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Thursday, 17 May, 2001, 17:13 GMT 18:13 UK
Lord Whitty quizzed

To watch coverage of the forum, select the link below:

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Do you have specific worries about the safety of UK railways or the public transport services offered in your region?

Lord Whitty is also responsible for civil aviation and will be able to answer your questions about the proposed sell-off of the civil aviation authority.

What about the government's plans for alternative forms of transport or the environmental worries you may have about increasing car use?

Transport minister Lord Whitty answered your questions in a live forum. This is a transcript of the what was said.

News Online Host

Hello and welcome to BBC News Online's election forum on transport. I'm Sean Curran, one of the BBC's parliamentary correspondents here at Westminster. Apologies to those of you who were expecting to hear from Gus Macdonald, the transport minister - he unfortunately has been detained in Whitehall on ministerial business, even though an election campaign is underway the work of Government goes on - but we have been joined by Lord Whitty - Larry Whitty - who is another transport minister and who is more than capable of answering all your questions. Let's start with a general question from Anthony Hobley, who is a Labour supporter and he says at the last election he gave up time to distribute leaflets on election day, he took time off work to go and get the vote out and he was very hopeful that a Labour government would give public transport the top priority he says it deserves, and he doesn't feel it's done this. He's happy with some of the things you've done but he does feel that there's not been enough progress on making public transport work.

Lord Whitty

Well I think I can reassure him the amount of resources that we've now put into public transport, rail, London tube, buses - both rural and urban - and local safety and other schemes is very substantial. We've committed 180 billion over the next ten years, which is an enormous increase in the amount of money going to transport in general. Two-thirds of that is on public transport, so we're supporting all modes of public transport and we have the legislation now in place to back new powers for us to control the privatised rail service and new forms of directing investment in buses.

News Online Host

Well one of the points Anthony Hobley makes is you're going to spend billions of pounds on roads, why couldn't you have spent that money on public transport instead?

Lord Whitty

Well we're spending money on integrated transport. Roads are part of integrated transport. Our whole approach to this is that we should use roads, trucks and cars where appropriate, public transport where possible. We want to achieve both of freight and passengers away from roads and onto public transport but nevertheless the road system is a significant part of our transport system, 70 per cent of freight is carried - over 70 per cent of freight is carried by road and the vast majority of personal journeys will continue to be by road. And whilst we may shift some of that, we need a decent road system, there are improvements which need to be made - safer, they need to be made more environmentally sensistive and they need to communicate with areas which need a bit of economic regeneration. So, for all those reasons, roads are part of the solution but they are not the prime solution, the prime solution must be to improve the transport system as a whole and public transport in particular.

News Online Host

Well we've got a question about traffic reduction which sort of links in with that conversation about roads. Martyn Williams from London says your experts have told you that building new roads generates more traffic, so how much more new traffic is going to be generated by the hundred new by-passes promised in the manifesto and how can you reconcile this sort of increase with John Prescott's famous pledge that he'd have failed if traffic wasn't reduced?

Lord Whitty

Well that quotation tends to be taken out of context. Nevertheless, we do wish to achieve a significant shift and what has happened over the years since 1997 is that, for example, rail usage has gone up by 17 per cent, the London tube has gone up by 11 per cent, even buses - which was previously sharply declining - has gone up by two per cent in London and by slightly less in the rest of the country, whereas the use of the car has remained very steady particularly in the last couple of years. The last period when there was economic growth of the nature we've seen over the last two years, traffic grew at twice the rate of economic growth, this time it's only just about a third of the rate of economic growth. So there has been a substantial shift within a rapidly growing economy. So we've begun to tackle that problem. As to building additional roads, we want to improve the flow of traffic on roads for both freight and personal purposes, we also want to divert traffic away from town centres where they cause serious environmental and safety problems, particularly in small towns and villages and the hundred by-passes are by and large to avoid traffic pollution on villages. Were we to build whole new swathes of motorway, then that would indeed generate very significant additional traffic. But what we are attempting to do is to use the existing motorway system, improve it where necessary, but use it in a way which maximises the benefits of the traffic without extending into new roads. And to that effect there will be some improvement, some widening, some improved junctions, some more flyovers, but in general we will not be taking more land or, as the Tories accuse us, concreting over the South East. This is nonsense, we're making the existing network work better.

News Online Host

But isn't it true that if you build a by-pass that will encourage people to use their car more because they'll think "great now there's a by-pass I'm not going to get stuck in traffic"? So whatever sort of road you build, if you build a new one, you're going to encourage people to use their cars more.

