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North-East Regional Chamber

10. Mr. Stephen Hepburn (Jarrow): When the regional chamber in the north-east will be officially established. [78825]

The Minister for the Regions, Regeneration and Planning (Mr. Richard Caborn): We are considering proposals from the north-east regional chamber for designation as the regional chamber for the north-east under the Regional Development Agencies Act 1998. I hope to make an announcement shortly.

Mr. Hepburn: I thank the Minister for that helpful reply, but is he aware that business people and some council leaders in the north-east see themselves at a distinct disadvantage compared with their Scottish counterparts, who will possibly have the advantage of a Scottish Parliament to champion their cause in terms of job creation and economic prosperity? How will the establishment of a regional chamber in the north-east alleviate those concerns?

Mr. Caborn: I am sure that my hon. Friend knows that, only 10 days ago, we set up the regional development agencies; they are now in operation. As I have said, the regional chambers will be designated. As part of our total devolution package, we are managing that change very carefully and with the consent of the people. I have no doubt that, some time in the future, the north-east, like every other region, will have the opportunity to decide whether it wants a directly elected regional assembly. That will be done with the consent of the people in the various regions. Indeed, we have managed the devolution package for the United Kingdom in that way.

Rail Summits

11. Mr. Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock): What plans he has to hold regular rail summits with the rail operators. [78826]

The Minister of Transport (Dr. John Reid): The February rail summit was a major step towards driving up

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the quality of rail services throughout the country. We want and deserve year-on-year improvements in rail performance. We will hold a second summit next spring to review progress and to maintain the momentum.

Mr. Mackinlay: Does not the publication today of the independent report to the Rail Regulator give credence to the view of the fare-paying public that Railtrack and the franchise operators are both the same and both to blame for under-investment at a time when they are maximising profits? At a future rail summit, will my right hon. Friend make it clear to both Railtrack and the franchise operators that the profits of Railtrack cannot be shifted to the franchisees when there is a review of access charges? There needs to be discipline in investing in Railtrack--the infrastructure--and a proper service needs to be provided by the rail franchise operators. If not, the Government will need to act.

Dr. Reid: We are scrutinising today's report carefully. We have made it clear that we support the then regulator's view that not sufficient of the surplus that was generated by Railtrack was going into investment. My hon. Friend can be assured that the Deputy Prime Minister and I will, in future, as we have in the past, insist that the public get the sort of investment from Railtrack that they should be getting to improve railway services.

Mr. Nick Hawkins (Surrey Heath): Will the Minister confirm that, in 1997-98, Railtrack invested an extra £1.25 billion--an increase of 69 per cent. over the last year before flotation--and that, in the current financial year, a further 16 per cent. increase is planned? While he is on his feet confirming those facts--and the fact that the only thing that has saved the railways is a channel tunnel that was built by the private sector under a Conservative Government and with the involvement of private sector investment--will he have a word with the Minister for the Regions, Regeneration and Planning? Can he explain why, although his ministerial colleague promised at the previous DETR Question Time to write to me, despite three chasing calls from my office to his private office, I have yet to have a response on an urgent matter involving my constituents? Is that not disgraceful?

Dr. Reid: I would rather not comment on the hon. Gentleman's private telephone calls. On investment, I can confirm that the previous regulator took the view that the figures that were being invested by Railtrack were insufficient. He is an independent regulator. I can confirm the figure--which the hon. Gentleman gave--of £1.25 billion for the year before last. I can also confirm that only slightly less than that figure was lost to the public by the Conservatives, who sold off Railtrack cheaply.

Joan Ruddock (Lewisham, Deptford): Is my right hon. Friend aware of the problem in my constituency, where Connex South Eastern has been locking out disabled passengers from access to the level platforms by closing side gates, for security reasons? Does he accept that far too many rail companies are disabling their potential passengers by such actions? Will he ensure that a future rail summit will raise that issue, and have on its agenda compliance with the Disability Discrimination Act 1995?

Dr. Reid: Yes.

