out policies to reduce the need for the school run through measures to support walking, cycling and public transport for the journey to school, and to improve access to work shops and other facilities without using the car.
Do you think that rail privatisation has worked and what measures will you and your Government be taking to ensure that the disparate train companies provide a service that is both integrated and of a sufficiently high quality, something that we all surely deserve?
JP: The Government has recently concluded a review of railway regulation. The review has identified a number of major flaws at the heart of the regulatory structure governing the privatised railway. In addition to those structural flaws, the performance (punctuality and reliability) of some of the 25 passenger train operating companies has been unacceptable, despite the increase in grant to the industry which accompanied privatisation. Nearly one million passenger complaints were made to train operators in 1997/8. Against this background, Ministers have concluded that privatisation has not delivered the improvements in service quality that were promised.
The Government's White Paper and response to the Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Select Committee's report on the proposed strategic rail authority and railway regulation, both published on 20 July, set out the Government's proposals to rectify the defects of the present regulatory structure and ensure that the railways are run firmly in the public interest. The proposals include:
I already pay an extra tax outside my house in London, although I rarely use the car within town. However destinations such as my riding school and my parents house cannot be reached by Public Transport. The emphasis often seems to be on improving London's transport, this is I feel, secondary to the needs of the rest of Britain as most people I know use the car purely to leave London, not to drive within it. What guarantee do I have that paying extra road tax/tolls etc will improve public transport services to rural places like these, therefore negating the need for me to have a car at all.
JP: The Government believes that revenue from new charges should be used to improve transport serving the area where the charges are levied, so there is a link between paying the charge and getting better transport choice. The transport White Paper states that this might mean spending the revenue in more than one local authority area.
The Treasury's Comprehensive Spending Review announced a £1.7bn increase in investment in transport over three years, to improve existing networks. In total, there will be a 25% increase in transport spending between 1998-99 and 2000-01. The Government has already also taken action to improve public transport in rural areas - the last Budget included an extra £150m for rural public transport. The possibility of some new funds being raised directly from drivers should be seen against this background.
I certainly would not trust any politician over transport issues without solid assurances. Over the past 15 years I have seen the fares on London's transport system rise by 70% - yet I have to see an ounce of improvement in the system. In many ways it has got worse! How can you guarantee that revenue from car owners in London will be ploughed back into the crumbling transport system such as London Underground and London Buses etc.? Can you give concrete assurances (not like the shabby promises made during the General Election) that the Treasury will NOT use this revenue for other purposes - thus making this revenue another hike in taxation with no immediate tangible benefit to the taxpayer?
JP:The Government, in the White Paper, states that it will consult shortly about powers to impose charges on drivers using particular stretches of road. It is the revenue from this that we have promised will be ploughed back into public transport.
On your other point about investment in and improvements to the London Transport system, the Government announced in March that an extra £365m would be invested in London Transport over the next two years, on top of its existing grant. It takes time for LT to decide where this money can best be spent; they then have to draw up and award contracts, so it may be a while before results can be seen. But, over the next two years, there will be a billion pounds' worth of investment going into the Underground, including:
One of the major costs of the Dept of Transport must be road safety, so in an attempt to promote less accidents, and increase revenues from drivers, would you consider implementing a limited length driving licence? If, for example, the current licence was valid for 10 years, forcing drivers to retake their test regularly (many of which took it more than 40 years ago), would this not increase a drivers skill and safety levels, and at the same time generate some revenue from the cost of retaking the test?
JP: Drivers most likely to be involved in road accidents are those who have recently passed the test, particularly if young. The elderly are also at higher risk, because of failing health, and for that reason over-70s are required to renew their licences periodically with a fresh health declaration. Making all drivers retake a test at 10 yearly intervals would impose a considerable burden on individuals while having little effect on accident rates. It would not be a legitimate source of revenue for Government as the driving test fee does not seek to make a profit but simply to cover costs.
There is a stronger case for making drivers who have committed serious offences take a retest. Those who have been disqualified for an offence of dangerous driving are obliged to take an extended test before they can get a full licence back. Other road traffic offenders may be required to take a retest at the discretion of the court. And a new driver who tots up six penalty points within two years of passing the test must revert to learner status and pass a retest. These measures are targeted on the particular types of driver who cause most concern while imposing no burden on those who are careful and law-abiding.
Why do people who do not have to travel around for their job have company cars? Ban company cars or financial assistance for cars - this includes the chauffeur driven car. If people had to pay for ALL car expenses (Ownership, tax, petrol, insurance, parking et al.) they would probably be happier to use Public Transport - PROVIDED that the public transport was cheap, efficient, and WENT WHERE THEY WANTED TO GO AT THE TIME THEY WANTED TO TRAVEL!! Sorry for the moan but, this is my pet hate. I pay a lot of money for a bad service and get no joy from the transport companies when I complain. It really ticks me off when people who obviously do not use public transport everyday start telling us to use it more!!
JP: We recognise that in many cases company cars are required as an essential business tool and the tax system is designed to tax people for the private benefits that company car provides. However the system had been criticised for providing a perverse incentive to drive further to reach business mileage thresholds.
In the March 1998 Budget the Chancellor announced that he would be considering the case for replacing the existing business mileage discounts with discounts for driving fewer private miles in company cars.
The Chancellor also announced that fuel scale charges - which give the amount of tax employees pay on free fuel for private mileage would be increased by 20% each year above normal price increases to discourage the provision of free fuel. More generally, a central theme of the Transport White Paper is to use fiscal and other measures to discourage the use of cars when these are not needed and to promote alternatives such as public transport.
One of the biggest problems with traffic congestion is the pollution it causes, especially with older badly maintained vehicles. Is the Government considering ways of 'pump priming' the adoption of hybrid electric vehicles that output no pollution in traffic, yet match current vehicles in performance, styling, convenience?
The Government is already promoting the market for alternative fuels under a number of different programmes:
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