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COMMONS COMMITTEE GIVES DETR AND PRESCOTT A ROASTING

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The commons environment, transport and regional affairs committee yesterday delivered a damning and uncompromising ...
The commons environment, transport and regional affairs committee yesterday delivered a damning and uncompromising verdict on John Prescott's handling of roads, rail and the London Underground, reports The Guardian (p1).

The environment secretary's department was accused of producing lots of documents, policy statements and task forces but 'as yet there have been few tangible improvements'.

The committee saved much of its criticism for Mr Prescott's use of consultancies, concluding that the cost was 'too high'. He was also accused of mishandling the environment brief, choosing targets 'on a whim'. The committee said: 'Too many are aspirational. Too often they are invented without sufficient thought and rejected if they appear too difficult to meet.'

John Redwood, the Conservative spokesman on transport, described the committee's report as 'devastating' and claimed: 'It shows the complete failure of John Prescott's transport policy, with chaos on the roads, chaos on the Tube and a railway industry up in arms.'

A spokesman for the DETR said it would respond to the report in due time but he added: 'We are involved in providing an integrated transport network for the next century. Not all of this can take place overnight but we have made a good start and we are starting to see improvements.'

He added that there had been a 14% increase in rail passengers in the past two years, spending was being increased on road maintenance and that£1.8bn was to be invested over the next three years in transport in general.

The committee report, an annual audit of Mr Prescott's department, expressed concern about 'the lack of integration as yet between environmental and transport objectives'.

Meanwhile, Mr Prescott defends his department's record in a letter to The Daily Telegraph (p27).

He writes: 'I have paid close attention to your newspaper's so-called 'daily report on the government's integrated transport policy' on your leader page over the past three weeks. It appears mainly to have taken the form of reports of traffic hold-ups.

'On Monday your leader column suggested that the government is anti-car. It is not. It is in favour of giving people more choice, especially since a third of the population does not have access to a car.

'You also admit that the case for congestion charging exists but accuse us of giving back nothing to motorists in return. Rubbish. Every single penny raised in congestion charges will be spent on improving local transport for at least the first 10 years.'

He concludes: 'This country needs a modern, integrated transport system just as much as it needs responsible journalism. Implying that government transport policy is responsible for accidents, fires, breakdowns and overturned caravans contributes very little to the debate.'

Malcolm Buchanan, chairman of the Transport Research Institute at Napier University, today asserts that there are viable alternatives to the policies which the government is pursuing.

In a letter to The Times (p19), Mr Buchanan writes: 'Any ... review [of policies] needs to begin with clear objectives regarding the distinction between raising revenue and reducing traffic demand, and without the white paper's preconceived ideas as to how such revenue should be reinvested.'

'The ring-fencing of such revenues for transport is sensible only if there are worthwhile transport investments. It would therefore be good to see less politics and missionary fervour in the current transport debate and more hard-nosed economics to determine what investments are really justifiable in addressing the many different transport problems throughout the country, while taking account of the critical environmental issues.'

He concludes: 'In this way we might avoid lurching from an obsession with a good road system to an obsession with a good public transport alternative, and ending up with neither.'

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