The double disaster of John Prescott

As we continue with the war for the careless and subsidised motorist, it is tempting to see current problems as starting with the present Government.This is quite wrong: the obstacles to sustainable transport and safe roads for all have long standing roots in government transport and “road safety” policies. In particular, we need to remember the double disaster of the reign of John Prescott.Let’s start with the first disaster. Prescott was Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions from 2 May 1997 – 8 June 2001, Deputy Prime Minister until June 2007, and First secretary of state from June 2001. We do not believe in reducing a Government’s transport policy, still less the culture and institutions in which it is enmeshed, to one man. But what happened  – particularly in the first four years – of the New labour  years happened on Prescott’s watch.

And he had a very clear idea of what he wanted to happen. On 6th June 1997, just after coming to office,  John Prescott said:

 “I will have failed if in five years time there are not many more people using public transport and far fewer journeys by car. It’s a tall order, but I urge you to hold me to it”.  Well, we do. Let’s first look at what John Prescott’s Department forecast to happen for 2007 at the time of his 1997 statement:

Motor vehicles    25.37million +27% = +6.85 million

 Traffic           (in vehicle miles) +35% (more than the number of motor vehicles because of average mileage per vehicle set to increase).

These forecasts were more or less correct, despite a nominal commitment by Prescott to “far fewer journeys by car”. Yet on May 16th 2007, a month before his last day in office,  John Prescott said :  “I had never envisaged we would have 7 million new cars. It has created real problems.” So much for the Road Traffic Reduction Bill (dropped), the National Cycling Strategy (dropped). We have rising obesity, a continuing decline in the cost of motoring, one of the lowest levels of cycling in comparable northern European countries, etc. For one committed to traffic reduction, a 35% increase in ten years is a massive disaster: the fact it is so rarely mentioned a sign of the domination of car-centred ideology and practice in the UK.

Indeed, it should be repeated that we need to see the disaster of the Prescott years as being systemic rather than due to his personality. (For those interested in the wider career of Lord Prescott, see here ). Comments like making it “crystal clear”to the 1993 Labour party conference that a Labour government would renationalise the railways if the Tories privatised them, and promising that the Birmingham relief road (which was built) would be built “only over my dead body” can be seen as the everyday failed promises of so many politicians. But letting him get away with such a failure as the kind of motor traffic increase he presided over when he did, after all, urge us to hold him to his commitment to reduce it is another thing. And that is just the first disaster.

The second disaster is that while he presided over the continuing increase in motor traffic, he gave the impression that he was in fact against such an increase. Indeed, he could be seen as “anti-car”. For example, take his recent appearance on the car fanatics’ Top Gear  , where a BBC source said “John Prescott’s appearance was quite raucous but by the end of it there were two men sitting around talking about Jaguars – it was quite sweet really“. This is what is so remarkable: a bunch of motor freaks who have been pandered to in so many ways: lowered costs, more roads, car-friendly developments, continuing absence of serious real road safety policies. And they think the person in charge  was actually opposing their power and status.

The importance of this can not be underestimated. If Prescott  had pushed his “Two Jags” image instead, at least we wouldn’t have to put up with the drivel about the non-existent “war on the motorist”, and we might have some chance of seriously debating the issues. But he didn’t. he gave the impression that he was going to do something about the problems of car usage. Of course, he never really explained to the motoring masses exactly what was wrong with increasing motor traffic, what could be done about it and how it would be fair and sensible to do so.  Maybe he was out of his depth. Maybe he just didn’t have the ability.

Maybe he was deluded: on January 3rd 2011, after the death of the committed proponent of action to stop climate change, Pete Postlethwaite, he wrote on Twitter, : “So sad to hear of Pete Postlethwaite’s death…Age of Stupid had a real effect on me and our Government.” And what effect was that exactly?