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30 Oct 2001 : Column 204WH

Transport (South-East)

11 am

Chris Grayling (Epsom and Ewell): Since 1997, the Government have painted a rosy picture of the future of our transport system. Their commitment to public transport meant that road schemes were dropped, and huge figures were bandied about for a 10-year plan to transform our transport infrastructure. Their plan said:

However, eight and a half years before 2010, in the fifth year under a Labour Government, the problem is that that glorious vision is anything but a near-term reality. The practical experience of the traveller in the south-east is worse than ever, and improvements are nowhere in sight.

Anyone who commutes into London daily by train, as I do, knows how overcrowded virtually every peak-time service is. Anyone who drives to work knows how full our roads are. Anyone who relies on buses knows how vulnerable they are to the vagaries of our traffic, but our roads do not have the capacity to create long bus-only routes without making the motorist's life impossible.

The Conservative Government started—I emphasise the word "started"—to get to grips with the problem. For the first time in 30 years, services were opened, not closed, on the rail network. For the tube, we built the Jubilee line extension, rebuilt the Central line and introduced new trains on the Central, Jubilee and Northern lines. Even the latest, very welcome tube project—the extension of the East London line, which has been confirmed—had its origins under the Conservative Government. We oversaw the introduction of fast modern train services to London's three airports, and started the process of introducing them at Luton. We encouraged the development of light rail in London's docklands, and of the highly successful Croydon Tramlink, London's first street-level tram for decades.

On a smaller scale, stations, such as Haddenham and Thame Parkway in Buckinghamshire were opened, and lines such as that to Bicester town were reopened. There were also major improvements on existing lines, such as the service from London to Southampton.

As regards the roads, we widened the M25 and set out plans to expand the most overcrowded stretches still further. We turned the M20 into a modern link through Kent to the continent. We set out plans and began to buy land to end the bottlenecks on the A40 into London. We turned the A14 into a high-speed route from Essex to the midlands.

Then, in 1997, despite the Deputy Prime Minister's continual statements that he would get motorists off the roads and on to public transport, and despite the high-sounding words about an integrated transport policy, everything seemed to grind to a halt. Since then, words seem to have taken over from action. We have enough multi-modal studies to employ an army of civil servants. We have 10-year plans that are scheduled for review months after they are launched. We have a Government who are keen to pass new regulations for rail companies to adhere to, but who avoid giving them any long-term

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commitment. Roads were out, but now seem to be slightly acceptable again. New schemes are in the pipeline, but only after five wasted years.

As for the tube, it has taken five years to get where we are with the public-private partnership, which means that modernisation has not started, and discussions and planning are continuing. In the meantime, investment is being squeezed, and not a single new train has been ordered.

What can we expect to be done to solve the problems that so many people face when trying to travel in the south-east? What can we expect to be open for business by the end of this Parliament, almost 10 years after the Government took power? The Under-Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions, the hon. Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Mr. Jamieson) kindly gave me some of the answers in a written answer in the summer.

Let us start with the railways. The Government said that without major investment in the network to meet growing demand, levels of service would deteriorate and overcrowding would increase on many lines. By 2006, only two schemes that affect passengers in the south-east are likely to have been implemented: the first phase of the channel tunnel rail link, and the widening of the Chiltern line between Princes Risborough and Bicester, which was singled for no good reason in the bad days of British Rail, and is being restored to its previous state.

Among the passengers still waiting will be the hapless users of the South West Trains routes into Waterloo. The company says that the hiatus in rail financing means that even its less ambitious plans, to lengthen trains from eight coaches to 10, cannot be implemented for at least another five years. Last week, the south central franchise postponed its upgrade to the Brighton line for similar reasons. Other schemes, such as the modernisation of the Uckfield line, seem a country mile away from starting, let alone being completed.

Then there are the bigger projects. Yesterday, I received another answer from the Minister, for which I thank him, about the projects likely to be built under the 10-year plan. He wrote:

With the 10-year plan well under way, we are having another strategic review to decide what to do. The Minister's response makes no mention of the schemes that could make a difference to the south-east. What about the next generation of large-scale projects to follow on from the Jubilee line, the docklands light railway and the Croydon Tramlink? Thameslink 2000, perhaps the easiest and most achievable of the bigger ideas for improvement, and part of the original 10-year plan, is nowhere near starting, let alone being completed. Now I fear that it may have disappeared altogether from the Government's planning. According to the Minister, even if they press ahead straight away, it could not happen until late 2007—and that is the optimistic spin. Will it now be dropped? Perhaps the Minister could deal with that question today.

According to Bob Kiley, the transport commissioner for London, crossrail is the project that would make the most difference to London. However, according to the

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Minister's response last week, that project cannot be completed and open for business for at least a decade, whatever happens. I fully expect the Minister to offer me some history lessons about the structure of the privatised rail industry, so let me anticipate his comments by making three points.

First, when the Government took office they were fiercely critical of seven- year franchises, which they said were a disincentive to invest. If that was true, why have they failed to use section 54 of the Railways Act 1993, which was designed to provide a mechanism to give the operators long-term security to invest? Section 54 has been used only a handful of times—small wonder we have waited so long for new trains. If short franchises are such a bad idea, why is the Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions now granting franchises of only two years? How will that encourage rapid investment of the kind needed by our commuters?

Secondly, the Government set out in their strategy a clear role at the head of the industry for their new creation, the Strategic Rail Authority. The SRA, they said, would decide what quality and capacity improvements were needed, and would work to directions and guidance from Ministers to provide a bigger and better railway. So why is the head of the SRA leaving his job early, criticising Ministers for not being willing even to talk to him? Last week Sir Alastair Morton told the Transport Sub-Committee that he had placed a memo about the future of the industry on the Secretary of State's desk the day after the election—but to date he has received no response.

Thirdly, if the structure set out for the industry by the previous Conservative Government was so fundamentally flawed, why have the Government not taken advantage of the expiry of the initial franchises and the placing of Railtrack in administration to launch a major restructuring of the industry? If they believed that we should have kept the railways in public ownership, they could simply cease to issue new franchises—or if they believed that we should have had regional companies with control of the tracks and the trains, they could now do that, too. However, they seem not to be choosing to do so.

There is the potential to improve matters with light rail. The 10-year plan states clearly that we will have more light rail systems. After the success of the Croydon Tramlink and its counterparts in Manchester, Birmingham and Sheffield—all started under a Conservative Government—we might have expected a rush to build new schemes. Instead, the only scheme on the way in the south-east is in Hampshire—very welcome for that area, but not likely to provide real solutions for some of the most overcrowded routes in that part of the United Kingdom.

