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ON THE RECORD
Interview with Brian Mawhinney
RECORDED FROM TRANSMISSION BBC-1 DATE: 14.5.95
JOHN HUMPHRYS: Good afternoon. Fed up with traffic
jams and pollution? Well, so's the government and it's decided it doesn't,
after all, want to concrete over Britain with new roads everywhere. But does
it have an alternative transport policy? That's what I'll be asking the Brian
Mawhinney, the Secretary of State for Transport, after the News read by Moira
HUMPHRYS: The government is putting the brakes on
its road-building policy - so where's the traffic going to go? Will the buses
and the trains really be able to take the strain? And cleaning up the
political act - Lord Nolan has started the job - but how much more is there to
be done? I'll be talking to him later.
Well the weather's not been so hot this
weekend but after last week's heatwave that's a huge relief to many. The sun
brings the smog - and that's largely because there's too much traffic on the
roads. In the past, the solution to traffic jams has been to build more roads.
But now the government has backed away from that seemingly simple solution and
has hacked great chunks out of the road building budget. That would be fine if
there were real alternatives to using the car. Mark Weston-Turner considers
what can happen if there aren't.
HUMPHRYS: Dr. Mawhinney, you accept the basic
premise do you that if you are cutting back on the Roads Programme, then public
transport has to be not good but even better?
BRIAN MAWHINNEY MP: Well let me put cutting back on the
Roads Programme in context John. This year we're going to spend about two and
three quarter billion pounds on the Roads Programme which is more than we spent
on average during the 1980's, so I really have to start by saying that this
idea that all of a sudden a Roads Building Programme or a Roads Improvement
Programme has disappeared is really to mislead people.
HUMPHRYS: No I take that point but you are moving
in what many people consider to be the right direction, you're not saying yes
to everything, the cuts that comes across your desk and you are making some
MAWHINNEY: I'm trying to balance three different
pressures on government that have always been there. The economic necessity of
good roads because most of our goods are moved by road. We're trying to shift
them onto the railways but in the meantime most of them move by road so we've
got to have an efficient economic road system otherwise jobs and prosperity in
the United Kingdom are disadvantaged.
HUMPHRYS: But you're quite clearly saying that car
growth, the growth of the use of cars can't continue the way it has been
MAWHINNEY: That's the point that I'm trying to
make. The second pressure is the environmental pressure which is right across
the board and people understand that we have a responsibility and I share that
sense as well as I do the sense of economic realism about the roads and then
thirdly, there are those who say people should, in a democracy, be able to make
choices. Each of those people are telling the truth, each of those groups.
It's the job of government to try to find a constructive balance and I thought
the film which we have just seen illustrated that there are no easy simple
solutions. If there was magic lever somebody would have pulled it already.
HUMPHRYS: Absolutely but you've not disputed the
contention that .... that's hardly a controversial contention that public
transport has to get better.
MAWHINNEY: That's right. It has to make a
significant contribution and indeed we have a number of policies we're pursuing
precisely to try to achieve that.
HUMPHRYS: Right, well let's look at some of those
policies. Rail privatisation first of all. Let's deal with the reports that
you're going to cap fare increases when privatisation takes place. Is that
MAWHINNEY: Well there will be an announcement
fairly soon I think from the Franchising Director. Parliament gave him the
legal responsibility but there is no question in my mind and I said so from the
first day that I took on this responsibility, that in rail privatisation we
have to find a balance that will produce benefits to the passenger and at the
same time provide opportunities for the private operators who are going to be
running the railways. I'm confident that when the franchising director makes
his announcement very soon, people will see that that balance has been
HUMPHRYS: Because it will mean that fares are not
going to continue to rise the way they have been rising?
MAWHINNEY: Well they've been rising by between two
and three per cent over the rate of inflation for many years now, under all
governments. I believe that the movement of the railways into the private
sector will provide opportunities, not least of efficienies, that has been true
of every single privatisation, more efficiencies have been thrown up in the
private sector than anybody thought that existed and I believe the passengers
should have some benefit from those.
HUMPHRYS: Right so your smile suggests to me and
perhaps to the viewers of this programme that, yeah, one of those benefits is
going to be capping increases.
MAWHINNEY: A balance between benefits to the
passenger and opportunities to the private operators.
