Previous Section Home Page

Dr. Mawhinney: We have not yet even reached the point where we can understand the mathematics that was used by the royal commission to develop some of its recommendations, but we are studying it very carefully.

I have already noted how, in the space of just a few hours' interviewing, the hon. Member for Oldham, West went from offering a heavy endorsement of the report's commitment to double the price of petrol to offering a heavily hedged endorsement. It took him just three television and two radio interviews to shift entire Labour party policy from A to Z. The Government have taken a

Column 1287

more responsible and considered view. We intend to think before we speak, unlike the hon. Member for Oldham, West.

Mr. Forman: My right hon. Friend may not wish to answer my question now, but perhaps something could be said during the winding-up speech about the interesting suggestion in paragraph 8.85 of the royal commission's report. It advocates further research on and support for hybrid vehicles and electric vehicles, especially in urban areas. I am sure that such support would be helpful from an environmental point of view. Will my right hon. Friend undertake to look carefully at that suggestion?

Dr. Mawhinney: I will certainly undertake to look at that suggestion carefully.

I have already mentioned one fundamental question that we must face together. We must also ask ourselves what level of congestion on our roads is acceptable and how we can make other forms of transport more attractive to people. We believe that rail privatisation will help enormously, but are there other things that could be done? In 1993, some 94 per cent. of all passenger transport took place on the roads; 63 per cent. of freight traffic moved by road, with 30 per cent. moving by water or pipeline and 6 per cent. by rail. I want to see more people and more freight travelling by rail but efforts to shift traffic in that direction will only alter the balance over time.

A study published last week examined the effects on road and rail use of significant improvements to the midland main line between London and Sheffield. It was shown that investment of perhaps £125 million would possibly attract up to a 30 per cent. increase in use of the railway line. The hon. Member for Oldham, West referred to similar figures. The significant point is that the effect on road use of that investment was shown to be negligible--scarcely 1 per cent. of drivers using the M1 or A1(M) would be likely to switch from road to rail. In other words, £125 million would remove one car in every 100 from the queues that are already building on the M1.

Similar conclusions flow from analysis of the effects of new light railways introduced in Manchester and Sheffield. Both are good schemes in their own right, but £140 million spent on the Manchester metrolink has resulted in a reduction in traffic in Manchester of around 0.3 per cent. So £140 million of good investment for the benefit of people who use metrolink has removed three cars in every 1,000 from Manchester's roads.

From that and other research, it would appear that to transfer just 10 per cent. of car journeys nationally to rail would, on those figures, require an investment of some £140 billion. It is clear-- [Interruption.] Opposition Members do not like it because they have not got beyond the superficial thinking that says that, if one puts some more money into rail, people will automatically follow that money.

I wanted to make common cause with the hon. Member for Oldham, West; I hope that that will not damage him unduly so early in his career. The real issue to be addressed relates more, as the hon. Gentleman said, to the attitudes and behaviour of individuals than it does to the disposition of spending. The hon. Gentleman said that we

Column 1288

need a "cultural change"; I have said that we need to address "attitudes and behaviour". I believe that, broadly, we are saying the same thing.

If so, the hon. Gentleman must move beyond the simplistic idea that if one takes money out of one budget and puts it into another, people will automatically follow that changed disposition of investment. The evidence does not support that. That poses a serious problem for those who would wish to see a greater shift in transport policy. One of my regrets about the royal commission report is that it did not address that issue with the degree of fundamental concern that it warrants. We will all have to address it in debate and research in the months that lie ahead.

I am pleased that much of the debate surrounding the royal commission report is not about whether we should seek a sustainable transport system but about how we should do so, and in particular, what are the costs of making changes.

The commission said clearly that it expected some stiff price increases to be necessary if its targets were to be met. It suggested a doubling of fuel prices by 2005--as the hon. Member for Oldham, West said--in combination with other measures such as reduced speed limits.

I wish the royal commission had given a little more attention to that area. Looking at the scale of some of the things it proposed--a 20 per cent. cut in carbon dioxide emissions by 2020, for example--I believe that much more stringent measures are implied even than a doubling of fuel prices. No doubt we will discuss that issue further in the months ahead.