The Mayor of London, to his credit, is exploring one or two possible routes in central London—but only as part of a long-term consultation exercise. For now, once again, we have words and not action. At last the Government seem to be beginning to realise that they cannot drive motorists off the roads if there is nowhere else for them to go. The Minister's response to me suggested that the M25 widening is on the way, but most of the schemes that the Government promote and that the Minister listed are outside the south-east, away from areas where congestion is at its most acute. My list of the

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schemes initiated by the Government and due for completion by 2006 that involve road improvements in the south-east is extremely thin.

According to the Minister's list, the only scheme due for completion by 2006 in my county, Surrey, is the introduction of a school bus initiative. That is an admirable scheme originated by the Conservatives on the country council to try to reduce congestion by starting an American-style yellow bus service. The Minister will no doubt say that he has recently announced funding for the A3 improvements at Hindhead. That is very welcome, but for much of the rest of the decade, even that will not be open.

What about other parts of the south-east? Hertfordshire and Buckinghamshire each receive a bypass. Berkshire gets nothing, despite all the growth in the Thames corridor. West Sussex is given one scheme, but East Sussex none at all. Only Kent and Essex do better, with five schemes between them. On the fringes of our region, Oxfordshire, Cambridgeshire and Hampshire will have no road improvements at all by 2006, according to the Minister's reply to me.

Do not get me wrong; I am not clamouring for road improvements at the expense of rail, as I too want people to be able to use public transport rather than their cars. I want longer trains into London, light rail schemes and other ways to improve public transport. However, the motor car is a fundamental part of our national and regional life. Supporting public transport does not mean that we should have no road improvements at all, and we are getting precious few of them in this overcrowded part of the country at the moment.

Many authorities consider buses their only short-term option. They set aside road space for more bus lanes or, in the case of London, set aside huge areas of the capital as congestion-charging zones to free up space for buses and reduce traffic. But will shoppers in places such as Guildford choose to carry all their shopping on the bus? Will the delivery vans that clog up central London bring their goods on the bus? Motorists who can afford congestion charges will grumble and pay, but those who cannot will clog up roads in the suburbs and make it even less practical for passengers to travel by bus through the congestion into the centre. We must be careful about what we do in city centres. Every retailer whom I have spoken to in a town or city centre says that in today's world, being anti-car kills town centres. People will ask why they should dodge the bus lanes on the way in to town centres if they can go to Lakeside or Bluewater instead.

The south-east of England is already too congested. It is becoming worse all the time, and its people want solutions. They want not more consultation, studies and reviews, but some alternatives that have a fighting chance of being open for business before we have all retired. The Government need to stop trying to wrap inaction up in seemingly endless consultation exercises. They should take some decisions and begin construction on some projects that can make a difference. They say that they have the money, so it would be nice if we saw some of it used.

In a report this summer, the Institute for Public Policy and Research stated:

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The funding appears to be stalled, and the projects that could make the difference are not happening. In 2006, Labour will have been in power for nine years. After such a time, people have a right to expect something to have happened. On the current rate of progress, they are likely to be sorely disappointed.

11.14 am

Mr. John Horam (Orpington): I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling) for securing the debate. He could not have raised a subject more dear to the heart of my constituents, as thousands of people commute from Orpington to the west end or the City. Their concerns are my concerns. I apologise to my hon. Friend and to the Minister as, unfortunately, I have to go to a funeral, so I might not stay until the end of the debate. In view of that, I shall be brief. Many of my colleagues will be able to stay until the end of the debate, and it is important for them too.

I should like to back up my hon. Friend's comments about what we now call cattle truck commuting—the necessity for people to make their daily journey to and from work in conditions that are worse than those for cattle. They have to stand shoulder to shoulder and back to back, and often have to allow more than one train to pass before they can even get on one going to or from London. A young constituent told me that he had started a new job three months ago in central London, full of the optimism and enthusiasm of the young, but was horrified by the conditions that he endured going to and from work. The worst thing was that after three months he had become inured to it—he accepted the miserable journey, packed like sardines or cattle in old Connex stock, as the daily routine.

What my constituents complain about most is overcrowding. The other enervating factor is that not only is there no prospect of immediate improvement, there is no prospect of medium or even long-term improvement. As a result of their maladministration of transport over the past five years, the Government cannot reasonably hold out any prospect of improvement over the next five years.

What possibilities are there? They do not inspire optimism or enthusiasm in the hearts of my constituents. One is to have fewer seats and more people standing in the trains. Ironically, some of my constituents would welcome that, after all the trouble that they have had in recent years. A second is to put up prices—to price people out of the rush hour scramble. Does that not conflict with what the Deputy Prime Minister has always reckoned is his true test—the number of people he can get off the roads during the lifetime of a 10-year transport plan? Anything that we consider in the short term is confounded by such difficulties. The real solution is to have more and longer coaches. That means longer trains, and therefore longer platforms, and the resiting of signalling between areas such as Orpington and central London. That requires investment, probably of millions of pounds.

As I understand it, in the debates during the summer, Connex—and perhaps others too—was talking to the Strategic Rail Authority and Railtrack about precisely such detailed improvements, and exactly what the planning and investment would be.

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Can the Minister tell me—again, I apologise because I might not be here to hear his reply, but I shall read Hansard with close attention—about the talks that were to be held in September between the SRA and a number of railway companies in the south-east of England about an investment plan to cover such improvements as lengthening platforms and resiting signalling to allow for longer trains, and thus less overcrowding? That is what I was expecting to happen this autumn —and what Connex told me that it was expecting.

The decision that has been taken about Railtrack does not redound to the credit of the Government. Whatever their criticisms may have been of what the Conservatives did, they have had five years in which to get Railtrack off the ground, but instead have driven it into the ground. Their comments over the years, and their continual trashing of the company, destroyed the morale of the managers and the workers, contributed enormously to the difficulties that we now face, and delayed investment. As a result, there are now no discussions going on about the matters that I have mentioned, and I read in the papers that discussions with the company that runs the line to Brighton have been put back by at least three months. I do not know what is happening on the Connex South Eastern routes.

Will the Minister tell us the time scale for decisions on the issues of daily concern to my constituents? They come into the centre of wealth-making in the United Kingdom, and must start their ordinary day after putting up with such journeys. When they leave in the evening they face a journey of equal horror in the rush hour. Ironically, the only immediate hope is recession, which might lessen the overcrowding. What a prospect, to have to rely on recession in the City to achieve that. This is an absurd state of affairs, and the Government must tackle it in a time scale that will bring my constituents some hope.

11.19 am

Sue Doughty (Guildford): I want to talk about roads and traffic, and the general mayhem in Surrey. The hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling) made a wide-ranging speech covering many issues affecting the south-east, but we need to think much harder about what should be done in Surrey.

