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12.5 pm

Mr. Derek Twigg (Halton): I realise that time is tight, so I shall cut what would have been a 10-minute speech to five minutes. I shall do my best to get as much in as possible.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Heywood and Middleton (Mr. Dobbin) for securing the debate and congratulate him on his excellent speech. Transport links in the north-west are fundamental to our economy and our social fabric. The north-west has the second largest economy in the country. I welcome the Government's integrated transport strategy. The proposals are welcome in my constituency and throughout the north-west.

It would be a surprise if I did not speak about Halton. Many people accuse me of seeing it as the centre of the universe. There are plenty of important transport links in my constituency, including the Manchester ship canal, the M56, the M62, the major Mersey crossing, and the Bridgewater canal, with Liverpool airport on our doorstep. I shall focus on the Runcorn-Widnes bridge, which is the major transport issue in my constituency and in the Cheshire and Merseyside sub-region. My hon. Friend the Minister is well aware of the problems.

The crossing was built in 1961 and is taking far more traffic than it was designed for. It is one of the landmarks of the north-west. When it is lit up at night it is one of the finest sights around. However, in addition to the 17 per cent. traffic increase since 1991, it has major structural and maintenance problems. I am glad that the Government have recognised some of those and increased the amount that Halton borough council can spend on maintenance and improvements to the bridge.

The bridge is important for transport in the north-west and for the economy in Cheshire and Merseyside. Building a second crossing would create between 5,000 and 5,500 jobs and improve the local economy. The current bridge cannot cope. I am sure that our integrated transport policy will be successful, but it will not solve the capacity problems. There are three options--an eastern crossing, a western crossing and a central crossing. All have their merits and costs. We are trying to find out from the regional development association and the Government which would be the best option.

I favour the eastern crossing. It is not the most expensive, it would have the least environmental impact and it would link with the Runcorn busway. It is not possible to shut off one lane on either side of the current four-lane bridge to use as a busway. That would cause chaos in the region and on the M6. Such a suggestion would be nonsense. However, an eastern crossing would fit in nicely with a busway, which could be extended to Widnes and would sit well with the Government's integrated transport strategy.

The Runcorn busway is unique. It is regarded throughout Europe and the world as an example of how a busway could be. It covers 22 km around Runcorn, with housing, shops and businesses all close to it. It was intended to have a 50:50 split between public and private transport, but in reality only about 20 per cent. of work

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trips are made by bus. Improvements are needed in its structure and its environment. It needs safer bus stops and bus stations and must be made more attractive.

Halton Transport is one of the few municipally owned bus companies that makes a profit, providing modern, safe transport. It is an example of how the public sector can be a commercial success while providing an important public service.

The west coast main line passes through my constituency, with trains stopping at Runcorn station. The station is crucial to the economy in my area and the north-west generally. Virgin Trains has made a start and, in all fairness, has made some improvements, but it is still a long way from delivering the service that is needed. Putting up the prices and throwing in a few cheese croissants and a couple of drinks is not what I call an improved public service; but we shall see.

I have a letter from a company in my area about ticket pricing and the 9 o'clock deadline. The letter asks how the company's staff can be encouraged to use public transport rather than a car to go to London, when they face exorbitant prices for train travel, especially with the deadline at 9 o'clock, which is not the busiest time on the way back from London.

Runcorn station, which is well used, needs refurbishment, and I believe that there are plans for that. Widnes station is famous because Paul Simon wrote "Homeward Bound" on it; I do not know whether that was because in the 1960s Widnes reminded him of his home town or because he wanted to get away from it, but we have a little bit of faith.

Manchester airport has been discussed, and we should not forget Liverpool airport. It is important to develop links between the two. Liverpool is the fastest-growing regional airport in the country and provides an awful lot of jobs. As my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Blackley (Mr. Stringer) said, the expansion can produce a guaranteed 1,000 extra jobs. The airport has an environmental as well as an economic impact on my constituency, but it is a very important employer.

Transport is crucial for the improvement of the economy in the north-west, including my area and Merseyside and Cheshire. I am positive that the Government's approach will ensure success.

12.11 pm

Mr. Graham Brady (Altrincham and Sale, West): I congratulate the hon. Member for Heywood and Middleton (Mr. Dobbin) on securing this important debate, which has been very constructive. My appearance at the Dispatch Box should not be taken as lending any credence whatever to rumours that have been circulating recently in the press; it is my first appearance and could easily be my last. This issue is vital for the north-west and I am delighted to be here to represent Her Majesty's Opposition on a matter of such importance to our region.

Both Government and Opposition Members have spoken eloquently in support of projects and improvements that are vital to our regional economy and to our constituents' quality of life. Our region's prosperity has been built on trade; without effective transport links that trade and that prosperity will die.

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There has been good news over the years, and we should not forget that; it is easy in a debate such as this to list only the problems. The good news includes the success of the port of Liverpool in recent years. Many people forget that the port of Manchester still handles 9 million tonnes of freight per annum. The Metrolink has already been referred to, first by the hon. Member for Heywood and Middleton.

Many hon. Members have mentioned the west coast main line; decades of underinvestment under public ownership have given way to some hopeful signs of major investment and a prospect of serious improvement. Billions of pounds of private money are going into upgrading the track and Virgin Trains is spending £1.3 billion on new trains. There is already more freight on the railways than in the dark days when British Rail was even found on occasion to be persuading companies not to move freight by rail, because it found it inconvenient to handle it.

The hon. Member for Manchester, Blackley (Mr. Stringer) referred especially knowledgably to Manchester airport. It is a great success story for the region and is vital to the development of the regional economy. It has been said that the airport is set to double its number of passengers and of employees, and it is essential that it should be allowed to thrive and prosper.

There are, however, real problems for the region. Transport links must be improved for the benefit of tourism and the area's service industries, as well as the manufacturing sector, which has perhaps the more obvious need. The Engineering and Marine Training Authority has estimated that north-west engineering companies are the least likely to export: 36 per cent. against a national average of 45 per cent. That must be improved if we are to increase our region's prosperity, and we need improved transport links to do that, not only within the north-west but on the essential routes linking us with other parts of the United Kingdom.

The north-west is important not only in itself but as part of a transport link to Scotland, as the hon. Member for Carlisle (Mr. Martlew) said, and to Northern Ireland. Transport links across the north-west to the Irish sea ports are vital if we are to have lasting peace in Northern Ireland.

Much of the north-west's strategic transport system is choked and congested. The new Government have increased fuel duty, which was already high, and will take £9 billion more from motorists in this Parliament, but the roads programme has been slashed and investment in public transport is frozen. The Deputy Prime Minister recently repeated projections that traffic will grow by a third in the next 20 years, and meanwhile people are paying dearly for the privilege of sitting in queues on the M6.

Road signs on the M60 and connecting roads are scruffy and illegible and vital road improvements have been cancelled or kicked into the long grass for further studies. The old, transparent cost-benefit analysis has been cast aside in favour of choices that often appear inconsistent and irrational. Some very important road schemes have been cut, including the improvement of junctions 12 to 18 on the M60 and junction 6 of the M62.

The A6(M) Stockport bypass was referred to earlier, and the A555 Poynton bypass is crucial to the constituents of my hon. Friend the Member for Cheadle (Mr. Day).

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Perhaps the most important of all is the improvement and completion of the Manchester airport eastern and western link roads. The hon. Member for Carlisle mentioned the A590 in Cumbria, which is also of key concern to my hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Mr. Collins).

Studies have been ordered into necessary road schemes and into M6 capacity problems. The Minister does not need studies to know about those problems.

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