Tribune, 27 March 1992
John Prescott talks to Paul Anderson about what he plans to do when he takes over at the Department of Transport
When John Prescott was given the job of shadowing the Minister of Transport, then Paul Channon, in 1988, there were plenty of people around (including Tribune’s reporter) who interpreted it as a demotion.
His previous job, from 1987, had been as energy spokesman, where he was replaced by the up-and-coming Tony Blair, and before that transport, between 1983 and 1984. Prescott’s move back to transport, the generally accepted story went, was punishment for standing against Roy Hattersley for Labour’s deputy leadership at the 1988 party conference: Hattersley was saved embarrassment only because he piled up the union block votes.
If it was punishment, however, it soon backfired. No sooner had Prescott taken over than a series of transport accidents - the Clapham Junction, Purley and Bellgrove train disasters and the Kegworth air crash - propelled him on to the nation’s television screens to denounce the Tories for reducing investment and allowing safety standards to slip. By mid-1989, the pugnacious, plain-speaking MP for Hull East had a higher public profile than any other Labour front-bencher except Neil Kinnock and perhaps John Smith.
Since then, Prescott has been in the news consistently for his energetic harrying of the Tories over the dilapidated state of Britain’s transport system. He saw off the unfortunate Channon in July 1989 and consistently got the better of his successor, the ineffectual and smug Cecil Parkinson. After Parkinson resigned when John Major became Prime Minister, Prescott had almost 18 months of humiliating Malcolm Rifkind.
He has not won over all his former Labour critics. Most obviously. Peter Mandelson, the former Labour director of communications who is Hartlepool’s Labour candidate in this election, used his column in the Sunday People recently to have a dig at Prescott for claiming that the Tories were spreading nasty rumours about his private life around the Commons press gallery. But most of his colleagues now at least grudgingly share the Sun’s admiration for his bluntness, extraordinary energy and capacity for hard work. In short, Prescott has been rehabilitated.
Now he is busy on the campaign trail, where his knockabout speaking style, though a little short on soundbites, does wonders for party morale. At the London Labour Party rally which launched the campaign proper in the capital a fortnight ago, he was the only speaker who managed to provoke the rather polite audience into gales of laughter, and he has since pulled off the same trick at meetings throughout the country.
He is looking forward to taking over the Department of Transport from Rifkind on April 10. Indeed, he brims over with enthusiasm at the prospect of getting to grips with the DoT - and changing it beyond recognition.
“There are seven times as many civil servants on the road programme as there are anywhere else,” he says. “It’s ridiculous. The DoT ought to be the strategic thinker. The first step is to devolve the roads programme to the regions. The second is to integrate the Department so that road and rail and the rest think together what they’re trying to achieve. The third is to produce every year a rolling programme of infrastructure planning.”
The view among civil servants is apparently that a Labour DoT would be an exciting place to be because of the radicalism of Prescott’s proposed shake-up, but how far it would cease to be the “Department for the Private Motor Car”, as environmentalists have dubbed it under the Tories, is a moot point.
Most of Labour’s transport policy reflects the fact that Prescott’s advice comes mainly from transport experts who more or less accept the environmentalist arguments that the private motor car is wasteful of energy and a major source of the carbon dioxide emissions that cause global warming, and that there is no way of building a road system that can solve the problem of congestion. But Labour is also under pressure from car industry trade unions which desperately want, a Labour government to stimulate the currently deeply depressed market for new cars.
One crucial indicator of who has the upper hand will be what happens to road-building if Labour wins. New roads have been at the centre of the Tories’ transport policy for the past 13 years, and just over a fortnight ago they announced a £750 million boost to the already massive road-building programme. Labour’s manifesto promises that “within six months we will review the roads programme” and Prescott emphasises that the review will lead to cuts, even though Labour “wouldn’t do anything about the contracts that had been signed”.
“The government has said that the number of cars could increase by 140 per cent in the next 25 years,” he says. “The road programme it has at the moment increases road capacity by less than 10 per cent. So you simply can’t build your way out of the problem.