We have several difficulties. One is that there is a great deal of inward commuting into places such as Guildford, as well as outward commuting. The high cost of living means that we need to bring in the people who can only afford to live in cheaper areas outside. Our problem is the increasing congestion because employees do not live close by. There are constant problems for the Arriva bus company in managing a service. We experience regular reduction in cross-county routes, such as Guildford to Kingston. In Guildford there are not even enough bus drivers, because of housing issues.

In an ideal world, people would live close to their work. The reality is that as people's jobs change and they are required to go all over the country, or to travel internationally, that is not always an option. Although many people hate commuting long distances, they do not have a choice about it, especially if they have children settled in schools or partners in local jobs.

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We have heard much about overcrowding on trains and I shall not repeat it, but I support all that has been said on the matter. However, we should appreciate that parts of Surrey would be in easy reach of London if tube routes could be extended. The East London line to Wimbledon could be extended as far as Chessington, through an area of very heavy traffic. It would not even be necessary to build new track for much of the way. Raynes Park would need additional track and an additional platform, but in other areas existing assets could be re-used. We should examine such approaches, in strategic travel plans and multi-modal studies.

With more underground trains serving the Chessington branch, the odd slot to Waterloo could be released. That would be good news for commuters travelling through Surrey. There would be two slots an hour in and out of Waterloo. There could be more frequent services to Hampton Court and Guildford. Perhaps the Chessington line could be taken out to the World of Adventures and the new Epsom housing cluster, through centres of population and traffic movement. It might be possible to move the traffic on to public transport.

Chris Grayling : I am grateful for the hon. Lady's comments. Can I take it that she and her party will offer their support to my campaign for the extension, with a view to bringing public transport to the Epsom cluster? Although substantial longer-term issues arise about the Chessington line and the possibility of reintegration into a different part of the London network, as opposed to making it a simple branch line on the Waterloo route, none the less the extension of the Chessington line to Epsom would attract significant popular support. The more support that is given, throughout the community, the more chance the plan has of becoming reality.

Sue Doughty : My understanding is that the proposal would receive support from Liberal Democrats across the county.

I raise the case of Epsom not simply because it is the hon. Gentleman's constituency but also because it is one of those places on the boundary between county transport and commuting transport. There are many people in the area contributing to the congestion, but who would like late-night buses to come out from London to the Epsom area. That also applies to people working late shifts. The cost of coming out to Epsom from central London is about £40.

There is chronic congestion on the A3. Although I welcome the improvements to the bypass at Haslemere, they will increase congestion in Guildford. Anybody who has ever tried to drive through Guildford during the rush hour, especially when it is raining, will recognise that it is not an option—the town is completely gridlocked and one has to crawl through inch by inch. That situation will only get worse when the improvements at Haslemere come on stream. We must consider what can be done to relieve traffic in Guildford.

There are many ways to improve the links between Surrey and London. The underground connection could be further improved by a link between the termini at Wimbledon and Richmond over the Kingston loop and back again towards Epsom, or by carrying out work on the tube line from Morden.

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Bus services are important in areas such as Guildford. There is a perception that Guildford people are rich and that all they want to do is to drive their children to and from school in their Range Rovers. In reality, many people do not want to drive their cars around Guildford, either because it is expensive or because they would add to the congestion; however, the fact remains that they have many journeys to make. We have a deeply unreliable bus service that continually lurches around.

Several factors are involved, including affordable housing. Bus drivers cannot afford to live in Guildford, and if there is no bus driver there is no bus. Another problem is the amount of overtime that bus drivers need to earn to make it feasible for them to live in the area.

We must consider the whole infrastructure of areas such as Guildford. Why are we destined to get more houses in Surrey? Why might 8,000 more houses be built in Guildford when the infrastructure cannot support them? Nobody disputes the fact that we need additional affordable houses, but large numbers of houses will make a bad situation much worse. Such matters must be considered in the context of transport. We cannot just say that it is a housing problem or a regional development problem—transport is right there in the middle of it.

When people draw up plans to impose housing on the south-east, they must ask how residents will get around. If some of that building is executive housing, it could bring with it two or three more cars per household, which would worsen the problem.

Mr Mark Hoban (Fareham): The hon. Lady speaks eloquently of the problems of housing and traffic in Guildford, and having lived there until early this year I concur with much of what she said. However, I have a problem with her party's stance on the matter. Many Liberal councillors who represent boroughs in the Serplan group vote in favour of, not against, the Government's housing targets. Is she out of step with their views?

Sue Doughty : I reassure the hon. Gentleman that Liberal Democrats have reviewed those views and will not be voting in the same way again.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions (Mr. David Jamieson) : A U-turn.

Sue Doughty : Indeed. It might be helpful to add that in the meeting to which the hon. Member for Fareham (Mr. Hoban) refers there were deputies present, and particular circumstances applied to the wording of the motion. Liberal Democrats do not vote in support of extra housing.

Mr. Mark Francois (Rayleigh): Will the hon. Lady give way?

Sue Doughty : No. I have made the point that we do not support extra housing for the south-east other than affordable housing—not in Surrey, at any rate.

I turn to the problems faced by elderly people who do not wish to drive, cannot drive, cannot afford a vehicle or should not be driving. Although there are transport

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schemes for such people, they need to know that buses will call regularly—that the bus that takes them to visit family members on a Sunday will always turn up. They do not want to be isolated and unable to go to, say, bingo on Sunday because the bus is not there. There are important issues associated with isolation, and they are getting worse for certain sectors of the community.

During the general election campaign, I was approached by an old lady who wanted to know only one thing: whether the Sunday bus between Guildford and Woking, which was extremely unreliable, would continue to operate. Shopping for her housebound friends was something that she, and they, looked forward to, but the loss of the bus would stop her helping them. Given the poor state of our bus services, a Sunday bus can make a lot of difference to one's quality of life.

Chris Grayling : As the Minister knows, one of the great problems for bus services in Surrey is that once outside the borders of London the subsidy from the public purse falls off a cliff. London buses with routes from the outer London suburbs across the border into Surrey are to charge a flat rate of £1. As a result, north Surrey buses, which lack the same subsidised support, will be hugely uncompetitive. In terms of bus operators' ability to provide services, there will be a knock-on effect across the county. Because the subsidy stops dead on leaving the borders of London, it is highly probable that in constituencies such as the hon. Lady's bus services will disappear.

Sue Doughty : I thank the hon. Gentleman for that point.

One of the things that we in Guildford have done is to introduce cross-town buses and shuttle buses from the station. Regrettably, however, Conservative members of the council have voted against our having as many buses as we would like. As a result, the habit of catching the train and taking the bus up to the high street to go shopping will not be so easy to establish. Nevertheless, our cross-town buses are a start. Some of our employers subsidise them heavily and I welcome that.

