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10 Dec 2002 : Column 154—continued


13. Vera Baird (Redcar): What advice he gives to British companies with joint investments in Burma with the military junta. [84333]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr. Mike O'Brien): We do not encourage trade or investment with Burma. We do not offer support of any kind for companies to pursue trade or investment with Burma. Companies that seek advice are told of the appalling human rights situation, corruption and dire economic situation that exist there.

Vera Baird : I thank my hon. Friend for that answer. He will be well aware that almost the only British company still in Burma is British American Tobacco, which jointly owns a cigarette factory with the military junta and clearly generates considerable profit and tax revenue thereby. When challenged, the company says that, in effect, corporate responsibility requires it to stay in Burma to sustain employment—

Mr. Speaker: Order. A supplementary question must be very snappy, but that is not a snappy question. Will the Minister try to deal with that point?

Mr. O'Brien: I have made it very clear that, as far as we are concerned, Burma is not a place where we encourage any companies to invest. At least, I am not aware of BAT being given any encouragement to continue to operate there and I shall certainly ask officials to identify any information of the sort that my hon. and learned Friend suggests has been given to it. The economic situation in Burma is deteriorating and the Government of Burma abuse human rights on a substantial scale. I spoke yesterday to Aung San Suu Kyi about our wish to ensure that the Government of Burma carry out a process of modernisation and democratisation as quickly as possible. Only then will the economic problems of Burma be resolved and will we have a roadway leading to a process whereby Aung San Suu Kyi and those who represent democracy can feel that Burma truly has an opportunity to rebuild itself after the tragedies of recent years.

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Transport Investment

3.31 pm

The Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. Alistair Darling): With permission, I should like to make a statement about the next steps in implementing our investment strategy to improve Britain's transport infrastructure.

Our roads and railways are facing increased demands. We are one of the largest economies in the world, and in the past five years we have got more than 1.5 million more people into work. People are better off and travel more often. As we meet the challenges that come from economic success, we are at the same time dealing with the problems resulting from decades of under-investment in our transport infrastructure.

If we look at other countries' successes in transport and ask what they have done, we see that the common factor is sustained investment year on year and over decades. Over this decade, more than #180 billion in both public and private money will be spent on transport, and because we have built a strong economy we can sustain that investment even in the face of today's uncertain and difficult times.

In the past few months, I have announced additional spending on our railway infrastructure, as well as measures to tackle congestion on the roads. Thirty-seven major road schemes have been completed in the past five years, and even before today's announcement we expect to complete about 30 new schemes in the next five years. Work includes major construction on the A1 and the M25, which will start next year.

Today, I am announcing the next stage of our investment programme—measures costing #5.5 billion, including the local transport plan settlement for 2003–04, together with my decisions in relation to five studies set up to examine pressures on the strategic road network. I announced the transport settlement for London last week. Our objective is to improve Britain's rail and road network as well as to make use of existing infrastructure, in a measured and balanced approach between road and rail and public and private transport. That includes improvements to tackle congestion, improve reliability and make journeys safer, together with measures to improve the environment and quality of life. The majority of journeys are local trips of less than five miles. Our plans allow for sustained expenditure and a doubling in real terms of local spending. That addresses the consequences of decades of under-investment and stop-go funding.

I can today announce the details of the local transport plan settlement for 2003–04. In December 2000, we announced that we would invest #8.4 billion to implement local transport plans over five years. Today's announcement is the third instalment. It builds on the #1.36 billion and #1.58 billion announced in the past two years. In total, the settlement gives local authorities a further #1.6 billion to improve local transport.

First, let us consider light rail schemes. In Greater Manchester, Metrolink has proved safe and reliable. Last year, it carried more than 18 million passengers, many of whom would previously have travelled by car. Its success means that I can confirm today funding approval for three new lines, which should more than double the number of passengers carried. Construction is planned to start next year.

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Subject to statutory procedures, a major light rail line will be built in Liverpool. Merseytram will create better access to the city from Kirkby, contribute significantly to regenerating Liverpool city centre, and boost jobs. In Nottingham, the first phase of the express transit system is under construction and is due to open next year. I accept the east midlands study's recommendation that plans for a second phase should be developed.

Buses remain central to the local public transport system, with nearly 4 billion passenger journeys a year. The local transport settlement will enable local authorities to make important improvements to the bus infrastructure, including providing new bus stations with better links to railway stations and other facilities as well as improving access for people with disabilities. The settlement will fund bus priority measures, thousands of road safety improvements and another 900 safe routes to schools schemes.

Next let us consider road maintenance. Improving the quality of local roads is vital not only for the three quarters of adults in this country who drive, but because most public transport depends on them. Tackling the investment backlog on local roads is therefore essential. We are making available more than #600 million of capital to add to local authorities' resource spending on road maintenance next year. In total, local authorities will be able to spend #2.6 billion on road maintenance. That is more than at any time in the past decade.

I am also approving 12 major local road schemes. Those improvements to local roads will tackle congestion, improve road safety and provide much needed bypasses to remove traffic from towns and villages.

Details of the local transport plan allocations will be placed in the Library, and details of my decisions on all the schemes, including light rail, will also be made available to hon. Members.

