Select Committee on Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 490 - 499)




  490. Lord Macdonald, can I welcome you to the Committee. I hope you had a pleasant stroll across from the Cabinet meeting this morning. Can I ask you to identify your team for us, please?

  (Lord Macdonald of Tradeston) Thank you, Mr Chairman. My name is Gus Macdonald, I am Minister for Transport at the DETR. I have with me Beverley Hughes, who is the Minister very much involved in local government and regeneration. On my right is Andrew Whybrow, who is the head of our charging and local transport division in the department, and also Peter Matthew, who is the head of urban environment and regeneration.

  491. Thank you very much. Do you want to say anything by way of introduction or are you happy to go straight into questions?
  (Lord Macdonald of Tradeston) Just a few brief words, Chairman. I am very grateful to be here this morning and to the Committee for arranging this session. I should say, in opening, that as well as my ministerial interest in the subject of walking I speak as a former president of Paths For All in Scotland, which was dedicated to developing walking opportunities around the towns and cities there. I think it is very important that in addition to the access that people have to the hills, the moors or the mountains we try to make sure that there are opportunities at an urban level as well, because it is surprising how close one can be to the countryside and yet have very little opportunity to walk. I know you have got a much broader perspective this morning and we are aware that inside the grand plans that we have produced there is always the danger that walking might be taken for granted for very obvious reasons. Sadly, walking has been in decline most obviously because most of us now have cars and people choose to drive short distances when it is quicker and more comfortable much of the time, although obviously not as good for exercise. The second reason is just the lack of choice; that people have a dependence on the car, for example, if they are working miles away from home and it is the only practical way to get there. The Government is committed to trying to increase choice, and that is very much the message of our ten-year plan for transport. We want to make it clear that we are not anti-car, we would like to see more people who need cars being able to afford cars, but we want to try and follow the example that we see on the continent, where they have a higher car ownership per head but people use their cars less. We want to try and make sure that what we do in Britain as a policy means that people feel able to use their cars less. We are encouraging development, of course, in built-up areas and brown-field sites to give people a chance to live within walking distance of a whole range of employment, not to mention their shopping, their entertainment opportunities and so on. So we are making that massive investment in public transport—£180 billion in the ten-year transport plan. That, in turn, has been based on a White Paper on transport in 1998 and subsequent documents that have emerged from that, such as the document that we produced Encouraging Walking and, most recently, we have had our local transport plans which we announced in December—£8.4 billion worth of investment at local authority level for the local authorities in England. So I hope that shows, Mr Chairman, the seriousness with which we take the subject of walking.

  492. Perhaps it would not be amiss for you to emphasise how much pleasure people can get from walking in towns, with the problems of getting into the countryside.
  (Lord Macdonald of Tradeston) I would very much emphasise that, and I was pleased to see that in London there has been talk of trying to develop clearer urban routes which would take people through the most interesting areas and give people a sense that they can walk, maybe, much further than they would have anticipated. As I say, my previous experience in Scotland was very much geared to that, with the Paths For All movement there. For very little investment you can produce splendid results for people who are often most in need of the exercise or the ability to get out and about. I think it is one of those areas where, because it does not require, perhaps, very large capital investment, it is never properly quantified. In our local transport plans I was delighted that through the advice we have given councils we had got back from them walking plans for every area of England. The difficulty is—and it is something that I hope our methodology will master—how you can take all these smaller schemes and quantify them in a way that is so much easier when you are dealing with big capital investment projects.

Mrs Ellman

  493. Lord Macdonald, the Government certainly is encouraging walking; within its advice note to local government it encourages local authorities to do that, but yet the Government is also apparently saying that walking will have a negligible impact on congestion, mileage and pollution. Why do you think that is?
  (Lord Macdonald of Tradeston) On the arithmetic that we are given, with the percentage of short journeys that people make, the great majority of people already walk them. Therefore, what you could achieve in persuading them to walk a bit more when it is under a mile would be pretty marginal in the great scheme of things.