However, the reality is that since deregulation—introduced by the Conservatives—bus operators are no longer required to operate on the less profitable but more socially desirable routes. As a result, continuity and reliability of service have broken down. Because they are unable to catch a bus home, people cannot go out after 8 o'clock at night, for example, to attend evening classes in an effort to get better qualifications. That tends to affect girls rather than boys, who often have their own transport. Girls in lower-paid jobs need to be able to rely on a bus to get home safely at night.

I ask the Minister to take a good look not only at expensive infrastructure projects such as rail and tube extensions, but at simpler ways to improve matters, such as better support for bus services in the counties, as well as in London. Older people, the less affluent and young students in my constituency need to know that, in future, they will be able to return home safely at night.

11.33 am

Mr. Gregory Barker (Bexhill and Battle): May I begin by apologising to you, Mr. Griffiths, and to the Minister for the fact that I must leave at noon because I am

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leading a delegation to discuss flooding in my constituency with one of the Minister's colleagues at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs?

I would like to believe that the historical legacy of poor transport links in East Sussex is the result of successive Governments trying to strike the right balance between preserving the environment in a region heavy with areas of outstanding natural beauty and catering for the needs of the travelling public. However, that is not the case. Transport problems are in fact the result of a benign indifference that has turned into real and serious neglect. The whole county of East Sussex has only a few miles of dual carriageway. Train services from Hastings and Bexhill to London are now slower than they were in 1922. In terms of travelling time, Bexhill is further away from London than York.

As a result, the Rother area, especially around Hastings, has some of the worst social exclusion problems in the county. Hastings is a very visible sign of the decline in the county's economy, and its economic and social problems radiate out into my constituency of Bexhill and Battle and the whole Rother area. We all realise that any solutions to the problems of Hastings will necessarily involve my constituency as well.

There was, understandably, huge and bitter disappointment at the Government's decision in the summer not to build the Hastings and Bexhill bypass. After years of dither, the making of such an important decision immediately after a general election, at which the bypass was a crucial issue in a key marginal seat, has been viewed extremely cynically. However, I sincerely welcome, and am grateful for, Lord Falconer's encouragement of the initial responses of the taskforce, led by SEEDA—the South East England Development Agency—which was set up in the wake of that disastrous bypass decision.

Any future plans for Hastings and Bexhill will rightly look for a more holistic solution to the problems of regeneration, and will aim to balance care of the environment with economic development. New plans will put far more emphasis on environmentally sustainable regeneration. Education, a new university, information technology and broadband communications networks for both business and the community will help to deal with the problems of social exclusion.

However, the contrast between the area of Bexhill and Hastings and that of Brighton and Hove is marked: for example, there is a high-speed rail link to London from Brighton, which takes about 45 minutes; improvements have been made to the A23, most of which is now the M23; and there is easy access to Gatwick and the Crawley hub. By contrast, it takes nearly an hour to go from Bexhill to Gatwick, and nearly two hours by road or rail to London. It is not enough to rely on improved education, or improved IT and broadband links. Better transport links remain absolutely vital.

Despite that need, I echo some of the sentiments expressed by the hon. Member for Guildford (Sue Doughty) about threats to local buses. Last week I met some of my constituents from Stone Cross, on the outskirts of Eastbourne, who are extremely concerned by the threat to local bus services. If those buses are withdrawn, thousands of people will be stranded in an

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area whose incoming population is increasing as more and more houses are built. Unfortunately, the possibility is largely the result of the threat to rural bus grants from the Government, through East Sussex county council. The council has been left in a parlous financial position by the former Lib-Lab coalition that ran down reserves from £24 million to little more than £3 million. Fortunately, after the county council elections in the summer, a new Conservative administration took over, but some difficult financial decisions must now be made.

Tom Brake (Carshalton and Wallington): Will the hon. Gentleman put on record the level to which he expects the new Conservative administration to increase those reserves?

Mr. Barker : I cannot give the hon. Gentleman a specific figure, but I can assure him that the Conservatives came into office with a steely determination to restore the financial health of the county after the appalling years of Lib-Lab misrule.

We are looking for holistic regeneration in Bexhill, Hastings and across Rother. However, such regeneration must include a fast rail link to London, improvements to the A21 south of Lamberhurst, extending dual carriageways and widening bottlenecks and a new link road from Bexhill to Queensway that avoids the notorious Glynde gap and it must relieve the A259 and Battle's A2100 to end the appalling traffic jams that choke both residents and through traffic.

We must also make safety improvements to the A21. The safety record on the A21 in my constituency is wholly unacceptable. People are dying unnecessarily on that road year in and year out. One of the most difficult visits that I have made as a Member of Parliament was to serving officers at Battle fire station who have been called out time and time again to cut dead youngsters from cars on the A21. The blackspots must be eradicated regardless of the overall plans for the county or the regeneration of the area because they require urgent and immediate attention. Will the Minister tell us what he will be doing with respect to safety on the stretch of the A21 south of Flimwell?

I welcome any partnership with the Government, other parties or stakeholders that will deliver the prospect of regeneration to my constituency. The Government must recognise that regeneration still depends on better roads and better rail. We want to safeguard the terrific natural environment in Bexhill and Battle, and I will be extremely mindful of the environmental impact of any proposals, but we look to the Government to deliver: we want action, not spin.

11.42 am

Mr. Archie Norman (Tunbridge Wells): I add my commendation of my hon. Friend the Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling) for obtaining this debate on a subject central to the quality of life for people who live not only in my constituency in west Kent, but in the whole of the south-east.

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The subject should not be a matter of party political difference. It is common ground that the level of congestion and the state of public transport in the south-east is absolutely lamentable, and that it has deteriorated in the past four and a half years. It is also a shared view that the south-east has been the engine of the British economy. It incorporates the financial centre of Europe and the highest density of population in the country; indeed, it has one of the highest population densities in Europe. It provides the gateway for foreign investment and tourism into the United Kingdom.

That has all been recognised by the Government in their commitment to a huge amount of new house building in the south-east. Let us remember that the Government, through Serplan, are committed to building 900,000 new houses there. Approximately 50 per cent. of those houses will be occupied by families who have moved out of London or the cities of the midlands and the north to migrate to the south-east. By most estimates, half of those houses will be built on greenfield sites. The new houses will substantially add to the stresses and strains on existing public infrastructure, especially the transport system. Many families who will be relocating from deprived areas in inner London to Surrey, Kent or Sussex will want to commute back to London for work, yet no provision exists in the Government's plans for enhancing and increasing the capacity of the transport system. That is a fantastic example of unjoined-up government.

