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12.43 pm

Sir Geoffrey Johnson Smith (Wealden): I am most grateful to the hon. Member for Lewes (Mr. Baker) for raising this important matter, especially in the light of the recent transport White Paper. Unfortunately, this debate comes in the shadow of the franchising office's refusal to extend Connex South Central's franchise, but the company has a strong determination to reapply in 2003 and to go ahead with electrification. There is no doubt that the line needs modernising.

It was most certainly a great mistake to break the link. I thought that the whole line was to be closed, but my strong protest and that of many others at least retained the line to Uckfield. In the years during which I have been a Member of Parliament, since 1965, there has been an enormous increase in the population, and there will be great development in Uckfield in the near future. No road infrastructure could make it easy for people to travel by road from the south of Sussex to the places where the jobs are. The job increases have been along the coast and up in south Croydon, so there is a crying need for a rail link.

A truly integrated transport system must include not only modernisation of the line running north but the link between Uckfield and Lewes. I am happy to support everything that the hon. Member for Lewes said.

12.45 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Ms Glenda Jackson): From the remarks made by the hon. Member for Lewes (Mr. Baker) and by the right hon. Member for Wealden (Sir G. Johnson Smith), it is clear that there is cross-party unity on the necessity for a properly integrated transport strategy. That is the Government's informing policy for the coming years.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Lewes not only on securing this debate but on ending the Session as he began it: he has consistently presented his constituents' concerns in a most detailed and informed way. The proposal to reopen the Lewes-Uckfield line is but one such concern. On the previous occasion when we spoke across the Chamber, I said that his policy was drip, drip; the energy, commitment and detail with which he presented his argument today are more of a gush, gush.

There is strong support for the reinstatement of a rail link between the Hurst Green-Uckfield line and Lewes, not only from the hon. Member for Lewes and the right hon. Member for Wealden, but from those who live and work in the area, as I learned from my visit to Lewes before the general election. The hon. Gentleman has written to me on the subject on several occasions and I have answered his questions in the House.

Last week, we announced our plans for the future of public transport in our White Paper, "A New Deal for Transport". I thank the hon. Gentleman for the welcome that he gave that document, which reiterates the great emphasis that the Government place on the role that the

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railway can play in achieving a properly integrated transport policy. We also set out our proposals for the establishment of the strategic rail authority and the future arrangements for regulation of the railway in our response to the Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Committee's report.

Those statements demonstrate our commitment to public transport enhancements at national, regional and local level, to the benefit of all sectors of our community. The functions of the strategic rail authority will include promoting the use of the railway within an integrated transport system; working closely with local and national organisations to promote better integration; and participating actively in the development of regional and local land use planning policies to ensure that, as far as possible, decisions on the provision of rail services dovetail with those policies.

The White Paper is not the first initiative that the Government have taken concerning our railways. In November last year, we issued the franchising director with new objectives, instructions and guidance, dealing with the real issues that matter most to passengers. The objectives require the franchising director to facilitate investment in the railway, and to that end we approved--also in November last year--interim planning criteria for the reallocation of financial support, in order to provide an effective framework for developing and implementing worthwhile rail investment. The criteria will be revised in the light of "A New Deal for Transport" to take account of the development of multi-modal appraisal techniques that establish a level playing field between the transport modes.

We also required the franchising director to produce an assessment of the sort and level of services that the railway network should provide. He is drawing up that assessment, having consulted widely with the rail industry, local authorities, passenger representatives and other parties, and will submit his conclusions to Ministers shortly.

The hon. Member for Lewes referred to an answer that I gave which said that the Government could find new funding for capital investment in our railways in some instances. I am pleased to reiterate our announcement in the White Paper of two new sources of investment funding for the railway. More than £100 million will be made available over the next three years. The infrastructure investment fund and the rail passenger partnership scheme are aimed at supporting new investment proposals that produce significant wider benefits for integrated transport and a modal shift to rail that could not be taken forward without public sector financial support. Railtrack remains responsible for funding investment in rail infrastructure where there is a commercial case.

The infrastructure investment fund is a new fund to support investment projects aimed at addressing capacity constraints at key infrastructure pinch-points on the rail network. As the hon. Member for Lewes said, such difficulties are already being experienced by Connex South Central. The rail passenger partnership scheme is a private-public partnership designed to encourage and support at regional and local level innovative proposals that develop rail use and promote modal shift. It will support innovative proposals to develop rail use, for example, by improving interchange with other modes, improving passenger security or accessibility, enhancing

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local rail facilities, or introducing new local rail services. Funding for the scheme will be awarded through open competition, with financial support channelled through franchised train operating companies. I hope that that answers the hon. Gentleman's question about that.

