Examination of Witness (Questions 609-619)
RT HON STEPHEN BYERS
WEDNESDAY 6 MARCH 2002
Chairman: Secretary of State, we have a small piece of housekeeping to perform. Declarations of interest?
Mr Stevenson: George Stevenson, member of the Transport & General Workers' Union.Chairman:
Gwyneth Dunwoody, Rail, Maritime & Transport Union.
Mr Donohoe: Member of the Transport & General Workers' Union.Mrs Ellman:
Louise Ellman, member of the Transport & General Workers' Union.
Miss McIntosh: Anne McIntosh, interests in Railtrack, First Group, Eurotunnel, BA, BAA, and the RAC.
609. Thank you. Secretary of State, I am going to ask you to identify yourself. Before we start the session perhaps I could make it clear that you and I had agreed that it would be more convenient for you if we switched the order of the witnesses round, just so that I can be exonerated before some of my colleagues of the fourth estate, who might think I am seeking to cause alarm. Could I ask you to identify yourself for record.
(Mr Byers) I am Stephen Byers, Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions. Can I thank you for agreeing to take my evidence at 4 o'clock. As I explained to you, I have a long-standing engagement at 6 o'clock and that will enable me to discharge that obligation as well as giving evidence before your Committee.
610. Did you wish to make a general opening statement?
(Mr Byers) If I could because I do think the 10 Year Plan is very significant as far as the Department is concerned. When it was published just over 18 months ago the 10 Year Plan for Transport was widely acknowledged as a fundamental change in the way in which we invest in transport. It is not only a major increase in funding but an end to the decades of feast and famine, an approach which had produced short-term thinking and shoddy services. The 10 Year Plan brought in a new long-term integrated planning framework. The greater certainty and the sustained extra investment the Plan embodied have been widely welcomed, including by your Committee. I am determined to maintain that approach and to hold to the objectives and the commitments contained in the Plan. That is not to say that the Plan is set in stone. Any long-term plan needs to be flexible enough to take account of new pressures and new developments, developments such as the recent events in the rail industry and the difficult changes that we have had to make. That is why the Plan has built in a provision for regular reviews and it is why the first of these will take place this summer, as was always envisaged, in conjunction with the cross-government public spending review. The review will allow us to update the Plan and to take account of new developments as well as reporting on progress made to date in delivering on the Plan itself. We have some difficult challenges ahead in delivering the transport system that we all want to see. On the railways we have to improve performance and bring in the extra private investment. I know that Richard Bowker, the Head of the Strategic Rail Authority, has confirmed to you that he is confident that this can be done. Indeed, in the last few weeks we have seen some £470 million of private investment committed through the new Chiltern franchise and the two-year extension awarded to GNER on the East Coast Mainline. Certainly the much needed changes that have been made over the last few months give me every confidence that in railways we have begun to turn things round. Some other early actions are also beginning to have an effect. The doubling of funding for local authorities' transport plans has meant that literally thousands of smaller local schemes and many major ones as well have now started across the country, and nearly a dozen new light rail schemes are now at various stages of planning. It is, of course, still very early days in the life of the Plan. Funding under the Plan started to flow in April of last year so we are still less than one year into the 10 Year Plan, but I am convinced that the 10 Year Plan continues to represent the right way forward for transport. In July I shall announce the outcome of our review and I look forward to the Committee's report to inform our thinking.
611. All that sounds very encouraging and positive, Secretary of State but, to be honest with you, we have not found many of our witnesses who are prepared to say that you are on target. Do you think you are on target?
(Mr Byers) I do believe we areto the targets set down in the 10 Year Plan. I do believe it is still very early days but I am confident that with the measures that we are putting in place, whether in railways or in other parts of the transport system, we will be able to meet those ambitious and challenging targets that are contained within the Plan. I will be reporting in July about the progress we have made. If there are any areas where we might be slipping behind I will want to report on the action we want to take to make sure that we make up lost ground, if there is lost ground, and that we meet the targets which have been set.
612. So we take it definitely that you would want to publish interim targets for 2005?
(Mr Byers) I want to report in July on the progress we have made in the targets in the 10 Year Plan.
613. But we need a way of assessing how far we are along in your 10 Year Plan and how successful you are keeping to some of the undertakings. We can take it that your report will not only give us targets for the next bit but will tell us where we are at the present time?
(Mr Byers) The strength of what I want to do in July, if it has a strength, will be to report on progress towards the targets set out in the 10 Year Plan, so it will be an opportunity of assessing the progress that we have made, reflecting on new developments, considering any assumptions that may have been built into the Plan which a year on may not be as strong as perhaps they were when the Plan was first put together, and then saying publicly how we intend to move on as far as the Plan is concerned.
614. Can you tell us about the traffic and pollution forecasts from mid-2000 to mid-2010? Can you assess progress over that?
(Mr Byers) We will be stating the progress that we have made towards all of the targets contained within the 10 Year Plan which can then be judged accordingly. Some will be very positive. Some, as I say, may not be moving as quickly as we would like and we then need to say what steps we intend to take to achieve the targets set in the Plan.
615. You will forgive me if I ask whether it is a flexible date? It is not one that will move backwards at any point?
(Mr Byers) Which is not a flexible date?
616. Your interim review, your July assessment?
(Mr Byers) It will be July 2002.
617. You do not mind my asking?
(Mr Byers) No, it is July 2002, not July 2003.
Chairman: How kind. Mr O'Brien?
618. The question of congestion of our roads is a very important issue. It is reported that we are the most congested country in Europe. The question of congestion charging is also in the frame. What is the situation arising out of the Department's scheme for the 20 charging schemes and the fact that it will not reduce traffic but could reduce congestion by three per cent? What comments have you got on that, Secretary of State?
(Mr Byers) We have very much left it to the local authorities themselves to come forward with congestion charging schemes. We know that in London the Mayor has decided to go ahead with the scheme that he wants to introduce from 17 March next year in London. We have no power to disapprove that. There is no veto over the scheme itself. With other local authorities they do have to obtain the approval of the Secretary of State before they can go ahead. I think where we are at is that many of those local authorities are standing back and waiting to see how the London scheme progresses and what difficulties the London scheme might identify. I get that feeling just in conversations I have had with those local authorities that certainly earlier indicated they would be thinking about the introduction of some congestion charging policy.
619. It has been suggested that you assume that urban regeneration will have an impact on reducing traffic in the urban areas. Has there been any study into this and what percentage of reduction of traffic in towns and cities would contribute to the urban regeneration?
(Mr Byers) I am not aware of any detailed studies which have been carried out but I am more than happy to check to see if there is detailed work on this. The important point about urban regeneration is that effective transport systemsand that will mean reducing congestionis one of the positive contributions that can be made in terms of improving the competitive position of business. I know it is one of the complaints that I am sure members have heard- I have certainly heard it as Secretary of Statethat as far as London is concerned there is a view that the level of congestion is now getting to such a pitch that it is affecting the competitive position of businesses in the City of London, which is why we do need to move ahead with the investment that we want to see. There are real issues to do with urban regeneration where the transport infrastructure is going to be a key part in improving the situation as far as those areas are concerned.