I was interested to hear the hon. Member for Guildford (Sue Doughty) comment that the Liberal Democrats did not support new house building—apart from affordable house building. That represents a substantial change from their previous position. The Liberal Democrats supported the Government on Serplan and other matters.

Sue Doughty : In making that statement it would have been more accurate if I had said that we oppose the additional housing numbers announced, not all new building.

Mr. Norman : I thank the hon. Lady for her clarification—but I do not want to dwell on it, because that is not the main matter for debate. We welcome Liberal Democrat support in opposing, in whatever way, the absurd new plans to force councils in the south-east to build housing where no public infrastructure exists to support it.

Mr. Mark Francois (Rayleigh): I appreciate that house building targets are not the main focus for this debate, but I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Tunbridge Wells (Mr. Norman) and would like to ask him a question. Does he agree that as district and borough councils begin to anticipate their new local plans and look ahead 10 years, the capacity of transport infrastructure to cope with a large increase in housing should be a key element in the public inquiries that are likely to follow? As the Government continue to thrust such schemes down their throats against their will, local residents should make that important point about the difficulty that transport infrastructure has in coping with new houses.

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Mr. Norman : I agree with my hon. Friend. A great anomaly is that county and borough councils must plan for new houses and communities, but do not have the resources to plan for the infrastructure to support them. That puts them in a highly invidious situation. Despite a commitment to an expansion in population, an increase in the number of houses, and incidental destruction of green fields, the Government have made no consequential commitment to public transport infrastructure.

The Minister may wish to contemplate the fact that one of the first actions taken by the Government when coming to office was to cancel almost all major road schemes in the south-east, including improvements to the A21, under the Weald and Downlands DBFO—design, build, fund and operate—scheme, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Epsom and Ewell referred. Those improvements would have directly met the concerns about safety that he raised, and would have saved many lives. They are now being contemplated again, and if they are implemented they will happen five to 10 years later than when they could have been brought into force.

The cancellation cost the Government some £6 million to compensate contractors—money that could have gone into road improvement. It has been replaced with a plethora of reviews, such as the trunks road review and the access to Hastings study, which produced almost nothing and, as my hon. Friend said, was a tremendous disappointment. Now we are told that a feasibility study into dualling the A21 at Castle Hill and possible improvements south of Lamberhurst will be carried out.

Recently, I had a meeting with staff at the Highways Agency to discuss the new feasibility study. They were clearly suffering from severe review fatigue. They were the same people who undertook the public inquiry into the A21 in 1991. When I spoke to them, they said that they understood the issues exactly, because they had studied them consistently during the past 20 years and they had not changed at all. They told Ministers about them in 1990 and could produce the same study again in 2001. There is no need for reviews, because the answers are known. Some improvements are blindingly obvious—the A21, is a good example; there are many others in the south-east. Dualling the A21 at Castle Hill between two stretches of dual carriageway should have happened many years ago, and is not contentious. Economically and in terms of social benefit it will pay off many times over. We do not need a feasibility study. We need a private finance initiative, and we need to get on the with the job.

Another aspect is that in cancelling all the major programmes, and in a fit of centralisation, the Government have starved the county councils of funds to undertake minor reviews, with the result that all those environmentally acceptable and sensible minor actions that are required to ease traffic have not taken place either. That has added to congestion and reduced the power and effectiveness of local government to make a difference to transport problems.

Hon. Members have referred to the state of the bus industry. My only comment on that is that the south-east must have brought enormous benefits to the white paint industry, because thousands of miles of bus lanes have been painted on our roads. However, I think I am

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right in saying—the Minister may want to comment—that the increase in bus passenger traffic in the south-east, excluding London, has been negligible during the past five to 10 years. The result of creating those bus lanes is that car passenger traffic has slowed down, but the response from the bus industry, which operates as a monopoly in many parts of the south-east, has been so poor that there has been no increase in bus passenger traffic. As a public transport initiative it has been a disaster.

Even worse is the state of the rail industry. It is important to say that, following recent developments, almost all the improvements to which Railtrack was committed as part of the network maintenance statement are now at risk. The investment holiday that is likely to result from the period of administration following the demolition of Railtrack means that investment will not be available. The plans for improvement to the infrastructure of the railway lines that we have discussed today—including the London to Hastings line, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Bexhill and Battle (Mr. Barker) referred—are negligible for the next five or 10 years. There is no plan to create a high-speed railway line to Hastings, an area with 10 per cent. unemployment.

Connex South Eastern plans to introduce new trains. The Minister may believe that that is a good thing, as most people do, but those new trains will have no more passenger-carrying capacity than the old trains—with the result that, as my hon. Friend the Member for Epsom and Ewell said, the queues and the number of people standing on those trains will increase. Our commuter capacity will, if anything, diminish. We have no investment for longer platforms. We do not have investment in stations. Access for disabled people is appalling, and would be unacceptable elsewhere in the private sector. Will the Minister tell us specifically whether the Government have any serious commitment to ensuring that commuter train infrastructure improvements will start to take place? Will the period of administration and the extraordinary period of chaos in the rail industry result in a complete holiday for that investment programme, or can any of the schemes now proceed?

It is also worth making the point that all those schemes that have buoyed up the hopes of commuters in the south-east—for example, Thameslink and the Crossrail project—are at risk. Most experts on the rail industry now believe that they will not proceed during the next 10 years. Perhaps the Minister will comment on that. The situation of commuter railways seems desperate.

Where does that leaves us? The lead time for major transport projects means that the legacy of eight or nine years of Labour Government will almost certainly be slower travel in the south-east, with more congestion. The level of congestion will be unprecedented, and among the worst in Europe. We shall have a worse public transport infrastructure. The standard of road maintenance will be the poorest we have ever seen, with reduced expenditure on road maintenance since 1997.

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We are looking at standstill Britain, and it is vital that the Government get serious about matching their commitment to increase the overcrowding in the south-east with breaking the deadlock on public transport and intitiating some of these projects. They are not contentious, and they are necessary to improve the road system and get the south-east moving again.

11.54 am

Tom Brake (Carshalton and Wallington): I congratulate the hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling) on securing the debate. Transport in the south-east is a cause of concern to Liberal Democrat and Conservative Members of Parliament— I do not extend the concern beyond those two parties.

As I waited on the platform at Wallington this morning, I pondered the key issues in this debate. The station board showed that a train had been cancelled, and a notice stated that the 8.10 am train would be late because it was a slam-door stopping train; people therefore take longer to get on and off, or it goes slower—I do not know which. Presumably, the train will be late for as long as it remains in use.

