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10.47 pm

Dr. Stephen Ladyman (South Thanet): I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Dover (Mr. Prosser) and to the Minister for allowing me to make a brief contribution to the debate.

My hon. Friend's maiden speech was excellent, and I enjoyed it very much. I wish to associate myself with all his comments, and I add an extra plea to the Minister--I do not expect her to respond to it tonight. Will the Government give sympathetic consideration to the need to improve the road that links my hon. Friend's Dover constituency with the neighbouring constituency of South Thanet?

I have referred to the A256 before in the House. The road link is crucial to the economic future of Thanet and supports the largest employer in our region, the pharmaceutical company Pfizer. The improvement of that road is absolutely vital not only to that company but to my whole constituency and to the ferry industry in Ramsgate, which is a close neighbour of Dover.

10.48 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Ms Glenda Jackson): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Dover (Mr. Prosser) on his maiden speech. It is regrettable that so few hon. Members were in the House to hear him give a speech that showed not only his intimate knowledge of his constituency and his constituents, but his dedication to them and their interests. He displayed his generosity by allowing my hon. Friend the Member for South Thanet (Dr. Ladyman) an intervention in his debate.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Dover for giving us an opportunity to debate such an important topic. In 1996, the port of Dover accounted for 36 per cent. of the United Kingdom's international passenger traffic and 12 per cent. of the UK's international unitised freight.

Dover is the largest trust port in the UK in terms of turnover--£43 million in 1996, an increase of 8 per cent. on 1995. The harbour board has been investing substantial sums in the port, where there has recently been important expansion in the cruise liner business.

Clearly, Dover has a major role in the United Kingdom's links not only with continental Europe but with the rest of the world. That highlights the fact that good transport links are vital to this country's continued economic success. The best use of the existing transport infrastructure will be made to ensure that the economic importance of Dover is maintained and enhanced in a sustainable way.

I well understand my hon. Friend's desire for early decisions on the road schemes that he and my hon. Friend the Member for South Thanet mentioned, particularly the dualling of the A2 from Lydden to Dover. As my hon. Friend the Member for Dover will be aware, that scheme

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is currently being considered as part of our roads review. He will also know that the Government have embarked on a fundamental review of transport policy. Our objectives are a strong economy, a sustainable environment and an inclusive society. Transport is a vital part of all those aims.

Good communications are central to the economy and our quality of life. However, the backdrop to the fundamental review is a candid recognition that we need a shift in direction. Revised national road traffic forecasts published last month show traffic increasing by almost 40 per cent. over the next 20 years. If current policies continue, congestion will get worse, the impact on the environment will be even more severe, and those who have no access to private transport will find it even more difficult to get around.

We must develop an integrated transport system that makes the best use of the contribution that each mode can make; ensures that all options are considered on a basis that is fair and is seen to be fair; and takes into account from the outset considerations of accessibility, integration, safety, the environment and the economy. Above all, an integrated transport system must be sustainable. One of the encouraging aspects of such an ambitious task is the degree of consensus attaching to the view that we need to change.

It is a feature of the policy development work now under way that we are involving a wide range of external advice and expertise, including local authorities, businesses, trade unions, transport professionals and transport users. That is the context for the roads review examining the role that trunk roads should play in an integrated and sustainable transport policy.

Against the background of increased congestion, we have three broad options for roads: first, to make better use of existing infrastructure; secondly, to manage demand; and thirdly, to provide new infrastructure.

To make best use of existing infrastructure is the obvious first choice. It has been provided at substantial cost in financial and environmental terms, and we must make the best use of that investment. We must, however, be realistic about what the various options can deliver.

We must also seriously consider other, harder options--managing demand and providing new infrastructure. Managing demand is a vast topic. It encompasses reducing the need to travel--by land use planning, for example--an assessment of the extent to which a shift to other modes can be encouraged, and inevitably, the question of controlling demand by pricing or rationing mechanisms.

Providing new infrastructure is a very difficult option, financially and in terms of its potential impact on the environment. Our starting point is that we will not proceed with major new road construction unless we are satisfied that there is no better alternative. Even then, there will be difficult choices to be made within the limited resources available.

There is no substitute for rigorous case-by-case examination of the options. Volume 2 of our roads review consultation document entitled "What role for trunk roads?" sets out, region by region, the perceived traffic problems and the roads programme inherited from our predecessors.

