THURSDAY 22 NOVEMBER 2001
Mr John Horam, in the Chair
Memorandum submitted by Department for Transport,
Local Government and the Regions
Examination of Witnesses
RT HON STEPHEN BYERS, a Member of the House, Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and Regional Affairs, and DR ALAN WHITEHEAD, a Member of the House, Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Transport, Local Government and the Regions, Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions, examined.
(Mr Byers) I am sorry about that.
(Mr Byers) Just to say, as you know, Chairman, this is not the first time that I have appeared in front of your Committee to discuss these issues, although the first time as Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions. As you will certainly be aware, when I was Secretary of State for Trade and Industry I tried to move forward very much on the agenda which is at the heart of this Committee=s work, and I certainly want to do the same in this new Department. I think there are some interesting machinery of government changes which I would be very interested in due course to hear from the Committee on in its recommendations on the alterations which have been introduced. I am still very much of the view, as I was when I was Secretary of State for Trade and industry, that really for all Government Departments the sustainable development agenda has got to be a key focus because it cuts across so many different areas. You touched on transport, local government, the regions, planning, housing, in all of those areas for which I now have responsibility the sustainable agenda is really a very key part of what we do. I and Alan Whitehead, as Minister with specific responsibility for this area, are looking forward to not just giving evidence before you today, and I do apologise for the memorandum coming to you so late in the day, but then to receiving your recommendations in due course.
Chairman: Thank you for saying that, Secretary of State, we are always glad to have the importance of sustainable development emphasised and, as you say, it is very much a cross-cutting issue which is why the relations between your Department and other Departments is so very important. I know Mr Wright wants to lead off on this.
(Mr Byers) The decision to restructure Government after the June election was made, I think, for very clear reasons. Part of the General Election campaign was very much about delivery of public services, at least it was for the Government. Perhaps for the Conservatives it was more about Europe and where we should go in terms of the single currency, but ----
(Mr Byers) I was not making a party political point, Chairman, as you will realise. The more serious about it is this question of delivery. If you look at the changes that were introduced, the Home Office had a number of its responsibilities that were taken out. We now are responsible for fire and for electoral law matters because the Home Office is now very focused on delivery in relation to tackling crime, asylum and immigration, that is their key focus. In my Department the key focus is obviously transport and the view was taken by the Prime Minister that environment is so important, is so crucial, that it needed to be in its own Department, as it were, to make sure there could be a proper concentration on the various initiatives, not just here in the United Kingdom but worldwide, that we are engaged in as a Government. What that does mean in practice is how we can make sure with the areas that I have got responsibility for, whether it is transport, planning, local government, housing, regeneration and so on, that we do not ignore the environmental concerns. When you look at the areas we have got responsibility for, particularly transport and planning, then environment has to be key to what we do. The fact that, if you like, almost the sponsor Department for environment is elsewhere, does not give any excuse for me as Secretary of State to ignore the environmental consequences of any decisions that we take. It is very important that as a Department we have in place proper processes and proper procedures to make sure, firstly, we have a very good and constructive working relationship with the Department for Environment and, secondly, within our own Department we take into account environmental concerns in the decisions that we take, and I think we have managed to do that, and, thirdly, the idea of developing ourselves, our own policy, as far as sustainable development is concerned. This was something I did when I was Secretary of State for Trade and Industry and it was very important in that Department, which traditionally was regarded as one which did not think very much about the environment, to have a policy on sustainable development and I intend to do the same within this Department as well.
(Mr Byers) I am sure this Committee will not allow it to happen and I do think there will be pressures from Members of this House but also from the public. What has struck me over recent months, perhaps the last year or 18 months, is that the quality of life agenda, livability agenda, is now of far greater importance to people than it used to be. That is a very important political lesson for all of us to learn as elected politicians, that we cannot ignore the concerns that people have got about the environment, about their quality of life, about what is going on in their own environment. When there are structure of government changes, machinery of government changes, they do need to reflect the priorities of the people out there. If you talk to the Secretary of State at DEFRA, she is acutely aware of the importance of the environmental agenda and I am pretty sure she will not allow the MAFF agenda, if I can put it that way, to dominate.
(Mr Byers) I think we have put in place good and meaningful procedures and arrangements. I was very conscious, and perhaps these are worries Members of the Committee have got, that with environment moving out of the Department that would then mean that those sorts of issues just would not be addressed at all. I thought it was important to make sure that we had structures in place, both formal and informal, to make sure that the very good working relationships which were clearly there when it was one Department could be continued in the new arrangements. There is actually a concordat which has been agreed between the two Departments at Permanent Secretary level which the Secretary of State for DEFRA and myself have agreed to. It might be valuable if we can share that concordat with the Committee.
(Mr Byers) If I could just check with the Secretary of State for DEFRA that she is happy, and I am sure she will be, then it will be useful for you to be able to see that. Also, working relationships at ministerial level where we have a good formal relationship where I see the Secretary of State for DEFRA every couple of months on a formal basis and we also talk informally. Obviously we see each other every week at Cabinet. That works through the ministerial teams as well. There is a member of DEFRA on our Transport Board, for example, to make sure that those concerns which might be there on environmental aspects are considered. There is a very good cross-working relationship between the two Departments.
(Mr Byers) I am sure that was not the case. From where I understand the Committee are coming from, I think the Committee themselves could see benefits of a Department of that nature. I think what has happened since 1997 is that, particularly on the international stage environment, as we all know, has taken on greater importance which has meant if we are going to be engaged as a global player we have had to commit a lot more of our time not just to the environment and issues to do with the environment here in the United Kingdom but have had to be players on the international stage. Very often that has involved Secretaries of State, Deputy Prime Ministers being away for seven days at international conferences, it is very time-consuming, it has taken up a lot of time of civil servants. I think on reflection, now that we know that these are international matters that are going to be dealt with, there was sense in actually taking environment out. I take your point about it being part of a wider Department but I think if you talk to the Secretary of State at DEFRA she will say that a lot of her time is spent on issues to do with the environment and it is not being ignored. I think most people thought, and even this Committee may have said so in the previous Parliament, that there was merit in trying to make the links between environment, transport, planning and so on.
