JOHN HUMPHRYS: With me in the studio
is the Conservatives' Transport spokesman Eric Pickles, in our Bristol
studio the Liberal Democrat spokesman Don Foster. Mr. Foster, you agree,
your party agrees with charging in cities, doesn't it?
DON FOSTER: We certainly do. I mean one
of the crucial things is that in the past, to try and solve the problem
of congestion on our roads, what we used to do was simply try and price
all cars off the road by ever increasing fuel prices. We now recognise
that it's crucially important to be much more sophisticated to tackle the
real problem that is congestion itself, because it's that congestion which
is causing British businesses some fifteen billion pounds a year, and of
course the pollution from it is leading to as many deaths as we have from
road accidents, so sophisticated measures to tackle congestion are desperately
needed as is increased investment in a much needed improved public transport
HUMPHRYS: The trouble is, you try
that, and it might be a sophisticated system, but politics is pretty crude
and brutal and any local authority who tried to do it would be crucified
FOSTER: Well, it's certainly going
to be very difficult, and that's why I think Lynne Jones was absolutely
right in your piece earlier when she was saying that we have to look at
this on a wider, at least a regional area - individual councils trying
to introduce it, knowing how unpopular it is, are going to have great difficulty
although I admire those councils that are certainly trying it. But all
of the evidence is that if we get the system right, everybody can benefit.
We've already seen, for example, in attempts to introduce variable speed
limits on our motorways, that that sort of sophistication can really help
get the traffic moving, after all people, when they want to use their cars,
when they need to use their cars, want to be able to get out and about
and do it easily, so they desperately need help as well, so everybody will
HUMPHRYS: Not absolutely clear
what you are saying there. Are you leaving it to local authorities or not?
FOSTER: No. In the past Liberal
Democrats have argued that it's certainly got to be a local decision that
has got to be taken and one that should only be taken when there has been
a significant improvement in the quality and availability of public transport,
but increasingly we're recognising, as the commission itself recognises
in the report they're going to publish, that we have to look at this on
a slightly wider issue because otherwise we'll have the very political
problems that you are describing.
HUMPHRYS: So, the local decision
taken nationally? In other words, the local authority will be able to say,
"We can't help it, we've been told to do it."
FOSTER: You can do it at the regional
level and of course we are going to see from this government hopefully
their proposals for moving towards regional government and regional government
it seems to me is the right place to be addressing these significant issues...
HUMPHRYS: ...so if we don't have
FOSTER: ...going to be a combination
of the two.
HUMPHRYS: If we don't have regional
government, we don't get this then? We have to wait for regional government?
BOTH SPEAKING TOGETHER
FOSTER: ...at a regional level
where local councils are working together. But the crucial thing here is
to get over the simple message that at the moment congestion on our roads
is costing businesses very dear, it's costing lives, it's reducing the
quality of life for just about everybody in this country, it is something
that we have collectively got to tackle, we can't just do it by pricing
people out of their cars, people in rural areas frankly have no alternative
but their cars very often, so we have to have a more sophisticated approach
and what the Commission is proposing strikes me as a very sensible way
HUMPHRYS: Eric Pickles, you'll
not agree with very much of that, but you've surely got to agree we have
to stop people using their cars so much, not having cars, but using them?
ERIC PICKLES: No I disagree, because I've
seen Liberal leaflets saying that they're against congestion charging,
just a, it's just the irony of what Don was saying was amusing me. But,
but what are we going to put people into? I mean there isn't a public transport
system that's able to support a significant shift from, from the car. Our
Tubes are working at a-hundred-and-twenty per cent capacity at peak. There
isn't really any significant way in which we can get lots more trains into
London, but we don't have many buses to be able take, so what they going
to go to? Professor Begg saying, well we'll get rid of congestion, we don't
get rid of congestion by pricing poor people out of their cars.
HUMPHRYS: So, what we let it go
on like it is until everything comes to a dead stop?
PICKLES: Well I think there are
lots of things we can do to change, to reduce congestion. I mean, I was
quite startled to see the figures that came out, I think it was a couple
of weeks ago, that showed the number of cars in London at peak were no
greater than they were ten years ago, but congestion's increased. There
are lots of things we can do with regard to freeing up our roads, about
the repairs of our roads, about the signing of our capital, our capital
is the worst signed capital in the world.
HUMPHRYS: ...this is tinkering
with it though, isn't it? I mean ultimately, you have to stop people using
their cars so much?
PICKLES: ...no, no, no, but put
them into what? To make them stay at home?
HUMPHRYS: Well, how about your,
how about doing what Professor Begg is saying - you raise money doing the
sorts of things he's talking about. You charge people - two things - charge
people for driving in congested areas and then you use that money to improve
PICKLES: No John he's not saying
that at all. He's saying that this is going to be tax neutral. If it's
tax neutral then it's not, there's going to be, no more money, additional
HUMPHRYS: ...but additional...
PICKLES: ...so you'd have to stop
spending money on something else.
HUMPHRYS: But I made the point
that there are two things, because the other thing that that will do is
it will deter people from driving in congested areas if they know they
have to pay for it.
PICKLES: So, and, who causes the
congestion? Do they have, this way the government works out, if the government
neglects our road system, if local authorities neglect our road system
and if there is more congestion, therefore they get more revenue, that
doesn't seem to me to be a very sensible way of freeing up our nation's
HUMPHRYS: Don Foster, he has a
point there doesn't he? And an awful lot of people watching this programme
have been saying "What on earth are you doing telling us you'll charge
us for using our cars in congested areas, and we've got no other way of
getting to work, or doing the shopping, or taking the kids to school or
whatever it happens to be?"
