DEPUTY PRIME minister John Prescott is under intense pressure. The attacks come from the Tory press, but also from sections of the Labour leadership and from papers that usually support Labour. The focus of the row is transport. The government's transport policy is in chaos on the roads, the rail and in the air. Last week John Prescott unveiled Labour's long-awaited transport bill. It represents surrender to big business, the pro-roads lobby and those who want more privatisation.
New Labour has junked any idea of cutting the number of cars on Britain's roads. The government now accepts that road traffic will have risen by 35 percent in ten years time. The environmental campaign group Friends of the Earth believes the rise in traffic levels will increase pollution levels in cities and towns by as much as 20 percent.
The government is going ahead with plans to sell off air traffic control. The decision has caused widespread anger. Labour's former transport minister Gavin Strang said, 'It is no accident that no Tory transport minister got round to privatising the National Air Traffic Service. 'No country in the world has privatised its air traffic control.' The train crash at Paddington in October brought home to everybody the tragedy of privatisation. In a recent opinion poll 73 percent of those surveyed said they wanted to see Blair renationalise the rail network.
Under pressure from public opinion, Prescott announced last week that he was ditching plans to hand over a third of London Underground to Railtrack. However, construction company AMEC is still in the bidding for the contract to take over the Metropolitan, District and Circle lines. AMEC was responsible for the signalling at Paddington station.
The government is insisting that vital work on the London tube is financed by a Public-Private Partnership (PPP).PPP is privatisation by another name. There are only nine people in the country who believe that tube privatisation works.
The problem is that they are all in the cabinet. Privatisation of the tube means that plans to build new tube lines will be shelved. The pressure group Capital Transport believes privatisation could see tube fares increase by as much as 50 percent. PPP will see the tube network broken up into small fragments. Passenger safety and workers' rights will come second to profit.
New Labour will pay a high price for continuing with Tory transport policies. A British Social Attitudes survey published last week found that four out of five people believe Labour has made a mess of dealing with transport. The outcry following the Paddington rail crash and the campaign to get Livingstone selected as Labour's candidate for mayor of London forced Blair and Prescott to dump Railtrack. A serious campaign against the privatisation of the air traffic control network or the tube could blow a hole in New Labour's Tory transport plans.
Everything you wanted to ask about London tube and bonds
SOCIALIST Worker looks at the arguments surrounding the financing of London Underground.
What is the difference between PPP and bonds?
PPP involves handing over London Underground's track, signalling depots and stations to private companies. The private companies will be required to invest £7 billion in tube infrastructure. The private companies then make a profit by charging for the use of the track and stations. Livingstone's scheme would raise money by issuing bonds. Banks and investment companies buy these bonds and get a return on their investment. But they would not have any direct control over London Underground. The bond scheme is not privatisation but it is dependent on the backing of City financiers.
Is PPP the best way of funding London Underground?
A survey carried out by City accountants Chantrey Vellacott DFK found that PPP could cost £8 billion more than Ken Livingstone's bond scheme. Even a secret Treasury report revealed that PPP would cost £2 billion more than the bond scheme. The introduction of similar Private Finance Initiative projects in the NHS have been a disaster.
John Prescott claims that projects built by private companies are far cheaper and more efficient than those built by public companies. Is this true?
This is a myth pushed by the Tories. A private construction company constructed the Channel Tunnel. It was completed a year after schedule and £12 billion in debt. Just two months after New Labour was elected, Siemen's Business Service struck a £120 million deal to take over the running the Passport Office's computer systems. The entire system collapsed. There was a backlog of over half a million passports. The offices were processing less than a third of the number of applications than they handled when the offices were in public hands.
Are there any examples of a well run publicly owned underground system?
The best underground railway system in Europe is the Paris Metro. It is paid for by government and local authority grants plus money raised by taxing businesses in Paris. A single fare ticket on the Paris Metro is half the price of one on London Underground. The Tokyo subway, which is regarded as the best in the world, is mainly financed by public money.
Where would the government find the money to finance a publicly owned tube system?
The fairest method would be to tax the rich. A 10 percent increase in taxation for Londoners earning over £30,000 a year would pay for the complete overhaul of London Underground. Alternatively, taxing big business in the City of London could raise the money.
Railtrack still fails
RAILTRACK WAS slated last week over its failure to carry out vital safety work. In a scathing report the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) condemned Railtrack's 'basic failure to maintain lines in a safe condition'.
Railtrack makes £1.4 million profit per day. The HSE chief inspector of railways, Vic Coleman, said, 'We have judged that 33 percent of track is deteriorating. If this decline is not reversed it will affect safety. Rail breaks on the Railtrack infrastructure have also risen. In 1994-5 there were 656 broken rails. This rose to 801 in 1996-7 and rose again to 937 in 1998-9. This substantial increase is very disturbing, especially as Railtrack predicted that the number would fall.'
The number of signals passed at danger (SPADs) has also increased. The number of incidents in 1998-9 totalled 639, a rise of 46 over the previous year's figures.
2,000 lives can be saved
IN AN attempt to look car friendly, the Labour government has dropped plans to lower traffic speeds in urban areas. Around 5,000 children are killed or injured on Britain's roads every year. Dr Ian Roberts, the director of the Child Health Monitoring Unit, estimates that if the government had cut the speed limit in urban areas by just 10 mph some 2,000 children could be spared serious injury or death.