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Martin Pawley: buck-passing in old Westminster

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Once upon a time there was a thing called the Integrated Transport Policy. It was viewed as a technical matter, suitable to be handed over to a celebrated firm of engineers together with a deadline which - unless I am very much mistaken - would have allowed plenty of time for it to appear in New Labour's election manifesto last year. But for one reason or another this neat piece of programming did not work out. The engineers did look into new railways, mass cycling, rickshaws powered by athletes (Muske lkraf twagen , as the Germans satisfyingly call them), swingeing tax increases on cars, petrol, shoes and all the rest, but as far as a workable policy was concerned they hadn't a clue. This is proved by the fact that, at their increasingly sparsely attended meetings, no one even mentioned petrol rationing - the only measure that has ever successfully reduced congestion, pollution and road accidents all at the same time.

By the time the Blair government had come to power it was too late for the engineers. With some asperity, the deputy prime minister removed their brief and decided to do it himself. At first he planned to ban cars with odd numbers, then cars with even numbers. Then he planned to ban parking everywhere, even at railway stations, but especially in the street outside houses. Deliciously he savoured the prospect of streets filled with pedestrians, of families abandoning their second cars and dropping the keys off at the police station. Then, head in hands, he bethought himself of massive unemployment in the motor industry and the economic consequences of the withdrawal of every Japanese, Malaysian, Korean and Taiwanese motor manufacturer in the country.

Soon the ITP turned up on the desk of the minister with special responsibility for London. He too had his period of wild enthusiasm. The answer was, he thought, to build hou s ing w i th no park ing . No park ing , no t ranspor t , he reasoned. No transport, no traffic. No traffic, no problem. The trouble was that at present rates of construction and with the negative effect of conservation, it would be 4.7 million years before every residence in London could be de-car-d. The deputy prime minister savoured the slogan; 'Car-free by 4703.'

Hmm. 'Rather a lot of elections to get through, ' he ventured at last. Then he had the best idea anyone had had since the ITP was first dreamed of. 'I know!' he exclaimed, and pressed a button on his desk. Two days later synchronised news items appeared in all the newspapers and on TV. Apparently, government sources had revealed that the new mayor of London, who was to be elected in 2001 or 2010 or something like that, was going to have not just 'real powers' but REAL POWERS. His or her first responsibility was going to be the ruthless implementation of the Integrated Transport Policy.

In the offices of the great engineers, audible sighs of relief were to be heard. In his Gothic chambers overlooking the Thames, the deputy prime minister slapped his thigh and called for more rum. And meanwhile, high in his penthouse, Jeffrey Archer stared thoughtfully at a picture of a bicycle.

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