So, while a debate develops around how to persuade more people to use public transport, how to manage our road systems better, how to decide which parts of our roads programme are valuable and necessary and which are of less importance and how to advance 21st century engine technology, we will continue to pursue policies which attack the problem of air pollution, encourage the transfer of freight off the roads and on to rail or water, promote better use of land planning by local authorities, encourage local authorities to put together packages of measures to meet both environmental objectives and transport aims, promote road safety and foster increased use of cycling.

The next time the hon. Member for Oldham, West is looking for a city that has a good cycle system that he can admire, I invite to come to my constituency of Peterborough. The hon. Member for Thurrock (Mr. Mackinlay) will be able to testify to that, as a result of his short sojourn among us in Peterborough. Incidentally, to that end, I intend to visit Holland to seek to understand why so many Dutch people take to the bicycle.

During my first weeks in this office, I have asked a series of questions not only about existing policies but about the balance of those policies between economic well-being, enhancement of choice and environmental protection. I assure the House that, as with my announcement over regional airport liberalisation, I shall not hesitate to seek to change the balance if I consider it necessary.

Column 1289

This week's edition of The Economist makes my final point when it says:

"Cars are accused of being accomplices in the destruction of town centres . . . public transport is back in fashion--not as something to use . . . but rather as something to recommend that other people should use. This battle between what people want to do and what they would like other people to do risks getting out of hand". I am not interested in the sort of sloganising that that represents. I am interested and wish to see developed sensible and sustainable progress, and I am determined to work to that end. I commend the amendment to the House.

8.20 pm

Mr. David Marshall (Glasgow, Shettleston): I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition and my other hon. Friends for initiating this important debate. It is obvious that the Government would never have initiated such a debate.

I hope to make a common-sense contribution and, first, I declare an interest as a sponsored member of the Transport and General Workers Union. During my time in the House, I, in common with many other Members, have attended a wide variety of meetings of different transport groups covering every aspect of transport: road, rail, sea and air.

In the 1960s, the in-phrase was "to seek to create a co-ordinated, integrated transport system". Since the Beeching rail cuts, we have moved steadily further away from that still-desirable aim. [Interruption.] If the Secretary of State does not know what an integrated transport system is, he should not be in the job that he holds. Indeed, if past practice is anything to go by, he will not be in it for much longer anyway.

Dr. Mawhinney: Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will tell me what he means.

Mr. Marshall: That will become obvious as I progress.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull, East (Mr. Prescott) was travelling in the right direction with his 1992 policy for a national transport plan. We simply cannot have a successful nationwide transportation system based on a piecemeal approach, as is now the case. The Government have never had a proper transport policy of any kind.

Contrast that fact with what happens in other countries. From most parts of western Europe there is a high-speed rail service to Calais and the channel tunnel. Yet on this side of the channel we have far too little far too late, and a marvellous opportunity has been missed. When I went to Lille in northern France, for example, in January 1992 as the then Chairman of the Transport Select Committee, a brand new tramway system had almost been completed, together with a brand new suburban rail system, a brand new TGV high-speed rail link and a brand new bus station and road links, all connecting into a large complex with office and shopping facilities on a grand scale. That shows co-ordination, integration and common sense, and it is the type of integrated planning system that we want and need. It is a much less environmentally harmful system than the alternatives. With such essential infrastructure in place, it is no wonder that Lille will attract thousands of new jobs as a result. Why, oh why, can it not happen here?

Column 1290

Why have we never had a proper on-going investment programme in our railways, replacing rolling stock annually, and more electrification on energy conservation and environmental grounds, even to the unacceptable extent--unacceptable to this Government--of building new railway lines to meet the needs of shifting populations? Such investment would have created jobs, retained and increased passenger levels and avoided the sorry position that we are in today. The brilliant policy of changing to unmanned suburban railway stations has driven passengers away in droves. Sadly, due to the rise in crime under this Government, people are afraid to use unmanned stations, especially women, children, the frail and the elderly--the very people who depend almost totally on public transport. Let us reduce unemployment by returning to manned stations, and so increase the use of rail transport and reduce road congestion.

