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House of Commons

Tuesday 26 October 1999

The House met at half-past Two o'clock

PRAYERS

[Madam Speaker in the Chair]

PRIVATE BUSINESS

City of London (Ward Elections) Bill (By Order)

Order for further consideration, as amended, read.

To be considered on Tuesday 2 November.

Oral Answers to Questions

ENVIRONMENT, TRANSPORT AND THE REGIONS

The Secretary of State was asked--

Urban Road Congestion

1. Helen Jackson (Sheffield, Hillsborough): What plans he has to tackle road congestion in urban areas. [94209]

The Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Mr. John Prescott): The integrated transport White Paper, "A New Deal for Transport", set out a new approach to meeting local transport needs. In that document, we promised, and will deliver, extra money and new powers for local authorities to tackle congestion in their areas.

Helen Jackson: I thank my right hon. Friend for that reply. Does he agree that the key factor in reducing urban congestion is giving priority to good quality public transport? Is he prepared to take tough action where necessary if councils go wishy-washy on their commitment to public transport when faced with the tough decisions that are necessary to put that priority into action?

Mr. Prescott: The House will recall that Sheffield provided an excellent example of an integrated public transport system, but it was broken up by the previous Administration's commitment to privatisation and deregulation. Our local transport plans--we have now received 80 from local authorities and will be making decisions by December--are very much geared to reducing congestion in our cities and improving public transport. That will have to be agreed with the local authorities for them to receive the £700 million that we have put aside for those plans.

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The House will be aware also that the supertram in Sheffield, which ran into difficulties under privatisation and deregulation, was rescued by renegotiation by this Administration and placed in an integrated policy. Use of the supertram has increased by 3 million passengers in two years, and that is a good example of integration in a transport system.

Mr. Don Foster (Bath): Given the importance that the Secretary of State places on public transport to reduce traffic congestion, does he accept that improving public transport requires increased investment? Is he aware that the Library has only today prepared for me new figures showing that, after five years of a Labour Government, to the end of the comprehensive spending review period, total spending on local and public transport is set to fall by 7.5 per cent. in real terms? How will that help to improve public transport?

Mr. Prescott: The hon. Gentleman makes the mistake of not taking into account the private investment that we are negotiating. Investment, whether public or private, will improve the underground or the channel tunnel rail link. He asked about investment: £7 billion is going into our underground in the public-private partnership and £6 billion is going into the channel tunnel link. That has to be added in to get the total figure, and he should revisit his figures.

Mr. Hilary Benn (Leeds, Central): Given that Leeds is one of the two cities that will be trialling road-pricing technology, can my right hon. Friend give my constituents an assurance that there will be significant investment in public transport in the city, in particular in the proposed Leeds supertram, before a decision is taken about the introduction of road pricing?

Mr. Prescott: My hon. Friend is aware that we consider Leeds to be setting a good example in integrating transport. We have given some extra resources and are considering the extra demands in the local transport plans, but those decisions cannot be made until December.

Mrs. Virginia Bottomley (South-West Surrey): The only way to tackle the increasingly serious urban congestion in my constituency is to authorise the A3 Hindhead improvement. Can the right hon. Gentleman help me? Although there are so many Transport Ministers, why have we been unable, in 30 months, to secure a visit from a single one of them to see that spot? It is the only single carriageway stretch between the home of Transport Ministers in Scotland and the very popular port of Portsmouth. Does he have a policy prohibiting visits to Conservative constituencies or can he help us to find a date on which a Minister will come to see that stretch of road?

Mr. Prescott: The important question is why the previous Administration did not meet the right hon. Lady's demands for the road programme. We have stated our road programme and invested in the core route network, and the regional road structure is being determined with the local and regional authorities.

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Mr. Geraint Davies (Croydon, Central): Does my right hon. Friend agree that proposals to reduce the cost of car travel, increase speed limits, get rid of traffic calming and allow continuous left-hand turning at traffic lights in cities would not reduce congestion, but cause chaos on the roads and death?

Mr. Prescott: Yes. The House has debated the Opposition's proposals on those matters. We believe that we have a much more sensible proposal--the integrated policy identified in the transport White Paper.

Mr. John Redwood (Wokingham): I welcome and congratulate the new Ministers, and it is a great privilege to have the Minister for Housing and Planning with us--so recently returned from his serious campaign for the London mayoralty and sparing time from the lost cause of helping the right hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson).

Does the Secretary of State realise that he has created standstill Britain? Does he recognise that it was a great Labour lie to say that public transport would be better under Labour? Will he now take up our ideas for a commonsense revolution in transport--something that people outside this House desperately want--so that main roads can be unclogged to reduce danger to children and others prone to accidents? Will he substitute for his disintegrating transport policy our practical proposals for better train and bus services, a Londoners' tube and getting Britain on the move again?

Mr. Prescott: It is a bit much for the right hon. Gentleman to suggest that we somehow moved from a perfect situation to a standstill. We inherited massive costs and congestion in all our transport systems. The previous Government invested £70 billion in the roads programme while undermining public transport, and that simply increased the number of cars per mile from 70 to 100 after 18 years of Tory Government. On any assessment, there needs to be a change in policy. Rural transport investment has now increased, with 1,800 new services. The number of passengers has increased by between 30 and 50 per cent., with more people travelling on the trains and other forms of public transport. That is the first indication in the past two years that we have a better system and that people are beginning to use their cars less and public transport more.

Ms Rosie Winterton (Doncaster, Central): I am sure that, in drawing up measures to tackle road congestion, my right hon. Friend will also look at a strategy to tackle parking problems in urban areas. In doing so, will he take into account the concern that has been expressed about the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency supplying private wheel clamping companies with the names and addresses of drivers from photographs of registration numbers? Will he assure me that until those companies, some of which adopt dubious tactics, are properly regulated, the DVLA will not continue with such practices?

Mr. Prescott: I am concerned about that; I shall have it investigated immediately and write to my hon. Friend about it.

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Railtrack (Oxford)

2. Dr. Evan Harris (Oxford, West and Abingdon): What representations he has received about permitted development rights for Railtrack in Oxford; and if he will make a statement. [94210]

The Minister for Housing and Planning (Mr. Nick Raynsford): We have received representations from more than 300 people concerning Railtrack's permitted development rights in Oxford. The Secretary of State has considered all the representations carefully and informed the parties of his decision not to approve the direction to remove Railtrack's permitted development rights at Hinksey sidings in Oxford.

Dr. Harris: Does the Minister understand how shocked my constituents in South Hinksey and residents of south Oxford are that he should give the go-ahead for Railtrack to continue with that virtual quarry in green-belt land outside Oxford? In the week after health and safety responsibilities were removed from Railtrack--belatedly but rightly--how can he justify giving Railtrack a blank cheque to use permitted development rights to despoil green-belt areas? Is it not time that permitted development rights inherited from British Rail in the public sector were removed from privatised industries, which are making vast profits at the expense of spending on environmental schemes?

Mr. Raynsford: I am surprised that the hon. Gentleman expresses surprise about the decision, because he knows that we consulted at considerable length. We gave several opportunities for further representations and explored the many legal complexities. He knows that Oxfordshire county council's case that this was a "virtual quarry" did not have legal force. It is because the article 4 direction could not be effective--we had clear legal guidance on that--that we did not approve it. There is no point in approving something that would be ineffective--only Liberal Democrats suggest that.


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