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Central Railway

4. Mr. Philip Hammond (Runnymede and Weybridge): If he will make a statement on the proposed Central Railway project and his Department's policy towards it. [133304]

The Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Mr. John Prescott): The amount of freight moved by rail has grown steadily over the period of this Government. Our 10-year plan for transport reinforces our commitment to ensure that that growth continues.

Although we have received copies of Central Railway's consultation documents and seen some of its publicity material, it has not formally submitted details of its proposals. I understand that the company hopes to apply for an order under the Transport and Works Act 1992. Bearing that in mind, it would not be appropriate for me to comment on the merits of the scheme at this stage.

Mr. Hammond: I thank the Secretary of State for that answer, and I appreciate his difficulty in commenting on the merits of the scheme. However, is he aware of the effect of current legislation on my constituents? Although a loss-making company with, effectively, no assets can propose to build a multi-billion pound scheme, there is no requirement to bring that proposal forward for formal consideration within a specified period. In the meantime, my constituents are blighted: they are unable to sell their properties. Does not that offend the Secretary of State's sense of natural justice? If so, what does he propose to do about it?

Mr. Prescott: I have some sympathy with the hon. Gentleman's point, which I believe he made in an Adjournment debate, and which I read last week. I am happy to concede that most large infrastructure projects are affected, and that the problem is real. He suggested one or two solutions, but they did not fit well with our approach, which we believe can deal with the matter.

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However, the difficulty is that we cannot do anything until an application is made and the applicant says what he wants to do.

Mr. Andrew F. Bennett (Denton and Reddish): Does my right hon. Friend accept that there is considerable support for the scheme in the north-west of England? It would take much freight off the roads and put it on the railways. Even in the north-west, however, there is considerable concern about trying to protect routes for that proposed railway, which could be used for other purposes, well into the future. Will he encourage Central Railway either to get on with the scheme or give it up?

Mr. Prescott: I am, of course, acting in a quasi-judicial capacity, and I have to wait until Central Railway makes its application. The concern about the problem of blight could, I hope, be dealt with by a code of practice, which we have tried to get companies to agree to. However, until Central Railway makes its application--it said that it would produce it several months ago, but still has not done so--I can only suggest that it should bring the scheme before the House. If that were done, there would be a vote. If the House voted to accept the proposal, we would have to deal with the situation, but if it rejected the proposal--it did so on the previous occasion--that would be the end of the matter.

Mr. David Lidington (Aylesbury): When the Secretary of State takes account of Central Railway's proposals, will he also please give a fair hearing to the arguments that have been advanced by Chiltern Railways, which said that the scheme is incompatible with the current level of passenger rail service in my constituency and neighbouring constituencies? It also said that the scheme would have the paradoxical effect of driving many rail passengers back into their cars.

Mr. Prescott: Frankly, I have a planning and judicial role and I cannot decide or even comment. When the House debated a different proposition from Central Railway, comments were made. I think that the hon. Gentleman will understand that I cannot comment on his remarks.

Mr. Kelvin Hopkins (Luton, North): Does my right hon. Friend agree that the problem that faces the railway industry is a shortage of track capacity for the future? Would it not be a good idea to keep open all the options for the future, including possibilities such as Central Railway?

Mr. Prescott: I can go a bit further in the sense that the Strategic Rail Authority has an obligation, now that the regulator has reported on the financing of the railways. Basically, he will shortly present a report on the strategic framework, which includes the contribution to be made by freight railway systems and extra capacity. The regulator is considering that matter as well as the financing.

Mr. Humfrey Malins (Woking): When the Government consider the proposal, will the Deputy Prime Minister assure us that environmental considerations will be uppermost in their mind? Does he understand that, in my constituency, the properties of hundreds of people in

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the Byfleet and West Byfleet areas on the edge of the motorway are blighted because details of the proposal are included on local searches? Does he realise that it is an important issue, as is noise and the other environmental problems that affect so many individuals all the way along the M25? Their interests are really important, are they not?

