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Monday, July 19, 1999 Published at 16:05 GMT 17:05 UK

UK Politics

Prescott's transport changes grind to halt

Prescott's greatest challenge

By Political Correspondent Nick Assinder

Exactly a year ago, deputy Labour leader John Prescott unveiled his integrated transport white paper amid great fanfares and claims it would transform the country's crumbling infrastructure.

People would be encouraged to abandon their cars in favour of public transport with a series of measures such as road tolls, parking taxes and improved bus and train services.

The measures held out the prospect of creating a "green" Britain with happy commuters leaving their polluting motors at home and jumping onto one of the regular, clean and reliable busses or trains that would whisk them to work.

[ image: Toll booths not popular]
Toll booths not popular
What we have ended up with is a bus lane on the M4 which has brought that motorway to a virtual standstill - except when Tony Blair is caught in the tailback - railway operators who have to be threatened almost daily with Mr Prescott's wrath if they don't get their act together and little sign of tolls.

And the minister is universally known as "Two Jags Prescott" because of his love of Coventry's most famous product.

Fed up

But Mr Prescott is well and truly fed up with people attacking his record - particularly when they come from Downing Street - and is ready to trumpet his achievements at a keynote speech marking the first anniversary of his white paper. It is thought he will look forward to a decade of improvements.

He will have to look ahead because, thanks to opposition from his own side, he has little to show from his efforts over the past 12 months.

His measures failed to get into the last Queen's Speech when the government decided House of Lords reform was more important.

And he has met increased hostility to them ever since - most notably from Tony Blair himself who is terrified he will be branded anti-car and pay an electoral price in Middle England.

Experiments in road tolls have started, Mr Prescott has got tough with train bosses in his railways bill and he continues to bang on about getting people out of their cars.

Tales of woe

But ask virtually any commuter what their experiences have been over the past year and you will hear unending tales of woe.

[ image: Commuter misery continues]
Commuter misery continues
They will claim that traffic jams are worse, trains are dirtier, less reliable and more overcrowded and motorists harder hit with taxes than ever before.

And it just does not wash with the voters when they are told that is all because of 18 years of Tory neglect. People were promised radical changes and they expect to see them, even if those expectations had been unrealistically encouraged in the first place.

The Tories, meanwhile, have seen a great opportunity to exploit Mr Prescott's troubles and have zeroed in on Labour's allegedly anti-car policies.

They have recently come up with their own proposals which intend to cut motoring costs and bring in other pro-car policies such as increasing speed limits on motorways.

None of this is much to do with Mr Prescott, of course. His hands have been tied by a government that is determined not to alienate a massive pressure group while, at the same time, not prepared to pour the gigantic amounts of money into public transport to make it a viable alternative for most travellers.

At the same time the "faceless wonders" in Downing Street have been using every opportunity to undermine him by spreading talk of his failure to get a grip of his department

So his speech marking 12 months since the transport white paper is unlikely to impress - unless, of course, he has managed to squeeze some new concessions out of the prime minister and can whip the long-awaited rabbit out of his hat.

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