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8.21 pm

Mr. Patrick Hall (Bedford): I am pleased to participate in this important debate, which has been colourful, varied, and notable for a second maiden speech from the right hon. Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Mr. Portillo). We have also heard something from the hustings for the London mayoral election; in addition there has been the introduction, by the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Mr. Brake), of vomit into the discussion.

However, the most notable revelation came from my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Mr. Mackinlay) who, even before the Freedom of Information Bill is enacted, confessed that he spends his time at home reading Horse and Hound. I suppose that that magazine is connected with transport in some way.

Mr. Mackinlay: We read little else in Tilbury.

Mr. Hall: One of the key political differences between Britain and the other European Union countries over the past 20 or 30 years has been the way in which transport here has become a deeply ideological issue. In the rest of Europe, in contrast, a consensus between the parties has existed for years. That consensus has not been a weakness, nor has it caused European transport to remain unchanged. In fact, it has led to the sustained improvement of, and investment in, public transport by road and rail throughout the continent. As a result, European economies have been much more stable and have performed more strongly than our economy.

It is widely understood in Europe that a national and international consensus on transport matters can bring great benefits to the economy, the environment and the quality of life. None of the progress made in that regard in Europe has ever been considered to be anti-car. That is demonstrated by the fact that, although car ownership is higher in Europe than in Britain, people use their cars

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less. That is because viable public transport alternatives are available in Europe in a way that is not true of this country.

Britain has suffered badly from the lack of that consensus. Our economy has been the weaker for it. People are stuck for hours in traffic jams. Trains are not comfortable: there is standing room only at peak hours, when carriages are like sardine cans even for people with seats. In addition, increasing pollution affects the health of people young and old, especially in certain parts of our cities.

The cause of the lack of consensus is obvious, and it lies entirely with the Conservative party that emerged from the 1979 general election. As Thatcherism became more confident and entrenched, the prejudice against the public sector and public planning extended to transport policy. There was an obsession with boosting individual car ownership, while at the same time public investment in rail and buses was run down.

An example of the deep harm that that caused our country can be found in the Bedford and Kempston area. The southern bypass at Bedford opened in 1996. That was under the previous Government, and I am grateful. However, the bypass crosses the track bed of the former Bedford to Cambridge railway line at one point, and it does so 1 m too low to allow trains to use the track bed.

The problem was raised when the road was designed, and it was mentioned in the local public inquiry. However, it was dismissed, as the well-established view in Government circles at the time was that rail had no future. It was said that there was no chance that that track bed would ever be needed again.

Three years after the bypass was opened, we have the east-west rail link scheme, a costed and viable plan to reopen and rebuild railway lines. The link will connect the east and west coasts of the country and will run from Bristol through Swindon, Milton Keynes, Bedford and Cambridge to Norwich and Ipswich. It will need to go under the section of the Bedford bypass that was built1 m too low to allow trains through.

The problem can be overcome in a number of ways. The railway line could go over the bypass, which would be extremely expensive and environmentally damaging. The bypass could be propped up by a metre or so--an incredible but possible engineering exercise--or engineers could cut deeper underneath the road. However, the land around is a flood plain, so pumping facilities would be needed. Whatever course is adopted, extra delay and public expense will be incurred. That will be due entirely to the short-term thinking and entrenched anti-rail prejudice of the previous Government.

It is ironic to note that, even as the Bedford southern bypass was being opened in 1996, the then Government were already changing their approach to transport. Even then, they recognised that one cannot build one's way out of congestion. After 16 years of Conservative Government, it seemed that the sensible consensus on transport matters evident in Europe might be achieved here.

The result of the last general election might have reinforced that change, as the Conservatives appeared to have learned that the British people were not impressed with the lack of consensus. However, the Opposition motion before us today makes it clear that the Conservative party believes not at all in consensus.

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The attitude displayed by the right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood), and the policies--if that is what they can be called--set out by other Conservative Members reveal that consensus is the last thing that the Conservatives want.

Even within the Conservative party, there is no consensus. There are sensible Conservative voices in Parliament and in local councils around the country who want to engage in constructive debate about transport matters and about what is best for the future. That should benefit all of us, but it is not the Opposition's attitude. The Conservative party's cheap populism reveals that it has little to offer.

That is not what my constituents want. People in Bedford and Kempston want such matters to be tackled properly, and are happy for Conservative, Liberal Democrat and Labour supporters to engage in the process. People want to be able to use their cars, but not necessarily for every journey. They support the building of bypasses where they are of local benefit. I have mentioned the Bedford southern bypass, but there is also support for the programmed Bedford western bypass, the Clapham bypass on the A428 link and the Great Barford bypass.

There is support in my constituency for park-and-ride schemes, which have just started in the Bedford area; for a southern parkway station, and possibly a northern one; and for investment on the midland main line at Bedford station. Some has already been made, and I am pleased about that. There is also support for the east-west rail project going through Bedford, as I have just mentioned, and for proper bus-rail interchange facilities and through ticketing. Those facilities do not yet exist in Bedford but they should and could--however, I am disappointed at progress on that project.

The Government genuinely back all modes of transport--walking, cycling, driving, buses, taxis, trains, ships and planes. All those factors are necessary if we are to work together, where appropriate, to contribute to the strength of the economy, respect the environment and create a better quality of life for all of us. That is what government, of whatever political complexion, should be about. That is what this Government are about. Any political party that wishes to serve the country and contribute to the common good wants that. However, it is clear from the Opposition motion that such a consensual approach is the last thing that the Conservative party is capable of providing.

8.32 pm

Mr. Nick St. Aubyn (Guildford): I have much enjoyed listening to the debate. It has become clear that, despite the establishment of the Strategic Rail Authority, nothing can rescue the authority of the Deputy Prime Minister. As the confusion at the heart of his policies has become clearer, the right hon. Gentleman has performed more U-turns than a rickshaw driver in a traffic jam in Delhi. He speaks of his hopes for British transport when it is clear that he is responsible for a hoax on transport policy in London. His so-called public-private partnership is not the third way but the third-rate way, offering the worst possible value to Londoners and to taxpayers. It has happened because neither the right hon. Gentleman nor his Government colleagues can bring themselves to admit the dynamism, foresight and success of Conservative transport policy in recent years.

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It is a fact that, since privatisation, not only the numbers of people using public transport, but the share of transport undertaken by the public sector, has increased. That is a reversal of 40 years of secular decline in the share of journeys taken for both private and freight purposes.

Mr. David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire): Among the many successes of the previous Government that the hon. Gentleman is about to list, does he rate their valuation of Railtrack at £1.9 billion, compared with the current value of £8 billion, as a fraud on the British taxpayer?

Mr. St. Aubyn: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising that point, because it was the Labour party's virulent attack and its threat of renationalisation when it came to power that depressed the value of the shares when they were sold. The irresponsible attitude of the Secretary of State for International Development--then Labour's transport spokeswoman--forced the Conservative Government to put a warning on the front of the prospectus. Labour's irresponsibility resulted in a massive loss of taxpayers' money. When the Government came to power, of course, they had to do a U-turn and confront the reality that renationalisation simply was not an option.

I shall happily give way to the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Mr. Brake) in the hope that his intervention will be more inspiring than the last.


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