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Collins: Time to call off Labour's war on the motorist

Speech to Conservative Spring Conference

Nearly six months ago, at our Party Conference, I warned that transport was this Government's greatest failure - and that their policies could only make things worse.

That prediction has sadly come all too true.

On our rail network, one in four trains now run late and passenger complaints are running at record levels.

Car journeys to almost any destination are taking longer and longer.

Last autumn, Transport Secretary Alistair Darling actually expected us all to be grateful because he had put some road projects back into his department's plans.

How gullible does he think we all are?

Mr Darling, we haven't forgotten who it was who raised costs to business, delayed hundreds of thousands of motorists and endangered scores of lives by scrapping all those road improvements in the first place.

Meanwhile a tiny bit of snow in January was enough to leave thousands stranded on a motorway, a motorway, all night.

No wonder the rest of Europe regard British transport policy as a joke.

So I'll make you one pledge about the next Conservative Government straightaway.

If Michael Heseltine will forgive me for adapting one of his more famous lines, I pledge that when there is a cold snap under the Conservatives the gritters will be out before breakfast, before lunch and before dinner.

Yet there have been even more Labour transport fiascos.

In London, 300,000 people a day have been turfed off the Central Line, which has been shut for weeks after an accident which many experts say should not have led to a suspension of service for more than a couple of days.

The Government has badly bungled its consultation on the future of airports, losing a court case and leaving tens of thousands facing terrible blight to their homes for months or years to come.

We have seen most of the Ten Year Transport Plan abandoned, with new infrastructure projects postponed indefinitely or scrapped altogether.

We have even been told that for many rail services the only way to get the trains to run on time is not to run the trains at all.

Ladies and gentlemen, only one phrase accurately sums up Labour's record on transport. This is more than bad luck, more serious than disappointment, graver than just failure. Let me tell you exactly what this is.

This is monumental, spectacular, cack-handed incompetence - and they should be abjectly ashamed of themselves.

Yet all we have had from Alistair Darling is a series of unconvincing attempts to pass the buck.

He still owns the Central Line - but he tries to blame someone else for the decision to stop it running.

His Department employs the gritters - but he just says he's unhappy too when they don't do their job.

His government created the Strategic Rail Authority and Network Rail - but he says it's not his fault that between them they are overspending by billions on routine maintenance and still delaying more trains than ever.

The Secretary of State needs to recognise that the patience of the British public with him and his excuses has now snapped.

Voters realise that with this Minister it's become time to use the words that end a relationship for good.

It's time to say "It's over, Darling'.

Just before Christmas, I published a major policy document on rail declaring an end to the barren ideological ding-dong battle between the parties over who owns what. Labour have accepted that the Train Operating Companies belong in the private sector. We in turn recognise that there can be no return to Railtrack.

Our new vision for rail offers the industry much needed long-term stability, but it should not be misread as meaning that we are in any way content with what passengers are currently enduring.

We will get the industry to focus on the vital day to day things which Labour Ministers are too out of touch to regard as important.

Trains which are clean not just at the start of the day, but all day. Stations which are warm, safe and well-lit not just at noon, but at midnight. Integrated ticketing between buses and trains not just in London, but across the country.

And ervices which connect not just on paper, but in real life.

In an era when you can be told instantly on your mobile when your football team has scored a goal, is it really too much to ask that if your train is running late, you should be told that not just after you have started waiting for it, but on your mobile before you leave home?

The best Train Operating Companies are doing some of these things already. We will spread best practice nationwide.

But there's more that's wrong today than a lack of grip of detail.

Labour fail because their entire philosophy is misguided, based on control and dictation from Whitehall rather than on letting individuals and communities do what they think best for themselves.

Conservatives, in stark contrast, believe that the best decisions are not the decisions taken inside Whitehall.

The best decisions are the decisions taken without Whitehall.

Let me give you a practical example.

Labour have introduced a statutory half-priced bus pass for all pensioners. Well-intentioned, no doubt, and much appreciated by those who use it.

But as ever they have failed fully to fund it in many council areas, contributing once again to the utterly scandalous rises in council tax this year - rises which we will make sure are blamed on the real authors: not hard-working, prudent, sensible Conservative councillors but Messrs Brown and Blair.

But what good anyway is a half-priced bus pass to a pensioner living up the Langdale Valley in the Lake District, who sees a bus so rarely that when she spots one she is likely to report it as an obviously stolen vehicle?

And what help is a half-priced bus pass to a disabled pensioner, who can't get to a bus stop in the first place?

So Conservatives will work with local authorities to amend this scheme, so that pensioners who need help with their travel needs will have a choice not only of subsidised bus travel but also of help to pay for travel by train, by taxi, or yes by car. It's their life - it should be their choice how to live it.

Nowhere is Labour's underlying socialist bigotry against the individual more evident than in their almost pathological hatred of the motorist.

Look at the way they run their information websites and call centres. They are forbidden ever to suggest to people that the right way for them to travel might be by car. The result - many will simply not trust them or consult them at all.

Under the Conservatives you will get really unbiased advice on how best to get to your destination. And if the answer is it's easier by car, we'll tell you that.