Yesterday, I was at Carshalton Beeches station, just one stop up the line, as a constituent had invited me to look at the large number of missing or broken knots—I do not know what they are called in technical railway terms; they lock the rails on to the sleepers—along the track. Such anecdotal experience of the public transport infrastructure confirms that it is in appalling state of disrepair and disarray. I could dwell briefly on the Tory legacy, but even Conservative Members have confirmed today that they recognise that their party's performance on transport infrastructure was not good. I suppose that if one believes in the great car economy, it is inevitable that public transport infrastructure will suffer.

Chris Grayling : I mentioned a range of significant schemes introduced by the Conservative Government that made a difference to the transport infrastructure—light rail, rail and so on. I emphasised that they were a start; they stopped abruptly in 1997.

Tom Brake : I am well aware of the list. However, my experience, and that of commuters in London in the past 20 or so years, is that despite that list, public transport has been deteriorating for many years and there is no sign of improvement. I shall not dwell on the Tory legacy—

Mrs. Theresa May (Maidenhead): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Tom Brake : I shall give way shortly.

As the train I was travelling on this morning was at a standstill somewhere between stations, I started to dwell on the Labour Government's responsibility, as they have been in power for four and a half years, and on the impact of the GoVia franchise, which affects large parts of the south-east. I am interested in the fact that the Labour Government have been in power for five years; I do not know what happened in the last six months of Tory Government—not very much, presumably.

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I tabled a parliamentary question asking what assessment had been made, before the Government made the Railtrack announcement, of the impact on GoVia's existing and new franchise. The answer was that the Secretary of State's announcement

I think that means that the Government did not actually consider the impact on the GoVia franchise before they made the Railtrack announcement. A further Government response to a similar parliamentary question stated:

The Minister is an honourable man, who will want to take this opportunity to apologise for what is at best an extremely misleading answer to a parliamentary question. It was reported in the newspaper Metro recently that GoVia, the owner of the south central franchise, has already suspended a £330 million upgrade of track and signalling on lines into Victoria. Far from the Railtrack developments having no impact on the existing or the new franchise, we know that the plans have been put on hold. This is an opportunity for the Minister to apologise for that statement, and I hope that he will.

Mrs. May : The hon. Gentleman attacked both the Government and the Conservative party for their records on improving public transport. Will he tell hon. Members how much of the tax increase that the Liberal Democrats proposed at the last election would have been spent on improving public transport?

Tom Brake : I am sure that the hon. Lady is familiar with our tax plans, which were limited. They focused specifically on education.

Mrs. May : Nothing on transport.

Mr. Jamieson : Nothing on transport.

Tom Brake : Our proposals for Railtrack and the establishment of a not-for-profit trust, and for London Underground, would have addressed the problems that we see on rail and tube today much more significantly and quickly.

The GoVia-Connex handover, which is another area of Government responsibility, demonstrated a lack of joined-up government. The Department for the Environment, Transport and the Regions—as it was then—approved the awarding of the franchise to GoVia. Unfortunately, that was then held up by the Department of Trade and Industry as it considered the details. The impact of the stalled handover was that more drivers left Connex, while there were no recruitment proposals to take on additional drivers. Negotiations took place about terms and conditions for Connex drivers, into which GoVia had no input because of the extended handover. When GoVia eventually took over the franchise, it needed to recruit more drivers just to stand still, because of the enhanced terms and conditions that had been agreed by Connex. There were major failings in areas for which the Labour Government have responsibility.

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These are early days for the Crossrail proposal, and the Minister will know that Cross London Rail Links Ltd. had its first meeting yesterday. Have the Government decided whether to proceed with a transport and works order or a hybrid Bill as the means of taking the project forward? Can the Minister guarantee any funding beyond the £154 million that has been agreed for the feasibility work? That work is welcome, but if nothing will be there to take the project further forward once that budget is exhausted, it would be a major disappointment.

The Government's responsibility for the tube is well publicised, and continues to be a source of embarrassment. The public-private partnership has achieved nothing in the past four years, other than the production of enormous and complicated documents at great expense. I understand that the Government have now appointed Ernst and Young as the accountants to examine whether the public-private partnership represents value for money. I welcome the fact that they have not appointed PricewaterhouseCoopers as the arbitrator, because it is so closely involved with the Government. However, will the Minister set out if Ernst and Young is involved with any consortium bidding for a tube franchise? If it has a close connection with any group, there will be concerns that it will find the Government's proposals to be good value for money simply because a partner will derive some financial benefit. Will the Minister confirm that that question has been closely examined?

Other hon. Members have referred to the Hastings bypass. Given that it was difficult to demonstrate overwhelming economic benefits of the project, the Government have probably come to the right decision. However, the multi-modal study identified the need for substantial investment of about £240 million in other local transport improvements. I hope that the Minister will tell us what funds may be forthcoming to deal with that investment.

I understand that we may receive an announcement about terminal 5 tomorrow—if we do not receive one today. After a little less than four years, the inquiry finished in March 1999. A decision is expected imminently on the way forward. Liberal Democrats believe that allowing terminal 5 to proceed would be wrong. We are worried that it is unlikely to help the airlines that the Government presumably want to help—the United Kingdom's regional airlines that want access to Heathrow slots but are not currently gaining them. If terminal 5 goes ahead, our airlines may not benefit, and it will have a significant and detrimental impact on the communities surrounding Heathrow airport.

Chris Grayling : Is the hon. Gentleman aware that most of our regional airlines are part of foreign-owned airline groups?

Tom Brake : Many of our regional airlines are a part of British Airways, which is to be renamed City Express. Clearly, not all UK regional airlines are owned by foreign airlines.

Such issues are of a regional, national or even international nature. I echo the worries of other hon. Members about local transport schemes and Transport

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2000. It is often local schemes, such as small road improvements and additional subsidies for bus services, that can make a significant difference at a local level. They can play a major part in reducing congestion in Reading, the Thames valley and a host of small areas in the south-east. Indeed, there is a strong demand for a tram link in Sutton in my area. Will the Minister say what priority can be given to small local projects as opposed to the major regional, national or international projects that have been mentioned?

Mr. Griffiths—no, I mean Mr. Deputy Speaker—[Interruption.] I apologise, I should have called you Mr. McWilliam. It is always helpful to have a name-plate in position so that hon. Members have clear guidance on how Deputy Speakers like to be addressed.

Mr. John McWilliam (in the Chair): The sign has my name on it on the side facing me, too; I do not know what that says about me.

Tom Brake : Thank you for that clarification, Mr. McWilliam.

I should like to think that transport in the south-east will improve, but the evidence of the past 20 years shows that it has deteriorated, and continues to do so. I hope that that will not go on happening. As a daily commuter I, like the hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell, suffer from such transport difficulties, just as others do. Unless the Government start to tackle such fundamental failings in our transport infrastructure, transport will deteriorate in this country to the point when a German diplomat can say in all honesty that the United Kingdom has turned into a third-world country.

