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Saturday, 18 December, 1999, 16:28 GMT
Labour accused of U-turn over cars

Labour accepts Britain has a "car culture"

The government has been accused of a U-turn in its motoring policy after claiming Britain cannot be weaned off its "car culture".

Transport minister Lord Macdonald signalled a change in attitude towards drivers by saying Labour would now concentrate on making cars more affordable and backing schemes to reduce pollution and congestion.

You can either try to reduce traffic overall or you can say that it is more rational to try to reduce the damaging output of traffic
Lord Macdonald
The policy represents a departure from the previous strategy of aiming to cut the number of vehicles by now looking to create cleaner engines and spread car ownership to the deprived - even if it means an increase in drivers.

Environment campaign group Friends of the Earth said it amounted to a "U-turn" after earlier promises of traffic reduction.

Lord Macdonald, who this week took over day-to-day control of transport policy from his boss Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott, told The Daily Telegraph the new strategy was "more realistic".

He said: "You can either try to reduce traffic overall or you can say that it is more rational to try to reduce the damaging output of traffic - pollution and congestion. We think that is more realistic."

'Labour denial'

But a Labour spokesman denied that there had been a U-turn in policy.

The Department of Environment, Transport and the Regions insisted Lord Macdonald's remarks fitted in with the government's integrated transport policy, which puts greater use of public transport at its core.

Lord Macdonald: 'Realistic'
A DETR spokesman said: "The first two-and-a-half years of the Government's policy have been about putting into place the building blocks.

"We have ensured that the resources and strategic planning are in place to boost public transport and give motorists real choice."

Lord Macdonald told the newspaper that the government was prepared to see an increase in car ownership if it meant more people with low incomes or in rural areas would benefit.

He said: "One third of people don't have cars and if cars become more affordable, more people will want to own them. That in itself should not be the primary problem.

"A lot of the people in most need of a car - living in rural areas or disadvantaged people on housing estates, single parents trying to juggle complicated lives - they're the people who at the moment can't afford one.

"We would hope that our policies might make owning a car more affordable."

A further effect of the new strategy could be increased investment in road-building schemes to add to the 280m package for local route programmes already announced by Lord Macdonald.

Public transport 'top priorty'

But public transport remained the priority, he added.

"We cannot see that there are courses of action to reduce the number of people owning cars or driving their cars except for investment in public transport," he said.

A spokesman for environment group Friends of the Earth said: "The Transport Minister's comments represent a major U-turn in policy.

"The government earlier promised road traffic reduction, but now says that road traffic increases are inevitable."

John Redwood, Shadow Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions, said: "It's a bit rich for Labour to steal Conservative words on transport while continuing with their 'bash the motorist' policies.

"The government now says that there will be a further increase in cars and car use, and that technology can tackle pollution.

"Yet they have still slashed the road building programme and put record taxes on fuel and licences, and are threatening more with their congestion and parking taxes.

"We will not believe they are friends of the motorist until they cut taxes and spend more on transport."

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See also:
13 Dec 99 |  UK Politics
Prescott's big plan
13 Dec 99 |  UK Politics
Macdonald: Unelected but respected
27 Jul 99 |  Talking Point
Traffic jams - what's the answer?
26 Sep 99 |  UK
Transport guru calls for 'congestion charges'
20 Jul 99 |  UK Politics
Prescott promises 'fundamental change'

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