Labour dislike cars simply because they offer individuals and families the power to travel at a time of their choosing, between destinations of their choosing, and with the company of their choosing. Just as socialists want us all to be treated in barracks-like collective hospitals, and educated in large identikit comprehensive schools, so they will not be happy until we all travel en masse along routes and timetables set at the centre.

Conservatives have a simple reply to all this: no, no and no again.

British drivers are the most abused, insulted and downright persecuted in Europe.

We get a very raw deal from this government. The highest fuel taxes in the Western world pay for the worst maintained roads in the EU.

The total tax take from the motorist rose from £31 billion in 1997 to an estimated £45 billion last year - a rise of more than a third.

Motorway congestion has increased by 250% in the last four years.

Yet in 2001, not one inch of tarmac was added to the national road network - the first time that's been true since tarmac was invented.

And now Ministers are looking to copy Ken Livingstone's congestion charge in London, spreading its huge cost, damaging economic impact and basic unfairness to towns and cities right across Britain.

Ladies and gentlemen, enough is enough. it's time to call off Labour's war on the motorist.

Conservatives will apply our beliefs in individual freedom and local decision-making to roads policy. Unlike Labour, we will also look for the evidence and listen to it.

For a start, we'll scrap the daft rules which tell councils that they can only spend Whitehall money on road schemes designed to slow down or deter traffic. That may be right for some communities some of the time, but it's never going to be right for all communities all of the time. We will let the locals decide.

Time and again, surveys have shown that a significant part of town centre congestion is caused by people driving around looking for somewhere to park. So we will encourage the expansion, not continual reduction, of car park spaces.

And if we are serious about getting some drivers out of their cars and onto public transport, not by ever more compulsion but by rational persuasion, then we could take a giant step forward by dramatically increasing car parking spaces at bus and train stations.

These steps are important, but there's more that needs to change.

For years the prevailing belief of planners, bureaucrats and lobbyists has been that there is no point in building or expanding roads because they just fill up again with traffic.

They say we built all those motorways and bypasses from the Sixties to the Eighties and now we have more cars on the road than ever before, so, they claim, one led to the other.

It's a seductive argument. But it's a false argument.

For I have commissioned some research.

These are the main findings.

In the decade from 1991 to 2001, the total distance traveled by car, according to the Government's own figures, grew by 13%. Over the same period, the number of people holding a driving licence has risen by 13% - exactly the same rise.

And what is causing the increase in the numbers of driving licence holders?

In the mid 1970s only 32% of men and just 4% of women over 70 had a driving licence. Today those figures have risen to 69% and 25%. The rise is particularly striking amongst women. 25 years ago, only 37% of women in their forties drove - today 77% do.

So it is not the construction of new roads which is causing more people to drive. It is the immense social liberation involved in more women and more pensioners than ever before having the opportunity, and making the choice, to drive themselves.

Labour see this growth in the number of cars on the road as wholly and irredeemably bad. I celebrate the fact that we are a freer, more mobile society in every sense. Labour would be happier if all women pensioners obediently waited for a bus to turn up. I say good for them that many of them now have a car - and woe betide the socialist who tries to take it away from them!

Furthermore we have looked at the comparison with other European countries.

Britain has a much lower provision of motorways than elsewhere in Europe. In fact, we have less than half the European average of length of motorway per 1000 people. Our motorway density is less than that of any of our major European competitors.

So it should be no surprise that the proportion of road links that are congested for more than an hour a day in the UK is three times greater than in Germany and five times greater than in France.

Our opponents are always keen to lecture us on European lessons about the need to invest in public transport. It's time they in turn learned from European experience of the importance of building roads, too.

So the conclusion is clear.

We can declare today the death of a myth - the myth that this country has all the roads it needs for the 21st century. It doesn't - and Conservatives will do something about it.

Of course you can rely on the Liberal Democrats to oppose any and all road enhancements, anywhere and everywhere - except of course in any and every town where a proposed bypass happens to be popular locally.

The Lib Dems give dishonesty a bad name. They are the Party who put the hype into hypocrisy. Since Mr Kennedy has shown over Iraq that he has not one statesmanlike bone in his body, I gather that ITV want him to further his TV presenting career. They've asked him to revive that old Hughie Green show, with a small change. Yes, Charlie is going to be the compere of Opportunism Knocks.

To those with serious, principled objections to road-building I say this.

The rest of Europe is still building roads, and if their businesses need the competitive advantages which come from a more advanced road network, if their motorists deserve the safety which comes from straighter, better roads, and if their towns and country villages need to be relieved of choking traffic - then for heaven's sake so do ours.

We do not need to build as many motorways in the future as we did in the past.

We will not concrete over large chunks of countryside.

We will expand roads only in ways and in places which are economically affordable and environmentally sustainable.

In particular, we are not going to build roads to service John Prescott's plans to parachute half a million homes into the overcrowded South East - plans which are just like their author: mad, bad and far too big for their own good.

But I make this pledge on roads loud and clear today. We will not allow British motorists, British hauliers and British businesses to fall further and further behind the rest of Europe.

We will not use endless and expensive Multi-Modal Studies to avoid decisions rather than taking them.

We will, as resources allow, build a road system fit for the 21st century. A road system fit for all the long-suffering motorists in this country. A road system which represents a better deal for our businesses, motorists and communities than Labour will ever give them.

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