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12 Jun 2002 : Column 306WH

Transport (Oxfordshire)

1 pm

Mr. David Cameron (Witney): I am delighted to have this opportunity to debate issues that are discussed throughout my constituency, including overcrowded roads, the lack of proper rail services, the shortage of rural bus services, noise pollution and environmental blight from heavy traffic, and the poor state of repair of many of our roads.

Those topics are of great concern throughout Oxfordshire, and they are close to my heart, too, not least because I shall be supporting the two-wheeled fraternity on Friday, when I shall travel between Witney and Oxford on the back of a motorcycle. I own a moped, so I am not frightened. I am always impressed by the local branch of the Motorcycle Action Group, which always makes its case with great vigour, whether the issue is more motorcycle parking bays or changing laws on, for example, the use of bus lanes by motorcycles.

To turn to the issue at hand, some people may think that congestion is a problem for only our bigger cities and that Witney is a predominantly rural constituency. They would be wrong, however, and the journey to work or to school is little short of hellish for many of my constituents. The A40 between Witney and Oxford is particularly bad, but other routes are also congested.

I want the Under-Secretary to help our county in three major respects, but let me first set the scene. Almost 75 per cent. of Oxfordshire is designated as green belt, as an area of outstanding natural beauty or as an area of high landscape value. We value our environment and our countryside. Our population and economy have grown rapidly, and continue to do so. Between 1981 and 1996, the population increased by 11 per cent., and another 43,600 houses were built. Another 35,500 are on their way before 2011, with even more envisaged by 2016, as the Under-Secretary knows.

We are facing the problems of success, and many of the long-term answers to congestion must be found in the planning system. This is not part of the debate, but we simply cannot go on building so many houses in the south-east without ruining the environment in areas such as that which I represent. The sooner we end centrally driven targets for new homes and give local authorities powers, the better. Those authorities could then focus more on the twin aims of affordable housing and environmental protection. However, those are issues for another day.

We must tackle the transport problems that we suffer today, and railways are the number one problem. West Oxfordshire is poorly served. The Great Western main line is quite far to the south of the county, and the old line that connected Witney with Brize Norton and Fairford is a distant memory. Fortunately, we still have the Cotswold line. The part that serves my constituency runs from Oxford to Moreton-in-Marsh, via Hanborough, Charlbury and Kingham, with trains running direct to Paddington. It is a vital link to part of West Oxfordshire, and there should be plans to expand it. However, there was little to excite commuters and other rail users in the Government's much-vaunted 10-year plan, so perhaps I can make some suggestions.

The line has desperately limited capacity, because it is single track for much of the way between Oxford and Moreton-in-Marsh. If a train going one way is

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late—I am afraid they often are—the knock-on effects and hold-ups can be disastrous. Dualling the line should be part of the Government's long-term plans.

Those stations that still serve rural communities need investment and, in particular, better platforms and more car parking space. The parking problems at Charlbury are particularly intense, with cars often parked on the road into the town.

The number of train services is not limited simply by the capacity of the track. Recently, Thames Trains had to cancel an afternoon service, which stopped at Finstock, Combe and Ascott-under-Wychwood, because it was—wait for it—too popular. The company could not replace the two-carriage train with a three-carriage train, because the platforms at the stations were too short. "Why not just open the doors adjacent to the platforms?" I hear hon. Members ask. The answer is that there is no selective door-opening facility and, under health and safety rules, passengers apparently cannot be trusted to know not to get out of the train when there is no platform next to the door.

The answer must be to extend the platforms and ensure that all new trains have selective door opening. The cost of extending the platforms has been estimated at £600,000. I have asked every available body to dispute that figure, but apparently the health and safety rules seem to be the cause of the expense. Perhaps the Under-Secretary could make some further inquiries to see what can be done. The franchises of Thames Trains and First Great Western both have only a few years left to run and those companies are, understandably, cautious about investing heavily. I see some merit—I am sure that the Under-Secretary will be able to comment on this—in encouraging them to bid jointly for one franchise, which would unite the Cotswold line and reduce the number of operators running services out of Paddington. That would end one source of fragmentation.

I also see merit—I am straying here into national policy—in handing responsibility for the track, stations and signalling to the same company. If we give the train operators responsibility for providing all the aspects required to deliver a good service, perhaps they will rise to the challenge. At the moment, we have a "BSE culture" and blame someone else when something goes wrong; "It was the signals", "No, it was the track", "No, it was the other operator" and so it goes on. Improving the Cotswold line can be only part of the solution because, however good we make it, the two biggest towns in west Oxfordshire, Witney and Carterton, which have a combined population of some 40,000, will still not be served by a railway.

