Dead Men Left

Thursday, December 09, 2004

Failing to meet environmental targets: the New Labour transport U-turn

Another manifesto promise up in smoke:

Tony Blair admitted that Britain had achieved no overall cut in emissions since Labour was elected in 1997.

By 2010 Britain would achieve only a 14 per cent cut in carbon dioxide emissions from 1990 levels, instead of the planned reduction of 20 per cent. This pledge has appeared in two election manifestos. Conservationists say Labour's failure to control a boom in road transport and a rise in household emissions over the past few years has meant greenhouse gas emissions have risen.

This is more than a failure to "control a boom". Following widespread and popular protests against the Conservatives road-building schemes that had seen residents of leafy villages unite with hairy environmentalists to great effect, New Labour was committed to reversing previous transport policy. During the 1997 election campaign, Blair pledged a moratorium on road building, claiming that new roads were "not an option". Once elected, Gavin Stang, then Transport Minister, claimed new roads were a "last resort". The new government's initial White Paper on integrated transport, released in July 1998, was acclaimed by environmental groups for the emphasis it placed on assessing alternatives to new roads before any scheme was launched. This halted many proposed schemes, and compelled planning bodies to take better account of the harmful side-effects of road transport. However, in July 2000

Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott announced a major programme of road investment as part of the Government's Ten Year Transport Plan. The plan included £60 billion spread over ten years for 360 miles of motorway and trunk road widening and 100 trunk and local road bypasses, with more money for local roads. The programme was presented as a way of dealing with localised congestion 'hotspots', but there was no actual list of schemes. The Government suggested that the planned investment would cut congestion on inter-urban trunk roads by 5 per cent over ten years...

Business and motorist pressure groups are lobbying hard for further expansion of the roads network. In November 2000 the CBI published a list of priority transport projects including road schemes in many of the multi-modal study areas. The AA went further, suggesting in November 2000 that 465 additional bypasses are required in England, including 95 in the Eastern region and 85 in the South-east, and that the whole of the primary route network should be developed to allow inter-urban traffic to travel uninterrupted by speed limits of less than 50mph (Where You Live and What You Get: The Best and Worst for the Great British Motorist). This would imply a scale of road-building unimagined even by the Conservatives when they launched their "biggest road-building programme since the Romans" in the 1980s. It is clear that the motoring lobby will not be content with limited treatment of congestion hotspots.

At the end of 2003, the Royal Geographic Society released A New Deal for Transport?, a dammning assesment of New Labour's transport policies over the previous six years.

Dr William Walton, a lecturer at Aberdeen University, concluded in the book that Labour’s record on traffic had been "extremely disappointing". He said the number of car journeys had increased every year since 1997.

Dr Walton said Labour was behaving just like the Conservatives, not daring to upset drivers. He said: "It is now clear that Labour underestimated the scale of its task and was mistaken in its belief that traffic growth, which has continued at a remorseless rate for decades, could be reversed in just five years without the introduction of extremely punitive measures and vast improvements to public transport."

Faced with this task, and under relentless pressure from the powerful roads lobby, the government - never at its firmest when set against business interests - buckled. The announcement, earlier that year, of a new £7bn road-building scheme, marked the final break with the heady days of 1997. As a sop to its environmental commitments, the government has been attempting to meet its greenhouse gas emissions targets by "relying on improved vehicle technology to achieve the reduction." Needless to say, this has not met with success. The U-turn on clear and popular manifesto commitments by New Labour in transport policy has perhaps been more stark than elsewhere; the veneer of acceptable radicalism New Labour wore in 1997 at its thinnest.