The Secretary of State talks about transferring freight from road to rail, but the railway system can take only a tiny amount of such freight due to the lack of infrastructure caused by lack of investment by his Government during the past 15 years. Is it not ironic that, only a few years ago, Railfreight was withdrawing from the freight business because it was not making a go of it or delivering the goods? That is no way for any Government to run a railway system.

On the problems of London, we cannot build our way out of trouble. That would be both unacceptable and far too expensive. Better public transport and traffic management will help, but some form of restraint seems inevitable. But no fair system of restraint has yet been devised. Some of my hon. Friends may be offended if I suggest that job dispersal would be a far better way to deal with the problem because, due to technological progress, there is absolutely no reason why many jobs in London could not be done in the provinces and in Scotland and Wales, which would benefit the nation as a whole. Perhaps we should start by moving Parliament to Manchester or some other place, and leaving this building to the tourists.

Everyone wants a better environment and less pollution, but the danger is that people look not at the overall position but only at the bits they like. We all want less congestion so long as someone else's car comes off the road, not ours. Most people do not like lorries, but they want to buy goods from the shops to which lorries deliver, and they want to buy them as cheaply as possible. We must reduce congestion, improve public transport and reduce the number of unnecessary car journeys. Extreme punitive fuel taxation is not the answer. It could even worsen the problem, especially economically. It would also be unfair because business executives and many others would simply have the increased cost paid for them, eventually passing the costs on to the consumer. Yet again, the biggest losers would be the poor and those on low incomes. Let us not forget, too, that for many people, especially those with handicapped or elderly relatives, the car is sometimes essential, as I know from personal experience. Let us also not forget that the first ambition of young people is to have access to a car. We should allow them to do it legally and affordably, rather than have more and more of them resort to joy riding, with all that that involves.

Column 1291

On the employment aspects, we must not get things out of balance and impose substantial fuel tax increases immediately, as the Government may do in the Budget. The manufacturing, sales and servicing of cars and trucks employs many hundreds of thousands of people. Lorry drivers and car drivers whose livelihood depends on their vehicle will be at risk, as will many associated jobs. Unemployment is far more dangerous to one's health and welfare than living beside a busy road. One has only to ask the thousands of my constituents who have been unemployed for many years.

What will happen to prices, especially those of basic essential food stuffs? What about the effect on rural areas? What about tourism, not only in Britain as a whole but especially in Scotland, where it is now the largest industry? Scotland, especially the highlands and islands, could be hard hit, with disastrous economic consequences. All that shows that we must plan properly if we are to get it right. The Government will never do so because they do not believe in transport planning.

May I take just one minute to refer to the position in my constituency and neighbouring constituencies? At the moment, the main arterial routes in the east end of Glasgow--Duke street, Gallowgate, London road, Shettleston road and Tollcross road--all carry exceptionally high volumes of very noisy traffic, made much worse when the M8 is choked, as it regularly is. The east end has a high accident rate, mainly among children and elderly people. It also has many hundreds of the 5,000 acres of vacant and derelict land in the city of Glasgow, and one of the highest levels of unemployment in Scotland.

We desperately need to complete the M74 from where it comes to an end at Tollcross in my constituency, through to the Kingston bridge. I plead guilty to the Secretary of State's earlier charge about wanting new road investment where it is necessary and where it is proper, not where it is not needed and not where it is unnecessary. The completion of the M74 would relieve pressure on Kingston bridge, which is grossly overloaded and currently under repair. If that bridge ever has to close, Glasgow will grind to a halt, because one will not be able to move. The completion of the M74 would substantially reduce through traffic in my constituency, reduce road deaths and accidents, improve the environment and open up hundreds of acres of derelict land to investment, and the possible creation of thousands of desperately needed jobs.