(Mr Byers) I do not see it as being torn apart. What I do see it as being is a transport plan, which we have got in place, the Ten Year Plan, which will take into account those issues to do with congestion, to do with emissions and so on, which some people would say is the straight environment agenda. To me, that is part of a good transport policy. It is almost about main streaming the environment. This is the classic debate, is it not, about whether you have environment as a self-contained monitoring body which then imposes itself on transport, on planning, on housing, or whether people in those Departments, in the teams in my Department, actually see the environment as being an integral part of what they do in developing policies in those areas. The benefit from having had the environment within the Department between 1997 and 2001 is that people in the Department are now more acutely aware of environmental concerns. Certainly in the conversations that I have with civil servants they do not ignore the environment. There are areas when I do not naturally think of the environment where they are saying Aactually we do need to think about the environment@.
(Mr Byers) I do not think so because of the political priority that is going to be attached to the environment. I know machinery of government is fascinating for all of us but ultimately, certainly as Secretary of State, what drives me is responding to the political needs of people out there.
(Mr Byers) They should take the lead from the Secretary of State in my view. If it is a priority for myself and the ministerial team then we make sure that we get submissions, we get advice on these issues so that we can see when we take a range of matters into account, local transport plans, planning and so on, then issues to do with the environment are reflected in those decisions that we take. We just keep reminding people of the need to address these concerns. I do not think the machinery of government changes of themselves will lead to a reduction of the impact of concern about the environment, but it is for us, as politicians, to make sure that it is regarded as a priority and it should not be a bureaucratic, administrative requirement.
(Dr Whitehead) I wonder if I might add, Chairman. I think this is underlined by the role that I have been given in the Departmental Ministerial Team as the Department=s Green Minister. That is not a role which is simply about green housekeeping within the Department, although in the past Green Ministers in various Departments have been viewed, I think erroneously, as people who simply made sure the Department was green in its actions internally. That is certainly not the case as far as DTLR is concerned. I have a board level DTLR official as Sustainable Development Chairman working within the Department, a sustainable development team established and, indeed, the watchword of sustainable development within the Department is central in terms of our policy development particularly, for example, in terms of the submissions that are presently being discussed for Spending Review 2002, all of which I will see as Green Departmental Minister to ensure, among other things, that central view of sustainable development as a theme within the Department=s activities is maintained coherently.
(Mr Byers) I think it is still there to be honest. We are back to the classic debate about whether you have a separate, free standing Department, and in this case it is environment, or whether you try to mainstream environmental issues within particular policy areas.
(Mr Byers) No, they are not, but I do think if one looks back at the experience of a free standing Department of the Environment, I am not absolutely convinced. It was called the Department of the Environment but had a lot more things added to it, to be honest, it had local government and so on, so it was not Mr Barker=s example of ----
(Mr Byers) Yes, the pre-1997 Department that was called Department of the Environment but, in fact, included a lot more than just environment.
(Mr Byers) I go back to the point I was making earlier. I very much believe that you can mainstream environment in those important policy areas and it should not be seen as something which is isolated and not part of what you might be doing in trade and industry or now transport, local government, planning and so on.
(Mr Byers) Some might say that we were responding to the demands being made by the then Opposition who were very critical of ----
(Mr Byers) You will remember the situation before the last election, Chairman, when there was lots of criticism of DETR, as it then was, for the reasons that Mr Simmonds has mentioned, that it was seen to be a rather large and unwieldy Department. On the serious point about NGOs and groups getting used to the issues, I would hope that those people will feel certainly within my Department that they still get a warm welcome, that they do have input into what we are doing in specific policy areas and they are not somehow being ignored. That is the responsibility of any Secretary of State in a new Department, where you develop those good working relationships you make sure they can be retained. I was acutely aware of those concerns, so very early on I had a drinks reception for NGOs representing environmental interests just to say very clearly that environment has moved to a different Department but this is still going to be very much at the heart of what I want to do in this new Department. I can understand the concerns but really what we have got to do, and the challenge for me as Secretary of State, is to make sure that we can engage with those people, that it is a changed set-up but, nevertheless, they feel they have got a genuine part to play in developing our policies, in forming our thinking in these very important areas.
(Mr Byers) I look forward to seeing the recommendations from the Committee and if that is the case I will certainly reinforce my efforts to engage with NGOs. That should not be the case. If that is happening, and I will look at the evidence you took last week, that is not good and we need to do more to make sure that there are processes in place where NGOs feel that they are playing a valuable role, because they do.
(Mr Byers) Perhaps the Secretary of State has a plan in that direction. I do not know whether she has given evidence yet but if she does you might want to put the question to her.
(Mr Byers) I do not think it needs to but it could do. That means I think we have to be very mindful of the potential to get ourselves into a position where we do not pay enough regard to sustainable development issues when we develop our transport plans. What we need to do, I think, especially as we develop the Ten Year Transport Plan, which always has to be adapted to changing circumstances, is to make sure those issues which are of concern, whether it be congestion, the effect on local environment, emissions, all of those effects have to be factored into our decisions. Certainly when we look at things like road building, for example, they are very much at the heart of our consideration, particularly with a major project where environmental protection is going to be very close certainly to my heart when it comes to the decision making process.
(Mr Byers) Some of it is procedural. Very pleasantly and occasionally the Secretary of State and myself will get together and have a drink and informally ----
(Mr Byers) A nice sort of concordat to have. As you know, Chairman, it is often the best way of doing business. It is making sure ministers meet on a regular basis to discuss issues of common concern, that we consult each other on potential candidates for relevant public appointments where it is appropriate for ministers to be involved. We obviously are together jointly on some significant outside bodies like the Central Local Partnership where we talk with local governments about issues, and DEFRA is a member of that. We are the lead Department but DEFRA are on it. There are joint meetings of management boards between the two Departments. Working together in areas where, for example, if there is a major decision coming up then we will consult DEFRA, sometimes formally, sometimes informally, about the way in which our decision making process is going. The one exception to that, because of the quasi-judicial role that I play as Secretary of State, is in planning matters we cannot formally involve DEFRA. We receive advice and representations from them but we have to treat them like any other organisation in terms of the representations that they make. The concordat covers a range of very practical approaches to make sure that we continue to talk to each other. Certainly from early days we have put that in place informally, the concordat is now there and is working well.
