Originally published July 26, 1998
I have a dream. I see a world with happy, rosy-cheeked children scrumping apples. When you ring to book a seat at the cinema, you will talk not to a machine but to Ma Larkin. And there will be an interval in the film, in which you eat pork pies and fudge.
Nobody will have a mobile phone that plays The Grand Old Duke of York, and Bernard Cribbins will run your railway station. Estuary English will be spoken only in the Thames estuary, which, incidentally, will be full of cormorants. And nobody will die of anything.
Now I could publish this in a white paper but you’d all laugh. You’d know that the Thames estuary children would shoot all the cormorants and that Bernard Cribbins is an OAP.
Well it’s much the same deal with the vision of Britain outlined last week by Mr Prescott in his much talked-about white paper. I’ve read every one of the 160 pages and it is fantastic. Nobody could possibly argue with any one of the fat man’s dreams but, sadly, that’s what they are: dreams.
Take point 5.10. “We need to improve the image of the bus if we are to attract people who are used to the style and comfort of modern cars.” And it goes on to say that the bus industry must respond to the challenge with a vehicle designed for the 21st century.
Right, chaps, well if you want me out of the car and in one of your buses by 2000, you’ve got 18 months to come up with a vehicle that can do the following …
Yesterday, while making a white sauce, I needed some more milk and had to get to and from the shop in less than three minutes. I shall need a service that can handle this.
1998: the year in cars
Volkswagen buys Rolls-Royce and Bentley for £479m. BMW then buys the right to use the Rolls-Royce name, held by another firm. VW is left with just one brand.
Renault sacks Papa and Nicole from its ad campaigns as it launches the new Clio.
This afternoon my mother is coming to Oxfordshire from Peterborough with two small children and their nanny. They don’t want to go via two train stations in London. So, if this new public transport is going to be as convenient as the car, there must be a bus service from Castor to Chipping Norton, 30 times a day.
And on board the bus I want electric Recaro seats finished in the finest hide, I want television, I want air-conditioning and I must be able to play whatever music I wish without disturbing other passengers. Also, there must be a screen, such as you find in the first-class section of a British Airways 777, so that I can pick my nose without being overlooked. I shall also wish to smoke.
The bus must be eco-friendly, so obviously a diesel engine is out. Gas might be an answer but a big V8 is better. Certainly I shall be looking for 0 to 60 in less than 10 seconds and a top speed of 150 or so. And it must be designed by Pininfarina.
OK, got all that? Well it gets worse, because the service, I’m afraid, has to be free. You see, Mr Prescott has said it’s all right for me to have a car but that I must leave it at home more often. Fine, but I’ll have paid for it, and road tax is applicable no matter how infrequently I use it. I therefore can’t afford to spend even more money on a bus fare.
To address this, the white paper says that I will have to pay to use motorways and that I will be charged if I drive into a city centre. I see, and how will this be done, then?
Sadly, the white paper fails to explain this, in the same way as Enid Blyton fails to explain how Noddy, a toy, manages to converse with an elephant.
Undaunted, Mr Prescott goes on to say that by charging road tolls, and taxing car parking spaces, super-efficient, dream-world local authorities will be able to raise a billion pounds a year. They won’t lose it. They won’t waste it on twinning ceremonies. They’ll spend it on public transport.
Oh dear, I’m afraid that in Mr Prescott’s world, where everyone drinks Ovaltine and Jenny Agutter is 13, a billion pounds is a lot of money. But in fact a double-decker costs £130,000, and a billion won’t even buy one for each town in the country.
The chances, therefore, of getting a service from Castor to Chipping Norton 30 times a day are somewhat remote.
But that’s not the end of the world. You see, if car travel were as bad as everyone says, nobody would do it. And things are going to get better. Already we have the same number of cars on the roads as we do people with driving licences. So unless we perfect the art of driving two cars at once, the projected 30% increase in traffic just can’t happen. In fact, as people start to work at home, it’ll probably decrease slightly.
I do, however, think that Mr Prescott’s white paper has a place. If it were illustrated with attractive drawings, it might even supersede Thomas the Tank Engine as my four-year-old daughter’s favourite bedtime story.