That project should go ahead as soon as possible. I hope that I have demonstrated that such projects are desirable and enhance the environment. To do nothing is to blight the area for decades to come, and to worsen the environment and quality of life in the area. Finally, how does one define environmental improvements? One example, in my opinion, is bypasses, which take traffic round towns and villages and, in so doing, greatly enhance the local quality of life. We need many more such bypasses.

However, most of all we need to aim for a balanced integrated transport system; one that recognises transport as a social necessity and funds it accordingly; one that invests adequately in our railways and light rapid transit systems and provides more and better secure park and ride

Column 1292

facilities, and, by using better traffic management schemes, encourages people to use buses. We also need a national transport policy that puts public transport back on the agenda as a first priority, not as a last resort.

Dr. John Marek (Wrexham): I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his fine speech, and I agree with almost every word. However, the Secretary of State was smiling when my hon. Friend spoke about an integrated transport policy. Let me give my hon. Friend an example from my neck of the woods.

Before railway privatisation, there were connections from Wrexham to Chester and we could catch trains from Chester to London. Now that we have privatisation, Regional Railways competes with InterCity and it is no longer expedient to have connections when one travels from Wrexham to Chester, so that one may catch the InterCity service from Chester to Euston. Regional Railways wants one to sit in a Sprinter all the way to Birmingham, and take an hour longer over it. That is an excellent example of a way in which the Government's policy has introduced disintegration. I suspect that there are similar examples throughout the country.

Mr. Marshall: My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. I repeat my final remarks. What is needed is a national transport policy, which puts public transport back on the agenda as a first priority, not as a last resort.

8.32 pm

Mr. Matthew Banks (Southport): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Glasgow, Shettleston (Mr. Marshall). I agree with several of his main arguments, and especially his final argument. The bypasses that he mentioned are needed in many districts throughout the length and breadth of the British Isles. I deeply regret the fact that it was necessary to slim down the road-building programme, for reasons that I shall discuss later. [Interruption.]

I hear the hon. Member for Thurrock (Mr. Mackinlay) moaning, but many of my constituents, and those of other hon. and right hon. Members on both sides of the House, wish traffic to be taken away from the centre of towns, as the hon. Member for Shettleston said. That is very important.

We shall not witness those developments if the hon. Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Meacher) has his way and there is a moratorium on the road-building programme. He painted a depressing picture of Labour's roads policy. Throughout the "Roads for Prosperity" assessment of the decade between 1979 and 1989, which led to some of the road-building schemes that are taking place at present, it was obvious that many people throughout the country wished traffic to be taken away from their towns and villages. Although I would be the first to accept that many schemes are contentious and have been dropped for a variety of reasons, there are many others that I and many other people would like to be developed, not least in my constituency.

If my hon. Friends on the Front Bench will take note, I wish that the A570 Scarisbrick and Pinfold schemes, linking my constituency with the national motorway network, might be carried out sooner, but I recognise that, due to a bit of assiduous lobbying, we were able to keep

Column 1293

that scheme in the road-building programme rather than witnessing it drop off the programme, which might have been the case. As my right hon. Friend of Secretary of State mentioned, I do not believe that what we heard from the hon. Member for Oldham, West was a balanced view of the way that we should proceed. He mentioned the light rail systems. We have heard earlier about Nottingham, Manchester, Tyne and Wear and Sheffield. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister for Transport in London will draw attention to the substantial amount of money that Government, the private sector and local authorities have put into those important schemes.

There was not a word from the Opposition Front Bench about the freight facilities grant scheme. Do Opposition Members realise how many millions of lorry journeys per year have been removed from the 1995 diary as a result of the freight facilities grant scheme? It has allowed companies grants of up to 100 per cent. of the cost of the infrastructure of transferring freight off our roads on to the rails.

The hon. Member for Oldham, West does not realise yet that more than 90 per cent. of all freight journeys throughout the country at present are under 50 miles, so it is not practical for every company to invest, even if it could afford to, even with the help of the freight facilities grant scheme, to transfer more of its freight off the road on to the rails. That 50-mile limit for 90 per cent. of the freight that moves throughout the country is an important statistic, of which I hope that the hon. Gentleman will take note.

