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Road Charging

5. Mr. John Wilkinson (Ruislip-Northwood): What recent meetings he has had with interest groups about proposed road user charging. [71416]

The Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. Alistair Darling): I have had a number of meetings to discuss road user charging with the British Chambers of Commerce, the Freight Transport Association and the Road Haulage Association.

Mr. Wilkinson : Is the Secretary of State aware that the London chamber of commerce insists that road user charges should be introduced only after there has been a measurable improvement in public transport in London? Is it not the case that that has not happened since the right hon. Gentleman's Government came to power, or his erstwhile colleague the present Mayor took office? Will the right hon. Gentleman undertake to review the situation? We have enough taxes on businesses and individuals in London already, and is not the deal very poor, inasmuch as in the first year of

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operation road user charges will cost #200 million to introduce, whereas the income will be #130 million? It would be much better to put the #200 million into the tube system now.

Mr. Darling: I agree with the hon. Gentleman that before any charging is introduced public transport must be improved. Although I have many differences with the Mayor of London, the one thing that is clear is that he has put more money into public transport, particularly buses, and bus usage in London is increasing. The congestion charging scheme in London is a matter for the Mayor of London, and the Mayor alone. The Government have no jurisdiction over it. However, any congestion charging scheme must have clear and deliverable objectives, it must be designed to cut congestion, pollution and accidents, it must be a workable scheme and the consequences of its introduction must be properly thought out. There also needs to be general public acceptance of the scheme. It is for the Mayor to satisfy himself on those points.

The final thing that I would say to the hon. Gentleman, who I think is trying to tackle this matter in a reasonable way, is that those people in London who have concerns about the scheme should also ask themselves what measures they would adopt to reduce congestion. The Tory party has no such suggestions at all.

Kate Hoey (Vauxhall): The Secretary of State really cannot be allowed to wash his hands of this. He is the Secretary of State for Transport, so what is he going to do to stop the dictatorship of Transport for London? Residents are beginning to feel completely powerless; they are not listened to. As for the likely effects of congestion charging in my area, every single school that is within the congestion charging zone is already being told by teachers that they plan to leave because they are not prepared to pay #1,000 extra every year. Those are people who have travelled into the area for many years. I appeal to the Secretary of State—he cannot afford to wash his hands of this matter. He must intervene and do something for the people of London.

Mr. Darling: The Secretary of State can do many things, but he cannot act outwith his powers. Whether my hon. Friend likes it or not, Parliament decided to devolve to the Mayor of London powers in relation to transport. Whether we like it or not—and I do not and I do not think that my hon. Friend does—the good people of London decided to elect the present Mayor. I do not suppose that she supported him any more than I did, but the fact is that this is the Mayor's responsibility. I have told the House that I believe that any congestion scheme must have clear objectives, must be workable and should command broad support. It is a consequence of devolution that these powers have gone to the Mayor of London. It is for the Mayor of London to make them work. Although I fully understand my hon. Friend's point of view because I have read comments about it in the XSouth London Press" and elsewhere, the fact is that the Mayor must get the scheme right because it is his responsibility.

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Mr. Jonathan Djanogly (Huntingdon): The Secretary of State says that this is a matter for the Mayor alone, but what about all those non-Londoners—the commuters who have to come into London every day—who will be made to suffer? They are not additional optional extras; they are needed in the capital to work and to make this country work. They will be suffering, and that is a matter about which the Secretary of State should be concerned.

Mr. Darling: The point that I was making is that, for the most part, responsibility for transport in London is devolved to the Mayor. It is for the Mayor to decide whether he introduces a congestion charge and, if so, in what form. I understand fully the point that the hon. Gentleman makes about people coming in and out of London, but it is not just a question of congestion charging; other measures designed to alleviate congestion on the streets of London are being taken. We discussed earlier rail improvements and other road improvements, so action is being taken across the piece to improve the situation—but the responsibility for the congestion charging scheme lies with the Mayor as a direct consequence of devolution to London.

Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich): The Secretary of State will be aware that the Select Committee is starting an investigation into road user charges. I look forward to hearing from him on that occasion. Can he confirm that he does, in fact, support congestion charging, as incorporated in the Transport Bill in 2000?

Mr. Darling: Many of us voted for that Transport Bill—now the Transport Act 2000—and I shall make my position clear. I have been very clear about the fact that measures need to be taken to tackle congestion not only in London, but in many other towns and cities in this country. Whether such measures are introduced is a matter for the local authorities concerned. That has to be the case because it must be the job of local councillors to decide what is right for their areas, but, again, I make the point that those people who say that they will have nothing to do with congestion charging, road pricing or anything like that have to consider the consequences of what they say, because the status quo of simply allowing streets which were never designed for the present volume of traffic, to become more and more clogged is simply not a realistic option. Whether or not the London scheme in particular or any other scheme that happens to come along is workable—whether it has clear objectives and is deliverable—is a matter for those charged with responsibility for introducing such schemes: the Mayor of London and councils in other parts of the country.