The recent feasibility study on reopening the Witney to Oxford railway, with an extension to Carterton, was disappointing. It found that heavy rail would cost more than £100 million. Light rail is slightly more promising, at £79 million, whereas a guided bus or tram route would cost £75million. My plea to all concerned is to keep hope alive for the railway, whether light or heavy rail. Perhaps a tramway would help to improve matters, but I have yet to meet anyone who, if they could wave a magic wand and bring back the Witney railway, would not do so.

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The second major problem, a consequence of economic success and the lack of a rail link, is the dreadful state of the A40 between Witney and Oxford. Witney is bypassed with a dual carriageway, but for the 10 miles between our county town and the city of Oxford, the traffic has to cope with a single carriageway and terrible congestion. In the morning and evening, commuters, those going to school and others are stuck in long jams. The journey can take well over an hour. The knock-on effects are also significant. The A4095, which passes through Long Hanborough and the picturesque village of Bladon—Churchill's burial place—is heavily congested, often with big lorries, and the environment suffers as a result. Additional use is also made of the A44, which cuts through villages such as Begbroke and Yarnton, but more on that later.

The problem of the A40 must be grasped. I am pleased that the bus lane proposal has been shelved for the moment. To many of my constituents, it seemed to be an urban solution to a rural problem. Little evidence was produced for how it would work and there was real concern that it would add to congestion, not reduce it. Comparisons were made, not surprisingly, with the famous Prescott bus lane on the M4, and, at a cost of £10 million, it would have provided very poor value for money. It is certain that we need a link from the A40 to the A34, so that some pressure is taken off the Oxford roundabouts. The situation at the Wolvercote roundabout is especially bad.

Dualling the A40 between Witney and Oxford may be part of the long-term solution, and I hope the Government will consider that as part of their roads programme. The guided bus or tramway proposal, using part of the old Witney to Oxford railway, may also help to tackle the problem of congestion. It would certainly be an improvement on the original proposal for a bus lane on the A40. I hope that the county council will make a speedy review of that option, and that the Government will stand ready to provide funding to ease that serious problem.

In any event, the A40 is the biggest single transport problem that we face. Perhaps, if he has some spare time, the Under-Secretary would like to come with me one morning, using whatever form of transport he prefers, and drive against the traffic from Oxford to Witney during the rush hour. Then we shall see how bad the problem is. In west Oxfordshire, we have some of the best and brightest businesses in the country, but the gridlock on our main road is like a hand pressed against their windpipes. Business in west Oxfordshire must be allowed to breathe.

The third problem that I should like to raise with the Minister is the environmental effect of traffic, especially heavy lorries, using minor roads and the A roads that pass through small towns and villages. The A roads have caused the problem. I mentioned the A44 going through Begbroke and Yarnton; it cuts those villages in two. There is no speed limit there apart from the national one, so crossing the road is hazardous.

For years, a great man called Ron Perry led the A44 action group with great force and vigour. Sadly, he died recently. I gather that a 50-mile an hour limit—something that he would have seen as just the start—is to be introduced. I pay tribute to the highways department at Oxfordshire county council for that. The department always responds promptly to letters. Better

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still, after sixteen years of a hung council, we now have an effective administration at county hall, led by the Conservatives. More is being done under the energetic leadership on the transport front of councillor David Robertson, who is well aware of the problems that we face in the west of the county.

My reason for raising this matter is to ask what steps the Government propose to take to empower local authorities to do more and do it quickly. We are often told by county hall that something would be "unorthodox", "against guidelines" or "not usual practice." Does the Under-Secretary agree that it is not always necessary to have the same road policy in every part of the country? Many communities face the problem of heavy lorries using relatively small roads that pass through towns and villages.

I have mentioned the A4095. Two other examples are the A361, which passes through the middle of the beautiful town of Burford, the gateway to the Cotswolds, and the A415, which goes straight through the village of Standlake. In Burford, which must be familiar to many hon. Members, heavy lorries thunder down the high street and over a bridge that is more than 600 years old. I recently chaired a meeting of residents, county and district councillors and officials, the police, the town council and others. Residents are desperate for more to be done. Consider the lovely Windrush valley, in which Burford is set; the siting of a bypass either side of the town would in many ways be a tragedy. We must do what we can to deal with the problem of heavy lorries on the A361 so that such a step does not become necessary.

Recent planning decisions, like that to allow the expansion of the airfield at Rissington—the decision was appealed against unsuccessfully—have so far only managed to make matters worse. Residents in Standlake on the A415 have complained about walls shaking, pictures falling down and even lorries stopping to bend their wing mirrors inwards so that they can pass each other. They believe that those lorries should use the A34 and the A40 rather than that short cut. They, like those in many other communities, are asking for an HGV restriction.

