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15 Oct 2002 : Column 170—continued

Regional Development Agencies

9. Lawrie Quinn (Scarborough and Whitby): How his Department will work with the regional development agencies in planning improvements for transport routes and systems within England. [71420]

The Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. Alistair Darling): My Department is committed to working closely with regional development agencies to identify transport improvements that can enhance regional economic prosperity.

I am also asking the Highways Agency to press on with a package of improvements to tackle congestion and improve safety at around 90 junctions across the motorway and trunk road network in England. The package is valued at about #145 million. The agency aims to open all these schemes to traffic in the next five years. I will place a list of the junctions and a map giving their locations in the Libraries of both Houses of Parliament.

Lawrie Quinn : I warmly welcome that answer to my question. In the light of that, would the Secretary of State care to look at the Highways Agency's final strategy for the A64 corridor? Given that economic development should drive road schemes, should not schemes such as the improvements required on the A64 to the Yorkshire coast be somewhere near the top of that package in relation to the trans-Pennine routes?

Mr. Darling: I know that the A64 is currently the subject of a development agency study that will be considered by the Highways Agency. My hon. Friend is right that economic development is a consideration, but so too is the pressing need to tackle congestion and to improve road safety in different parts of the country. There are, therefore, different considerations in different parts of the country, and they all need to be addressed in their own way. Our objective is to make sure that we can build a more reliable road network that will assist and underpin our economic growth. A successful economy needs a transport system that can move people and goods around more effectively. However, we must also get our priorities right. Pollution and increasing safety, as well as economic regeneration, are also important.

Mr. John Butterfill (Bournemouth, West): The Secretary of State will be aware that the south-east Dorset conurbation is the largest one in the south-west, yet there are no rail links between it and the Government offices in Bristol or westwards to the proposed regional seat of government in Exeter. The condition of the road links is even more parlous. Parts of the A31, A35 and the A350 resemble mediaeval cart tracks, so is it not the responsibility of the regional development agency and the Secretary of State to make an effort to improve communications?

Mr. Darling: I have some sympathy with the hon. Gentleman's view. He is right to highlight the fact that in some parts of the country—parts of the south-west of England, in particular—transport links historically look to London and not, for example, to the south coast and to Bristol. He is right to suggest that such issues need to

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be considered, but that will take time. However, in the next few months I hope to make announcements about a number of road and rail improvements. One thing that is striking in the south-west and other areas is that for everyone who wants a road there are rather a lot of people who do not want one. [Hon. Members: XThe Liberal Democrats."] Yes, the Liberal Democrats are on both sides, and usually in respect of the same road. Very often the same people say different things to different people. However, the Liberals are not the only ones to do that. All of us as motorists want to be able to drive around the country, but all of us as environmentalists and conservationists want to be absolutely sure before we give the go-ahead to road improvements.

I will consider these issues, but let no one think that that is easy. We live in an extremely overcrowded island and all these proposals are controversial. As I said, my fundamental objective is to see what we can do to reduce the amount of congestion and to improve safety. That is how I will approach the issue in the south-west of England and in other areas.

Caroline Flint (Don Valley): In my right hon. Friend's dealings with the regional development agencies, what thought has he given to the Government reviewing the way in which bus services are delivered? In south Yorkshire and Doncaster, we have erratic and dirty services that are taken off on a whim. The service needs to be expanded but the money is not there. Furthermore, when will we consider the expansion of school transport as a fundamental means of reducing congestion on our roads?

Mr. Darling: I have some sympathy with my hon. Friend on that latter point. She will know that in three areas—two in England and one in Wales—FirstBus is trying out the yellow buses that are used in the United States to take children to school. The objective is to encourage children to use a dedicated bus service rather than have their parents drive them to school. The reports will not be ready until the end of next year, but the interim reports are encouraging. Therefore, I certainly want to consider such schemes and, if possible, extend them further.

On the general point about buses, the fact is that in some parts of the country bus usage has gone up quite dramatically. For example, in Oxford—where there is a good bus service and a local authority that has gone out of its way to encourage bus travel—usage has gone up by 50 per cent. In other parts of the country, the record is lamentable. Therefore, rather than embark on fresh legislation, which I suspect would lead to a degree of planning blight, my objective is to see whether we can extend what works in some parts of the country to others, so that we can make far better use of bus services and make sure that they are as reliable as other forms of transport.

Cotswold Line

10. Mr. David Cameron (Witney): What plans he has to discuss the Cotswold line with the Strategic Rail Authority. [71422]

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The Minister for Transport (Mr. John Spellar): The Strategic Rail Authority has consulted on the possible combination of the First Great Western and Thames Trains franchises, which will include the Cotswold line, and will announce the outcome in due course.

Mr. Cameron : I thank the Minister for that reply. Is he aware that the Cotswold line provides a lifeline to my constituency in west Oxfordshire because it is the only significant rail service? Is he further aware that it is a single line for most of the way between Oxford and Moreton and that most rural stations have extremely short platforms that limit the number and type of services that can use them? Will he hold urgent discussions with the SRA about dualling and upgrading the line, because there is very little in the 10-year plan for people living in west Oxfordshire?

Mr. Spellar: The SRA is considering means in the existing structure that might allow it to provide an hourly service. That would be much welcomed. Indeed, it is indeed one of the demands of the partnership. The hon. Gentleman rightly identifies short platforms as a problem in a number of areas and we are looking again at cost effective ways of lengthening some platforms so that longer trains can run on many more sections of the railway.

We know from the Chiltern line, which is not too far from the hon. Gentleman's constituency, that such measures lead to a considerable increase in ridership and a sizeable modal shift. A further extension of that line in the west midlands means that it now runs from Kidderminster to London and provides a welcome service. The hon. Gentleman can see how we have managed to expand the service. The SRA is working not just with the train companies but with local councils to see how we can replicate some of those measures on the Cotswold line.


The Minister of State was asked—

Public Services

34. Mr. Ben Chapman (Wirral, South): If he will make a statement on the progress with monitoring customer satisfaction with the delivery of public services. [71403]

The Minister of State, Cabinet Office (Mr. Douglas Alexander): Thirty pieces of research were undertaken over a three-year period from 1998 through the people's panel. This research stimulated a significant increase in the amount of customer feedback collected by Departments and contributed to the reform agenda for customer-focused public service and effective allocation of public resources.

Mr. Chapman : Does my hon. Friend agree that given the levels of investment now being put into public services, people might reasonably expect to find improvements in quality, productivity and timeliness in

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their delivery? What plans does he have for the benchmarking of public service standards so that people can be told effectively whether or not those are achieved?

Mr. Alexander: My hon. Friend will be aware that benchmarking exists in a number of Departments. Perhaps the best known example is the British crime survey undertaken by the Home Office. I should also point out that the Prime Minister's recent speeches, pamphlets and comments make our determination clear to the whole country not just to put resources into public services, but to match those resources with reform and thereby achieve the productivity and efficiency gains of which my hon. Friend speaks.

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst): Does the Minister accept that asking people whether they are satisfied or not is an important part of the process? Why do the Government persist in denying choice to the customers of public services? When will they allow patients and parents to choose to seek another source of a public service if they are dissatisfied? It is one thing to ask them: why not let them vote with their feet?

Mr. Alexander: I commend to the right hon. Gentleman the Fabian pamphlet written by the Prime Minister just before the party conferences which made clear our ambition to have not just universal provision but the customised service that the British people now desire. There is, however, a fundamental divide between those of us who want such choices within the public sector and those who would starve the public sector of the resources necessary to match the reform.

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