I encourage local authorities and others to present to the franchising director proposals consistent with the strategies set out in the White Paper. The new schemes will be co-ordinated with other Government programmes to ensure overall coherence in the provision of publicly supported rail services and ensure that proposed new schemes are complementary to existing ones. We will announce further details of both schemes in the autumn.

There need to be partnership and accountability in developing the railways as part of an integrated transport system. The Government are determined to play their part in creating an effective public transport network that people will choose to use, but local authorities and the private sector, whether operators or developers, also have a vital role. Private sector initiative is already bringing some welcome improvements to our railways. For example, the franchisee for Chiltern Railway, and Railtrack, have taken forward a multi-million pound scheme to double-track capacity between Princes Risborough and Bicester North, where there were 19 miles of single track--a victim of the Beeching era. Half-hourly, rather than hourly, services have been introduced between Princes Risborough and Banbury, and the number of services to Birmingham Snow Hill has been increased. The introduction of new 100 mph trains has permitted a reduction in journey times of up to 18 minutes.

Another example is the construction of a new Parkway station to serve Luton airport. My Department is providing £2.8 million of transport policies and programme funding, with Railtrack funding the remainder--the bulk--of the project. When complete, the new station is expected to divert car journeys from the existing station in the centre of Luton, increase the percentage of people accessing the airport by public transport, and divert some London-bound M1 car journeys by providing an attractive alternative rail option into the capital.

We anticipate further initiatives between the private and public sectors, as well as closer liaison between central and local government on local transport planning. To that end, we will give the new strategic rail authority obligations to work with local authorities and regional planning authorities on local transport planning and integration.

We are clear that local authorities have a fundamental role in initiating investment in local schemes, whether or not they involve support from the Government. Local authorities have a responsibility under the Transport Acts for planning and arranging public transport services in their areas, and they have a role in working up schemes with operators and third-party investors that will benefit passengers in their areas.

Sponsors of schemes that may require financial support from the franchising director's budget should prepare a business case in consultation with the relevant train operator and Railtrack. The business case would allow the franchising director to estimate the likely level of public

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sector funding required to support the scheme. He could then decide whether that funding was available from his budget, and whether the proposed expenditure represented value for money. I understand that East Sussex county council is considering the viability of a scheme to reinstate the Uckfield-Lewes line.

The franchising director's interim planning criteria provide guidance to any party putting a proposal to him for changes to the passenger rail services for which he provides financial support. Under those criteria, he would look for genuine value for money and a real passenger benefit from schemes that he is asked to support. The Government expect him to undertake the appraisal of any proposal that is put to him objectively and to give fair consideration to all the proposals for new services that he receives.

The franchising director has powers under the Railways Act 1993 to grant experimental status to new passenger services where they are operated over lines not previously served by passenger trains, and to new or reinstated stations. Experimental status can be granted for up to five years and enables the viability of a new service to be tested without the need to exercise the statutory closure procedure if it is decided to withdraw it. In certain circumstances, experimental designation could provide a disincentive for investors to open new services, so the franchising director can use his discretion not to designate a new service as experimental to ensure that it will remain an integral part of the rail network unless an application for closure is approved.

The hon. Member for Lewes was concerned about the need to preserve the track bed that would permit reinstatement of the line from Uckfield to Lewes and about the implications of a possible redevelopment of the original Uckfield station site. I understand that it remains structure plan policy to restrict development that would significantly prejudice the possible reinstatement of the line. As Railtrack has no plans to reopen the line between Uckfield and Lewes, and in the absence of a financial commitment from the county council, I understand that the local authority felt that a land use policy to restrict development around the former route could not be justified and thus was not included in the local plan. I understand that any development of the original Uckfield station site is subject to the condition that the station buildings be retained and refurbished, as the local authority rightly considers them part of the town's heritage.

It is open to the rail industry, the local authority or third party sponsors to propose investment in reinstatement of the Lewes-Uckfield line. The hon. Member for Lewes will, I am sure, continue to make his case to interested parties and will no doubt press the county council for an early statement about whether it believes that there is a case to support the reopening of the line. I am sure that the right hon. Member for Wealden will support his actions.

I assure the House that the strategy and commitments that the Government announced in the White Paper "A New Deal for Transport" will serve generally to benefit rail passengers and facilitate worthwhile investment in new schemes, through partnership between Government, regional and local authorities and private sector operators and sponsors. Where there are genuine local needs, the local authorities--and the service providers--have the avenues to seek to address them. We want the railway to play its part in shifting traffic from

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roads to rail, as no doubt do the constituents of the right hon. Member for Wealden and the hon. Member for Lewes.

I will most happily accept the petition to which the hon. Member for Lewes referred. We all have an interest in enhancing the overall availability and quality of public transport options in the integrated transport network.

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