Mr. Prescott: I agree and, of course, an environmental assessment will have to be made alongside the other matters to be considered.

Coastal Byelaws

5. Mrs. Helen Brinton (Peterborough): When he will introduce legislation to implement the recommendations of the review of byelaws for the coast, published in 1998. [133305]

The Minister for the Environment (Mr. Michael Meacher): We are working towards developing legislative proposals. In the meantime, local authorities can use their existing powers to manage recreational activities on the coast. We have published a voluntary code of best and safe practice for leisure craft users, and we are exploring options for a voluntary boat registration and identification scheme.

Mrs. Brinton: I thank my right hon. Friend for his reply. May I draw his attention, however, to recommendation 12, which clearly states the need to consolidate existing coastal byelaws? Furthermore, does he agree that all users of motorised craft, including jet skis, should be required to have third-party insurance and proof of competency, as they are on most inland waterways and, indeed, on all our roads?

Mr. Meacher: We have said that we will consolidate existing coastal byelaws. The proposed legislation, to which I referred, will certainly do so. The review proposes that local authorities should be given the power to require third-party insurance in various circumstances and we shall take that into account as we develop our plans. The review did not recommend proof of competency, but I assure my hon. Friend that we shall look at that when we develop our legislative proposals.

Rural Transport

6. Sandra Gidley (Romsey): What steps he is taking to improve rural transport. [133306]

The Minister for the Environment (Mr. Michael Meacher): We have made an extra £175 million available to support the transport needs of rural communities. The 10-year plan for transport provides more, so that we can support more scheduled rural bus services, expand the rural bus challenge to support more innovative services and deliver up to 500 new community-based transport schemes in the next three years through the rural transport partnership fund.

Sandra Gidley: Does the Minister agree that it would be exceedingly helpful if he extended the fuel duty rebate to include all forms of community transport, to aid people

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in villages who rely on the community bus? Also, should not more money be invested in research on liquid petroleum gas and its availability?

Mr. Meacher: The conclusion that we should draw from the fuel crisis is that we need to reduce our overdependence on oil and to speed the switch-away to alternative fuels and renewable sources of energy. To that extent, I agree with the hon. Lady. Of course, my right hon. Friend the Chancellor will deal with that matter in the pre-Budget report and we shall soon return to the issue in the rural White Paper.

Mr. David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire): Is the Minister happy that, in Transport 2010, to which he has just referred, sufficient emphasis is given to the potential for rural rail lines, such as the Ivanhoe line through west Leicestershire, south Derbyshire and east Staffordshire? Does he know that Leicestershire county council feels that present funding regimes are unduly restrictive and that they prevent the recreation of passenger services on this mineral railway, thus contributing to our overall transport objectives?

Mr. Meacher: My hon. Friend is right; the 10-year transport plan is certainly not confined to roads. We propose expenditure of just less than £60 billion on the rail system in addition; indeed, we should see a considerable increase in ridership and a doubling of the amount of freight carried by rail.

As to the rail line to which my hon. Friend referred, I am sure that the extra resources that we are making available over the next 10 years will open the possibility of investment in precisely that type of railway.

Mr. Jonathan Sayeed (Mid-Bedfordshire): The Chancellor made much of the £15 billion a year rural bus grant. However, will the Minister confirm that that modest amount is dwarfed by the extra costs faced by bus companies, such as the cost of the working time directive and higher fuel prices, and by the fact that shire counties have had their rural transport budgets cut by the Government?

Mr. Meacher: I entirely understand the point the hon. Gentleman makes, but I think that he is entirely wrong to suggest that the considerable expenditure that has gone into rural transport--£175 million--is swamped or dwarfed by what he refers to. VAT and duty on petrol now make up a lower proportion of the total price than in 1997. The UK has the lowest total tax burden in the European Union--far lower than the average. Foreign hauliers and others who operate abroad have to pay road tolls and are subject to higher VAT and corporation tax. When all those relevant factors are taken into account, the picture is very different from that suggested by the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Huw Edwards (Monmouth): Does my right hon. Friend share the concern of my constituents, who recently heard that Stagecoach gave only six weeks' notice of the withdrawal of all their bus services to Abergavenny, Chepstow and Monmouth, in order to secure as much money as it could from local authorities through the rural bus initiative? Does he agree that that matter must be

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looked at, so that private operators such as Stagecoach, which exercise a monopoly, do not hold local authorities and the public to ransom in that way?