HUMPHRYS: Right well that sounds absolutely fine
for passengers but of course there is no such thing as a free lunch. It's not
going to be so good for the franchise operators because what you want is to get
more people using the railways. Now if you're going to do that, you're going
to be have to subsidise the franchise operators to a greater extent than you
otherwise would have had to do if you're going to cap prices.
MAWHINNEY: Well we'll have to see. The whole point
of having competitive tendering for the franchises is that people, private
operators who want to run the railways will be saying to the franchising
director, this is the amount of subsidy that we want if we are to take on this
responsibility. I smile sometimes at this particular aspect of the
conversation because for the last nine months the charge against the government
has been that of course, we're not going to put subsidy, we're going to try to
run this without any taxpayers' contribution and no matter how often I say that
the taxpayer is going to make a contribution in the new railway, not least for
the first time ever to guarantee those services which are on commercially known
viable lines, I'm now slightly amused that people are starting to worry that
maybe we're going to have to pay too much. I believe we've got the balance
HUMPHRYS: Well, but you wouldn't suggest for a
moment that you can cap fare increases and not increase subsidies.
MAWHINNEY: Clearly we have made it obvious on a
number of occasions I'm happy to say to you again that the government will
provide whatever subsidy to the railway industry is necessary and appropriate
in the circumstances of the services which the franchising director wishes to
deliver as far as the passengers are concerned.
HUMPHRYS: The worry obviously is that the
subsidies won't be big enough.
MAWHINNEY: That's a recurrent theme in media
interviews with ministers from the beginning of time. I believe....
HUMPHRYS: True, I'm going to dispute that but it
doesn't mean it's not true, that it's not valid in this particular case.
MAWHINNEY: I believe that you can look forward with
confidence to a developing railway system in ways, which frankly, we haven't
seen over the last forty years. Can I just remind you John, we're getting into
this privatisation, not as some sort of element of great ideological dogma. For
the last forty years the railways in this country have been in relative
decline. 1953, seventeen per cent of journeys were by rail, today it's five
HUMPHRYS: And you want to correct that.
MAWHINNEY: And I want to correct it and that
requires structural change as well as money and that's why we're going through
the process that we're going.
HUMPHRYS: Alright but you can't do it without
money can you? If you're going to cap fares, let me repeat the pun, this is
way, I mean, you say you always talk about more money from government, in other
words from the taxpayer. True that is a thing that arises constantly, I
wouldn't deny it for a moment but in this particular case it is absolutely
logical, isn't it, that if you're going to cap fare increases the people who
eventually are going to run these trains, the operators, are going to say well
if I can't get it from that, from increasing the fares, I'm going to get it
from somewhere else - I mean that's as night follows day.
MAWHINNEY; And that would be true of a whole
variety of things that you could pick in terms of the railway. Right from the
very beginning, the White Paper, even before the legislation. The government
made it clear that taxpayers money would be necessary in the new system as it
was necessary in the old, it will be channelled through the franchising
director who will be relating to ministers and saying this is the amount of
money I believe is appropriate and ministers will then respond year by year.
The point that I'm trying to make to you is that it is not possible to judge in
advance exactly how much will be required because the competitive tendering
process for the franchises will themselves have a competitive pulling-down
effect on the amount of subsidy because people will be competing with each
other for the right to run these.
HUMPHRYS: But obviously it's a funny kind of
tendering process, this isn't it, because what they are actually doing is he
who asks for least from the government is most likely or she, is most likely to
get the franchise and the worry, let me just return to it for a moment, the
worry is that the subsidy isn't going to be great enough to achieve what you
say you want. That is to put more bums on seats in the trains.
MAWHINNEY: Well you have that worry.
HUMPHRYS: Many people have that worry not just me.
MAWHINENY: And if we keep on with this
conversation much longer you are going to generate worry which I think
HUMPHRYS: The worry exists, the worry exists..
MAWHINNEY: No, the issue exists, if you'll forgive
me putting it that way. The government's commitment to this new service is
absolute and what it's going to do, and I have no doubt about it, is it is
going to see an increase in people using the railways, an increase in freight
using the railways after forty years of relative decline and if people don't
wish to pursue that policy, then they've got to come up with some alternative
and frankly there aren't any alternatives around.