Chairman: We will be very glad to have sight of that.
(Mr Byers) I think the way in which we can address this is to provide people with a genuine choice as far as the mode of travel is concerned. If you have a poor railway system, if you have a London Underground which is not really fit for the 21st Century then you find people will be more likely to be driven to use their cars. What we need to do is to ensure that people have a choice and do not feel that they have no option but to use their cars, so the challenge is to invest and to see improvements, whether it is in railways, in buses, in the London Underground and so on. That is something we have got to do and if we do that and get good public transport in place then I think we can begin to see a reversal in terms of people having the option available to them.
(Mr Byers) I think it is true to say that road traffic has grown steadily in the United Kingdom not just in the last couple of years but for decades and that is a trend which, in fact, can be seen in all other developed countries and it is something which takes place. I am not someone who wants to set out as an objective to try to stop people using their cars if that is their preferred mode of travel. The challenge for me, and it is a challenge, is to actually provide people with a decent public transport system so they do not feel compelled to use their cars and that, in a sense, is more difficult I think.
(Mr Byers) I think there is room for improvement and that is the message I get from the electorate, that they want to see improvement. We have got to take some pretty tough and difficult decisions, and take them quickly, if we are to see the improvements in railways, improvements in the London Underground, that people want to see. I would be the first to accept, and I have said this publicly many times before, I do not feel we have either a railway system or a London Underground system which is appropriate for the fourth largest economy in the world, which is what we are.
(Mr Byers) The challenge is to meet the target. The point I am trying to make is I do not feel that the right way to meet the target is by somehow penalising and punishing the motorist.
(Mr Byers) You do it by actually looking at it the other way, and this is more difficult for Government, I think, because there are ways in which you can penalise and punish the motorist, but the better way in my view is to give them a genuine alternative which is a decent public transport system. I know from my brief time in this job as Secretary of State that being able to provide a decent public transport system is going to be quite a challenge but that, in my view, has to be the way that you do it.
(Mr Byers) I think not because we are seeing in the Ten Year Plan some significant developments. For example, we will see 25 light rail systems being developed over the ten year period. If one looks, say, at the success of Croydon, that is a good example of how with a good tram system, in that particular case, you can actually take people off the road and into public transport.
(Mr Byers) That is a sign of economic success, Chairman.
(Dr Whitehead) Might I add, Chairman, that it is estimated that the effect of the Ten Year Transport Plan will be to reduce congestion overall by six per cent. If we compare that with a base line of ----
(Dr Whitehead) The point about a Ten Year Transport Plan is it does take time to take up. It is the case that it is possible that congestion will get worse before it gets better.
(Dr Whitehead) The point that I think is important is to make sure that there is a plan which is based on sustainability, which the Transport Plan is, which not only provides opportunities and facilities for people to switch to alternative modes of transport but also, for example, undertakes things which reduce the impact of the vehicle itself upon the environment as that plan unfolds. Indeed, for example, the Department will be consulting on alternative vehicle powering arrangements in the near future.
Chairman: That is all long-term again.
(Mr Byers) I am charged with delivering the Ten Year Plan which started in April of this year and the Ten Year Plan will be delivered. Can I say that if you are quoting from the Deputy Prime Minister, I think he is right in that there will be more people using public transport than was the case in 1997 but there are also more people using their cars. I have to say you said, Chairman, this is not a party political Committee but if you want to have a party political ding-dong then let us get the gloves off and we can have it. The reality is that because of the success that we have made of the economy a million more people are in work, which means they are not stuck at home doing nothing, they are actually travelling to work, and because some of them have now got a decent income because of the minimum wage they can afford a car and they are using that to get to work. That is what has happened and it is because of the economic success that we have delivered. Now, the Ten Year Plan, which is the important issue I thought the Committee might be interested in, which started in April, and we are now just six months into it, will make a very real difference. The reason why it will make a real difference is because whilst we are not going to penalise and punish motorists, we will be investing in good, decent public transport, that will make a difference, and we are also going to be developing road schemes, for example, which will help reduce congestion and we will be supporting innovation and developments which will reduce emissions from the motorcar. I think if the Committee looks at the Ten Year Plan in the round, and as I say we are only six, seven months into it, you will see that plan, very ambitious, the first time that any Government in this country has had a Ten Year Transport Plan, will make a real difference not just to benefit the travelling public but also to benefit the environment as well. When one looks at, for example, our proposals for Local Transport Plans, which we will be publishing before the turn of this year, I think the Committee will be pleased at the extent to which we have taken into account environmental concerns in arriving at the decisions in relation to those plans.
(Mr Byers) I am perfectly entitled to explain to you that the big change that we have seen since 1997 is a significant improvement in the economic situation of the United Kingdom.
(Mr Byers) I am not sure. I know the Deputy Prime Minister always looks on the bright side of things and, to follow on the point that has been made, he does connect with the electorate like no-one else. I do not think even the Deputy Prime Minister could have foreseen that we would have more than a million more people in work and they have got to travel to work and that is bound to have an impact.
(Mr Byers) I agree with that and I think it is a very important point on this question of emissions. My Department has been doing some very detailed work on emissions. We have just got some very new evidence to show where we are in terms of emissions in the United Kingdom which we would be more than happy to share with the Committee because it is very interesting. We will certainly make sure the Committee receives the evidence that we have now got which does show that we are beginning to be on a downward trend as far as emissions from cars are concerned. That is something we would be more than happy to share with the Committee because it is very new evidence we have just received as Ministers but I think the Committee would find it interesting to have that as well.
(Dr Whitehead) I think in terms of how that trend is reversed over the life of the Ten Year Transport Plan, in my view we have to do two things. We firstly have to ask ourselves what would have happened without the Transport Plan being in place and certainly there is strong evidence to demonstrate that had the plan not been in place ----
(Dr Whitehead) The problem with a plan that has been in place for six months is that one still, to some extent, has to deal with what trends look like and what trends might look like. Certainly there is strong evidence to suggest that the level of congestion, for example, would increase by 15 per cent to the end of that period if the Transport Plan were not to exist.
