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Regional Bodies

6. Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby): What estimate he has made of the annual costs of (a) the regional development agencies and (b) English regional assemblies. [94216]

The Minister for Local Government and the Regions (Ms Hilary Armstrong): Regional development agencies have more than £800 million to spend each year, which includes £62 million for administration. The costs of the voluntary regional chambers--some of which call

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themselves regional assemblies--are a matter for their members, but we would expect the costs of their role in relation to the RDAs to be modest.

Mr. Robathan: During the past seven and a half years, not one constituent has expressed any support for the idea of RDAs or regional assemblies. I should be interested to hear whether people flock to the Minister's door to tell her what a good idea they are.

Will the Minister confirm that 85 per cent. of the budgets to which she referred had already been allocated to projects before the agencies came into being? Will she also confirm that more than £1 million is spent on paying unelected politicians to do a job on those bodies taking up two days a month, and that a great deal of the remaining 15 per cent. of the money is spent on trying to create artificial and manufactured support for bodies for which there is no genuine support?

Ms Armstrong: This morning, the RDAs presented their regional strategies. Those strategies have been consulted on very widely. Indeed, I am confident that residents in the hon. Gentleman's constituency have been involved in the consultations. Business people have been, too. It may have missed his notice that the chairs of the RDAs are all from the business world and will resent being called amateur politicians by him. He says that there is no support for RDAs. I remind him that they were in our manifesto and that we got rather a lot of support for that manifesto.

Mrs. Anne Campbell (Cambridge): Will my right hon. Friend look at the funding that is available to the East of England development agency? Will she at the same time try to ensure a fairer allocation of funding than that bequeathed to the east of England by the previous Government?

Ms Armstrong: As I said, today we received regional strategies from the RDAs. They will identify the way forward in each region to achieve economic prosperity. That will mean that they are able both to increase the opportunities of people in the region and to contribute to the nation's prosperity.

I know that the eastern region has spent much time and effort consulting widely and that it will be responsible, with other RDAs, for administering SRB 5; we are consulting with them on the future of SRB 6. I hear what my hon. Friend says about funding for her region. All hon. Members consistently press the case for their regions, but it seems that that has gone by those on the Opposition Front Bench.

Trunk Road Network

7. Mr. Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield): If he will make a statement on progress made in improving the trunk road network. [94217]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Mr. Keith Hill): The Government inherited a trunk road system that was in the worst condition of maintenance since records

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first began. That is why we have made maintenance our first priority and provided the Highways Agency with the resources that are necessary to maintain its roads properly.

We have increased the funding that is available for measures to make better use of existing roads. In place of the unachievable wish list of road schemes that we inherited from the previous Government, we have established a clear timetable for taking forward the targeted programme of improvements, so that all 37 schemes will start within the next seven years. The net result will be a safer trunk road network.

Mr. Winterton: The Minister will know that his Government have slimmed down the road programme from 140 to 37, but that is not the point that I want to register with him. Does he accept that the opening in the relatively near future of the second runway at Manchester international airport and the holding of the Commonwealth games in Manchester in 2002 will generate a massive increase in traffic from all areas, particularly the south and east of Greater Manchester?

Does the Minister therefore accept that the Poynton bypass and Manchester airport link roads are essential to the infrastructure of that important part of the north-west and of Cheshire, and that he must ensure that, when the current study is undertaken, the views that will, I believe, be expressed in support of the roads will be supported and money will be made available? Public transport is not going to be the answer. The Manchester airport link roads will make available--

Madam Speaker: Order.

Mr. Winterton: A line for the Metrolink--

Madam Speaker: Order. The hon. Gentleman is Chairman of the Procedure Committee. He should come to order when I ask him to do so.

Mr. Hill: The hon. Gentleman has again demonstrated his passionate advocacy on behalf of his constituency, and I certainly understand his concern in the matter. However, when the Government considered as part of the roads review the A555 eastern link road and the A523 Poynton bypass--to which he alluded--we found that the schemes were not sufficiently advanced to be included in the targeted improvements programme. Nevertheless, both schemes will form part of the south-east Manchester multi-modal study, and I hope that he will be somewhat reassured to learn that invitations to tender for the study have now been sent out. It is envisaged that consultants will be appointed shortly, and the study will be completed in spring 2001, at which point we shall give it full consideration.

Mr. Christopher Leslie (Shipley): I do not know why Opposition Members are wittering on about the roads programme, because my constituents are delighted that, after 30 years of failure, the A650 Bingley relief road has, at last, been given the go ahead. Will the Minister consider some advanced work schemes, so that we might complete and open the Bingley relief road as soon as possible?