Everyone accepts that heavy goods vehicles must be able to go about their business and everyone knows that A roads will always be used. The fact that the HGV restrictions cannot be used everywhere for fear of diverting lorries on to even more unsuitable roads is perhaps less well understood, but people want to see something done to ease the burden and they want to know that the Government are considering creative solutions. Can more be done to guide, to encourage and to exhort lorries and their companies to use more suitable routes? The county council is undertaking a review of the county's major routes. Can the Under-Secretary explain what steps the Government are taking to help in such situations? I want to leave him time to respond, although I may intervene to add some questions to his packed list.

I end with a series of pleas. The first is to the new Department for Transport, shorn of regionalism and other things and so able to focus purely on transport; work with the county to deal with our problems. Secondly, please make representations to ensure that the area cost adjustment for authorities in the south-east stays, or at least that a successor recognises the costs in

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our area. I ask the Under-Secretary to consider the difficulties that local bus companies have in recruiting and retaining drivers. Costs in our part of the world are high.

Thirdly, it must be ensured that transport and planning march together rather than separately. Witney, the heart of my constituency, is still marked out as a growth town in the county structure plan. We are in danger of changing its nature as a pleasant market town for ever. Some will say that improvements to the A40 can come only if we are happy to have even more development. I say that improvements to the A40 are needed even if Witney is no longer to be considered a growth town. We need those improvements today to cope with the problems of today.

1.15 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. David Jamieson) : I congratulate the hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) on securing this important debate on transport in Oxfordshire. I am glad to hear that his constituency suffers from the problems of success. It is wonderful to think that, throughout the country, economic activity has been considerably enhanced since the Government were elected, which has led to some of the problems of success, such as more people wanting to use public transport and the roads. I am glad to hear him endorse some of the success that we have so clearly brought to his constituency. I think that I am right in saying that it has the lowest employment in the whole country. Oh that you and I, Mr. O'Hara, could say that, although I think that unemployment in our constituencies has been considerably reduced as well.

The hon. Gentleman asked whether practice on roads policy should be the same throughout the country. On our trunk roads and those managed by the Highways Agency, there clearly has to be consistency. Local highway authorities have wide discretion as to how they run their roads. The other measure of the success of our economy is that we have put so much more money into local transport plans, so that authorities can attain their ambitions for their people.

I want to pick up on one of the latter points that the hon. Gentleman made, which was about lorries. Solutions can be reached locally, so local authorities need to consider difficulties to see whether they can resolve them. He will know that we generally have a policy of trying to move traffic from road to rail or even to water, which may not be appropriate in his constituency. Considerable funds are available for that. On those matters, it is often for the local highways authority to find local resolutions to problems where possible.

The hon. Gentleman spoke in detail about the transport problems in Oxfordshire, but it is important that we consider the positive side of transport in Oxfordshire as well. The county enjoys good road and rail links. The M40 passes through Oxfordshire, connecting it to the M25 and the midlands. I am familiar with that stretch of road, as I travel on it not infrequently. There is a network of strategic A roads, including the A34, which provides access to the coast and to Southampton, and the A40, which provides links to the west. Several major railway lines pass through the

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county, including the First Great Western main line, the Birmingham-Didcot line, the Chiltern line and the Cotswold line. I have used some of those recently, to visit the Oxford area and others.

The county council has produced a strong local transport plan, which has been endorsed by all the district councils in the area. We have designated the county council as a centre of excellence for transport planning. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will be pleased to endorse that. The authority also won the national transport award for bus policies in 2001 and is short-listed for the 2002 award for the local authority of the year. Much that goes on in Oxfordshire is positive. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman did not have time to mention it all, but I thought that the subject was worth mentioning.

Again, the hon. Gentleman did not have time to mention the extra funding that the Government made available to Oxfordshire county council. In 2001–02, we allocated over £18.5 million to the council for local transport schemes, which represented an increase of some £7 million compared with the previous year. One does not need much of a facility in arithmetic to realise that that is a substantial increase in percentage terms.

I know that the hon. Gentleman has some facility in arithmetic because he was formerly an adviser to the noble Lord Lamont, the former Chancellor. He must have assisted the Chancellor greatly in his deliberations. I thought that he might argue today that if VAT on fuel had been retained at 17.5 per cent, people would have paid £1 in every £8 extra on their fuel bills, which might have contributed to transport schemes. At any rate, we have found the extra money. For the current financial year, we have provided a further £18.6 million. It is the first time that a Government have provided funding consistently and predictably over a period of at least five years, so that highways authorities such as Oxfordshire can plan ahead, rather than having to chop and change from year to year, as was necessary in the past.