However, the hon. Member for Oldham, West made several valid points about certain aspects of our culture. I agree with what the hon. Gentleman said about the changing attitude to smoking and drink-driving. I believe that, in our national life, we need a gradual change in our culture in relation to transport over several years.

I recognise that many of my hon. Friends and Opposition Members wish to contribute to the debate, so I shall try to keep my remarks to the issues that have already been raised in the debate, and especially in relation to the remarks that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State made about unleaded petrol. I shall return to that subject later.

The Transport Select Committee drew attention to many issues in its recently published report on transport-related air pollution in London. I shall mention several. I feel strongly about many matters, of which I very much hope that the Government will take note. Although I would be the first to recognise that the use of the catalytic converter is, rightly, the cornerstone of Government policy in reducing emissions, because it is the best technical way of doing so at present, it is important that we recognise that it will do so only if the catalytic converter is working properly. It is important that, in the years ahead, as part of our Department of Transport testing procedure, we should have a section that is concerned with the maintenance and standard, at that moment, of the catalytic converter.

Friends of the Earth has drawn attention to the fact that, during the average 10 km journey, 70 or 80 per cent. of the emissions take place in the first kilometre, which brings into question the importance of ensuring technical developments in pre-heated catalytic converters. I hope that the Government will enter as soon as possible into

Column 1294

new discussions with the motor industry to try to set a target date so that all cars will be able to have new pre- heated catalytic converters, and that those catalytic converters will be the subject of MOT testing. I recognise that the Department of Transport has, rightly, tightened MOT testing procedure, but we must reconsider in particular the way in which emissions are checked, to try to produce cleaner cold starts.

If hon. Members are concerned about catalytic converters and their use and about whether they are effective, it is important that they ensure that the industry takes on board the suggestions made by the Automobile Association, the Royal Automobile Club and the Select Committee on Transport. They said that we should encourage motor manufacturers at the point of manufacture to install in vehicles an electronic warning device that will show whether the catalytic converter is working properly, in the same way as a warning light tells a driver whether his brakes are failing. The Department of Transport should take that on board, and it should press motor manufacturers to install such a device as soon as possible. My next point does not have a direct impact on the responsibilities of my hon. Friend the Minister, but perhaps in his discussions with Home Office Ministers he might suggest that they should start compiling statistics. In particular, we should encourage our police forces to start taking a greater interest in enforcing the legal emissions limit.

I am conscious that time is pressing on. I welcome the fact that the Department, in response to the Transport Select Committee's recent publication, has said that it will continue to review the use of super unleaded petrol. The Select Committee took evidence from some reputable individuals and companies, in particular Associated Octel, which estimated that in London premium unleaded fuels contain between 4 and 6 per cent. more aromatics than leaded four-star petrol and that super unleaded contains at least 16 per cent. more aromatics than four star. Associated Octel recommended that super unleaded be taken off the market or, at the very least, that it should lose its lower excise duty advantage over unleaded petrol. The Department of Transport must take that on board.

Mr. Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Banks: I hope that the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, but I shall sit down in a moment. I hope that he will seek to catch your eye, Madam Deputy Speaker. I recognise that he has a constituency interest in the matter and I hope that he will have the opportunity to make his speech in his own time. Although I welcome the Government's response in the matter, I hope that the review will be a little more substantial than has been suggested.

I should like to comment on the policies of the Labour and Liberal Democrat parties. I excuse the hon. Member for Shettleston from my remarks, but in the past few weeks Opposition Members, many of whom are sponsored by transport unions, have shown a knee-jerk reaction to the report. It seems to me, particularly from what the hon. Member for Oldham, West said earlier, that Labour party policy on the environment and transport is driven by the unions rather than by the need to have a more balanced approach.

Column 1295

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State commented on Liberal Democrat policy, particularly in relation to its "Getting Britain to Work" document. The best that can be said about it is that it makes clear that it, too, would cancel all motorway improvements. That would lead to greater congestion, further pollution and damage to the economy. There is no greater example of the usual inconsistencies of Lib- Dem policies that are advocated in the House.