Mr. Hill: My hon. Friend, too, is always a passionate advocate of his constituency; it has already enjoyed

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considerable success on that matter, on which I congratulate him. The Government shall, of course, consider a raft of road improvements--that is part of the local transport planning process--and we shall certainly eventually examine the Bingley proposals.

Mr. John M. Taylor (Solihull): What about the Birmingham northern relief road?

Madam Speaker: That was a very good question.

Mr. Hill: It is on its way.

Madam Speaker: And that was a very good answer.

Air Traffic Control

8. Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle): What steps he is taking to ensure that air traffic control can cope with the forecast increase in flights into and from the United Kingdom. [94218]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Mr. Chris Mullin): The Government are committed to providing the United Kingdom with a safe, modern and efficient air traffic control system for the future. Through our innovative public-private partnership proposals, the Government will introduce a strategic partner to National Air Traffic Services to secure essential core capital investment, which will be about £1 billion in the next 10 years and will be used to maintain existing safety and efficiency levels against predicted traffic increases.

Mr. Prentice: I warmly welcome my hon. Friend to the Dispatch Box; he is an inspired choice. However, he will know that in 1997, the Department forecast that, between now and 2015, aeroplane traffic in and out of the United Kingdom will grow by 4.5 per cent. annually. Given such a momentous increase in air traffic, is it not dicing with death to privatise air traffic control? Have not air traffic controllers repudiated privatisation, as has the airline industry? So far as I can gather, Labour party members also have repudiated privatisation--or did we get it wrong in 1996, when we told the Conservatives that our air was not for sale?

Mr. Mullin: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his kind remarks. I only hope that I continue to justify his confidence. He was quite right to say that there will be a large increase in air traffic, making it all the more essential that we raise the £1 billion necessary to invest in state of the art technology. His fears about safety are completely unfounded. We are not proposing to put safety in the private sector: safety will remain with the public sector. The one thing that we shall do--it will enhance safety, rather than undermine it--is to separate regulation from operations, as that is not the case now.

Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York): May I add my congratulations to the Minister on his new position? I also congratulate the Government on their plans to proceed with the public-private partnership for NATS. Following his holding reply to my question last week, when might the Minister be minded to reply to the Select Committee on the Environment, Transport and Regional

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Affairs report on aviation safety? Does the Minister agree that the air safety framework that he has described to the House provides a model that could be followed by the railway sector?

Mr. Mullin: The reply to the Select Committee will be coming shortly.

Mr. George Stevenson (Stoke-on-Trent, South): May I too welcome my hon. Friend to his position? I recognise entirely the need for investment--there is no question about that--but will he recall the Select Committee's recommendations, which showed concern about the Government's proposals for NATS? The report suggested alternatives which would not only produce the required investment, but would follow proven track records from other parts of the world.

Mr. Mullin: We take what the Select Committee says extremely seriously, and that is why we adopted its proposals on separating safety regulation from operations. We have looked at the other models available, and we are satisfied that the public-private partnership as proposed is the best one. It will give access to the capital that we need, and access to some badly needed private sector project management skills. That is not a small consideration. Finally, it will generate some proceeds which can be invested in other transport projects.

Mr. Shaun Woodward (Witney): We too welcome the hon. Gentleman to his position, and we are delighted to be reminded by the hon. Member for Pendle (Mr. Prentice) that, before the election, the right hon. Member for Oxford, East (Mr. Smith) proudly declared that our air was not for sale. Although Labour told the country one thing before the election, once in power it does another thing, announcing in July this year that our air will indeed be for sale.

Now that the right hon. Member for Oxford, East is Chief Secretary to the Treasury, will the Government confirm today that it is still their intention to privatise National Air Traffic Services? Is it still the intention of the Labour Government that foreign interests and foreign Governments will be able to buy powerful stakes in Britain's airways, with the purchase of a minority of shares?

Mr. Mullin: No consideration has yet been given to the likely bidders, which will be considered carefully when the bids come in. We are not proposing privatisation of the sort that we saw under the Conservative Government, in which the main public assets were simply looted. We are proposing a genuine partnership that will give us the best of what the private and public sectors have to offer.

Mr. Michael Connarty (Falkirk, East): May I welcome my hon. Friend to the Front Bench? But those who have watched the world cup will realise when someone has been given a suicide pass, as seems to have been given to my hon. Friend with the air traffic control remit. He spoke earlier about private sector project management. Does he share the concern of some who have quizzed those in the private sector who are involved in designing the new system, as there seem to be problems in specifications from the private sector? Is there not

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concern that the second-line safety--that is, the Prestwick second control centre--now seems to be up for grabs, and may be written out of the system? Can we have an assurance that there will still be a two-centre control system for air traffic control, including Prestwick in Scotland?

Mr. Mullin: Yes, I can give my hon. Friend that assurance. There will be two centres, one of which will be at Prestwick.

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