HUMPHRYS: You see I use the word 'worry' because
the 'worry' is, I repeat the word, that you might be doing it, you, the
government might be doing it for political purposes and the fare increase for
instance, the cap on fare increases is a way of getting you through to the next
election as it were without upsetting passengers or potential passengers too
MAWHINNEY: I have a obviously much more optimistic,
if you'll forgive me putting it this way, I think, realistic view, of what's
likely to happen in the new railway than you do. The new railway is going to
benefit passengers, it's going to benefit passengers because it will benefit
from the private sector involvement of management skills, investment decisions,
finance, the private sector's well established sensitivity to what the customer
actually wants and you can see those changes starting to take place already in
the railways. That seems to me to be very important, and as the private sector
efficiencies are generated, it seems to me quite reasonable, indeed, quite
proper, that passengers should get some benefit from that process as well as
the operators, we must strike a balance.
HUMPHRYS: Awful lot of experts who certainly know
a lot more than I do, perhaps more than you I don't know, who seem to think
that that's not going to happen, that services are going to be worse under
privatisation and we're going to see fewer people using the railways.
MAWHINNEY: Most of those experts though are coming
out of well established, I almost said entrenched vested interest positions,
but the proof of the pudding will be in the eating and I'll be very happy to be
judged by the improvements in services John.
HUMPHRYS: Because one of the fears that they have
is that there is this minimum service requirement that the franchise director
is talking about now, the worry is that actually that's a maximum service
requirement and that when it comes down to it, there aren't going to be anymore
services than we have at the moment so in that sense it doesn't much matter
what fare prices are set at, if you go to your local station and there's no
train running from it, you can't get on it, it doesn't matter what the fare is.
MAWHINNEY: Well let me cheer you up a little bit,
for the first time ever there are going to be guarantees about first trains,
and last trains and the frequency of trains during the day and peak loading
factors, you've never had that in your lifetime in terms of British Rail. In
addition for the first time ever if your lifetime, you're going to have
guarantees about levels of service on lines which are commercially non viable.
So the only area where the passenger service requirements are set below the
present level of service, are on those lines which are commerically viable and
what we're seeking to do after having guaranteed something like eighty or
eighty five per cent of the existing service levels, is to say to the private
sector, you've now got opportunity on these lines which are commerically
viable, at marginal cost, to make it an even greater success and remember John,
these are people who are going to want to satisfy their customers because if
they satisfy their customers, it will be reflected in their bottom line, that
seems to me to be an argument that is very hard to gainsay.
HUMPHRYS: Well I am puzzled as to where all these
extra services are going to come from, for a start there is no more rolling
MAWHINNEY: Over the last ten years we've brought
into process something like four thousand new pieces of rolling stock, there's
something like a hundred and sixty more out for tender, coaches on order at the
HUMPHRYS: This company in York had to close down,
lay off seven hundred and fifty men because there aren't the orders for them.
MAWHINNEY: Well, first of all, that's got nothing
to do with privatisation, that's...
HUMPHRYS: Ah well it does in a sense..
MAWHINNEY: No it has, forgive me, it has absolutely
nothing to do with privatisation, it has got to do with the commercial bidding
processes in dealing with British Rail and I feel very sorry indeed for the
people of York and ABB, I am not entirely clear why some of the work from
Europe that the new owners have couldn't have been referred to York, but that's
a matter for them, but it is a matter of record, for example, that ABB recently
were not successful in terms of a competitive tender for some very considerable
amount of British Rail work. That's a sadness, but in as much as ABB didn't
get it, another company did and other people in this country will be working on
HUMPHRYS: Well a lot of people look and hear the
sort of things you say about privatisation and say it's actually all going to
be done by mirrors, somehow these routes that at the moment aren't profitable
or don't work, are not viable, there's no such thing as a viable railway anyway
in strict terms, are going to become profitable....(talking together)....
people are very very puzzled by this, they don't know where it's going to come
from, they don't know where these improvements are going to come from, so
perhaps if I can summarise it and then I'll move onto buses, I know you dispute
the basic premise there but let's move onto bus privatisation or bus
deregulation. It happened ten years ago, isn't working because not enough
people are using the buses.
MAWHINNEY: First of all I would argue with you that
it isn't working.
MAWHINNEY: There has been, since 1955, there has
been a steady decline in the number of people using the buses, that's
unquestionably the case. The cost of providing bus services since deregulation
has gone down quite noticeably and while there was a small drop in patronage
last year, part of the policies that I have put in place, and indeed building
on what John MacGregor did before me, is to try to find ways in which buses get
priorities, particularly in cities through red routes, through bus routes,
precisely to say to people if you want to get cars off the roads you've got to
have a series of alternatives - here is one of the set of alternatives.