(Dr Whitehead) In a sense your starting point is are you going up or are you beginning to move down? Certainly the effect of the Transport Plan has to, as it were, get through that 15 per cent otherwise increase in the first instance. What I would emphasise is that there are a number of issues both concerning modal shift in transport and concerning shift within the use of motor vehicles that contribute to a decrease in congestion, to a decrease in emissions, and a general sustainability issue of how vehicles and public vehicles make life easier around cities and towns and between cities and towns.
(Dr Whitehead) I expect the indicators to improve during the life of the Ten Year Plan in conjunction with a number of things. For example, one cannot always make a direct correlation between a decrease in congestion and a decrease in emissions ----
(Dr Whitehead) ---- because a decrease in congestion, which I believe will happen quite strongly in towns and cities as a result of this plan, is not always a smooth decrease across the country.
(Dr Whitehead) There will be ridges and dips.
(Mr Byers) I think not. My understanding is, and certainly the note I have got here shows, there is a trend in all developed countries which is that road use is on the increase. Obviously it will be at variable rates but there is clearly a trend in developed countries that that is so.
(Dr Whitehead) That is already happening through the implementation of reforms of Vehicle Excise Duty based on CO2 emissions of vehicles, changing company car taxation. Interestingly, of course, again I mention in the context of people continuing to drive vehicles, the issue is partly the question of what journeys people do in the vehicles they already own, ie changing the relationship between what journeys people do and the ownership. The question of ownership is not necessarily the final indicator. The European Commission=s voluntary agreement with car manufacturers, which Britain played a very important role in, is set to decrease CO2 emissions on 1995 levels by about 25 per cent by 2008/09. That is a substantial contribution towards CO2 emission reduction within the context of people continuing to drive vehicles.
(Mr Byers) I did not say further penalise.
(Mr Byers) I think if I can just clarify the point I was making. In all of these things, particularly in relation to taxation, one must strike a balance because what we do not want to get to is a situation where people feel any tax is one which is unfair and they are being discriminated against because of that tax being introduced. Whatever it is, whether it is fuel duty or other taxes, a balance always has to be struck. There is a level of tolerance beyond which people will not accept it and we saw in September of last year people said Aenough is enough@ and governments have to listen to that. I think the changes that have been introduced as part of the normal budgetary process have shown the Chancellor was able to reflect on their concerns. That was the point I was trying to make. It is a straight forward approach which is you can try and penalise or punish but my own view is a better way is this one about offering real choice. It is more challenging but I think it is one that is more acceptable.
(Mr Byers) Matters of taxation are for the Chancellor and for the normal Pre-Budget and Budget Reports. He keeps all taxes under review and taxes can go down as well as up, they can be removed.
(Mr Byers) No.
(Mr Byers) I think most Members of this House, whatever party they come from, supported the removal of the Fuel Duty Escalator apart from, perhaps, the Liberal Democrats, and I am not sure what their policy is, if they have got one, in this particular area.
(Mr Byers) I was not implying that we are kept out of the loop. What I am saying is there is not a concordat on tax matters but certainly the Chancellor consults and discusses these issues with his Cabinet colleagues.
(Mr Byers) That is right, but we do that on a political basis, not through a concordat. The Chancellor is acutely aware of the question of the effect of any of his tax measures and he is also a Chancellor who is keenly aware of the effect on the environment. I think there are many measures which he has introduced since 1997 which reflect that.
(Mr Byers) You are absolutely right as far as the figures are concerned, some ,48 billion at least really from the private sector coming in to support the Ten Year Plan. Within that some ,34 billion we expect to be private money going into railways. What I would say, and it is something I have said in the Chamber several times over the last few weeks, is that in the meetings I have had with investors from the City, of which I have had several over the last few weeks, they see a very clear distinction between a privatisation with a quoted company, which was Railtrack, and the investment made in an organisation like that either as bond holders or as shareholders compared to a public-private partnership approach, which is the model that we will be using for much of the private investment coming in. In relation to railways a lot of that investment will be through Special Purpose Vehicles which will be free standing agreements entered into covering specific enhancement projects, so, for example, on the East Coast Main Line, which we want to begin to upgrade during the Ten Year Plan, that will be done through a Special Purpose Vehicle which will be Strategic Rail Authority, the Government and the private sector. I have to say there is a lot of interest in the private sector to be involved in these projects. They can see them as being quite distinct and quite separate from the situation that applied to Railtrack as a publicly quoted company.
(Mr Byers) The situation is absolutely clear, which is this: we have said really from day one, from October 7 when Railtrack went into administration, by the way our Petition for Administration not opposed by Railtrack, that shareholders are entitled to the value which is there in Railtrack, and there will be some value there to which shareholders will be entitled. The hostility which the Conservative Party seems to be referring to is my refusal not to put in additional taxpayers= money to compensate the shareholders of Railtrack. We know the directors of Railtrack have said they want to get ,3.60 a share. To compensate to that extent will mean a direct transfer from the taxpayers of this country of over one billion pounds. That is money that will come from schools, it will come from hospitals. We have said very clearly we are not going to do that. Some people may see that as hostility towards shareholders, but it is interesting to note the Leader of the Conservative Party at Prime Minister=s Questions yesterday could not answer a straight forward question as to whether or not it is the policy of the Conservative Party to offer that level of compensation to the shareholders, and we still have not got a reply to that. I think people need to be aware, Chairman, that one billion pounds would pay the salaries of 25,000 nurses and 20,000 teachers. We seem to have got to a position where the Conservative Opposition are saying they would be quite happy for that money to be used to compensate a quarter of a million shareholders in Railtrack but we disagree, and that is the simple position.
(Mr Byers) We can continue this if you want, Chairman. I am more than happy to.
