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A Ten Year Standstill
Planning – 13 June2008

A decade since its launch, the government's bold vision to improve the nation's transport system has hit the buffers. Mark Smulian asks what went wrong.

In the summer of 1998, US president Bill Clinton was beset by allegations about his relationship with Monica Lewinsky, singer Billie Piper was at number one with Because We Want To and deputy prime minister John Prescott was trying to stop the traffic.

Next month sees the tenth anniversary of Prescott's white paper A New Deal for Transport (Planning, 24 July 1998, p2). It set out a bold commitment: "The country wants a better transport system that does not continue to damage our environment and people's health. Doing nothing is not an option. People want radical change and I am going to deliver it."

A few months previously, Prescott had made his famous pledge: "I will have failed if in five years' time there are not far fewer journeys by car. It's a tall order but I urge you to hold me to it." It's now 2008. Outside central London, the roads seem no less clogged and public transport, with rare exceptions, is no more popular. Does this bold white paper have any tangible legacy?

The white paper was supposed to mark a turning point after decades of relentless growth in car traffic and a commensurate decline in rail and bus networks. There was even a new Whitehall department to make sure it happened. The Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions was a behemoth intended to ensure close integration of transport and environmental policy and delivery. This exemplar of joined-up government lasted just four years before transport regained its administrative independence.

No-one could have accused Prescott of modesty at the paper's launch. "After 20 years in the wilderness, this is the day transport policy bursts out into the light of a new dawn," he proclaimed. "My new deal represents a powerful balance of radical policies designed to deliver the right framework for a system that can meet the challenges of the modern age. There is a clear mood for change and I am in a mood to deliver it."

But he already knew that this mood had its limits, hastening to reassure motorists: "Mondeo man can breathe a sigh of relief - and a little easier, because this will give him cleaner air, less congestion and better transport choice." That, some think, was the white paper's problem. The government would ultimately never say no to the road and motoring lobbies. Its approach came to grief in 2000 when lorry drivers blocked petrol depots and motorways and secured a climb-down on fuel tax increases.

Some of the white paper's ideas remain aspirations, some fell by the wayside and some were achieved. It promised income streams for local authorities from road pricing and workplace parking, which they could use to pay for public transport and footpath and cycleway improvements. Local transport plans were introduced to set targets for improving air quality, road safety, public transport and road traffic reduction.

More investment in bus services was a key feature, with a new power for councils to impose quality partnerships on operators to secure better services. The Strategic Rail Authority (SRA), another white paper creation, has been and gone. Its mission to manage passenger franchising, improve quality and "ensure that operators honour their commitments on investment and modernisation" has reverted to the reborn DfT.

Substantial road building programmes pursued by the Conservative government were halted pending reviews of their viability and multi-modal studies were launched to deal with transport problems by finding the best overall solution rather then the best new road. The Highways Agency, which had previously seen its role as one of pouring concrete, was to become manager of the trunk road network.

Prescott also set great store by his Commission for Integrated Transport (CfIT), intended to offer impartial advice to the government and monitor progress on policy implementation. Yet a decade on, road pricing exists only in central London, councils are gaining new powers over buses after the 1998 version proved unusable, workplace parking charges have never taken off, the SRA is dead, road building is back and the CfIT is peripheral. How much has really changed?

EXPERT PERSPECTIVES

David Marshall, RTPI transport spokesman

John Prescott's radical change was a politician's broken promise if ever there was one. Car ownership has continued to rise and public transport use has fallen, at least outside London.

Road user charging is only ever going to be acceptable where congestion is very bad and there are very few such places outside London. Prescott's approach was derailed by the fuel protests in 2000, when the government took fright at the reaction.

Since then, instead of the promised integration between transport and land use, the planning split has actually got worse. Local transport plans are now at county level and land use is in regional spatial strategies.

The one success story has been reform of the Highways Agency. It is definitely a very different organisation from the one it was ten years ago. It is now environmentally aware and assured in its role as guardian of the national network, which it tries to manage efficiently while discouraging car use. A decade ago it was just a road building agency.

Victoria Hills, chairwoman, RTPI transport planning network

New income streams for local authorities to tackle pollution and congestion have been a great success in London but you need to have the political decision-making structure in place to deliver new fiscal measures. Progress outside London has been slower, fuelled by nimbyism. Council members are under pressure to support the local electorate, even if the transport proposal is not the most logical or pragmatic solution.

Rail has seen mixed success, with some excellent and some appalling franchise examples. The Strategic Rail Authority (SRA) made a lot of sense on paper but in reality was not the right delivery structure. Many studies, such as the regional planning assessments, were useful and helped to engage stakeholders. But perhaps they have raised expectations beyond what can be delivered through current funding settlements.

The Highways Agency has taken a much more proactive role in traffic management on its network in the past few years. The M6 toll road seems to have been a success, but charging is only likely to be acceptable to the public on new roads rather than existing ones. This has wider environmental impacts as new roads, even when tolled, are not always popular.

Christian Wolmar, transport policy commentator

I have been rehabilitating Prescott lately because at least he tried. New income streams for local authorities from road charges have not happened. Road pricing in Greater Manchester is just about alive, but the Edinburgh experience shows that people won't vote for it and there seems to be no central government appetite. So it won't happen.

The SRA is greatly missed. We now have the railways run directly by civil servants and central government shouldn't do that. It is worse than under British Rail - they even put conditions into First Great Western's franchise on how many carriages it can have. The Commission for Integrated Transport started well, but it is advisory.

Little has come of light rail. There were supposed to be 25 tram schemes, yet all but Nottingham and the Manchester extension have gone. Prescott had the courage to insist that it was no good people saying traffic could increase indefinitely but that attitude is now history. At least he dared to try.

Stephen Joseph, executive director, Campaign for Better Transport

Local transport plans were brought in following the white paper and are perhaps its most enduring legacy. What is proposed now in the Local Transport Bill for buses is what should have been in the 1998 white paper. This gave councils powers to franchise bus networks that proved unusable.

Road traffic reduction is the real failure. The 2000 fuel protests were the end of the attempt. The only legacy is the central London congestion charge, which shows that the analysis was right. You can raise money from road charging and invest in alternatives, but it has not been used elsewhere.

Reduction depended on planning and transport being integrated and that did not happen even when we had the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions. Outside unitary councils, the same authorities are not even responsible for both. A great deal of money went into multi-modal studies and they produced a lot of interesting analysis, but that unravelled as public transport improvements were not delivered while road improvements were.

Richard Wills, president, CSS

There was optimism that the white paper heralded a new dawn for transport, although a few hardened professionals may have wondered just how much could be achieved in ten years. Projects have very long lead-in times and without huge investment it is difficult to make an impact quickly.

Local transport plans have been one of the success stories. Most professionals feel that they have produced realistic plans for spending and a requirement to look at the whole transport and accessibility picture rather that simply roads.

The theory that all would be well if residential allocations were made close to employment proved to be not entirely valid. School and social networks have meant that many people choose to commute when changing jobs rather than move house.

There has been improved provision for pedestrians and cyclists, though perhaps not with the hoped-for change of travel behaviour. Outside London and some specific routes, there has been little rise in bus use. The government misjudged just how wedded people are to personal transport. The evidence is still that people want better public transport - so others can use it and free up the roads for their cars.