When John Prescott announced his intention to consult on his integrated transport strategy, pulses quickened throughout the industry. Here we were promised change as radical as anything since privatisation of the railways.
But when the much delayed White Paper was published it became clear that there was little of radical change in it. It was filled with foggy promises of new tax-gathering measures for local authorities and had the usual fingerprints of Whitehall all over it.
The problem is that public funds for transport schemes are severely limited. But while the Government wants to introduceprivate funding to fill the gap, the bureaucratic barriers preventing this are huge.
There was nothing in the White Paper to reform the planning process, for example. The 1992 Transport and Works Act, which governs the outline procedures for all fixed-track systems, remains one of the greatest impediments to transport development. Getting large projects under way is a costly and uncertain process, relying as much on political whim as on adherence to procedure.
Implementation of projects is also long-winded, with up to 18 months passing with the inspector’s report sitting on Prescott’s desk. The complete procedure can take up to three years, during which the promoter of a system must carry the uncertainty and financial risk, often amounting to more than £1m. This is not a scenario to impart confidence to bankers or private capital providers.
If anything, the height of bureaucratic hurdles that private transport developers need to jump has increased, also increasing both risk and cost. For transport system planning applications, officials at the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions offer only the vaguest advice on the grounds that they cannot interfere with the democratic process. The problem is one of political failure to put in place user-friendly procedures.
John Prescott and his advisers seem to have a restricted view of what is required to create progress in public transport. There is no place in his package for new technologies to deal with congestion. Instead he has fallen back on the tired old bus solution, despite advice from his own experts that buses will produce only a tiny shift from cars, and that bus lanes cause more, not less, congestion.
This has led to a lack of public sector willingness to adopt new approaches such as monorail, one of the few options left in crowded cities to increase people movement without taking up valuable road space.
The recent appointment to Prescott’s team of bus aficionado Dr David Begg, who masterminded the Edinburgh guided bus plan, points to the way he is thinking. The illusion is being created that something is being done to address the problems, and that we are getting something in return for higher fuel taxes and proposed road charging.
The Deputy Prime Minister claims to be a man with a dream, but like a man with champagne tastes and beer money, his dream is destined to remain unfulfilled because it doesn’t match the money in his pockets. And he can’t expect the private sector to buy him a round while he’s blocking the way to the bar.
In the meantime we shall get more buses that nobody wants to travel on and more bus lanes to compress further our valuable road space. All this in the face of expert advice that it won’t work. Until there is an attempt to clear the way for the private sector you’ll just have to put another bus on the road, John.
Richard Savin is managing director of Carr West, which plans to develop an 11km monorail system in Portsmouth.