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19 Nov 2002 : Column 496—continued

Bus Quality

8. Judy Mallaber (Amber Valley): If he will make a statement on the progress of bus quality partnerships. [81330]

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The Minister for Transport (Mr. John Spellar): Quality bus partnerships are helping to attract more people to public transport by improving the quality of local bus services. A survey undertaken for my Department recorded that 134 voluntary quality bus partnership agreements were in place in England and Wales in 2001. Some authorities are actively considering statutory quality bus partnership schemes as part of their bus strategies.

Judy Mallaber : I thank my right hon. Friend for that reply. Outside my constituency office, wheelchair users can now board scheduled buses to Nottingham because of investment by Trent Buses and four local councils in low-boarding buses and boarding platforms. A range of action by the partnership, including improving Alfreton bus station, which my right hon. Friend visited earlier this year, has increased the number of passengers using buses by 10 per cent. Will he give an assurance that funding will continue to be maintained to existing bus partnerships that are successful as well as extending them elsewhere? Will he also join me in regretting—

Mr. Speaker: Order. That is too many questions. Only one supplementary is allowed.

Mr. Spellar: I certainly join my hon. Friend the Member for Amber Valley (Judy Mallaber) in regretting the action of Amber Valley council, which I think that she wanted to mention, in moving away from the quality bus partnership. The key issue that we need to address is real partnership between local authorities and the bus companies for the benefit of the travelling public. There has been an increase of about 10 per cent. on the route that she mentioned, which is certainly good news for those who use the buses and it is also a significant contribution to achieving the shift from car to bus use that we are all trying to achieve.

Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire): Does the Minister agree that an important part of quality bus partnerships is the proper use of bus lanes? Will he join me in condemning the activities of his right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary, who abused the bus lane to avoid a traffic jam that was created by his friend Ken Livingstone?

Mr. Spellar: I am certainly glad to hear that an Opposition Member supports bus lanes and we shall certainly note that for the future.

Mr. Bill O'Brien (Normanton): In considering quality bus partnerships, will my right hon. Friend impress on bus companies the importance of provision for disabled—especially wheelchair-bound—people and the elderly to ensure that we can offer a full quality partnership to all our travelling public?

Mr. Spellar: As my hon. Friend will be aware, a considerable number of bus companies have introduced low-floor buses with their new bus stock. Many community transport schemes are using a wide variety of vehicles that are much more accessible not only to people in wheelchairs but to those with walking difficulties. Indeed, I was recently near his area—near Rotherham—visiting Optare, a company that produces

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many such vehicles for local use. We are seeing real partnerships, with the bus companies and local authorities producing that sort of service to achieve the widest possible range of transport and to reduce social exclusion.

Infrastructure (North Staffordshire)

10. Paul Farrelly (Newcastle-under-Lyme): What grants and assistance have been given to north Staffordshire for the improvement of transport infrastructure since 1997. [81332]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. David Jamieson): Funding for north Staffordshire is allocated to Stoke-on-Trent city council and Staffordshire county council. In the five years since 1997, they have received a total of #93.6 million in transport grant and borrowing approval. I am sure that my hon. Friend will be delighted to know that funding in his area through the local transport plans has doubled in recent years.

Paul Farrelly : I thank my hon. Friend for that reply. I am sure that he is aware that north Staffordshire needs more investment and, frankly, more regeneration expertise to unlock the capital sums that the Government have already earmarked. A key priority is regeneration for the whole A500, A50 and A34 corridor running between Stoke-on-Trent and my constituency. Will his Department consider favourably any requests by the north Staffordshire—

Mr. Speaker: Order. I will not allow an hon. Member to read out a supplementary question.

Mr. Jamieson: My hon. Friend will know that the completion of the A50 dual carriageway to the M1 has brought many benefits to his area. The public inquiry on the A50—the Potteries D road—to which he referred, was completed on 7 November and, subject to the usual planning consents, work will start next year.

Widford Bridge, Chelmsford

11. Mr. Simon Burns (West Chelmsford): When he expects work to commence on strengthening Widford Bridge in Chelmsford. [81333]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. David Jamieson): The Highways Agency is carrying out detailed design and preparation of a scheme to replace the Widford bridge and expects work to start in August 2003. The agency intends to complete the scheme by February 2005.

Mr. Burns: I thank the Minister for that reply. Given the delays caused by the weight restrictions, especially in the morning and afternoon rush hours, the fact that the Minister's answer suggests that the commencement date has been brought forward a few months will be warmly welcomed by my constituents and me. If he can continue

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to use his influence and bring it further forward—if that is not pushing my luck—we should be even more grateful to him.

Mr. Jamieson: The hon. Gentleman and I have exchanged considerable correspondence on this matter, especially earlier in the year when Chelmsford borough council implemented the width restrictions before all the necessary signs were in place.

Mr. Burns: A Liberal council.

Mr. Jamieson: I was not going to make that point.

Due to the poor condition of the bridge, there has to be a temporary closure of the rail line, and most of that work will have to be done during the quieter winter period, so the hon. Gentleman will appreciate that there would be some difficulty in bringing the date further forward than 2005. I take his point, however, and we shall do whatever we can to bring the issue forward.

M6 Toll Road

12. Michael Fabricant (Lichfield): When the toll structure for the M6 toll road will be announced; and if he will make a statement. [81334]

The Minister for Transport (Mr. John Spellar): Midland Expressway Ltd.—MEL—which has the concession to construct and operate the M6 toll road, also known as the Birmingham northern relief road, is responsible for setting and announcing toll levels.

Michael Fabricant : I thank the Minister for that answer. As he knows, many people in the west midlands welcome the construction of the road, which will do much to stimulate the economy not only in that region but also in the north-west. However, does he accept that it has caused considerable disruption to the lives of local people? Will he use his influence to see whether the toll structure will include discounts for the use of the toll road by local people in the west midlands?

Mr. Spellar: As I said to the hon. Gentleman, that is a matter for the company, although his proposition seems fiendishly difficult and I am sure that if he considered its implications in other areas he would see the difficulties. However, he will be aware that, for example, we arranged for the canal to be taken across. It was extremely important that the work was undertaken during the construction of the road so that it could be done cost-effectively and I know that it was widely welcomed in his constituency and also, I think, by him.

Mr. Brian Jenkins (Tamworth): My right hon. Friend is aware that some of us in the region did not welcome the construction of that road. However, now that the first toll road in Britain is a fact, is the Department prepared to conduct a survey to assess the impact of traffic on surrounding roads, especially on the A5 past the village of Hints up to the Weeford island?

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Mr. Spellar: My hon. Friend will know, from his previous incarnation as the leader of a local council, that we regularly work with local authorities to monitor traffic and, indeed, the effect of new road projects. That is enormously important so that we have proper data for our understanding about where and when future roads need to be constructed. However, if he has a particular problem, I should be more than happy to receive representations from him to see how it can be resolved.

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire): As someone whose constituency has been greatly affected by the road, may I reinforce the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield (Michael Fabricant)? When may we have an announcement about the tolls—whoever is responsible for determining what they should be? Will the Minister discuss with Midland Expressway some form of concession for local residents?

Mr. Spellar: I suspect that deciding what is local in that context would be extremely difficult. There would be considerable argument about people living near the borders. The practicalities of such a course of action would be difficult and it does not commend itself—nor did it when the hon. Gentleman's party were in government and signed the original agreement.

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