HUMPHRYS: Let me if I may come to that in a
moment, but you say it's working, the White Paper, and I quote from the White
Paper at the time said new and better services will mean more people will
travel. There are twenty five per cent fewer bus passengers today than there
were ten years ago, how is that a success?
MAWHINNEY: Well what is happening is that the
number of services has increased considerably...
HUMPHRYS: Well so what, with respect if that means
there's a hell of a lot more of number ten buses on the same old route, it
doesn't mean a thing, all that matters is that people do not use their
motorcars but they use the buses and they're not, there are a quarter fewer
passengers today than ten years ago.
MAWHINNEY: And that's precisely why we are looking
at a whole variety of policy initiatives, particularly in towns and cities, we
are looking at areas of the rural economy to see whether there are things that
we can do to make the provision of bus services even more attractive.
HUMPHRYS: Well even more attractive you see that
implies that they are already attractive, a quarter fewer passengers, let me
repeat and you don't dispute the figure - nobody can dispute that figure - that
proves the thing isn't working. Let me give you one of the reasons...
MAWHINNEY: John, forgive me, we're not going to
have an argument but if you compare the the use of buses over the last ten
years with the previous ten years and the ten years before that you will find
that the, I believe, that the graph is actually moving in the direction which I
suspect both of us wish to see.
HUMPHRYS: But you told us more people will be
using the buses, that was how you were going to gauge the success, that was
what the White Paper said, that's what Nick Ridley at the time said, more
people will use the buses, they are not using the buses.
MAWHINNEY: Well they may well be more using them
compared to what would have happened if we hadn't deregulated...
HUMPHRYS: How are we going to prove that, the
answer is we're not going to be able to prove that.
MAWHINNEY: Of course we are not but if you'll allow
me to say so, if you pick arguments which make it impossible for me to compare
figures with figures then you are always going to win.
HUMPHRYS: Yeah but what it proves is that
deregulation, whether it was the right policy or the wrong policy wasn't enough
because there has been a drop in the number....
MAWHINNEY: And we have built on that. The idea that
we stopped doing anything about buses ten years ago when we deregulated is a
travesty as both of us know, and indeed in the last year we have managed to
sell successfully into the private sector all the buses in London, and we're
seeing increases there, but I come back to the fundamental point which I think
we will share, which is that we need to look at ways to make it as effective as
possible for buses to get through the urban areas to transport people, and
we're doing a lot in that area.
HUMPHRYS: Let's deal with that one quickly then. It
costs money to establish bus routes, it costs money to put those fancy things
on buses which change the traffic lights automatically in their favour, it
costs money for park and ride schemes and all the rest of it. Again, and
you'll say to me, "You want more money from the government and the taxpayer",
but the fact is that money isn't available.
MAWHINNEY: On the contrary we have put more money
HUMPHRYS: You turn down two thirds of the
applications you get at the Department of Transport. They've warned that the
settlement next time this year and next year is going to be, and I quote, "very
MAWHINNEY John, John, let's stick to the facts.
HUMPHRYS: Do you dispute those facts?
MAWHINNEY: Absolutely. Well, I dispute what
you're telling me as facts. What we are doing in terms of local authorities is
encouraging them to put together not applications for roads, but packages of
transport, which includes buses, which includes cycle-ways, which includes road
words aimed particularly at congestion and pollution black-spots. We are now
providing money in the big urban areas as well as around the country precisely
to make it possible for a development of easy movement of buses in our cities,
and I'm doing that because I share your view that if people have those sort of
alternatives at least a number of them will get out of their car and use the
HUMPHRYS: The Department of Transport's guide to
local authorities is - uses that phrase "extremely tight", and what that means
in reality if we're talking about facts is that only about a third of the
applications are being approved at the moment. Those that are approved don't
necessarily get all the money they want, frequently they don't, and there are
long delays before that money gets to them for various reasons, so they can't
do the things they want to do.
MAWHINNEY: Well, I don't know where you're getting
your long delays from. We've funded more....
HUMPHRYS: Local authorities.
MAWHINNEY: Well, no doubt, but you don't want to
get into a discussion with me about the way local authorities sometimes reflect
their wishlists as if they are reflecting the reality on the ground as opposed
HUMPHRYS: Well, you tell me you want the buses to
be better. I'm giving you reasons why the buses aren't better. I mean all
people are concerned about is that when they get on that bus in the morning
they get to work more quickly than they're getting at the moment, and the ways
of doing that...