Liberal Democrat Members talk about the environment in this place, but when they get back to their constituencies it is a different matter. The hon. Member for North Devon (Mr. Harvey) talks about the importance of the north Devon link road; the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) talks about the necessity of the dualling of the A1. The hon. Member for Newbury (Mr. Rendel), who one rarely sees in this place, insists on having a Newbury bypass; and the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) insists on improvements to the A46. The Government are achieving the right balance, and I shall have no hesitation in supporting them in the Division Lobby.

8.44 pm

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall): I shall not follow the hon. Member for Southport (Mr. Banks) in that diversion around the country, because I want to deal with the remarks of the Secretary of State for Transport, who I regret to see has left the Chamber. I agree with the Secretary of State on one important point. We are dealing with some complex issues. All hon. Members should be grateful to the royal commission for considering those complex issues with a great deal of expertise and experience--I notice that Conservative Members are nodding. There is room for consensus across the Chamber.

Sadly, this place does not do justice to issues of this complexity, which have run through Governments for many years. Often the adversarial atmosphere does not give the best result. I hope that consensus will develop across party boundaries, and I welcome the fact that the Secretary of State appears to believe that that should be the case.

It is easy to be wise after the event. It was less easy perhaps for Ministers in the 1960s and 1970s--not all of whom represented the Conservative party; some represented the Labour party--to ignore the warnings of Colin Buchanan, with whom I have had the pleasure of working, about many of the problems that the royal commission has brought before hon. Members. This is not a just a problem of the 1970s, 1980s or 1990s. It was identified by some of the more perceptive of our advisers in the 1960s.

The Labour party may already be finding itself in some difficulty. I regret very much that the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson) has left the Chamber, because this weekend he appeared to rule out the use of all road-pricing mechanisms to deal with congestion in our major cities and towns. I am not sure whether that represented the policy of the hon. Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Meacher) but I suspect that it did not. None of us can relinquish a useful carrot. We cannot rely entirely on sticks, and it was profoundly misguided of the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras to rule out all price mechanisms of that sort. With the exploding

Column 1296

use of private vehicles, cars and lorries, it will be essential to find new mechanisms to enable and encourage people to travel by other means.

No hon. Member is suggesting that we can uninvent the internal combustion engine--that is patently absurd. However, the hon. Member for Southport touched on the point that no magic formulation for fuel in internal combustion engines will suddenly make them totally environmentally friendly. Whatever is put in their fuel, they are inherently an environmental problem,.

We can, of course, work towards reducing carbon dioxide levels in line with suggestions made by the royal commission and I hope the Government will make a commitment, when they have taken stock of the evidence, to reduce emissions to 1990 levels by 2000, and to 80 per cent. of 1990 levels by 2020.

The Government should also firmly commit themselves to complying with the World Health Organisation's air quality guidelines by 2005. We do not want a lot more vacuous hot air from either side of the House about those ideas. We want some commitment to improving air quality.

The environmental impact of carbon dioxide emissions is highlighted in new research that shows that the soil in our cities is becoming contaminated and is unable to absorb water. That is the scale of the problem. It is not just the environment that is suffering. How much subsidy does the national health service effectively give to the roads lobby? It must treat those people who suffer from breathing difficulties, the levels of which are increasing, asthma, which received a lot of publicity this summer, and stress-related problems. How much does industry generally pay in days lost at work from those illnesses?

We have to look at ways in which, with carrot or stick, we can encourage people to use public transport whenever possible. In some rural areas--my own constituency is a case in point--there is very little public transport left, and to imagine that it could suddenly be reintroduced overnight would be flying in the face of experience. Successive Governments--not just this one--have cut investment in public transport, leaving rural areas with no realistic alternative to the car. I know that some Conservative Members represent such areas.

