George Stern (Statistician & Campaigner)
Last Spring, sharp-eyed journalists at the Independent on Sunday spotted in a technical magazine that New Labour are about to announce a huge new boost to road-building -£10,000m or £20,000m in England alone – Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland more besides.
The history’s interesting. Yes, the Road Lobby is always there: bureaucrats and ministers know that, if they want it, a happy rich retirement awaits. But it was fascinating how the oldest tricks in the book worked once again – especially the one where the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions/Roads Lobby use the lefty greeny environmentalists as a front.
Buses or trams?
Let’s go back to 1997: gleaming New Labour triumph and the Tories slink away. Now I am the first to agree that the Tories were corrupt greedy road-building scum. But I am a statistician and am also aware that under horrible Thatcher and Major four new tramways/light rail systems (Manchester, Sheffield, Tyne and Wear, Docklands) totalling 158 kilometres had been built.
The Road Lobby hate trams worse than the devil hates holy water – and most of all they hate street trams: you take the road space away from cars in a no-argument way (very different from bus lanes) and give it to public transport. A London Transport survey showed that only trams can attract passengers out of their cars while buses have zero credibility with anyone who can afford a car.
So in 1997, John Prescott’s first step was to announce that there would be no more trams. Buses, he trumpeted, would be the racehorse of transport – but he would keep his own fleet of cars. Not a beep from the Green lobby. Now – three years on – British buses remain what they have been for forty years, an underclass slum on wheels with whooping, guzzling teenagers inside, marooned in traffic outside.
1998 White Paper con
Johnny’s next step was the July 1998 White Paper. We pleaded with the Green bodies, we harried environmental journos, to read the Papers and not just the spinners’ briefs. In vain. The White Papers made clear that the spending on public transport would be axed as compared to recent Tory levels – but if reported at all, this was in unread final paragraphs.
And on road building the trick is worth a study. John Major had found some 500 major road schemes and had cut this to 156. But now in July 1998, screamed the headlines in all the press, goody greenspeaking papers as well as nasty Tory, this 156 was axed to a mere 37 schemes.
We tried and tried to get the newspaper hacks to read the papers and see that not a single scheme had been axed: the 156 schemes had been split into nine categories of which 37 were ”targeted” – and all the rest were also to be built, subject to meaningless reservations. And of course all the ongoing schemes, including those not to be started for years for which the holy sacred contracts had been issued, would continue undisturbed.
Again and again, we pleaded with FoE, Transport 2000, Greenpeace and all the green gang of journos: to no avail. Let me emphasise: we weren’t asking anyone to investigate some crazy conspiracy theory. We were just asking them to read the plain words of the White Paper. Forget it. Too difficult. New Labour weren’t hateful Tories, and New Labour had cut something, whatever it was: thinking beyond this made their heads hurt.
Archway people – proud to count Simon Wolff as one of their greatest members – never had much trust in New Labour’s green noises. It had been “idealists” like William Rodgers whom we had fought at Archway. At a meeting held by Socialist Environment and Resources Association in 1995, we asked Labour transport spokesman, Frank Dobson, to pledge “no more roads in London”. Not a whisper of support from the assembled greenies – instead shouts of “fascist” and “scum”.
New Labour had pledged a six-months moratorium on road-building. Nina Tuckman questioned them. Not a single road being built would actually be stopped. Not only that, said Dobson, any road for which contracts had been issued would go ahead – so years of road-building were guaranteed. The moratorium meant that schemes years in the future, existing only in a bureaucrat’s mind, would be put on hold – in his mind – and after six months go ahead again. Even Plato wouldn’t have dared to sell this.
A sidelight of the SERA meeting mentioned above: a mob of green idealists sought to drag me, fat and nearly 60, out by my feet. I was wearing heavy “Callaghan” shoes and gave Roger Geffen, dynamic young leader of Reclaim the Streets, a really good kick, and the heroic greens fell back. I now always buy Callaghan shoes: whenever I don them, I think of that kick with pleasure.
The doyen of green journos, John Vidal of The Guardian, wrote (15 November1995) that Nina Tuckman and I were paid to disrupt environmentalists’ meetings. The Grauniad, of course, refused to print my reader’s letter and it needed six months and a case before the Press Commission to force the great liberal paper to publish our item revealing how the green bodies help road building.
Road Lobby triumphs
Back to 2,000: we’ve had the Platonic moratorium, the road bulldozers never missed a beat, and now comes the big one – not just the on-going £2,000m a year of new roads which never stopped, but a huge £10,000m or £20,000m boost. No money will be left for public transport and anyone who wants to get anywhere had better get in a car.
So having done nothing to make public transport credible, in fact having done nothing but increase fares and extinguish whatever slender hopes there were for improvement, New Labour is now “forced” to go for the full Road Lobby package. Huge new roads to smash through townscapes and sensitive country areas – even the notorious Salisbury scheme through Constable landscape is back.
And the unemployed will get loans to buy cars. Old bangers will be part-exchanged for new models on “environmental” grounds – the catalytic converter will make things better – for a few months.
We saw, this year, how New Labour, helped by all the press and not hindered at all by the Greens, harried Ken Livingstone for having committed the supreme sin – cutting fares in London in the Eighties and overseeing the only period ever when car traffic in London dropped and public transport usage soared. Incidentally, Tube revenues actually went up and the need for subsidy down – but Ken was “wasting public money”. It’s OK having ideals, children, but God help you if you put them into operation successfully!
The Greens, by and large, have settled happily to their allotted role. They sit on Government committees and accept Road Lobby aims such as 44-ton lorries. They “impose” good conditions, but Government ignore these. In England, people know how far to go. The Los Angeles model ( Seventies style – not the current one with Metros) is still the official aim, and all that professional green campaigners will achieve are badger tunnels under the motorways.