Mr Francois: There is actually a serious medium term point here, Secretary of State, about the ability of Government to continue raising money on the markets to finance public sector infrastructure transport projects in the light of what has happened. I think that needs to be properly addressed. You have straight batted it and said AI have spoken to these people and it will not be a problem@ but I think it is legitimate to say that some of us do have concerns that were expressed in a number of debates just a few weeks ago, so this is not something that has just come up this afternoon, to be fair. Let us take the specific example of the tube. You said earlier in your testimony to this Committee that we do not yet have a tube network for the 21st Century, and I think everyone here would agree with that. We need investment going in to allow the tube to be upgraded, we would all agree with that. There have been discussions going on for four years to provide this new investment under a public-private partnership, so-called, to upgrade the tube. In the middle of all this the Central Line still does not work, the Jubilee Line signalling is still a shambles. There have been four years of talk about this and yet to all practical intents and purposes nothing has happened.
Mr Savidge: Can we include what happened in the previous 18 years?
(Mr Byers) The position is that the Tube has suffered from chronic under-investment for decades and it is a Victorian system which really has not had the investment not just over the last four years, and it is interesting that the Member chose four years, but certainly going back for 20 years. One of the first decisions I took as Secretary of State is that we would proceed with the public-private partnership. I have to tell the honourable gentleman that the financial institutions that are interested in being involved in that are as enthusiastic about it today as they were before 7 October when I petitioned for the administration of Railtrack. What we will do, provided we achieve value for money, and there will be an independent assessment and recommendations to myself as Secretary of State as to whether or not the three contracts do achieve value for money, then we will proceed with the public-private partnership for each of those preferred bidders, and the private sector is interested for the simple reason because they can see a clear distinction between Railtrack as a failed Conservative privatisation and the fact that it was publicly quoted on the stock market --- The City walked away from Railtrack. Three years ago a Railtrack share was worth ,17. When it went into administration they were worth ,2.80. It was the City that walked away from Railtrack. Railtrack could not raise money in the bond market which was one of the reasons they had to come to Government for additional funding. Investors can see the difference between Railtrack and what will be a public-private partnership where there will be a legally binding agreement that Government will sign up to and they will sign up to which will deliver the real improvements for the Underground that certainly this Government wants to see.
(Mr Byers) They will. We are in an interesting situation where when tough and difficult decisions were taken to make progress, which has happened in relation to Railtrack, which is happening in relation to the public private partnership on the Underground and decisions that have been taken there, and some people are very critical of them. I have taken them because I believe they will make a real difference and if value for money is achieved then the public private partnerships for the Underground will be concluded early in the new calendar year and we will be able to see the investment take place. We are talking about investment when the programme is up and running of half a million a day in each of the Tube lines. That is investment that will be going in, ,13 billion going into London Underground. It is a huge amount of money. It is about ,4,000 per household in London that will be invested in London Underground. Those are improvements that I want to see. When we secure those improvements, as we will, then it will lead to people having the genuine choice of public transport that I want to see. We are not there at the moment. People feel compelled to drive but with a good public transport system, good railways and good London Underground there will be a real difference.
(Mr Byers) That is what we have said. This is already on the record. Provided they achieve value for money, this is not a dogmatic approach. If at the end of the negotiations they do not achieve value for money then we will not proceed with them and there will be an alternative we need to adopt, but at the moment negotiations are going well and we expect a conclusion early in the New Year.
(Mr Byers) That is what I am saying.
(Mr Byers) There are no indications that that will be the case.
(Mr Byers) There are no indications of that.
(Mr Byers) There are some aspects of the privatisation of railways which have worked well. If we look at investment in the train operating companies that has been a successful consequence of privatisation in my view and, indeed, in the view of the Government. There are other aspects of the privatisation which have not worked well. If one considers the position of Railtrack, it is worth reminding ourselves that when the railways were originally privatised in 1993 Railtrack was kept as a public sector body, for reasons that I think most of us now understand. It was not until 1996 that the decision was taken to float Railtrack on the Stock Market and that is when Railtrack began to hit real difficulties because they had this conflict between the need to enhance shareholder value and the need to run the track effectively and properly and they were caught between the two.
(Mr Byers) No, the TOCs are in a better position because the success of the TOCs is due to the fact they have a direct relationship with the travelling public whereas Railtrack have got a captive market which are the TOCs who have got to run their carriages on rails. The thing about the TOCs is they want to make rail travel attractive which is why punctuality to them is important, good customer care is important, information, new rolling stock are all important so that rail becomes an attractive proposition.
(Mr Byers) My own view on Railtrack is I think the way Railtrack was floated - and there is a very good Public Accounts Committee report when the Chairman of the Public Accounts Committee was the present Chairman of the Conservative Party, and I urge Members to read it because it is very critical of the way that Railtrack was floated and the poor deal the taxpayer got from that. There are inherent flaws in the way Railtrack was privatised.
(Mr Byers) I would be more than happy to provide the Committee with that information. The plan is there will be some ,13 billion over the next 15 years. I have not got to hand the comparison with the previous 15 years but I think he will be aware that it is a significant increase on the amounts that have been invested in the previous 15 years.
(Mr Byers) I can provide those to the Committee as well.
Chairman: Perhaps you would let us have a paper both on the Underground figures and the Railtrack figure.
(Mr Byers) As far as rail is concerned we expect some ,30 billion to come from the public sector and ,34 billion from the private sector.
(Mr Byers) It will obviously vary situation to situation. If I can give you one example of where we feel capital will be available probably at a level which is going to be better than it may have been under Railtrack. We are confident that the successor body to Railtrack (because it will have its risks reduced and because it will not be involved in the major enhancement projects, and will simply be concentrating on operations, renewals and maintenance) will be a less risky investment and therefore they are likely to find that finance will be available at a better rate than would have been the case as far as Railtrack was concerned. It will vary from case to case and obviously on the return on investment.
(Mr Byers) The Railtrack proportion or the successor?
(Mr Byers) I am not sure we can go into that sort of detail here. That will be something for the successor to Railtrack to discuss with the private sector. It is going to be a private sector company and it would be wrong for me as Secretary of State to try and say exactly what level of debt the new company might want to be engaged in.
Chairman: Let us go on to the area of planning. Mr Gerrard?