12.9 pm

Mrs. Theresa May (Maidenhead): It is a pleasure to speak in the debate. I am grateful for the opportunity to do so. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling) not only on securing the debate but his excellent opening speech. He spelt out many of the transport problems that face the south-east, and referred to the Government's failure to deliver in that area. It is notable that the Government's lack of interest in the south-east's transport problems is shown by the fact that not one Labour Back Bencher has attended the debate.

I am pleased to speak, not only because I am a Transport spokesman, but because my constituency is in a part of the south-east that, as my hon. Friend pointed out in his opening speech, has done worse than many in receiving Government transport improvements. Berkshire does not receive much from the Government for road developments. We got a bus lane on the M4, but I am not sure that many people would call that a road improvement. The Minister looks excited, and I should certainly be grateful if he were to tell us that the Government were willing to support the local project pursued by Reading borough council and Wokingham district council to put another bridge across the River Thames. If he wants to give something to Berkshire, perhaps he could offer that to my constituents.

I remind the Minister why transport is so important: it is not only a key issue about the quality of life for individuals, as was pointed out by my hon. Friends the

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Members for Tunbridge Wells (Mr. Norman) and for Orpington (Mr. Horam), who mentioned cattle-truck commuting. People face transport problems every day, and that has a real impact on their quality of life. People try to travel to get to and from work, and also for leisure and personal purposes.

Transport also relates to economic development in the south-east. Last week, I attended a meeting with a number of south-east business men and women who bemoaned the south-east's transport problems and the Government's lack of delivery. They emphasised that good transport infrastructure is necessary for the good of the economy, both to retain economic vitality and to develop economic growth. As companies look to expand or locate in the south-east the state of transport links will be a consideration when they make their decisions.

My hon. Friend the Member for Tunbridge Wells and the hon. Member for Guildford (Sue Doughty) mentioned housing development and policy. That is a problem because when the Government consider the number of future houses, they do not examine the infrastructure requirements that the new developments will bring in their wake. Insufficient attention is given to infrastructure with regard to the transport system.

It is interesting to learn from the hon. Member for Guildford that the Liberal Democrats on Serplan who supported the Government's proposed housing figures for development in the south-east until 2016 did not mean to do so, and were deputies who did not know what they were doing. We were all confused by her intervention when she tried to clarify the point by saying that the Liberal Democrats are not in favour of additional houses, but are in favour of new-build houses. If the hon. Lady wants to intervene and explain the position, I will be happy to give way.

Sue Doughty : We accepted, with reluctance, the original figure of 35,000. We opposed the additional 13,000 for Surrey that was planned above that figure.

Mr. Jamieson : Eh?

Mrs. May : As the Minister says, that has obviously sorted things out. I also note that as far as the hon. Member for Guildford is concerned, any new housing should only be affordable.

Tom Brake : I invite the hon. Lady to reflect that when her party was in power, 60 per cent. of housing was developed on greenfield sites.

Mrs. May rose—

Mr. John McWilliam (in the Chair): Order. Before the hon. Lady replies, I remind her that this is a transport debate, although I understand the relevance of the points being made.

Mrs. May : Thank you, Mr. McWilliam. I return to my original point.

Transport links are essential for housing development and there is no point in the Government trying to build extra homes in the south-east without a transport infrastructure. That will create further problems and further deteriorate people's quality of life.

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Several hon. Members referred to the misery of commuters. I emphasise to the Minister that the problem is not only about quality of life; people's jobs will be affected if the Government fail to improve transport infrastructure in the south-east.

In the past four and a half years we received from the Government only vague promises, plans, reviews and reports. It is typical of the Government to talk about something but not to deliver on it. In 1997, they promised to cut congestion and pollution but delivered the highest fuel taxes and the worst traffic jams in Europe. In 1998, the transport White Paper promised to make road maintenance their "first priority", but they have delivered a record backlog of poorly maintained roads and little prospect of constructing the hundreds of bypasses necessary. In 1999, the Deputy Prime Minister promised "Quality, quality, quality" for Britain's rail network, and now the Government have driven Railtrack into the ground. Finally, in July 2000, the Deputy Prime Minister produced his 10-year transport plan. Like a magician pulling a rabbit out of a hat, he expected his latest trick to silence his critics, but I fear that it was merely smoke and mirrors. A year on, there is real doubt about whether the Government will deliver the £180 billion of investment that we were promised as part of that 10-year plan.

After what the Government have done to Railtrack, it is now unlikely that private sector investors will be so eager to produce the necessary £34 billion of private-sector rail investment. If private sector investment is forthcoming, it will be at an extra cost. Indeed, by increasing the political risk to the private sector of being involved in major transport infrastructure projects, the Government may find that they now have to provide the very blank cheque, through guarantees, that they claimed that they could not provide for Railtrack.

The public spending sums promised last year may also be in question and may have to be re-evaluated, not least in the light of economic slowdown. The south-east will lose out if Labour does not deliver.

It is interesting to read Ministers' answers to questions on the future of rail projects in the south-east. For example, when asked about the future of Thameslink 2000, the Minister responded:

That suggests that the Government paid no attention to the future of such projects when they put Railtrack into administration. They have no idea about the future of many rail infrastructure projects, as that answer shows.

It is evident in much of transport policy that Labour is still pursuing short-term political needs rather than making the long-term decisions necessary to get the country moving. An example from the railways is the decision made in July in awarding some of the new rail franchises. Instead of making the sensible long-term decision to grant 20-year deals to allow companies to plan future investment—when the Secretary of State could have demanded strict service improvements so that passengers would gain from the decisions—the Secretary of State opted for two-year contract extensions. He is kicking the problem into the long grass, and that means no improvement in services. The problems will not go away.

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I hope that the Minister will confirm that that decision is not part of a wider agenda for train operating companies. In 1997, the Deputy Prime Minister said:

After what has happened to Railtrack, will the Minister assure us that that is not his plan: that the Government have no intention of taking any of the train operating companies into the public sector or of imposing the same structure on them as is being imposed on Railtrack, and that they will shortly take the long-term view and grant longer franchises for train operating companies?

Nor are the Government failing only on railways: my hon. Friend the Member for Bexhill and Battle (Mr. Barker) gave a concrete example of how they are failing on rural bus services. London Underground is subject to strikes and strike threats, and is paralysed by disputes over funding. We have no aviation policy, in spite of having been promised one in 1998. The south-east has a huge congestion problem in aviation that the Government have done nothing to tackle.