We are committed to investing in our strategic road network and making better use of the existing infrastructure. The strategic road network carries one third of all traffic and two thirds of freight traffic. In recent months, we have considered five strategic routes in the light of recommendations from studies of the M6 corridor from the midlands to the north-west, the M1 corridor in the east midlands, the A453 between Nottingham and the M1, the A1 north of Newcastle, and routes from London to the south-west and south Wales.

Most of those motorways were built 30 or 40 years ago. Since then, traffic on them has increased to levels that were never anticipated. However, the strategic routes, both road and rail, are critical to our economic prosperity. As the economy grows, pressure on the roads continues to grow.

We are currently spending on rail, and more passengers and freight are being carried by rail since 1997—but we must also spend more on improving the strategic road network. It is inevitable that large-scale developments take time to plan, design and deliver. We therefore need to make decisions in principle now.

The M6 is a vital link between the midlands and the north-west. When it was built in the 1960s, approximately 75,000 vehicles a day were anticipated. However, today, some stretches carry as many as 150,000 vehicles a day. We have already announced a

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major #10 billion upgrade for the west coast main line. That is an essential part of our strategy to relieve congestion on that critical transport corridor, allowing for faster trains and increasing capacity for passengers and freight.

The M6 toll road around Birmingham is already under construction and due to open in 2004. The link north of Carlisle to the M74 is being upgraded. With continued economic growth, and given the route's strategic importance, I have accepted the study's recommendation to widen to four lanes the M6 between Manchester and Birmingham, together with junction improvements and safety measures.

The study also considered replacing the A556 in Cheshire by linking the M6 and M56 with a new dual carriageway. I am worried about the environmental consequences of such a new road, and I have therefore asked the Highways Agency to examine the alternative of widening the existing motorways and improving the junction between them.

The M1 corridor links the south-east with the midlands, Yorkshire and the north-east. The Strategic Rail Authority has already announced improved frequency and faster trains on the Midland Mainline from 2004 as well as other measures to improve rail links. This is a strategic route, and vital to our economy. I have, therefore, decided that the M1 should be widened to four lanes through the east midlands, with climbing lanes for lorries and improvements to junctions. I am asking the Highways Agency to work up proposals for both the M1 and M6, including associated environmental measures, as quickly as possible. We are on course to deliver the objectives for road widening set out in the 10-year plan.

The A453 study looked at problems between Nottingham and the M1. Large-scale widening of this road in suburban areas would have had serious consequences for the local community and environment, so I accept the recommendation to dual from the M1 to Clifton, with a smaller-scale widening through Clifton itself.

The study on the A1 north of Newcastle rejected the case for dualling the A1 to the border, and the Scottish Executive do not intend to dual all the road north of Berwick. The safety record at a number points causes major concern, however, so I am asking the Highways Agency to develop proposals for significant safety improvements. These include completing the widening of the A1 between Morpeth and Alnwick, rather than widening it to Berwick as the north-east regional assembly proposed. Also in Northumberland, the Highways Agency will add to the roads programme the Haydon Bridge bypass on the A69.

I also have to announce decisions on the routes to the south-west and south Wales. First, I have accepted recommendations to add climbing lanes and to improve junctions on the M4 and M5 around Bristol, which will tackle one of the most congested parts of the motorway network. Secondly, much of the A303 is already a dual carriageway, and I am accepting recommendations to dual the remaining single-carriageway sections east of Ilminster. As well as relieving congestion, these improvements will make journeys safer and more reliable.

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It is essential that proposals to tackle congestion and improve reliability are consistent with our wider environmental obligations. I have had to consider whether I could accept the south-west regional assembly's recommendation to build a dual carriageway on the A303 and A30 through the Blackdown hills, which are designated as an area of outstanding natural beauty. I believe that there must be a strong presumption against building new roads in such areas, so I am asking the Highways Agency to consider the feasibility of an alternative proposal to widen the A358 from Ilminster to the M5 at Taunton.

As the House will know, an extremely busy section of the A303 runs through the world heritage site at Stonehenge. The original cheaper cut-and-cover solution had substantial environmental drawbacks, so my right hon. Friend, the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport and I have decided that a 2 km tunnel should be bored beneath the site at an additional cost of #31 million—a sum that I believe is justified by the environmental gain. This will allow major improvements at this world-famous site. We have a clear duty to protect our heritage and environment.

The five studies made a number of other recommendations, and my full response is being placed in the Library. Some recommendations are for local authorities to develop, and my response makes it clear that far more work needs to be done on a number of other proposals, to establish their feasibility and affordability. I also make it clear that not all of them will go ahead. For example, some proposals, such as the one to widen the M6 to five lanes, will not be taken forward. Further studies will look at the following strategic corridors: from London to the south midlands; along the south coast; from London to Ipswich; on the M60 around north-west Manchester; on the M25; through Yorkshire; through the west midlands; around Hull; and on Tyneside. I expect to report on my decisions on these in the spring. I shall also announce further investment in transport infrastructure at other locations during the course of next year.

The Government are spending more on rail and road to tackle congestion, to improve reliability and to make journeys safer. Under this Government, that investment will be sustained year on year, because it is an essential part of building our economic prosperity and improving our quality of life. I commend this statement to the House.

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