Road Building

7. Mr. David Amess (Southend, West): What recent representations he has received from the Civil Engineering Contractors Association about new road building projects. [71418]

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8. Richard Ottaway (Croydon, South): What recent representations he has received from the Automobile Association about new road building projects. [71419]

The Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. Alistair Darling): I have met representatives of the Automobile Association and the Motorists Forum, on which the AA is represented, to discuss road transport. My right hon. Friend the Minister for Transport hopes to meet the Civil Engineering Contractors Association soon.

Mr. Amess: I had anticipated that answer, but does the Secretary of State agree that, in the interests of the efficient delivery of the Government's road building programme and best value in public investment, it would be jolly helpful if there could be some indication of when there will be demand for the services of the Civil Engineering Contractors Association? So in that spirit, will he tell the House when there is likely to be an announcement of major road improvements such as those in the multi-modal integrated transport studies?

Mr. Darling: That is a very fair point, and I hope to be able to make an announcement on a number of the multi-modal schemes that are before me in the next few months.

Richard Ottaway : The Secretary of State will be aware that the A23 Coulsdon relief road in my constituency was one of the 34 projects announced by the Government in July 1998. He will also be aware that responsibility for building that road was transferred to the Mayor of London in 2000. In 2001, the Mayor said that he could not build it because the Government had not given him enough money to do so. Now that the Mayor is looking at it again, can the Secretary of State assure me that the Government will provide enough funding for that project to be built and that there will be no excuses about it being a matter for the Mayor?

Mr. Darling: I am not certainly going to get into the position where the Mayor comes to me every time that he has run out of money and says, XPlease give me the money to meet all my commitments." The hon. Gentleman very fairly recognises that that road is the responsibility of Transport for London. The Government give TFL its budget—it is a significantly increased budget—but the Mayor, who is democratically elected, has to decide what are his priorities. We cannot be in a position where he simply spends the money and then comes back to the Government saying XPlease pay up." No Government of whatever political colour would ever get themselves into that situation.

Mr. John Redwood (Wokingham): Is the Secretary of State aware that south-east England is chronically short of transport capacity of all kinds—railway routes and roads? Will he come to the House soon to tell us how he proposes to ease road congestion by road widening and junction improvements? Is he aware that the South East England Development Agency does not speak for people in my constituency, as it has tried to block necessary expansions of capacity and turned a blind eye

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to chronic shortage and congestion? Would it not be better to abolish that body and spend the money on road improvements?

Mr. Darling: I admire the right hon. Gentleman's brass neck in many ways. It would have been nice if investment in road and rail had been sustained over the past 20 to 30 years. Many of the problems about which he and his constituents rightly complain are a result of two things. One is growing prosperity—there are more cars and more people with reasons to travel. Unfortunately, however, that comes on top of a failure of successive Governments to make the necessary investments in transport infrastructure. In relation to junctions, I hope that, if we are able to make progress, I will be able to say something that may cheer him up.

Mr. Tony McWalter (Hemel Hempstead): Will my right hon. Friend bear in mind the urgent need for new road systems for east-west traffic in counties such as Hertfordshire? For instance, the M10—now about 20 years old—between the M1 and the A1 gets halfway and suddenly disintegrates, and a large number of bottlenecks occur over a five-mile stretch. Will my right hon. Friend try to ensure that east-west links are properly considered in relation to new road building?

Mr. Darling: I agree with my hon. Friend. I know that there is a problem with east-west links in a number of places. As I said, I hope to make announcements in the not-too-distant future following the multi-modal studies. I have noted that representations have been made not just by Labour Members but by Conservatives and Liberals, too. I hope that those representations will be as robust when the shouts of protest go up, when the decisions are made by people who hold completely different views.

Mr. Christopher Chope (Christchurch): Is the Secretary of State ashamed that his Government have cut investment in roads over the last five years? Last night, at the Freight Transport Association dinner, he made a welcome U-turn, recognising that congestion causes accidents, creates pollution and costs money. In the past five years, under his Government, 50 per cent. more time has been wasted by employees owing to congestion on the roads. When will the Government be able to claim that they have reduced congestion to the levels that existed in 1997?

Mr. Darling: One of the reasons why congestion was less of a problem before 1997 was very high unemployment and one of the deepest recessions that this country has ever seen, of which, if I remember rightly, the hon. Gentleman was one of the principal architects as it was his ideology that got us there. In the spirit of being nice, I am glad that he enjoyed my speech last night, in which I simply reiterated what I have been saying since I was appointed to this job in May. If he holds his horses, I will make another speech tomorrow in which I will develop those themes and my approach towards road building more fully.

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