Lord Whitty

Well most of these by-passes are in fairly rural areas. There is in most cases very little alternative but to use the road, either public transport on the road or cars on the road. Within the urban areas we wish to see a significant reduction in traffic. We have given the local authorities the powers to impose congestion and workplace parking charges, plus very significant additional resources up front to improve public transport within the urban areas and the ability to use any charges which they collect to be recycled into improving public transport. So we're trying for a reduction in traffic, and certainly within the peak period, within the urban areas. Where there is no alternative, however, we want to make sure that the journeys are smooth, are safe and are not environmentally damaging, whereas traffic jams, particularly through the centre of towns - even small towns - are environmentally damaging of themselves and therefore there are many parts of the country where a by-pass is appropriate. There are a lot of places, many of them looking for by-passes, where we do not think a by-pass is appropriate and we think that minor changes, plus more investment in public transport, is the more appropriate solution. The whole point is that we have an integrated approach to this, we look at all the options. Under the last government, at least until the last two or three years of that government, roads were always the preferred solution. That is not the situation now, we'd prefer to invest in public transport where possible but there will be situations in which roads are the only solution.

News Online Host

Okay. Now as to one of the points about the environment - and we've got a question from Christine in Portsmouth who says that the Government - you - should encourage employers to make better use of technology and encourage more people to telework - work from home using computers - and if you allowed a large proportion of people to work, the workforce to work from home, this would reduce the number of people commuting and it would reduce the number of unnecessary journeys and it would ease congestion and all sorts of benefits.

Lord Whitty

Well I do think employers have a wide responsibility in this regard. Teleworking is one option open to them, and they and the workforce, where the workforce agree, may well need to, or be able to move into greater homeworking and teleworking generally. They also need to take responsibility for the flexibility of working, so that not everybody comes to work at exactly the same time, causing serious traffic jams; for themselves encouraging their employees to use public transport - perhaps to lay on transport themselves in the case of large employers; to encourage car-sharing where there is no alternative to the car; and perhaps to provide facilities themselves to their employees to use public transport. So all those solutions are part of the modern employers responsibilities, together with their workforce. Teleworking is only part of that, homeworking is only part of that, more appropriate and environmentally sensitive means of coming to work and times of coming to work are also part.

News Online Host

Now we know from this week, the manifesto, Labour is now the party of business, but surely you must accept, even if it's a bit of an old Labour view, that actually companies are really big on social responsibility, they need to have a kick in the pants to make them do something. If you were to offer them some sort of incentive like a tax break for a company that would agree to bus in most of its employees and make them leave the car, they'd probably do it. They're not going to do it unless you do something like that, are they?

Lord Whitty

Well we are looking at all these options and the green transport challenge, which the chancellor announced at the last budget, includes not only looking at newer forms and less energy and environmentally damaging cars, but also to look at ways in which they can encourage different forms of transport. Of course the system used to, until three years ago, the system used to actually be a major disincentive to employers, you used to be taxed, or the employee used to be taxed if the employer provided a free bus service. Gordon Brown's already removed that disincentive, and we can look at some positive incentives as part of an overall package to encourage employers down that road. But even without those incentives, there's a lot of employers who are now facing up to their responsibilities in this regard. Their employees, after all, are those who suffer and morale and everything else suffers from traffic jams and bad experiences on the way to work, so a lot of them are already developing green transport plans. Foremost amongst them, I'm glad to say, are many public authorities. Central government departments are in the lead here, including some of our agencies and local government, but a lot of private sector employers as well.

News Online Host

Okay, now, talk about bad journeys into work, Philip Barnes from London says he rides into London everyday on his motorbike, which is a risky business he says, and the roads are clogged up with gas-guzzling Mercs and four-wheel drive vehicles - a bit of a class warrior here I think. Any increases in fuel duty only forces the cost-conscious low fuel using consumer off the roads in favour of conspicuous consumers and he says why not ban all cars from the roads that can't attain a 40 mile per gallon figure and in the long run set the target at 60mpg.