“That means you must review the road problem to achieve a better order of priorities - maintenance, by-passes if you like - plus give a greater priority to the development of public transport. The party’s priority is to encourage travellers to shift from the private motor car to public transport.”
Not that Labour wants to plough taxpayers’ money into subsidising trains and buses or bringing privatised transport services back to state or municipal ownership: there simply isn’t the money to do it. Instead, a Labour government would adopt low-cost strategies for encouraging public transport investment to coax travellers away from their cars.
In essence, Labour’s plans for improving the railway system consist of keeping British Rail in the public sector, streamlining its planning, and relaxing the Treasury rules governing railway investment to allow BR to lease-buy equipment instead of buying it outright at once, thus spreading costs over several years.
That is the way continental European railways finance investment, and Prescott is withering about the Tories’ insistence that leasing is not a good idea. “Their dilemma on leasing is that they’ve just leased the European sleeper trains and the freight trains because our European partners said that we’re not into this silly nonsense of paying in one year. I’ve embarrassed them, right?” he says.
The emergency recovery programme in the Labour manifesto promises to allow BR “to proceed with a leasing scheme of 188 new Networker trains on the North Kent line”, which it describes as “the first step in securing private investment to help modernise Britain’s railways”.
Prescott says that the next steps after that will almost choose themselves.
“Take the inter-city line on the west coast from Euston. That’ll cost about £800 million to upgrade. We’ve already been in consultation with finance houses and the manufacturers to look at a new leasing deal so that we can pay for it over 10 to 15 years. That means that we wouldn’t have to find so much money immediately but we’d get the benefit of the investment.
“It’s the same with the Channel Tunnel rail link, which will cost £4,000 million. We need a high-speed Channel Tunnel rail link by the end of this decade. The Tories would take until the end of the next decade. So we’re talking about a joint public-private operation that may be funded by a bond system like that used by French railways, which Neil Kinnock has talked about.”
In the longer term, Labour is keen to see more electrification, a nation-wide high-speed train network, an outer circle railway for London, major expansions in regional rail services and a whole lot more besides - but only “as resources allow”, and the detail on most of these proposals has yet to be worked out.
With buses, the key to Labour’s plans is to end the instability caused by deregulation and to introduce a series of measures to give buses priority on urban streets. The 1985 Transport Act, which privatised the National Bus Company, forced local authority bus services to become ordinary companies and to open themselves up to competition from other operators.
Prescott says that the result of deregulation has been underinvestment and chaos. “Returning to a regulated system gives you the stability that will allow the bus companies to raise the money themselves to finance new investment,” he says. “It doesn’t cost us anything.”
“In urban areas, the buses could do a lot more in attracting passengers if we gave them green priority routes. We give the bus priority on the road, priority at the roundabouts and reduce the journey time. By reducing the journey time we can increase the frequency of the bus and its reliability, and the ridership will begin to increase. We’ll not then need to pump money into revenue support for the urban areas.”
Labour would do all it could to encourage experiments in urban public transport. Prescott talks enthusiastically of trying out road-pricing in Cambridge, with the revenues going to public transport, of metros in Manchester and Birmingham, of an integrated rail and guided bus scheme for the Southampton conurbation. “We’re interested in the network,” says Prescott. “We believe in maintaining the network.”
In line with this, he is opposed to Richard Branson’s attempts to muscle in on British Airways’ position as the only significant British airline. “We need a large British aviation interest to combat the Americans in global competition,” he says: allowing Branson’s Virgin Airways to undermine the profitability of BA by running flights to America but not on BA’s unprofitable routes “raises questions of major importance”.
“Branson rang me up on a earphone and said did I agree with him going from Heathrow and I said no I didn’t,” he says. Heathrow itself is already too congested and then there is the problem of easing congestion on the transport system that gets people to the airport. “I told Branson, there’s nothing wrong with Gatwick.
“What our transport policy is about is simple. The market solution is not an adequate one. You know, it’s only in Britain that this is an ideological party argument. Everywhere else in Europe, it doesn’t matter who’s in power, they accept all these arguments for a role for government, for planning, for use of public money. We in Britain are on our own. That’s why we’re in such a mess.”