We have had four and a half years of delay, dither and wasted opportunities. I hope that the Minister will give concrete examples of how the Government will deliver, with firm timetables, on getting the south-east moving. To give him some help, I have several questions.

When can we expect an announcement on the timetable for road building in the south-east? When will the Minister make an announcement on the long-term future of rail franchises in the region? Will he assure us that the Government's intervention in Railtrack will not set back the timetable for any planned rail or station improvements in the south-east, such as the Brighton upgrade, the Shortlands flyover in Kent and proposals to expand track capacity at Reading station? Will he set out the timetable for those improvements, and suggest where the funding will come from and whether it is assured? Many fear that the move to special-purpose vehicles will simply cause delay in such infrastructure projects, or even lead to some being cancelled. When can we expect an announcement on Heathrow's terminal 5?

My constituents and others in the south-east will listen carefully to the Minister's answers, not only because the problem affects their quality of life, but because it affects many of their jobs. The economic vitality of the south-east depends on the Government's answers to the transport problems. Plans are no good unless the Government are willing to deliver. People in the south-east have waited for four and a half years. Their quality of life is being affected day by day, so it is time for Ministers to stop talking and start delivering.

12.21 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions (Mr. David Jamieson) : I congratulate the hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling) on securing the debate, and on raising matters of considerable importance to his constituents and others living in the south-east. Some of the bright young things from the Conservative Back Benches sat with him at one stage, and I read yesterday that the shadow Leader of the House had organised a group of them to create a

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nuisance for the Government. That will be a considerable relief, after the extinguished volcanoes who usually occupy the Conservative Front Benches—of course, I make an exception for the hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May), for whom I have enormous respect and regard.

One reason for increased congestion in the south-east, and many other conurbations in the country, is that the economy is doing so well, and so many more people are travelling to work. The hon. Gentleman did not have time to mention the fact that in his constituency the number of unemployed people has fallen from 1,032 to 363 since 1997. Throughout constituencies in the south-east, far more people are in work and travelling—a reason why there has been further pressure on the system. As the hon. Member for Tunbridge Wells (Mr. Norman) suggested, economic activity, certainly in the south-east, is at record levels. We are pleased about that, but it puts pressure on the road and rail system that we inherited from his party, which was in government before 1997.

Several hon. Members spoke about the funds available for local road schemes and transport plans. Listeners to the debate would think that nothing had happened at all. The hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell said that improvements were nowhere in sight—but he needs to get out a little more, and speak to people in his local authority. His highways authority in Surrey has had a 91 per cent. increase in funding for local transport plans. In Kent, the increase is 76 per cent. In Berkshire it is 67 per cent., and in Windsor and Maidenhead 72 per cent. Funds for local schemes are available.

Mr. Norman rose—

Mr. Jamieson : I shall not give way to the hon. Gentleman. He spoke for long enough, and I have only a few minutes.

An interesting feature of the debate was the rapier-like intervention of the hon. Member for Maidenhead on the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake). As usual, he gave us 15 minutes of platitudes and huge wish lists of schemes. I lost count of the number of schemes and questions that he raised—but when it came to the question of where the money for the Liberal Democrats' schemes would come from, it turned out that their extra penny would go into education and there was nothing extra for transport. Members will have noted that carefully, and I thank the hon. Lady for teasing the information out. We hear much talk from the Liberal Democrats, but they never back it with action or appropriate funds.

I should briefly put some of the subjects for debate into context. The south-east has one of the United Kingdom's busiest and most important transport networks. Most of the country's international traffic passes through the region, via either the airports or the major ports, and about a quarter of the national motorway network is in the south-east.

Excluding London, the south-east accounts for more than 15 per cent. of the United Kingdom's GDP. Good strategic road and rail links have aided the considerable prosperity of the region, but they have also brought

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severe congestion. Significant improvements are urgently needed to the road and rail infrastructure to enable this prosperity to continue.

Quality of life is equally important. As well as areas of economic success, there are areas of significant deprivation. In many cases, strategic and local transport improvements would contribute to their regeneration. However, such developments must not be at the expense of the environment. We should not forget that the south-east includes many areas of great natural beauty and environmental importance—6,500 sq km of the region are in designated "areas of outstanding national beauty".

I cannot agree with those who criticise the Government for not taking action. We are taking vigorous steps to tackle the transport problems that have been mentioned, and I would like to remind hon. Members of the measures that we are taking at national, regional, sub-regional and local levels.

The integrated transport White Paper, published in 1998, was the first White Paper on transport for more than 20 years; there had not been such a thing under the Conservatives. It set the broad policy framework for integrated transport policies. We followed this with the 10-year plan for transport, which announced national investment of £180 billion for new transport measures. Just as importantly, it made clear our objectives for transport. For example, by 2010 we want to reduce congestion below current levels on the inter-urban trunk road networks and in large urban areas. We shall achieve that by promoting integrated transport solutions and investing in public transport and the road network. We should also like to achieve a 50 per cent. increase in passenger rail use in Great Britain, improved punctuality and reliability, and the doubling of rapid transit use—that is, light rail and trams.

In the south-east, contrary to the impression that was given earlier, 11 major trunk road schemes are progressing as part of the Highways Agency's targeted programme of improvements. They will bring safety and environmental benefits. A further 15 improvements affecting congestion and safety will be made across the region by March 2002, and there is scope for much more. The 10-year transport plan will deliver substantial rail improvements to the region; the completion of the channel tunnel rail link to St Pancras will open up fast travel from London and Kent to Paris, and overcrowding on rail commuter services into London is to be targeted. Other improvements are under active consideration.

I shall answer some of the individual points that have been raised, but I fear that I shall not get through them all. If hon. Members wish, they can write me a note later, and I shall try to respond. The light rail scheme was mentioned. A number of such schemes are being considered by local authorities in the south-east—for example in Oxford, Milton Keynes and Reading, and on the Isle of Wight. Some of their bids are expected in the near future. It was always intended that the 10-year plan be reviewed, and it is proper that that should happen. It is nonsense to suggest that revising it is a panic measure.

What a grim picture the hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell painted of his area. I wonder whether people reading his speech in Hansard would be attracted to invest there. Sometimes we should reflect on our words,

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and the influence that they might have. His description was nowhere near reality as most people understand it. The hon. Gentleman almost told us that we should have renationalised the railway system when we first came into government in 1997. That was an interesting U-turn from the Conservative Back Benches. Perhaps we shall hear more about it at some other time.

I have very little time to respond to all the points in this debate, but it is clear that we cannot deliver any of our transport solutions without effective partnership. That is what we will have with agencies such as the Strategic Rail Authority and the Highways Agency. Most importantly, the local transport plans, which have been given so much extra funding—

Mr. John McWilliam (in the Chair): Order. Time is up.

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