(Mr Byers) I think, Chairman, there are two separate issues here. One is a Government Green Paper on planning which we hope to publish in the next month or two. That will look at planning in the round, as it were, and it will be the first time that a comprehensive look has been taken at planning probably since 1947. It will be an opportunity to look at the role that planning can play in achieving two principal objectives; planning as a lever to achieve social renewal and also as a means of economic regeneration. That was the way in fact it was looked at by the Attlee Government in 1945 when they did their big review in 1947. We need to do something similar because we are not using planning as effectively as we could, in my view. The Green Paper will be a very extensive look at all aspects of planning and because it is a Government Green Paper all government departments are involved in the process so DEFRA are closely involved and they are commenting on the various drafts we have had. Quite separately and in addition to the Green Paper, there is there specific issue about the major infrastructure projects. I guess Terminal Five at Heathrow C
(Mr Byers) We are looking at that almost as a separate aspect. There is the Green Paper on planning and running alongside it to a certain extent is the document about the more consultation we will need to have on the major infrastructure projects.
(Mr Byers) They are clearly not separate side issues, they are a key part of the whole process.
(Mr Byers) The way I look at it is the Green Paper is going to be the vision for planning, if I can put it that way, it is big picture stuff and there will some individual proposals, but we have got compulsory purchase and we have got Section 106 already there and they are quite discrete areas which do not necessarily impact on the purpose of why you need planning and what planning can achieve. People will be able to look at them together and see the links between them but compulsory purchase in particular is a quite a discrete area where there will probably be a different constituency that will be looking at CPOs compared to the broader planning issues and that is the reason why we pulled it out. Also on Section 106 you are looking at an obligation being imposed on people. There are issues there. If we look at affordable housing, there is probably a different constituency as far as that is concerned there as well. That is the reason why.
(Mr Byers) It depends on whether we feel it is ready to go. There is a lot of work going on at the moment and I shall be looking forward this weekend to reading what I hope might be the final draft. If it is the final draft then it will be out before Christmas. If as I read it there are improvements that I would want to make which I then need to consult on with my colleagues at DEFRA and elsewhere it may slip, but I am keen to get it out before Christmas
(Mr Byers) Whatever we do there will be at least a three-month consultation period. That is the important thing
(Mr Byers) When people have the opportunity of seeing the Green Paper they will recognise that that is not going to be the case. To me what is very important about the planning process is you have basically got to take people and communities with you. We all know as constituency members that the most difficult planning issues that one has to deal with are when people feel that they have been ignored and they have not been able to voice their concerns. You have to find a system which allows people in their own way to articulate their concerns. What worries me, and I say this as a lawyer, is that people at inquiries feel a bit intimidated by the procedure and the process and do not feel they can voice their concern as a local person affected by the major planning decisions. We have got to a find a better way of allowing people to have access to the process. I would like to think that in the Green Paper we begin to flesh out some ideas as to how that might be achieved. One of the reasons why it is a Green Paper is that we do want to consult on this and we do want people to suggest their own ideas about how we can involve local people and communities more effectively than they are at the moment. And it is a good opportunity to do it because the thing that strikes me is that the point about planning is that it is all to do with change, that is a truism, but people have got to feel that they are partners in the changes that are going an affecting their local neighbourhood and if they do not then they will object, they will take action and it will be very difficult. We have got to manage that process and I think by allowing people to be involved is the best way of doing so.
(Mr Byers) I do not think it needs to. If there is a clear timetable and people know the timetable and know certain things have to happen by a certain date then it gives it a degree of certainty, a degree of focus and local people will know exactly what is going on. To go back to your first question, what you have to do is make sure that local people are properly informed and have all the relevant information available to them, and that does not always happen at the present time.
(Mr Byers) I hope when you see the Green Paper that you will recognise that sustainable development has been taken into account. It is something of which I am very mindful and in a sense it is very helpful we have had this evidence session just a couple of days before I read the next draft of the Green Paper because it will certainly be at the forefront of my mind when I start reading it on Saturday.
(Mr Byers) I do not disagree with that. There are two ways in which it might be addressed. One is to look at how we develop the skills of planners. There is a real issue and I know the Prince himself is concerned about how planners are trained. That is an issue we will almost certainly want to address in the Green Paper. And, secondly, is how you can promote best practice and where things have been tried and have worked well, to make sure that planners are aware of them. What always amazes me, Chairman, if we look at the mistakes that were high-rise developments in the 1960s, which very quickly we know, from experience in the North East, within two or three years fell into disrepair, but we were still building high-rise flats into the mid-1970s. We have got to make sure that people learn from things that work well and also mistakes that are made, and one of the things I will certainly want to address in the Green Paper is how we can learn from experience and build on best practice.
(Mr Byers) The objective that we have set ourselves, and we are in the major infrastructure projects only talking about two or three projects a year that will fall into this category - and Heathrow Terminal Five I guess would be a good example of an application that would fall into this particular heading - on the one hand there has to be a better way of conducting a planning inquiry than was Heathrow Terminal Five just in terms of the time. The public inquiry itself took four years. There were a number of issues that were raised there, some of which were of direct concern to local residents. We have got to make sure that whatever we put in its place local people can still express their own concerns and reservations. But the issue is whether or not matters of major policy should also be determined at public inquiry or whether we in Parliament should have an involvement in a particular policy that might be there. For example, there was lots of discussion in Terminal Five about the policy of developing airports in the South East of England. And the issue is whether that could have been determined by an elected body, Parliament in this particular case, so we would determine the policy and then the issue would be where that is to be located in the South East of England and whether Heathrow would be a suitable location and then the details of the actual application itself could still be a matter that the inquiry could look at. We are still working on the precise details which is why the consultation paper has not come out yet. Part of it is looking at the Parliamentary procedures that could be used because those who have been here for a while, although there is not an obvious model, would think that is a good way of dealing with it. Obviously I am talking to the Leader of the House about what those Parliamentary procedures might be. The consultation document, hopefully, will come out early in the New Year when people can see the detail
(Mr Byers) I would have thought, although it depends on the nature of the application and the project, that would be a matter that would certainly need to be considered.
(Mr Byers) I would have thought Parliament would have been reluctant to agree to something if they did not have that sort of information available to them.
(Mr Byers) As I said, these are matters we are discussing at the moment with the Leader of the House. We are trying to identify what an appropriate procedure would be. We have not arrived at any conclusions yet, we are still thinking about it, and this will be a significant part of the consultation document when it is published.