MAHWINNEY: And that's precisely what..
HUMPHRYS: .... they can't afford to do it because
the policy is, to use that phrase again, "extremely tight", no money.
MAWHINNEY: That is just not a fair reflection of
what is happening. It's not a fair reflection of what's happening here in
London where we're sitting. It's certainly not a fair reflection of what's
happening in our urban areas. We're putting millions and millions of pounds
extra into making it possible for buses to move through cities much more
quickly than they have in the past. But it's a massive undertaking, and
it would be to mislead you and I'm not going to do that, to suggest that the
sort of ideas that we saw in this film and which both of us think have merit,
can be put in in one year or overnight. That's simply not realistic.
HUMPHRYS: Let's give you another reason why it isn't
working, why deregulation isn't working. What is most effective, it looks as
though what is most effective when you look at the overall picture and see
those towns where it is working like Exeter and Bristol for instance, is those
situation where there is a near monopoly. Now you're opposed to near
monopolies, ideologically opposed to near monopolies, You want massive
competition right throughout. In Manchester you've got nearly a hundred bus
companies fighting each other for fares, and what do they do - they all go down
the most popular routes, the most profitable routes. That isn't working, the
number of people using the buses there is falling rather than increasing. So
what you've actually got to do is take a non-ideological look at this and say,
"Alright, let them co-operatve together if that's what - let them co-operate,
let them get together, let them cut deals if that's what it takes, but they
can't under this regulation, under this legislation...
MAWHINNEY: Of couse they can. Mergers can take
place, and are taking place.
HUMPHRYS: Mergers of companies can take place.
MAWHINNEY: Mergers can take place and are taking
place, there is absolutely nothing to stop people making arrangements with each
other in terms of through ticketing. I thought the lady from the Oxford
HUMPHRYS: Oh, but there are...
MAWHINNEY: No. I thought the lady from the Oxford
council on the film was very interesting. She said, "We want to make them do
this, but there is no reason why the council can't sit down and talk to people
about the opportunities that can be developed in terms of bus services". And I
believe that a number of councils are now realising that they need to have a
co-operative arrangement with the local bus services in ways that will benefit
the people, meet some of the transport objectives of the council and also be
effective in terms of the bus companies, and of course,
HUMPHRYS: Sounds like a U-turn there to me Dr
Mawhinney, backing off competition.
MAWHINNEY: On the contrary.
HUMPHRYS: Get together, merge, co-operate, that's
not the language of naked competition.
MAWHINNEY: On the contrary what I'm trying to do is
to correct the, if you'll forgive me putting it as gently as I can, the
mistaken impression that was emerging from your questions.
HUMPHRYS Look, I'm more than happy for you to use
brutal language, perfectly happy with that, because it isn't working, that's
MAWHINNEY: I just don't accept that, so we're not
going to agree.
HUMPHRYS: Well, we're clearly not. You don't
accept that a drop of twenty-five per cent in the number of passengers means it
isn't working. I would suggest it does, and what I'm suggesting to you is that
you, instead of this sort of elegant U-turn that I think I detect here, you
actually say to the companies, "Look, you can have joint fare arrangements, you
can have all the things that you want to have that's going to enable the
system to work more efficiently.
MAWHINNEY: John, try to explain to me what it is
in the last ten years that would have prevented that happening. You can't,
there are a whole variety of opportunities out there.
HUMPHRYS: I can point to examples can't I, I can
point to Manchester where you've got nearly a hundred companies in cut throat
competition, or I can point to Exeter or Bristol where you've got near
monopolies and where it is working.
MAWHINNEY: Well, first of all I'm grateful that we
have established that there are cities around the country where the bus
services are working very effectively as indeed they are here in London.
HUMPHRYS: Because there isn't the competition.
MAWHINNEY: Oh, come on John. Neither of us believes
that for a minute. One of the great advantages of competition right across the
board and in the private sector, not least if you'll allow me to give you
another example from transport - take aviation for example. There is genuine
advantage in competition, but there is also genuine advantage in people sitting
down together and seeing how they can make the system work better for the
HUMPHRYS: Dr Brian Mawhinney, thank you very much.
MAWHINNEY: Thank you.