Red corner blues

It’s 26 years since a Labour government with a big majority replaced a tired Conservative administration.

People who look back on the New Labour years, however, are inclined to bemoan its lost opportunities – a key message for the current Labour Party, as it tries not to get too complacent about the general election.

Although many people, looking back on the Blair years, bemoan their lack of radical edge, that wasn’t always the case. Its first five years actually saw some quite strong and positive policies, even in the tough areas of planning and transport.

But as Sir Keir Starmer and Rachel Reeves prepare to take a wrecking ball to England’s already cracked planning system – “Back the builders not the blockers” – let’s take a moment to remember some of the progressive policies pursued during New Labour’s early years.

The moving force was John Prescott, then sometimes seen as guardian of Labour’s radical left-wing heritage. In reality he wasn’t particularly left-wing, just a little to the left of prime minister Tony Blair and chancellor Gordon Brown. But he was certainly radical.

From the start he was given a massive instrument to address the environmental disaster that national transport planning had been since the Great War, and to bring some sort of order to England’s planning, also mired in sprawl policies over the same period.

It wasn’t the first attempt to bring transport, environment and local government ministries into one department but it was certainly the most memorable.

Things which had been on the cards for some time like controls on the spread of out-of-town shopping, brownfield-first policies and minimum house building density standards suddenly became requirements.

Within its first three years, the Government had commissioned an Urban Task Force, under the chairmanship of Lord Rogers which made some pretty radical urbanist recommendations in its 1999 report Towards an Urban Renaissance.

There was also a 1998 transport white paper which had the petrolheads and dieselheads who’d run the transport ministry since its inception after the Great War spluttering into the fine wines they liked to enjoy with hauliers in expensive restaurants.

“Simply building more and more roads is not the answer to traffic growth,” it said. “Predict and provide didn’t work.”

Among many bold conclusions, it recommended two new light-rail lines be started every year. It also accepted the conclusions of the SACTRA committee which finally judged that building new roads doesn’t solve congestion or reduce accidents – they simply stimulate new traffic and spread congestion, accidents and pollution over a wide area.

There were other overdue things too like congestion charging paid for from fuel tax, workplace parking charges and an integrated transport commission. But, in a sign of things to come, the white paper’s publication was delayed to await a comprehensive spending review, with a promise it would be less “anti-car”.

That was the first cold wind to blow across these progressive policies. A lot of very powerful vested interests were getting very upset indeed. They included the roads lobby, the sprawl lobby and, most dangerous of all perhaps, HM Treasury.

The roads lobby had become accustomed to getting whatever it wanted for the previous 75 years and was justifiably confident that its transport ministry would do as much as it could to build roads and destroy railways. So here was heresy of the worst kind.

The sprawl lobby meanwhile was confident that planning policies would allow house builders to claim they were solving housing shortages while actually building as few homes as possible on their greenfield sites – because it maximises profits. And it would claim demand for out-of-town shopping would continue to rise exponentially, even though internet shopping was just around the corner. Then as now, a well-honed PR operation was deployed to back this.

And all these people had a powerful friend in Whitehall – HM Treasury. And HM Treasury at last had the powerful chancellor it hadn’t had since Nigel Lawson.

Gordon Brown lacked political skills but had one powerful advantage over Tony Blair – he understood economics. And while the prime minister knew about foreign affairs (or thought he did until the Iraq war) and was good at politics, he knew better than to challenge a chancellor who understood money and definitely wanted the top job.

After five years of Blair and Brown skirmishing – Whitehall called it “the TB-GBs” – Brown stepped up his attacks. His chosen battlefield was to be house building, his initial weapon the economist Kate Barker and his first victim John Prescott.

Prescott had been vainly trying to keep the peace between his two colleagues but was finally warned that continued peace would come at a price. That price included the gradual break-up of his super-ministry, with the transport ministry freed to resume its environmentally destructive policies and English planning policy now controlled (eventually quite explicitly) by HM Treasury.

The Treasury and DfT soon had us back to road building and even existing light-rail schemes were all dropped in 2005, in some cases after preliminary work had begun.

Now, it seems, Labour doesn’t even have the modest ambitions of the first Blair government. Right from the start it is wading in with propaganda straight from the massive lobby of land speculators and developers who have successfully convinced some vocal aspirational young adults to be angry about a mythological conspiracy by ageing but wealthy home owners to deny them homes of their own.

But, as the world slides towards growing emergencies in climate, nature, food, water, conflict etc. Labour would do well to look at the radical policies which it toyed with around the turn of the century, before a gang of vested interests and neoliberal economists dragged it down to their level.

Had they gone on with the policies, we’d have had a much better public transport system, with light-rail networks in all our major cities. We could have had transit-oriented development, sustainable building densities, healthy town centres and much else besides.

Instead, we have spent 20 years under governments of all three political stripes pursuing some of the most unsustainable planning and transport policies in Europe.

Keir Starmer is sensibly not assuming the election is in the bag for Labour, but it’s certainly Labour’s to lose. So does Labour really think success lies in adopting every commercially driven policy of commercial sectors that have been bywords for unsustainable development?

Or could it be that the young voters it craves actually have wider concerns – not just those prepared to parrot the claims of land speculation and development lobbies on social media?

Any incoming Labour government has two big challenges.

The first is to do anything radically different from its Conservative predecessor. Planning and transport policy are particularly problematic.

The second is to cut HM Treasury down to size. Harold Wilson in the 1960s was the last Labour prime minister even to try. He failed.

An election could still be a year away, but Rachel Reeves appears to be going native at the Treasury already.

So is the environmentally sound and communitarian future that young people actually crave as far out of reach as ever?

Jon Reeds