Where it is a viable alternative, however, public transport must take precedence--hence the need to set the targets which the royal commission has rightly put before the Government and the House. We could increase the use of public transport by 12 per cent. on 1993 figures, to 20 per cent. in the year 2005 and on to 30 per cent. by the year 2020--if that were declared a programme objective now. It would be feasible to aim to increase by 50 per cent. the number of urban journeys taken on public transport outside London by the year 2020, and, in London, to increase them by 30 per cent. In the next few days, planning guidance that can help that process is likely to be issued.

The concentration of amenities out of town, causing people to abandon traditional urban centres, has caused enormous difficulty in this respect, and unless there is reversal of the trend, it will be difficult to ensure that people reduce their reliance on the private car.

Decision makers are, almost by definition, people who depend on cars. Planners, business leaders, councillors, civil servants, Members of Parliament and certainly Ministers all depend on their cars. They assume that

Column 1297

everyone else does, but even in comparatively well-off rural areas of Britain, where there is little public transport, a large percentage of the population cannot have daily access to private cars. The census in Wiltshire, a relatively well-off county, showed that 60 per cent. of women did not have driving licences and thus were automatically precluded from car transport for all the usual amenities of daily life. Other parts of the country could provide us with similarly sizeable numbers. Any action in this area could also assist the regeneration of our town centres; that would be an extremely useful by- product.

I accept the Secretary of State's point that it cannot all be done over night; the shift will probably take the lifetime of a Government, given the magnitude of the U-turn, but we must start with some explicit and effective action.

The commission has proposed increases in the price of petrol; so, we understand, have the Government. For several years now, Conservative candidates all over the country have accused Liberal Democrats of wishing to increase the costs of transport for those living in rural areas. A few hours ago, a Tory Member told me that we had been brave to propose tax rises some years ago. At the last general election, a large number of those Conservative candidates gave explicit promises that fuel taxes and costs would not be increased--but they have been, by successive Conservative Chancellors. Indeed, the rate of increase has been faster than even we dared suggest.

Now, as we have heard this evening, the Government are threatening to raise fuel taxes again in the forthcoming Budget. The essential difference between what the commission proposes--we agree with it--and what the Government propose is shown by the ways in which the additional revenue is to be used. Ministers want to use it to help with their income tax cuts, preferably closer to the election. The commission and many of us would propose that the money be ring-fenced to pay for direct assistance for those who use smaller, more economical and more environmentally friendly vehicles, and for those who have limited access to feasible alternatives in the form of public transport.

We plan a scheme that would not hit the private user with a low annual mileage and, typically, a small-engined car. Predominantly we want to ensure that the male business users--long-distance, heavy-duty users who commute from city to city in high-powered vehicles--pay the real costs of that activity. There must be an incentive for them to let the train take the strain.

Surely all hon. Members accept that it would be much fairer to tax the use of the car effectively than just to tax its ownership indiscriminately. The Mini should not be taxed the same as the Jaguar. As the Secretary of State pointed out, the impact of any increase in fuel duty is far from clear, but the Department appears to suggest that a 9 per cent. increase in fuel tax would secure a petrol use reduction of only 2 or 3 per cent. That is not enough to make the sort of impact that the royal commission says will be necessary to satisfy its--and our--environmental aims. If it was a flat rate increase, without the mitigating measures that we suggest, it would hit all who need to use their cars, and those who can least afford to be without them would be hit just as badly as those with a viable alternative.

With figures provided by the motoring organisations, we have concluded that a shift in this tax burden is called for. A cut in vehicle excise duty-- retaining for the

Column 1298

smallest engines only a nominal administrative charge--could be the most effective way of ensuring that those who are environmentally friendly in their use of motor cars benefit, while those who are least helpful in that respect carry the heaviest burden. The figures show that the average private motorist with a small mileage and a small car would benefit under this system.

The commission recommends that action be taken to increase freight-carrying capacity by putting lorries on trains that will run on the rail link from Scotland to the channel tunnel, for instance. That is a high priority for all parts of Britain away from the south-east. We think that there are economies of scale on rail for journeys of more than 200 km. Is it not absurd that, in the very year our rail system links up, after hundreds of years, with the continental system, so that it becomes economic again to carry a lot of freight on it, rail privatisation threatens to disintegrate the rail network?