Lord Whitty

Well I think that is slightly more draconian than I would be prepared to accept. I think people have the choice of car, we are making the choice of a large car more expensive than a small car. We, the fuel duty itself obviously makes it more attractive to use a smaller car, and one of the great effects of the fuel duty escalator has been to change choice into smaller cars. I think if you were actually, physically to stop people buying and using larger cars, then I think there is a civil liberties issue arising here. In the longer run of course, governments around the world do have an important role to play on encouraging the development of more fuel efficient cars and European standards, the European voluntary agreement that has been made on reducing petrol consumption in the next generation of cars, is all bringing down the negative effect which carbon-based cars and lorries have on the environment, so for a given level of traffic, there is a much lower level of C02 and other pollutants in the air than there was previously. As we move into new technology and newer fuels, it may well be that the regulative framework should shift to favour them, but they are some way from the market at the moment. But at the point where they become the market, then I think both at national level and at European level, we may need to look at it again and you will know that in California they have started to move down that road themselves.

News Online Host

Now you mentioned that Gordon Brown is encouraging people to use smaller cars but given that the transport policy is supposed to be integrated in every sense, and we're in the era of joined up government, this is supposed to be a government that's helping out families. Lots of us know that if you've got a family with small children you end up normally getting a bigger car.

Lord Whitty

Well that depends how large a family you've got. I mean for a family of two or three children, a small car is quite adequate.

News Online Host

You try putting two baby seats in a small car.

Lord Whitty

Well no - two baby seats in a small car - well possibly once you get to three baby seats you can't do it but for any given family size there is always a choice of a smaller or a larger car. Obviously you can't get into what used to be a Fiat 600 if you've got five kids. But for five kids you can get a smaller car or a larger car. Our tax framework, and company car tax framework, would encourage you in all such circumstances to get the smaller car which is suitable to your circumstances.

News Online Host

Okay. Now somebody who has got a small car is John Martin from Aberdeen and he says he needs his small car to take his children to school, nursery and then go to work himself, and he doesn't want to be forced onto buses that come every two hours and stop at 6pm. Will the Government stop praising bus lanes as the answer to all our problems, surely incentives for smaller, cleaner, even electric cars is the way to go.

Lord Whitty

Well we need both. We need to develop public transport, after all there are nearly 30 per cent of households in the country don't have access to a car and in most households there's only one person who's got the access to the car. So we need public transport and we need, particularly in urban areas, to make sure that public transport flows properly and therefore proper traffic management and allocation of guaranteed space to buses is important, therefore I'm a supporter of bus lanes. But I am also a supporter of taxation and the regulatory framework which favours smaller, more fuel efficient cars, so I don't see them as a contradiction - where we have to use cars they should be smaller, cleaner, more fuel efficient, but there'll be a lot of places, particularly, as I say, in the urban areas, where bus lanes will also be part of the solution.

News Online Host

Now, controversially Railtrack and the railways generally, TS Easton say you should buy a 51 per cent stake in Railtrack so you can have full control over its profits and make sure all the money, all the dividends go into developing the railway. That's not a bad idea is it?

Lord Whitty

a significant amount of money when we need all the money that the State is putting into railways to develop a safer and modern, more modern railway system. I mean to acquire half of Railtrack would, I think, cost three and a half, four million pounds, when we could much more effectively use that money to invest in newer infrastructure and newer rolling stock and help the, both Railtrack and the rail operators to move more quickly down the road of modernising the rail network. So it's not an ideological position that we are taking in favour of the private sector, it is simply that that is what is there. For us to change it would pre-empt and stop us doing a lot of other positive action to speed up the modernisation of the railway system. And the fact of the matter is that we inherited a botched privatisation, we have now, just last year, got into place the new legislation which gives us, or rather the Strategic Rail Authority, greater powers to bring together and plan a more integrated system, but actually switching back into a nationalised system would be a diversion and would cost a lot of money.

News Online Host

You say it's a diversion but you are a former general secretary of the Labour Party, you know all about election campaigns, Labour would have the election in the bag if they were going to promise they'd bring the railways back into public control, wouldn't they?

Lord Whitty

Well I think control is one thing, the question of ownership. They do actually want the government to have greater powers over the railway network than appeared to be the case post - well was the case - post-privatisation. And it was clear that neither the last government nor, with the inherited powers this government, was actually calling the shots. Now we've got the Strategic Rail Authority, we've got the powers under the Transport Act, we can be in greater control than has been the situation in the past, without altering the ownership pattern. Clearly some things have to change. The nature of franchising is changing, the new regulator has more powers and is prepared to use them more effectively, Railtrack is having to face a significant shake up, we've got a new management, a new chairman in just today - that will be a positive move. So the question of control, and the government's strategic role, is a different one from the question of ownership. Ownership would cost money and taxpayers money.

News Online Host

Lord Whitty, thank you very much. We've got lots more questions but we've got no more time. So from me Sean Curran and from Larry Whitty, the Transport Minister, goodbye for now. Ends

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