(Mr Byers) There is a range of options which I know the Leader of the House is considering.
(Mr Byers) There are a number of ways in which we should be facilitating members of the public to express a view. We need to keep up-to-date policy documents in this whole area and perhaps we do not do that well enough at the moment. There will be some wider issues that will need to be considered in relation to a particular policy and they will be debated in Parliament and I would hope, as we look at the options that are available to us, that we would be looking at ways in which we could involve not just members of the House but a wider grouping in consideration of these matters, either by receiving written evidence or oral evidence sessions. These are all things I certainly feel we need to consider, but no decisions have been taken as yet.
(Mr Byers) It was a question of striking a balance between what the Inspector referred to as the Aclear economic benefits@ to the nation as a whole with the environmental concerns of local people in particular. In my decision letter I make it clear that it was that balance that was the key that was at the heart of the decision.
(Mr Byers) As far as the decision on the planning application for Terminal Five is concerned, I did not in the context of my decision express a view one way or the other about a third runway at Heathrow, which I guess is why you are asking me the question. I think that issue is more appropriately dealt with in the context of both the South East Review which is taking place at the moment and also the Aviation White Paper which I hope to be able to publish in the autumn of next year which will look at the demand and need for an additional runway in the South East of England, and that is something we will be looking at in that context. In terms of major infrastructure projects we will need primary legislation to introduce this change. As to whether or not we have primary legislation through the House - and who knows when it will be and who knows whether the view is that there does need to be an extra runway in the South East of England - that is a decision that has not been taken yet.
(Mr Byers) The likelihood is it would. I am always advised that you have got to judge each particular case on its merits, but I could certainly see a situation where a proposal for an additional runway would be a major infrastructure project. They may not all but I can certainly see a situation where they would.
(Mr Byers) On the specifics of the decision to do with Hastings and the bypass schemes, it was one of the first multi-modal studies that reported and was probably one of the most difficult, but time will tell. With everything, it is a question of balance and on looking at the detail of this, the question was whether the two bypasses would lead to the economic regeneration of Hastings town centre in particular and areas just outside Hastings, and I had to balance that with the effect of building two bypasses through areas of outstanding natural beauty. I looked very carefully at the arguments for the economic regeneration, which I have to say were not that strong. There is always a danger if you build bypasses that you take things away from the town centre that you may want to regenerate. The important thing given we have taken the decision not to go ahead with the bypasses is not to walk away from the regeneration needs of the area and we have to move in and be very positive. As you say, Lord Falconer is visiting Hastings today looking at a regeneration package for the area that will really work. I know the decision took people by surprise because people had assumed we would give the go-ahead to the bypasses but, on balance, I thought it was so detrimental to the environment that it should not go ahead. You only build a road once and you destroy an area of outstanding natural beauty once by building that road, and the judgment we took was that the benefits were not that great and therefore it was the wrong decision to take. In terms of house building and the consequences so far as residential developments are concerned, it was not a major factor in the decision but I think you are right to point that out and within the context of how we look at these multi-modal studies we do look not just at economic regeneration but we do look at other developments like, for example, the provision of residential accommodation and that is taken into account. In this context it was not a major factor in arriving at the decision in relation to the two bypasses.
(Mr Byers) I think these are all areas which can be taken into account in developing planning policy for those particular areas, and I am certainly more than happy, in the light of the comments which have been made by Mr Barker, to make sure within the Department when we look at these matters we can take them into account.
(Mr Byers) It should not be. Ironically, when I was Secretary of State for Trade & Industry, I was a great advocate for RDAs to move over to the DTI, and as they moved over I moved across to this Department.
(Mr Byers) That is the nature of the job, you are absolutely right. The important point is this, that the role of RDAs has actually shifted, and rightly so, to be more concerned about enterprise and innovation, whereas regeneration, which is still the responsibility of my Department, is more focused on infrastructural developments. There is a clear link between the two but there was a danger I think that the RDAs became far too focused about land use and land development and they ignored the need to encourage enterprise and innovation. Given that is where they are now positioned, then the Department of Trade & Industry is their rightful home. It does not stop my Department though being involved in regeneration and renewal, almost laying the foundations upon which you can then build on enterprise and innovation. I do not think there is a problem between the two.
(Mr Byers) Yes, many.
(Dr Whitehead) Could I add that there is very much an integrated process between the development of regional planning guidance, the role of the RDAs in commenting on that before it is brought to fruition, the role of DEFRA in consulting and looking at that, and therefore integrating that planning guidance before it finally is decided and signed off by the Secretary of State. So that close link in the process, it seems to me, remains regardless of, as it were, where the RDAs are sited as far as their parent department is concerned.
(Mr Byers) It should not really make any difference at all in the sense that the issue will be one for determination by the people living within a particular region. The White Paper will come out in due course and it is being worked on by the Deputy Prime Minister and myself at the moment, and some decisions still have to be taken, but I can reassure the hon gentleman that it is not the intention of the White Paper to go for the abolition of the county councils. It will be down to local people to decide if they want to embrace elected regional assemblies. I think in many parts of the country we all know that is something which probably is not going to be an option which people want to pursue.
(Mr Byers) We are certainly, in the context of looking at the functions and responsibilities of an elected regional tier, looking very closely at the whole environmental sustainable development agenda, yes.
(Mr Byers) What our manifesto said at the general election was that we would expect the elected regional government to be established where there is predominantly unitary authorities, and as you will be aware unitary could be the county level. But those are matters which will need to be considered by local people and they will have the final say.
(Mr Byers) That is true.
(Mr Byers) London would not be part of that vote because ---
(Mr Byers) I have to say in all honesty the demand for regional government in the south east of England has passed me by, so I do not think it is going to be much of an issue, quite frankly!
Mr Barker: I am relieved to hear that!
(Mr Byers) I think it has been helpful that the Treasury has indicated they want sustainable development to be at the heart of the spending review, and they have made that very clear. Certainly, as you will know, Chairman, from your days in Government, when you get a strong hint from the Treasury that might be a door which is half ajar and it might be helpful in terms of getting a good settlement, it is one you push on very hard. The Treasury have indicated that. I am aware of the concerns last time round and I think I gave evidence to this Committee with my old responsibilities and I accepted, as Michael Meacher has done, that not enough attention was paid to it, and I think we have reflected on that and learnt the lessons.
