BBC On The Record - Broadcast: 24.02.02

Interview: ERIC PICKLES, Shadow Minister for Transport, argues against congestion charging and DON FOSTER, Liberal Democrat Transport Spokesman, puts forward the case for them.

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 system. 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 wouldn't it? 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 benefit. 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: if we don't have regional... 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: 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 forward. 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, 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 public transport. 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 money across. HUMPHRYS: ...but additional... PICKLES: 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 congested roads. 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 go. 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: 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.
NB. This transcript was typed from a transcription unit recording and not copied from an original script. Because of the possibility of mis-hearing and the difficulty, in some cases, of identifying individual speakers, the BBC cannot vouch for its accuracy.