Select Committee on Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Twelfth Report


Summary of conclusions and recommendations

    While we understand the difficulty occasioned by the Comprehensive Spending Review, the absence of indicative figures for future years represents a loss of transparency at a time of significant activity and policy change. Given the Government's commitment to remain within spending limits set by the previous Government, and the presence in last year's Reports of indicative figures to the year 2000, we consider that it would have been helpful for those figures to be reproduced in this year's Report with a cautionary note (paragraph 6).

    We trust that the discussion of regional issues in the Annual Report will increase in future years as the role of the Regional Development Agencies and regional chambers is developed (paragraph 8).

    The Department estimated the cost of rectifying the problems with its new buildings as "close to seven figures" and was contesting responsibility for the expenditure with the landlord. If the resolution of this conflict were to place any burden on the taxpayer we would expect this to be fully itemised and explained in next year's Annual Report (paragraph 11).

    We understand that future environmental appraisals of policy within the DETR are to be reported to the Green Minister: we therefore expect that these reports will provide the basis for a more meaningful assessment of progress towards integrating environmental concerns across Government. We recommend that details of environmental appraisals carried out should be set out in future Annual Reports (paragraph 18).

    Full details of the Government's requirements of, and payments to, Ordnance Survey under the National Interest Mapping Service Agreement must be published in the Annual Report following finalisation of the contract. These details should be accompanied by an equivalent analysis of the Government's requirements of, and payments to, Ordnance Survey in the last three years of funding by grant-in-aid (paragraph 22).

    The quality of the non-domestic rating valuation lists which came into effect in 1990 and 1995 was poor. Every effort must now be taken with the 2000 revaluation to ensure that confidence in the valuation system is restored. The Department must act swiftly to implement any changes arising from the policy review including any increase in funding of the Valuation Office which may be necessary to guarantee the quality of the list (paragraph 30).

    The DETR has been remiss in failing to investigate the impact of the national minimum wage upon local government services. We do not accept that the argument of local discretion is justifiable given the continuing high level of central prescription (paragraph 32).

    We accept that the DETR has limited resources, and must give priority to the development of new Government policy. We accept also that the Government has no plans at present to undertake a further reorganisation of local government. Nevertheless, we believe that Parliament and the general public have the right to know the total cost of the recent local government review, as well as the costs which were supported by Government borrowing approvals. The Government, too, should know what the total costs of the recent review were in case a further reorganisation should be considered at some time in the future. The DETR must therefore make efforts to establish the total cost of this policy (paragraph 34).

    We recommend that the Health and Safety Commission/Executive include a greater number of contextual indicators, more accurately reflecting its wide remit, in next year's Departmental Annual Report (paragraph 36).

    We are deeply concerned that a ban on the importation, supply and use of white asbestos continues to be delayed. The Government must ensure that the consultation proceeds according to the timetable set, and should introduce any necessary regulations as a matter of urgency (paragraph 37).

    The Department should provide a detailed breakdown of spending on National Roads in future editions of its Annual Report (paragraph 38).

    The proper maintenance of the existing road infrastructure is essential if new road building is likely to be limited. The additional money to be allocated for this purpose is most welcome. The Department should set out its view of the backlog of trunk and local road maintenance in future editions of the Annual Report and set targets for the elimination of this backlog over ten years. Priority should be given to the maintenance of the more heavily used roads (paragraph 39).

    The Department should ensure that the additional funding for rural transport announced by the Chancellor is used in ways which provide long-term benefits for users of rural public transport rather than mere temporary service enhancements that are withdrawn after the end of the initial period of funding (paragraph 41).

    Although the relevant decisions were made a number of years ago, we believe that the Department was negligent in guaranteeing the leases for the European night stock without a proper examination of the risk that the service might never operate. The Department must publish a full account of this fiasco and prove that its procedures are now robust enough to ensure that nothing like it is ever repeated (paragraph 43).

    We welcome the mechanism which has been devised to fund the Channel Tunnel Rail Link. There are, however, other capital projects with insignificant revenue risk for which finance via Government-guaranteed bonds might be appropriate, and it would be regrettable and anomalous if this project were to receive uniquely favourable consideration. The Government should therefore confirm that the same funding mechanism would be allowed in the case of other capital projects, and for future reference should set out the precise features of the Channel Tunnel Rail Link scheme which meant that the guarantee should not count against the PSBR. It should further undertake to consult the Office of National Statistics for its view on the level of risk that would apply in future cases where a Government guarantee of this sort might be possible (paragraph 45).

    The Thameslink project is an important means of increasing the capacity of the railway in the congested London area. It is also necessary to allow improvements to King's Cross St Pancras Underground station. The Department and OPRAF should give Railtrack every possible encouragement to proceed with the Thameslink station at St Pancras as soon as possible (paragraph 46).

    We welcome the decision by the Department that there should be an immediate halt to the sale of British Railways Board land which could be useful to rail operations in the future (paragraph 48).

    A six-fold increase in LT Buses' operating losses, when bus travel in London is increasing, is grounds for a thorough examination by the Department. The reduction in the average number of bids for each route tender is also a matter of concern. The Department should satisfy itself as to the reasons for the increase and whether the tendering process is genuinely competitive and ensuring value for money. LT Buses has confirmed that the move from gross cost tendering (where LT bears all the revenue risk) to net cost tendering (where operators bear a revenue risk) has contributed to the increased operating losses without any increase in service quality. The Department should encourage LT Buses in its tests of different types of tender contract which are aimed at achieving better value for public money. In line with the practice of local authorities outside London, London Transport should publish the range of tender bids it receives and the conditions of the bus route contracts it awards (paragraph 54).

    It is not acceptable that the cost to the taxpayer and the passenger of providing bus services in London should be increasing significantly while bus services are failing to meet most of their quality of service targets. The Department must discover whether this failure is the fault of the operating companies' management, of London Transport Buses for failing properly to monitor compliance with the contracts it has let, or of factors such as traffic congestion that are outside their control. It must then explain how it proposes to address the problems that exist. We were also disappointed to learn that the level of bus emissions was not one of the bus operators' performance targets; we recommend that it should be (paragraph 55).

    Hundreds of millions of pounds were spent on professional fees in connection with railway privatisation. This extravagance must not be repeated. The Department and London Underground will together be spending more on consultants in connection with the public-private partnership than the additional money that will be spent on rural public transport. The Department must publish full details of which professional firms it and London Underground employ, the work each firm performs, the fees paid to each, and the reason why the work could not have been performed in-house (paragraph 56).

    It is too early to assess the benefits of combining the two agencies in the new Marine and Coastguard Agency. We are anxious, however, that nothing should endanger the maintenance of a constant watch from all Coastguard stations. The professionalism of coastguards must not be undermined, and we will take a continuing interest in the work of the Marine and Coastguard Agency (paragraph 57).

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