(Mr Byers) In my own view in terms of areas we will be approaching the Treasury on, obviously housing is an area where we will be looking very closely at sustainable development being included.
(Mr Byers) Housing targets. There are some specific issues in relation to transport where we will want to talk to the Treasury about how we can build more sustainable development ideas into what we are putting forward.
(Dr Whitehead) Would it be helpful, Chairman, if I indicated the process by which the Department would be looking at the bids for SR2002?
(Dr Whitehead) The Department has an integrated appraisal framework which effectively applies indicators concerning social, environmental and economic issues to any particular bid the Department is putting forward. So the Treasury has asked for an indication of the sustainability in terms of any bid the Department is putting forward, and the integrated appraisal framework will be designed to provide precisely that indicator for a bid which goes in. In that respect, DTLR is very much in the vanguard as far as that process is concerned.
(Dr Whitehead) It is essentially a sustainability framework within which a bid will be looked at. As far as sustainability is concerned, that is obviously an issue ---
(Dr Whitehead) It is in a sense larger than a straightforward environmental assessment in that it does take into account a number of factors which work against each other and which also include things like social inclusion and other factors which add to the idea of sustainability in the round.
(Dr Whitehead) I think we are well advanced in terms of applying a systematic process to all 2002 bids which are going in from the Department. What I would emphasise is that that systematic process by which those bids are looked at does not particularly distinguish between whether a bid is overtly environmental or concerns other aspects of the Department=s work. The reason for that is that the aim of the bidding process the Department is putting into Treasury is to try and ensure there is a consistent view of sustainability within all bids, so a constant framework is being applied to each bid so the same range of issues are being applied to see whether those bids have a sustainability impact, and if and when they do how that is assessed as far as a bid is concerned so when it comes in front of the Treasury it actually accords with their request that that is precisely the sort of information which is in front of them so they can make comparable judgments.
(Dr Whitehead) The reports which come to me as Green Minister are regular. I have already held with the sustainability team within the Department, for example, two substantial meetings with agenda headings and rolling reports on matters of sustainability in the Department, and that will be something which will be a regular feature of what I do as Green Minister. Now that will have a particular impact in the near future as far as the Spending Review 2002 is concerned but it is not confined to that, it is a regular basis of reporting to me on the progress of sustainability both in terms of the internal policies of the Department, ie green housekeeping, and the wider issue of how the policies are rolling out from a sustainability point of view outside the Department.
(Mr Byers) It is not something which normally would be made available, but if I can investigate and see what might be possible, I would like to be helpful to the Committee. Let me see if it is something we could put before the Committee.
(Dr Whitehead) Yes. What I have attempted to emphasise is that the development of policy by the Department will have as one of its elements a fairly constant nature of environmental and sustainability appraisal. Therefore the policy itself, as it were, will go through that process prior to it being signed off by the Department. Among other things, that does mean that the policy will be measured in terms of how it integrates with other policies within the Department so that the joint impact on sustainability and environmental impact can be measured, and the particular instrument we have developed as far as measuring our bids for SR2002 is concerned is actually an instrument which has a wider impact on the longer term across the Department as a whole. It is a process by which departmental policy as a whole can be measured.
(Dr Whitehead) Again, Chairman, I think that is something which I would like to communicate with you further on in terms of how the general guidance we are working to can be supplied to you.
(Mr Byers) The green industrial revolution was the comment I made when I was Secretary of State for Trade & Industry, and I think probably the responsibilities of that Department lend themselves more readily to promoting that within the industries which the Department sponsors - and the Department of Trade & Industry sponsors industry - and there were a number of areas of innovation where we could support financially developments and research. Obviously the Department had a responsibility for energy, and there was aa major area there to do with greening wind power and so on. In terms of the areas I have responsibility for now, there is one big area where we do need to look very carefully at how we can support the greening of an industry. I have responsibility for the aviation industry and that is one area where I know the airlines themselves are acutely aware of the importance of being far more environmentally friendly than they have in the past. They are already taking some very good and positive measures in relation to noise, reducing the level of noise from aeroplanes, and in terms of trying to be more efficient in terms of the consumption of fuel. So that is the part of the agenda I am probably now more engaged in as far as industry is concerned. But in terms of the other areas of responsibility, when one looks at housing and planning, there are great opportunities there to make sure the whole sustainable development agenda is given a higher prior than it may have at the moment.
(Mr Byers) We have a small team, and it is a very small team at the moment, dealing with sustainable development, and they are a dedicated team to that, but there are only two of them, so I do not want to exaggerate the number but we do intend to expand it in the next few months because I believe it is important we have a team which has this area of responsibility. We also have a member of the board of DTLR who has responsibility for sustainable development as well. So we are building it into the new Department.
(Mr Byers) As the Committee will know, this is an issue which the Government has considered in some detail. We have had very helpful reports on it. The reports we have received are very clear that there is no proven evidence of health risks from mobile phone masts, and we have given very clear guidance to planning authorities as to how they should deal with these matters. Personally, I think we are now in a better position in terms of a recognition of the powers that planning authorities have than perhaps was the case a year or two ago, when it was all rather confused as to what powers a planning authority had. I hope we have been able to clarify that. A planning committee, a planning authority, can on planning grounds refuse an application if they feel it is appropriate to do so in the circumstances.
(Mr Byers) I am not sure I recognise your interpretation of the Stewart Report.
(Mr Byers) Perhaps we can look back at the record and discover the quote, but it is probably easier if we look back at the Stewart Report and get the context in which it was set.
(Mr Byers) The position as I understand it is clear, and I will confirm this in writing to help the Committee, the guidance we have given is that there is no reason why solely on health grounds an application should be refused but there could well be planning reasons, not health reasons, why a refusal would be appropriate under a normal planning regime. That is my recollection of the guidance. It was given before I came into this Department but I think that is the case. I will write to the Committee to make sure it is there in black and white so you have the official version, but that is my recollection of the policy.
(Mr Byers) As we always do, Chairman.
Chairman: As we always do. Thank you.