  494. Are you sure that that is the case for all types of walking in all areas, or is that just something restricted—
  (Lord Macdonald of Tradeston) I stress that I am very much in favour of it and we would want to encourage it anyway, it is just that we have not been able to make the arithmetic add up in the way that gives us a serious impact on some of the bigger figures that we are talking about. It does not, however, detract from the desirability of bringing in any of the measures that would help, because we are not so target-driven that we would, as I say, not introduce the necessary investment or reforms for walking simply because it does not help us meet the target. Walking is a target in itself.

  495. In some European cities half of the journeys are actually on foot. Do you think we could reach that in this country?
  (Lord Macdonald of Tradeston) I think we could but I am suspicious of easy comparisons with what happens elsewhere in Europe, because when you look at Europe—and we have got the Commission for Integrated Transport looking at best practice across Europe—you must be conscious that you are looking at a thousand years of a different history, different cultures, towns that are built differently and, therefore, very often, admirable though their practice might be in these European towns, it is very difficult to see it being easily imported to the United Kingdom.

  496. We have had evidence put that some car journeys are much longer than the equivalent walking would be. Would that not suggest that your original assumption is wrong or needs re-examination?
  (Lord Macdonald of Tradeston) I am very happy to re-examine any of the assumptions that we have made. I am not conscious of this having been raised as an issue with us before, but if there is anything that we can do to change the guidance that we offer to local authorities in the context of the local transport plans I would be very happy to do that. We have stressed to them that while we have created both the ten-year framework for the overall transport investment and there is a five-year framework for local government, we wish to be flexible by the year and make sure that local authorities feel able to flex those plans. Obviously, this is one of the easier areas in which to introduce change in the short-term.

  497. So this is something you continue to monitor?
  (Lord Macdonald of Tradeston) Indeed, very much so.


  498. What about the school run? Surely there are an awful lot of children who are transported to school relatively short distances. We all know how congestion in towns goes down with the school holidays. Are not a lot of those journeys ones you could encourage both parents and children to walk?
  (Lord Macdonald of Tradeston) Indeed, Mr Chairman, and again we have been working with schools and local authorities to try and create local school plans for travel. It is a sad fact that parents now, for understandable reasons, feel more insecure about their children walking to school. You will all know that our record as far as casualties are concerned with children walking is relatively higher than other countries in Europe. Although overall we are near the top of the league for safety in children killed or injured in road accidents in this country, at the pedestrian level, again because of the way Britain is built, in part, and also the way that children, perhaps, are trained in this country, we have got a slightly higher casualty rate than in some other countries. When you say "slightly higher" you are talking in terms of over 100 children killed every year, so it is a very serious matter. We are working with the schools. We are looking, of course, as well as at the walking side of this, at the possibility of school bus services being improved. I know that Surrey, for instance, have put very ambitious plans in their local transport plan for us. Most recently the Deputy Prime Minister announced that First Group would be piloting the American style yellow buses to take children to school. Again, if we can construct new ways in which children walk or cycle to school then we will certainly encourage that. We have set up the mechanisms through which that can be achieved.

Mr Brake

  499. Just on that point. Can I just have you confirm, Lord Macdonald, that the effort the Government is making in promoting safe routes to schools is purely for safety reasons because you have already stated that there is no point really in promoting walking because it will have no significant impact on congestion?
  (Lord Macdonald of Tradeston) Clearly most of these issues must be treated at a local level, so through the local transport plan it is for the local authority to decide what impact it would have. It may be that in a local area, yes it would have an impact on congestion. Clearly with the school run, that has been a cause of particular congestion in certain periods of the day. We are committed to reducing the present level of car use for the journey to school. We want to see greater choice in the way that children travel, whether it is through the school bus, through cycling or whether it is through walking. We set up the School Travel Advisory Group—STAG—in 1998 to find ways of encouraging walking and cycling and we are working to implement those recommendations which were published in January of last year. I think the local transport plans reflect the activity that we have put into that.

previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2001
Prepared 29 June 2001