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Manchester International Airport

14. Mr. Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield): If hewill make a statement on road links to Manchester International airport. [78829]

The Minister for Transport in London (Ms Glenda Jackson): We propose to begin a multi-modal study in spring, assessing the transport problems around Manchester airport and the area to the south-east of Manchester.

Mr. Winterton: Will the Minister tell us whether she is aware that support for the second runway at Manchester airport was given because it was indicated by Government that the appropriate infrastructure to serve the airport, not least the road infrastructure, which includes the Macclesfield to Poynton road improvement, the MAELR road--the Manchester airport eastern link road--and the Poynton bypass, would proceed in a priority programme? Will the Minister come to my constituency to see the increasing devastation arising from increased traffic anticipating the second runway at Manchester airport, so that my constituents are aware that this Government are prepared to take responsibility for a decision that a Government of this country took, and will not allow the environment of the villages of Poynton, Mottram St. Andrew and Prestbury to be eroded, as is happening now?

Ms Jackson: I should dearly love to visit the hon. Gentleman's constituency, but think that it is highly unlikely that I shall have the time to do so in the immediate future. He spoke of the "appropriate infrastructure", which is precisely what the Government are committed to discovering. We must get away from the idea--the previous Administration were beginning to move away from it--that the only appropriate form of infrastructure is exclusively that which is solely dependent on roads. That is not sustainable, either economically or environmentally.

Mr. Andrew F. Bennett (Denton and Reddish): Does my hon. Friend accept that far too many people still have to approach Manchester airport--particularly those who work there--by private car, and that it would be far better if the Government could give priority to getting the tramway system, which is doing so well in Greater Manchester, extended to the airport?

Ms Jackson: The Metrolink issue has been raised by the Greater Manchester passenger transport authority with both my right hon. Friends and me. We are perfectly willing to listen to the authority's arguments on the matter. The responsibility for the matter is the authority's, and dealing with it must be part and parcel of its local integrated transport plans.

Mr. Stephen Day (Cheadle): Is the Minister aware--from her comments to my hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield (Mr. Winterton), I take it that she is not--that a third of the Manchester airport eastern link road and the Poynton bypass already exists, but that it does not join the airport and does not go anywhere in the east? I hardly think that it is asking a lot of the Minister to consider coming to my hon. Friend's constituency and to Cheadle to see for herself that that road, which is very much a

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reality in the centre, should be connected to those parts of the infrastructure in the north-west that it was intended originally to serve.

Ms Jackson: I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman did not take the opportunity to apologise for the previous Administration, who have clearly left a third of a road going absolutely nowhere. As I told the hon. Memberfor Macclesfield (Mr. Winterton), we shall start a multi-modal study in the spring.


15. Mr. David Crausby (Bolton, North-East): If he will make a statement on the latest data on the number of people using buses. [78830]

The Minister of Transport (Dr. John Reid): The latest figures published by my Department show an overall increase of 1 per cent. in passenger journeys on buses in England in 1997-98. That marks the first reversal of a 50-year decline in bus use.

Mr. Crausby: I thank my right hon. Friend for that reply. Does he agree that the thoughtless privatisation of bus services was a disaster? What plans does he have to encourage the greater use of bus services in preference to the private car?

Dr. Reid: Yes. We have been working actively with local authorities and bus operators through the quality partnerships, and we intend to legislate to introduce quality contracts if necessary. The extra money that we have provided for buses, to compensate for the fuel duty escalator, is a topic of some interest, especially in rural areas. Our efforts have resulted in the historic reversal in the trend that I have already mentioned. Given the long-term trend of decline, the latest patronage figures for 1997-98 are encouraging. We have halted that decline, and passenger journeys in London are up by no less than 4 per cent., and in the west midlands by 5 per cent., compared with the previous year. That is another area in which, after 20 years of the Conservative Government, we are bringing about historic shifts in transport patterns.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham): In view of the right hon. Gentleman's encouragement of bus transport, will he tell the House how many times he has travelled to ministerial engagements by bus since he assumed his present post?

Dr. Reid: I have travelled by bus, and by tube, on several occasions. Unlike some previous Conservative Ministers, I do not find people who travel by public transport so despicable that I avoid it.

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