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We are seeking from those regional consultations a view on whether those are the most important problems, or whether other problems deserve greater priority. We envisage two outputs from this part of the review: a firm, short-term investment programme, and a programme of studies to examine the remaining problems, out of which the medium and long-term investment programme will emerge.

The Government office for the south-east has held three day-long seminars over the autumn as part of our consultation process on integrated transport. A seminar in Ashford on 14 October examined transport corridors in the east of the region, including the Kent transport corridor between the M25 and the channel ports. Points made by my hon. Friend about the importance of the A2 Lydden-Dover improvement, in terms of safety, regeneration and support of the local economy were also made at the seminar. There was a clear consensus on the importance, regionally and nationally, of high-quality reliable routes, both road and rail, to the south-east ports. Some problems were highlighted as requiring particularly urgent solutions. We shall be taking all these views into account, along with the written and other representations that we have had.

Developing a forward-looking integrated transport policy that supports a strong economy, contributes to a sustainable environment and helps to create a just and inclusive society, is a huge challenge. The road network is, of course, only one piece of the transport jigsaw. My hon. Friend has spoken of the way in which the port of Dover is responding to the challenge of the channel tunnel. The tunnel has added to the importance of south-east Kent as a transport hub, and the building of the channel tunnel rail link will increase this still further. As well as allowing a doubling of the number of trains between London, Paris and Brussels at peak times, development of the channel tunnel rail link, which the Government are keen to see delivered as quickly as possible, will provide additional capacity for new and much faster commuter trains between Kent and London.

The Government are determined to encourage greater use of the railways for passengers and freight. We wish to see improvements in existing rail services. My right hon. Friend the Minister of Transport recently gave the franchising director new objectives, setting out the development of the passenger rail network of the future and mapping out the key role that we envisage for railways in our integrated transport policy. Connex South Eastern, which operates rail services to Dover, is required by its franchise agreement to replace all its existing mark 1 slam-door rolling stock.

I understand that it is its intention that the brand new 375 class rolling stock will be deployed on the route to Dover via Sevenoaks-Ashford by the end of 1999. Railtrack, in partnership with Connex South Eastern, is also in the process of carrying out major improvements to Dover Priory station to enhance the service that is provided to passengers. I shall write to my hon. Friend about the proposed sale of rail lands.

The Government are keen to encourage an increase in the use of rail freight, thus delivering important environmental benefits by taking lorries off our roads. Rail freight grants are available to help meet the extra costs generally associated with moving freight by rail.

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My hon. Friend raised the question of the recent French lorry drivers' dispute. The Government deeply regretted the disruption caused by the blockade in France. We are pleased that the dispute has now been settled and that our hauliers are again able to go about their legitimate business.

We acknowledge that the ferries had the option of sailing to alternative ports in Belgium, whereas the channel tunnel is a fixed link, but we made it clear that we sought unrestricted access through this principal entry point to mainland Europe.

My hon. Friend raised a number of issues that are of particular concern to Dover and to his constituents, though not all are within my direct responsibility. The proposed merger between P and O and Stena Line is a matter, as I am sure my hon. Friend is aware, for my right hon. Friend the President of the Board of Trade.

My hon. Friend mentioned also a topic that is of concern in Dover and, I would say, throughout the country--the export of live animals. I understand that it would not be possible for the Government to take unilateral action to ban live exports but we await with great interest the outcome of the Compassion in World Farming case. The Government have already taken significant steps to improve the welfare of animals during

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transport, and we are committed to making further progress.

The abolition of duty free sales for intra-EU journeys is a matter for my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer. I regret that my hon. Friend has heard me reiterate a point that I made to him when he came to see me with a deputation of other colleagues who are also concerned about the issue.

My hon. Friend also touched on the recent influx of asylum seekers arriving at Dover, which now appears to have abated owing to the measures that the Government have taken--including television broadcasts in the Czech Republic--to correct misleading impressions about our immigration procedures. However, we continue to monitor the situation carefully.

Again, I am most grateful to my hon. Friend for bringing Dover's transport links to the attention of the House. I am sure that he will appreciate that, until we have completed our fundamental review of transport policy and the role of trunk roads within that policy, I cannot tell him what priority the schemes he advocates can expect to be given, but I can assure him that the Government are fully aware of the important--indeed, unique--role that Dover plays in Britain's transport network.

Question put and agreed to.

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