Mr. Meacher: I very much support what my hon. Friend says. Although the 10-year transport plan is about the expenditure of substantial increases of money--42 per cent. in real terms on the previous 10 years--it must also take into account the restrictive practices or monopolisation that can exist and the need to deal with that. We certainly intend to look at the matter.

Mr. Archie Norman (Tunbridge Wells): Despite all that the Minister said, will he confirm that rural passenger bus journeys have actually decreased every year under the Labour Government; that the countryside is in crisis; and that the grants for rural bus services are peanuts compared with the amount of extra fuel tax levied on country people by the Government? Will he confirm exactly what he meant during last week's debate on the fuel crisis--that the Deputy Prime Minister could not be bothered to attend--when he said that, far from being abolished, the fuel duty escalator may be brought back by the Government and will be reviewed on a case-by-case basis in the future?

Mr. Meacher: The hon. Gentleman has, once again, got virtually all his facts wrong. First, there has not been declining ridership on bus services--he should get his facts right; the £175 million has funded 1,800 new and enhanced services. There has been increased ridership--an extra 16 million passenger journeys.

Secondly, it takes a bit of brass neck for the hon. Gentleman to suggest that the countryside is in crisis. In 1997, when his Government completed 18 years in office, only a quarter of parishes had a daily bus service.

Thirdly, I repeat that since 1997 the level of duties has actually declined as a proportion of the total price. The reasons for the increase are the tripling of international crude oil prices and the shortage of petrol on wholesale markets. We intend to deal with that issue, and my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer will make a statement.

Let me clarify what the hon. Gentleman wrongly quoted me as saying in the debate last week. I did not say that the fuel duty escalator would be brought back; I specifically denied that. [Interruption.] That is on the transcript, so the hon. Gentleman can read it. I said that the Chancellor had abandoned the fuel duty escalator--which the Tory Administration introduced in 1993, and which is responsible for the largest part of the increase in petrol prices since then--and would now review the situation on a case-by-case and year-by-year basis. If the hon. Gentleman wants to make an attack, he should get his facts right.

Mr. Norman: Again, the Government appear to be in denial both on the fuel crisis and on the crisis in the countryside. What could be more provocative than Ministers seeking to claim that the Government have not put up fuel duty in the past three years? Nothing could be more provocative for the protesters, and nothing could be more unwise, in advance of the events of next week. What could be more provocative than a Minister standing at the Dispatch Box claiming that the number of bus passenger

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journeys in the countryside has increased, when the Government's own figures show that that number may have gone up in London, but has declined in the shire counties in the past three years? If the Minister disagrees with me, why does he not quote the figures in his response?

Has the Minister disowned the comments in his 1996 document "Consensus for Change", which said:

Who does he think has been disadvantaged most by the Government's increase in the fuel duty, other than those who are most vulnerable--farmers and those who live in the countryside in relative poverty?

Several hon. Members rose--

Mr. Speaker: Order. Before the Minister responds, may I point out that I want brief questions from those on the Opposition Front Bench, and brief answers from Ministers.

Mr. Meacher: I will be brief, Mr. Speaker, because it is easy to be so. The hon. Member for Tunbridge Wells (Mr. Norman) made a very long, dreary and ineffective speech last week, and he appears to have the same habit when he asks questions. May I respond to the one point that he made? I did not say that there had been no increase in duty; I said that VAT and duty as a proportion of the total petrol price were now lower than in 1997. To blame the Government is completely wrong. The cause is the tripling of oil prices.

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