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10 Dec 2002 : Column 164—continued

Mr. George Howarth (Knowsley, North and Sefton, East): I congratulate my right hon. Friend on producing

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what I consider to be a balanced set of proposals, and in particular on agreeing to fund the Merseyside tram project, or light rail system, as he called it. The project will link Kirkby in my constituency with Liverpool city centre and, just as importantly, will go through some of the most deprived communities on Merseyside. Will my right hon. Friend join me in congratulating Merseytravel on bringing the project to the point where it is now a reality?

Mr. Darling: I agree on my hon. Friend's final point. Merseytravel has put a lot of work and effort into the project, and I am glad that we were able to agree the funding. The key thing is to get the link constructed and operating. I hope that the fact that we are giving the go-ahead for Merseytram will encourage others to invest in the city and secure the improvements that we want, not least by ensuring that more people are in work and helping to increase the city's prosperity.

Mr. George Osborne (Tatton): The widening of the M6 through my constituency will be received as a mixed blessing, but there will be bitter disappointment that we still do not have a decision on the A556M. When will a decision be made about either improving junction 20 or building the new motorway? Enormous planning blight has been caused in my constituency for the people whom I represent.

Mr. Darling: The hon. Gentleman has craftily refrained from telling us which side he is on in that great debate. I have made it clear that I am concerned about the environmental impact that building a new road would have—and the road would be a new one, as it would not follow the line of the existing road. As I have said today and on other occasions—indeed, I said it as soon as I took up this job—we must consider long and hard whether new roads can be justified. I want to make a decision as quickly as possible, as I recognise what the hon. Gentleman said about blight. Clearly, the Highways Agency has to look at the feasibility of upgrading junction 20 to see whether there might be an alternative. I have asked the agency to look at the matter objectively and come up with an alternative. I hope that that is what happens.

Mr. Ronnie Campbell (Blyth Valley): I welcome the report, although I am a little disappointed that the Blyth and Tyne rail link, which runs through my constituency in south-east Northumberland and into Newcastle, has not been mentioned so far. Will my right hon. Friend keep an eye on that link in the future?

Mr. Darling: My hon. Friend will know that the link is one of the matters covered in the report. As I made clear in my letter of response, the SRA will want to consider the matter, but I do not want to tell my hon. Friend, XNot to worry, that link is just down the road." We must be realistic, and we are spending a lot of money on transport. My hon. Friend will know that the costs of running the railway have gone up dramatically—not least because we now have a far clearer idea of the state of the network. I am afraid that we never had that under Railtrack or even under British Rail, and it has complicated matters.

Mrs. Angela Browning (Tiverton and Honiton): The section of the A358 between Ilminster and Taunton is a

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legitimate candidate for dualling, but that should not happen as an alternative to dualling the A303 from Honiton to Ilminster. When the Government came to office, that piece of road had been subject to a full public inquiry. The very important environmental issues had been considered, and the contract was due to go out to tender. The economic arguments for another arterial route in and out of Devon are overwhelming. The CBI and the Devon and Cornwall Business Council support the project but, more importantly, so does every parish council along the route. If the Secretary of State is going to listen to local people, will he listen to parish councils and their elected representatives?

Mr. Darling: I drove along that route recently to see what the position was. As the hon. Lady may know, I spoke to representatives of industry in the south-west, so I know people's feelings on the matter. However, as I said in my statement earlier, the location has been designated an area of outstanding natural beauty. Successive Governments have taken a view on the environmental benefits of such designations, and we must think long and hard before agreeing to build a new road through the area. That is why it is right to determine whether the alternative through to Taunton would be better. As I told the hon. Member for Tatton (Mr. Osborne), Governments have a duty to have regard to the environmental consequences of what they do. They must think long and hard before committing to projects that could have an adverse effect on the environment.

Ms Candy Atherton (Falmouth and Camborne): I warmly welcome the statement, and the news on the A303 will be widely welcomed in the west country. It is an example of the Government delivering for Cornwall. Our periphery means that it is critical that we have first-class road and rail links. I appreciate that my right hon. Friend needs to think long and hard about the Blackdown hills, but can I urge him to think more quickly, because we need an urgent decision?

Mr. Darling: Just a few moments ago I said that my preference as regards the Blackdown hills is to look at an alternative. However, my hon. Friend is right that the Government are doing a lot in Cornwall. A number of bypasses and road improvements are being worked on in Cornwall. It is important to ensure that road and rail links in all parts of the country are brought up to standard, and that those from the south-west to the rest of the country are improved. After all, it is not just a matter of quality of life and convenience—the economic prosperity of the south-west depends on its transport links.

Mr. Simon Thomas (Ceredigion): In welcoming the improvements in road links to south Wales, I draw the Secretary of State's attention to the fact that 90 per cent. of journeys in Wales are taken by car in contrast to some 84 per cent. in England, so investment in our rail infrastructure is vital for our economy and our environment. In that context, will the right hon. Gentleman take this opportunity to rule out the suggested 10 or even 20 per cent. decrease in funding for the Wales and borders franchise that is being discussed?

Mr. Darling: I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman's welcome and I am sure that the improvements on the

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M4 and M5 around Bristol will also help traffic travelling to south Wales—at least, it should do, from my experience. On rail expenditure, as I said earlier, the Government are determined to ensure that we continue to invest in the railways the money that has been allocated. However, some people in the industry—operators as well as contractors—are approaching this as if they can simply ask the Government to write a blank cheque. No responsible Government could agree to that, so although of course we want to make sure that we achieve good quality and better standards than we have at present, we cannot accept a situation in which operators say how much money they want and we hand it over. That is no way to run a railway.

Geraldine Smith (Morecambe and Lunesdale): Although my right hon. Friend's statement is most welcome, particularly the improvements to the M6, does he agree that it is important to improve motorway link roads such as the proposed Heysham Port/M6 link road, which will bring massive benefits to my constituency when it is finally completed? Can he give me an assurance that when this scheme is submitted to the Government for funding, he will give it his careful consideration?

Mr. Darling: I always consider schemes, but my hon. Friend knows that I cannot go as far as to say that I will approve them. She is right that although it is of course important to improve our strategic arterial routes, the link roads to various parts of the country are equally important. All proposals will be considered carefully, especially those that ensure the continued economic development of certain areas or that benefit areas that are being opened up for additional development.

Mr. Nigel Waterson (Eastbourne): Can the Secretary of State confirm that the south coast multi-modal study has concluded quite clearly that major improvements are necessary to the A27 between Lewes and Polegate and that they should be a priority? So why is he going to wait until the spring to make a decision?

Mr. Darling: Well, simply because we get these reports from the consultants; they then go to the regional assemblies; and various other people have to have their say before they come to me for consideration. I could have waited and looked at them all together, as some people urged me to do, but I thought it best to deal with them in sensible groups. If I jump the process, I fear that somebody will head off to my learned friends in court—as I found out only too recently—and I do not want to repeat that experience too often.

Mr. George Stevenson (Stoke-on-Trent, South): Will my right hon. Friend accept from me a guarded welcome for the M6 proposals? Major projects such as the widening of the M6 have an enormous impact on local sub-regions such as north Staffordshire and Stoke-on-Trent. Does my right hon. Friend therefore share my concern that the multi-modal study did not consider the potential of such rail links as the Crewe-Derby line, which runs through the whole of the north Staffordshire sub-region and into south Cheshire? Will he undertake

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to review that serious omission so that the potential for passengers and freight on that enormously important sub-regional line can be considered?

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