Gummer sees curb on vehicle numbers as road protest mounts
Minister voices doubts over future of car society

The Guardian Thursday January 18 1996

Rebecca Smithers

JOHN Gummer, the Environment Secratary, has placed his department in the front line of the battle against expansion of the «great car economy» by saying there was no longer need to link economic growth with traffic growth.

Giving a speech carefully timed to defuse the fresh wave of discontent about the Government's roads policy, including the protests against the Newbury bypass and yesterday's car centenary celebrations, Mr Gummer said travelling time and congestion would inevitably constrain the rise in vehicle numbers.

He questioned the theory popular within the Department of Transport and the pro-roads lobby that economic growth equalled traffic growth.

Previous government figures have predicted that economic expansion could see a jump in vehicle numbers from 25.2 million in 1994 to 42.8 million by the year 2025.

Delivering the annual lecture to the Natural Environment Research Council, Mr Gummer focused on the long-term framework needed to achieve a more positive relationship between transport and the environment.

«The really fundamental problem with the transport issued is that there is no single solution. There are those who long for the `Big Idea' that would ban cars or force people on to public transport. But that is not how change is achieved.»

Underlining the Government's new drive to penalise drivers whose vehicles emit fumes over environmentally acceptable limits, Mr Gummer said: «It is not a question of no motor cars but of cleaner motor cars being used to full capacity. It is not a question of nothing but public transport; it is better, cleaner and more convenient public transport concentrating on the places and the circumstances where it can be most cost effective.»

An overtly pro-roads policy, spearheaded by the then transport secretary John MacGregor three years ago, was deeply opposed by environmental activists.

That policy was subsequently largely reversed by cuts to the roads programme imposed by his successor. Brian Mawhinney, and in last year's Budget. But the battle against the Newbury bypass has inflamed a fresh wave of opposition.

The Government's support for cars has never waned, because it is aware that restriction on car use is a potential vote-loser.

Mr Gummer said: «While the Government is committed to economic growth that development must be sustainable. Also, if there has been a link between economic and traffic growth in the past there is no reason to assume that this must continue into infinity. At some point the constraints of time, space and congestion will have their dampening effect on traffic growth...

We must think globally and act globally and think locally and act locally. There is no one right answer but we should employ the range of policy tools which are at our disposal, including economic, regulatory and voluntary measures.»