Local Government Finance (England) Special Grant Report (No. 83) (HC No. 88) On Maintenance of Roads Grants 2001-2002

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Mr. Don Foster: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it is odd to pose the question in terms of an average cost, when it is clear that the Government have decided that there will be a fixed amount of £50,000? Should the hon. Gentleman not ask the Minister how the administration costs for such widely varied projects all come to the same sum?

Tim Loughton: That is a fair point, as we know how this Government like to use averages. We are discussing a number of different projects on different scales across a number of differently sized councils, for whom the economies of scale will vary greatly. A block amount of £50,000 is an odd figure to choose. Will the Minister give us more detailed figures about the range of estimated administration costs between those 20 local authorities?

A mechanism apparently exists whereby authorities that fail to use those administration costs will have to pay them back. Will the Minister explain how that mechanism will work? How will it be judged, if authorities have not properly used the money, whether the sum must be paid back entirely or in part? I cannot find any detail on that.

Will the Minister also comment on public service agreements? To what type and level of local authority is it intended that PSAs will be granted in future, on the basis that the 20 pilot schemes are as successful as the Government expect them to be? We are working on an assumption drawn from the warm words used about PSAs.

Special grant No. 83 deals with road building. Will the Minister confirm whether it is the intention, ambition or aspiration of the new Secretary of State to reduce and then reverse traffic growth, as his party's internet site promised? We remember the former Secretary of State at the then Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions saying, before the previous election campaign,

    ``I will have failed if in 5 years' time there are not...far fewer journeys by car. It's a tall order but I urge you to hold me to it.''

Will the Minister tell us whether we should hold the Secretary of State's successor to it in some 10 months' time—by then the five years will be up—or whether that pledge has gone west to another Department, along with the Deputy Prime Minister?

The Minister cited the length of road covered by the de-trunking funding arrangement in kilometres, although it would be more usual to calculate it in miles. Will he say whether he was given a mileage figure? He also quoted an estimate of £7,500 per two-lane carriageway kilometre—which is, again, misleading for some of us on the Opposition Benches. Apparently that is based on the cost figures for the south-west, for East Anglia and for Lancashire. Will he say how that would translate for the equivalent costs in the south-east of England, for example, and outer London, where construction costs are greater? Presumably, the figure will feed through to the extra maintenance costs for roads that will become the responsibility of local authorities.

I gather that the traffic forecast figures on which the de-trunking identifications seem to have been based are from 1989, since when traffic levels have increased by some 9 per cent. Future traffic growth may be considerably higher. Will the Minister assure us that the projections are based on far more up-to-date figures than would appear from a cursory reading of the special grant report? On a related point, due to congestion, traffic is travelling far more slowly than when the forecasts were made 12 years ago. What are the relative maintenance costs of slow traffic compared with speeding traffic?

The Minister stated that responsibility for road maintenance was not simply being dumped from central Government on to hard-pressed local authorities—a statement that I judge to have been greeted with a degree of scepticism by Committee members. If the maintenance and control of 30 per cent. of trunk roads are to be transferred to local authorities, we need some assurance that that is reflected in local authority highway budgets. The Government are under the impression that, in my county of West Sussex, we spend far too much on maintaining roads. The standard spending assessment produces a lower figure than my county spends. Will the Minister assure us that local authorities will be properly compensated for looking after the roads when they are de-trunked? That begs the question of the Highways Agency's future, now that a large part of the highways kingdom has been taken out of its hands. The agency seems to have gone down something of a cul de sac in recent years. What will it do in the future?

We might have a little more fun with special grant report No. 85. Hon. Members have noted that it is odd, in respect of the bids for the 46 schemes in round 3 of the invest-to-save budget, that the record of the first round of the bids is not more readily available—even on the Government's own website.

Mr. Don Foster: It may be helpful to make it clear that, while researching for my speech, I discovered that under appendix 3 there is, at least, a list of project headings for the round 2 bids, although it is an obscure place to find that information. No details are given, but there is a list.

Tim Loughton: I am grateful, as ever, to the hon. Gentleman, but a list of headings is not especially helpful if it is supposed to show, for those bidders that we are now discussing, which bids would qualify.

Dr. Whitehead: Rather than refer to this issue in my summing-up, let me point the hon. Gentleman to the website maintained by the Treasury, which includes details of all projects successful in rounds 1 and 2. The Treasury is the original sponsoring body of invest to save, so it is appropriate that details should be found on its website.

Tim Loughton: I am grateful to the Minister for that information. After our proceedings have finished, I shall rush to that website to obtain those details with which we have not been acquainted. If they do not appear on the website of the Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions, surely the hon. Gentleman would have let us known in advance, particularly as he saw fit to send us details of the individual invest-to-save budget applications that we are approving this afternoon. It would have been helpful if such details had accompanied that additional paperwork.

Can the Minister tell us how many applications were rejected? We have heard about those that we are in Committee to approve. We have not been clearly informed whether the pass rate is 5 per cent., 50 per cent., 90 per cent. or whatever? The hon. Gentleman also said that there was a differential in the requirements for projects that applied for more than £100,000, as opposed to less than £100,000. He mentioned specifically that the applications for more than £100,000 were subject to matching funding from the local authority. Was there a specific dilution of detailed requirements for the smaller bids, as opposed to the larger bids? Will he give us a breakdown of the amount of cash in percentage terms that went to the more than £100,000 bids, as opposed to the sub-£100,000 bids? Has there been a bias in the system towards those that provided greater detail, not lesser detail? Harking back to my original point about the creeping centralisation of local government and the prescription of what it can spend its money on, will the Minister tell us how much bureaucracy and additional paperwork are involved in such a complex bidding process? Will he explain the allocation mechanism?

Will the Minister tell us how much it has cost some authorities—he may give an average, if that is what he likes—to put the bids together in the form required for them to receive the grants that we are debating? I am sure that many of the budgets are worthy and, if they achieve the two criteria set out in the order of innovative ways in which to deliver public services that serve the modernising government agenda and reduce the costs of delivering public services, I am sure that they will be of great benefit. However, we need evidence. We have not seen a cost-benefit analysis report from the earlier rounds. How much of the grants does he believe will go towards the delivery of front-line services, and not towards the setting up of more potentially costly systems?

As the Minister was kind enough to let us have the details of the 46 specific projects and, given that he was at pains to into a little detail about some of them, perhaps he can answer more detailed questions about the merits of those projects. I draw his attention to project No. 18 by Leicestershire county council, the ``Lasagne'' project. What does ``Lasagne'' stand for?

The hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Kilfoyle) referred to project No. 20. Again, I am slightly in the dark about what the C-NET proposal is. It is a large grant of more than £1.1 million. On the face of it, the intentions of the project are worth while, given that it deals with the children's network online participation assessment service, which involves local services to ensure inclusion of children in public care and so on.

However, why has a specific grant been made available to that project? Why was it not included in a neighbourhood management project, an education action zone project or one of the 27 to 28 ``regeneration scheme projects'' set up by the Government, a great many of which have been targeted at Liverpool? Looking at some of the regeneration grants that Liverpool has received—I am sure quite rightly in most cases—why has that slipped through the net of obvious urban regeneration social inclusivity, or however the hon. Gentleman wants to describe such matters?

I come now to project No. 21.

Mr. Clifton-Brown: Before my hon. Friend finishes querying individual projects, will he have noted that a third of all the money—nearly £7 million—has gone to four authorities? Will he press the Minister a little bit more on the criteria on which the projects were selected? Were those councils that failed in their bids informed of the reasons?

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