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10 Dec 2002 : Column 168—continued

Mr. Darling: The SRA will no doubt want to look at a number of rail projects throughout the country. As I pointed out earlier, the cost of running the railways in this country is greater than was anticipated—mainly due to the state of the track, although other factors are also involved.

In relation to the M6, I am grateful for my hon. Friend's Xguarded" welcome, but regardless of our ability to get more people to travel by train, that road was built between 30 and 40 years ago, when not too much attention was paid to the environmental consequences, and it is in need of improvement, so the improvements that I announced today would have been necessary in any case.

The SRA will of course look at particular railway lines but I do not want to tell any right hon. or hon. Member that funding is guaranteed. We shall look into such matters, but we have to operate under constraints.

Mr. Michael Jack (Fylde): I welcome the Secretary of State's attempt to change the M6 from a car park—as it sometimes is—into a working road. However, one aspect of that endeavour was missing from the right hon. Gentleman's statement: there was no sense of the time scale. When is work timetabled to begin on the improvements and will it be funded by a public-private partnership? Does the Secretary of State have any thoughts about tolling the road when it is completed? Finally, when he considers links between Lancashire and Yorkshire, will he be studying plans for an extension of the M65 through the Aire valley to open up another trans-Pennine crossing?

Mr. Darling: In relation to the right hon. Gentleman's question on the M65, the answer is not at the moment. However, it might be helpful if I write to him to let him know where we stand on that matter.

The right hon. Gentleman should not assume from anything that I said today that the road will be tolled. That is not one of our proposals. We need to examine whether it should be funded conventionally or through a public finance scheme. It might be helpful for the right hon. Gentleman and the House to know that the Highways Agency will work up specific proposals and we shall then have to seek planning permission as almost all of them will involve additional land take. The length of that process is not entirely in our hands but we can speed it up by ensuring that the design, environmental considerations, engagement of contractors and so on are telescoped. We are starting to do that, so the process will be quicker than might otherwise have been the case.

As I said in my statement, we cannot begin such projects tomorrow morning; it will be several years before the work is started and completed. I want to get on with things as quickly as possible. The M6 needs that additional capacity as soon as possible. However, I have not the slightest doubt that in future many Members sitting in the Chamber today will raise the legitimate concerns of their constituents about the environmental impacts of the road—we have to marry up the two objectives.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow): As the Secretary of State is aware, a senior member of his Department,

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Mr. Leslie Packer, last night attended a formidably well-researched presentation by the Motor Industry Research Association and British Nuclear Fuels Ltd at the Parliamentary and Scientific Committee on hydrogen fuel cells and their future use. As the British Government are good at handling situations when only one Department is involved, but perhaps less good when several are involved, such as—in this case—the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the Department of Trade and Industry, will my right hon. Friend, as the lead Minister, pay some attention to the serious proposals, made by serious people, on the non-fanciful development of hydrogen fuel?

Mr. Darling: I agree with my hon. Friend. In fact, my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary chairs an inter-ministerial group that is considering that work. I strongly believe that the Government should encourage the development of hydrogen fuels, and we shall do everything that we can, either directly or indirectly through the efforts currently being undertaken by the industry. Unfortunately, I suspect that it will take time to develop a proposition that is commercially exploitable, but I am sure that most Members will agree that we should be looking into such alternative forms of propulsion. There are huge environmental gains to come and my hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) has my assurance that we will do everything that we can to expedite that work.

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome): I think I can give a wholehearted welcome to something that the right hon. Gentleman said this afternoon, but will he confirm whether what he said about the A303 means that the on-line safety improvements on the Sparkford to Ilchester stretch in my constituency will now take place? Those plans have been in place since 1996; they have gone through a public inquiry and have been agreed. If that is what the right hon. Gentleman is saying, may I thank him on behalf of all those in the local communities who have been making representations not because they want to increase capacity, but because they want to save lives?

Mr. Darling: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his wholehearted welcome. I think we have now had from the Liberals one maybe, one against and one in favour: that sums up the Liberal party quite nicely.

In relation to the A303, we have considered the recommendations and taken a decision in principle to go ahead with the dualling, so we will now ask the Highways Agency to work up proposals. Discussions will have to take place with various people locally, who will have strong views on precisely what is planned, but I am quite happy to set out the procedure in relation to the hon. Gentleman's specific points if he would like me to do so, as that would probably help him to talk to his constituents about them.

Phil Sawford (Kettering): I thank my right hon. Friend for this statement. I welcome news of the #12.7 million investment to build the A43 Corby link road, which will bring great relief to the village of Geddington in my constituency. In view of the volume of traffic, particularly heavy vehicles, and the number of

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fatalities and serious injuries, will my right hon. Friend do everything that he can to expedite that project so that it can begin as quickly as possible?

Mr. Darling: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for those remarks. Yes, the A43 Corby link road has been approved and, yes, I will do everything that I can to bring forward those things as fast as I can. I should just repeat, however, that approving such schemes is the easy stage in some ways; the most difficult thing is to reach agreement on the precise configuration and layout, so I hope that all those hon. Members who have spoken in favour of such things this afternoon will apply their minds to addressing the undoubted difficulties that sometimes arise when people say that they are in favour of a road in principle but do not happen to want it just where we had in mind. I hope that my hon. Friend can help us with that as well.

Mr. Nick Hawkins (Surrey Heath): When this Government came to office and declared war on the motorist in 1997, the Deputy Prime Minister cancelled a whole series of important road schemes, including the Bisley bypass in my constituency. Now that the present Secretary of State has belatedly seen sense, will he agree that I can bring to see him or one of this ministerial colleagues a delegation of my constituents to raise the issue of the Bisely bypass and a matter that I have raised at two previous meetings with his junior Ministers: the resurfacing and noise barriers that are needed on the M3, which bisects my constituency? At the moment, only one carriageway has been resurfaced. That does not help to reduce the noise pollution from which my constituents suffer, and the Highways Agency tells us that the other carriageway cannot be resurfaced for several years. That is nonsense. Logically, all the work should have been done together.

Mr. Darling: In relation to whether the hon. Gentleman can come to see one of my colleagues, there is never any difficulty with right hon. or hon. Members seeking to see Ministers in my Department. As we are here to represent our constituents, we ought to be able to do that in one-to-one meetings, as that suits most hon. Members. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary is aware of the representations to which the hon. Gentleman refers.

In answer to the hon. Gentleman's first, rather ungracious, comment, I simply make the point, since he raises the issue, that what we need in this country is Governments who are able and determined to maintain spending year on year, decade on decade. It would be very useful if the hon. Gentleman would back that, although it would put him at odds with the rest of his party.

Mr. Lindsay Hoyle (Chorley): I welcome my right hon. Friend's announcement today, but does he realise that he will create a problem on the M6? I welcome the four-lane motorway up to the south of Manchester, but there will be a gap north of Warrington to the south of Preston, where it will have three lanes and become a bottleneck. There is a short span of four-lane motorway between Preston and Blackpool. I wonder whether my

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right hon. Friend will consider finding the funds to ensure that we have a four-lane motorway all the way through Lancashire.

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