The royal commission also shows that lorries pay much less than they cost us--they pay about half what they cost the national Exchequer and economy. We shall seek to transfer heavy long-distance loads to the railways-- transferring about 22 per cent. of current total lorry mileage to rail. I hope that the Secretary of State means what he says in this respect. The mileage of the largest lorries could be cut by 45 per cent. too.

I do not think that we have yet got to the kernel of this issue. There is widespread acceptance that we cannot build our way out of congestion in the south-east or anywhere else. One of the members of the commission, Professor John Lawton, suggested, that if the M25 is widened in line with present plans at a cost of £9 billion, it will be just eight years before the congestion results in the whole process having to start again. Incidentally, some Conservative Members who have actively campaigned in their constituencies against widening the M25 are conspicuous by their absence from this debate. Dr. Phil Goodwin, whose transport studies unit at Oxford university has proved such a pioneer of the new realism, said last week that an enlarged motorway and trunk road construction programme is counter productive. Irony of ironies, he quoted a British Road Federation report which shows that, if the programme is increased by 50 per cent.,

"congestion on trunk roads would actually worsen every year, not improve."

As we have heard, the Department of Transport's standing advisory committee has looked at that issue. I suspect that it will come up with the same answer.

The inevitable conclusion is that a whole basket of

measures--carrots and sticks--will be necessary to achieve a shift in balance. Dr. Goodwin also believes that

"small, widespread improvements often give better results than prestige projects."

That is why many of my colleagues and I have supported small-scale improvements to bypasses. They are cost-effective. However, none of us has supported the huge and enormously expensive expansion of the motorways programme.

Dr. Goodwin spoke about the need for an emphasis on better maintenance, but that has not been mentioned much in the debate. One illegally overloaded lorry does more damage to a mile of motorway than 3,000 or 4,000 cars on it on one day. If we could deal with that problem--and so far the Government's initiative in that respect has

Column 1299

not been effective--it would make a major contribution to the removal of many of the roadworks which themselves cause congestion. Of course there must be some investment in new roads: we cannot not wipe out the programme overnight. Talk of cancelling every contract is absurd. However, we should concentrate on bypasses to improve the environment of smaller towns and villages. The imbalance between road and rail is on the mega-schemes. I shall give an example that will be familiar to you, Madam Deputy Speaker.

If the Government have their way, there will be another crossing on the River Tamar between Cornwall and England. If that happens, there will have to be a motorway connection between the present end of the M5 and the bridge, and huge expenditure on the access roads on the Cornish side. All the local authorities are dead against the proposal because of the increased cost to the motorist, quite apart from that to the taxpayer. They believe that the problem could be much more effectively dealt with through just some investment in the rail network to ensure that mainline trains continue into Cornwall and that freight can be taken out. A comparatively modest investment in the rail network would save huge sums on roads and could make possible an effective park-and-ride system and reduce commuter traffic.

I hope that, in his reply to the debate, the Minister will specifically repudiate the comments by previous incumbents in his Department. I am delighted to see that the hon. Member for Salisbury (Mr. Key) is in his place. I warned him that I would be referring to one of his trenchant speeches before he was relieved of his duties as a Minister. I have in mind his stirring address to the Auto Express awards dinner at the Park Lane hotel to an audience of 200 motor manufacturers and car fanatics--a roads lobby bonanza if ever there was one. At that dinner the hon. Member for Salisbury confessed his "love for cars of all shapes and sizes."

He said that cars were a "good thing" and went on:

"The car is going to be with us for a very long time. We must start thinking in terms that will allow it to flourish."

I am not sure what the Government had been doing before that. The hon. Gentleman condemned the railways. He said:

"If ever there was an environmentally unfriendly form of transport it was the railways. They played havoc with our countryside and it was outrageous the way Parliament allowed them to carve up the countryside and destabilise it by building tunnels. They spewed out polluting gases and turned buildings black. It makes me wonder if we've got our priorities right."

Next Section

  Home Page