I am aware that the hon. Gentleman is a cyclist and that, last year, he completed a sponsored cycle ride to all 85 parishes in the Witney constituency, covering 220 miles in five days. He will be aware that cycling is a key component of the transport strategy in Oxfordshire. The census tells us that the county has above-average cycle use in the journey to work. One might expect that for the city of Oxford itself, but it is also the case in Abingdon, Didcot and Witney. Leisure cycling is well supported, with three national cycling network routes converging on Oxford. There is also the Oxfordshire cycleway, which offers a quiet circular route along rural roads.

The hon. Gentleman referred to some of the elements of the Oxford transport strategy, which is a groundbreaking approach to urban transport that has succeeded in increasing bus use by 50 per cent. since 1991. Air quality has improved in the centre of Oxford, which was a considerable problem, and the pedestrianised streets are much more pleasant for shoppers.

The county and city councils have ambitious plans for the future and want improved public transport for Oxford. I would be happy to accompany the hon.

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Gentleman down the A40; he suggested using a motorbike or a car, but if a bus were available, I should be happy to travel on it with him to see what progress it made at busy times. The councils are introducing a system of premium routes for quality bus corridors around the city and working on the concept of the guided transit express or GTE. If approved, that system would provide a network of public transport routes within the city, linking park and ride sites with outlying towns such as Witney. That would bring enormous benefits for the hon. Gentleman's constituency.

In the hon. Gentleman's constituency, the county and district councils are working to review the Witney integrated transport strategy. A draft revised strategy is expected to be published for consultation in the autumn, and work has already begun on some measures. The hon. Gentleman can expect to see several new pedestrian crossings, as well as the Shores Green to Newland cycle route and Cogges footpath and cycleways improvements. There will also be improvements to roundabouts for cyclists and pedestrians and traffic calming on Moor avenue.

The hon. Gentleman has recently become a father and I congratulate him on the birth of his son, Ivan. I am surprised to see him here today, because I thought he would be busy changing nappies and doing all the other things that new fathers must do these days. In the near future, he will have to think about journeys to school; I can assure him that that creeps up very rapidly. The Government are determined that travel to school should be safe and sustainable. The daily school run in the family car may be seen as the safest option, but it does not teach children road sense. It creates considerable congestion at certain times of day and does not have the health benefits of cycling and walking. The school run also adds enormously not just to congestion, but to pollution. We believe that children and parents deserve the chance to choose more sustainable modes of transport where practicable. Local transport plans provide the opportunity for Witney and other towns in Oxfordshire to look at improved facilities to solve some of the problems of congestion to which the hon. Gentleman referred.

Mr. Cameron : I am glad that the Under-Secretary's reply shows that his Department is not following the rules on not digging up information on the Member concerned. His contribution is colourful and I thank him for that.

If Oxfordshire county council decides that the answer to the pressing problem of the A40 is a guided tramway system using part of the old railway, will the Government support that and help to fund it? Do they share my view that the problems of the A40 between Witney and Oxford are a major transport issue that needs attention to prevent our county from choking?

Mr. Jamieson : I can assure the hon. Gentleman that my Department has not been digging up information about him or anyone else. My knowledge of him is just part of my interest in new Members and their background.

Any local authority scheme faces hurdles and must be shown to be feasible, after which appropriate funding can be applied for, but the initiative must come from the highways authority; in this case, Oxfordshire.

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The hon. Gentleman referred to railways and the 10-year plan. We all agree that our railways have suffered from massive under-investment for a very long time and we are now seeing, for the first time, a substantial increase in real-terms investment in our railways. However, I must tell him, as I must tell my constituents, who are less well served with road and rail services, that we cannot do everything with the limited funds available. He listed some improvements that could be made—for example, at railway stations—and some of them could be tackled through rail passenger partnership funding. It is for the highways authority to work with the SRA on schemes for better linkages with other public transport, to improve parking, to make stations more attractive for passengers and so on. Matters such as these can be discussed urgently by the hon. Gentleman and by the highways authority.

The hon. Gentleman suggested a vertically integrated train system. It is a pity that his advice was not given in the mid-1990s when the rail system was privatised and broken up. The hon. Gentleman also referred to the "Prescott lane" on the M4 and was a little churlish. The lane was controversial initially, but the reports that have passed my desk since have shown that it has improved the flow of traffic—[Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman may scoff, but if the statistics show that it has improved the flow of traffic—I often use that stretch of road myself—we must accept that.

The hon. Gentleman raised a number of other points and it will be difficult to cover them all in the time available. However, I can tell him that the local highways authority has received substantial extra funds. Perhaps he ought to see what schemes the authority can work on to improve his constituency. If there are matters that are my Department's responsibility that we have not had time to cover today, I should be happy to cover them in correspondence.

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