FOSTER: Well, I mean, there's so
many different issues there aren't there? I mean, first of all Eric Pickles
is absolutely right. We can make better uses of the roads that we already
have. I mean everybody knows the ridiculous situation of the people who
hog the middle lane on motorways...
HUMPHRYS: ...oh we've been saying
that sort of thing for years, haven't we?
FOSTER: Absolutely. We know the
problem that we've got of the school run in the morning. Twenty per cent
of the congestion on our roads is caused by parents taking their children
to school and we can tackle those sorts of issues, but at the end of the
day, those are going to be relatively minor solutions to the problem, we
need to take a much bigger approach to this, a bigger solution, and what
is being suggested is reducing the cost of the VED, the Vehicle Excise
Duty, and replacing that with a very sophisticated form of charging people
for the use they make of congested roads. Now we accept that people pay
for the use they make of other products, it seems a quite reasonable approach
therefore to adopt a similar approach for this.
HUMPHRYS: Eric Pickles, you're
saying are you, let's be clear about it, that if that were to happen, if
that were to be introduced during the next few years of this Labour government
and you came into power, you would remove it? You'd get shot of it or go
back to where it was before?
PICKLES: Well I sincerely hope
that the Labour government are not going to be in power in two-thousand-and-ten,
and that's the earliest this can be introduced...
HUMPHRYS: ...who knows!
PICKLES: Well I can safely say
that while we're putting our manifesto together for the next election,
I'm reasonably confident that congestion charging, or toll, or a new toll
tax is not going to form a part of that manifesto. What we want to do is
see that people have a real choice. What he's suggested, people will not
have any kind of choice whatsoever, because there's nowhere for them to
HUMPHRYS: But you've changed your
tune on this a bit haven't you, as a Conservative Party? I was looking
at something John Major said in nineteen-ninety-four which was "that the
problem with charging was technology." Not the politics of it, the politics
of it was pretty sound, the principle was pretty sound?
PICKLES: I concede the point that
we did for a brief period toil with the idea of congestion charging. But
we realise that the bureaucracy that would be necessary to set a proper
congestion charging system up would be absolutely enormous, people would
contest a particular Bill. People would find their machines would be clipped
and others would be using it. And we recognise that to a large extent,
most of the congestion is caused by neglect by government.
HUMPHRYS: So if Ken Livingstone
does say this week, we are going to do it in London, you will be root and
branch opposed to that, you'll say that.
PICKLES: We are root and branch
opposed to that. There will be a mayoral election reasonably soon, congestion
charging will just about have been going for about a year and we will certainly
review it, my colleagues on the Greater London Authority will certainly...will
have a look at it. I mean it could be that I am going to be pleasantly
surprised but I don't think so, it's going to cut communities in two.
HUMPHRYS: And if it did happen
under Ken Livingstone and then your candidate won the Mayoral contest next
time around, he would say we are going to get shot of it in London, even
though it's already been introduced.
PICKLES: And we would have to be
pretty persuasive, it would have to be shown to be a complete success..
HUMPHRYS: ..you are not absolutely
clear about that then, there is room...
PICKLES: I am absolutely clear,
I'm just trying not to be dogmatic, we are opposed to congestion charging
but you are asking me to say, in two years' time what are we going to do.
Now, that's going to largely be up to our Mayoral candidate and it's going
to be up to our Greater London...
HUMPHRYS: So it's not a matter
of principle then. Let's be quite clear about this, it isn't a matter of
principle, you are not saying we should not do this as a matter of principle
because this is taxation too far?
PICKLES: Look John, let
me be...I think this is absolute madness, this is not going to help congestion.
I believe the system that is going to be put in, is flawed, it's going
to cut communities in half, it's going to tax people for taking their children
to see their doctor if they are on the wrong side of the boundary and it's
not going to ease our congestion policy one bit and it's not going to make
pollution one bit better.
HUMPHRYS: Donald Foster, if we
do, if the government does bite the bullet and say, yeah this notion of
charging has to be broadened outside our cities, onto our motorways and
our trunk roads and all the rest of it, you'd go along with that as well?
FOSTER: Well, broadly speaking
yes I would. I mean I think there's one issue that we need to look at and
that is whether or not it's right to introduce this sort of charging on
our motorways. Afterall, what we are trying to do is to get as many of
the vehicles away from our...areas where people are living and perhaps
putting charges on motorways is not necessarily the right way forward,
especially given that there are other techniques that we can use to reduce
congestion on those motorways, better use of the road space itself and
secondly, variable speed limits. But broadly speaking, I do think that
the time has now come where we have to address the real problems of congestion
on our roads, problems that are effecting every single person and we have
to do it in a way that those who are largely responsible for creating the
congestion are those who pay for it and therefore those living, for instance,
in remote rural areas, where they have no real opportunity to use alternatives
of public transport, are not penalised.
HUMPHRYS: You're not tempted to
say Transport Department can't organise their own press department, let
alone organise this!
FOSTER: I'm certainly tempted to
say that because it's absolutely true. I mean we've got a complete crisis
in management within the department, so whether they are going to be under
the current leadership able to manage something like this, certainly is
very questionable, indeed the behaviour has been appalling recently.
HUMPHRYS: Eric Pickles, for once
you'd agree with him wholeheartedly, I dare say.
PICKLES: I think the behaviour
has been appalling. I think the fantasy world that Mr Byers occupies, it's
obviously difficult to tell between truth and fiction. But if he really
wants to stop the embarrassment to the government, if he really wants to
do the right thing by the Prime Minister, I think he's got to go and he
should go before the day is out.
HUMPHRYS: Eric Pickles, Don Foster,
thank you both very much indeed.