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House of Commons

Tuesday 17 December 2002

The House met at half-past Two o'clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked—

Traffic Congestion

1. Sue Doughty (Guildford): If he will make a statement on his plans for traffic and congestion reduction in England. [85901]

The Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. Alistair Darling): This afternoon, I shall make a statement and publish a report on the Government's 10-year transport investment plan. The investment plan will bring about reductions in congestion, but continued progress will require sustained investment as well as other measures over many years.

Sue Doughty : The Secretary of State said this morning on the radio that he seeks merely to stem the remorseless rise of congestion. Does that mean allowing it to continue to rise? If so, what has happened to the imaginative and innovative solutions that we need to reduce the growth in traffic and to reduce actual traffic and congestion by 2011?

Mr. Darling: I have said on several occasions that it is clear to me that the levels of congestion in this country two years ago, when these targets were fixed, were far higher than people thought. It is also clear that, as a result of strong economic growth, the pressures on the system will be far higher than was anticipated. As I shall make clear later this afternoon, without the investment that we are bringing forward, congestion would rise remorselessly. That was what happened in the past, and that would be the case now were it not for our planned investment. That investment plan is designed to cut congestion and make a significant impact, but, overall, levels of congestion will be higher than we thought two years ago. I am being realistic about that, because it is the right approach to take. What is necessary, however, is to continue that investment, year on year, in road improvements, in bypasses, in junction improvements, in public transport, in buses and in rail. That is what we intend to do.

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Mr. David Clelland (Tyne Bridge): My right hon. Friend will be aware that I have raised on previous occasions the serious congestion on the A1 western bypass, a two-lane motorway, around the Tyne and Wear conurbation, which is often easily as congested as the M6, a three-lane motorway. Will he give the House some information on what progress is being made on introducing measures to relieve congestion on that road?

Mr. Darling: My hon. Friend makes a key point. If we are to tackle congestion, we need to look at its causes, and, in particular, at the places where it occurs. He will be aware that I made an announcement last week about a number of road programmes. The road mentioned by my hon. Friend is being studied by the Highways Agency and as and when we have something to say about it, I shall report it to him and to the House. The key point in relation to congestion is that we must, as a country, commit ourselves to sustained investment, year on year, decade on decade, which successive Governments have failed to do in the past.

Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (West Derbyshire): The Secretary of State said last week:

Does he have every confidence that, come the end of February next year, people will be satisfied with the system that will be operating in London?

Mr. Darling: As I said, I have enough experience as a Minister dealing with IT projects for which I have responsibility to be cautious. Equally, I have enough experience to know that when other people are dealing with projects I should be even more cautious.

Alan Simpson (Nottingham, South): Will the Secretary of State cast a second glance over the proposals to dual the A453, the final part of which runs through the Clifton section of my constituency? The point at which the delays occur on the A453 has always been that at which the road crosses the River Trent, where the bottleneck is the bridge itself, which is not to be widened. Will he consider phasing the proposals to judge whether the final part of the scheme will work, because so much is dependent on diversionary transport planning, much of which is not yet in place?

Mr. Darling: I am aware of the problem, because a few months ago I drove down that road, and I remember the congestion point that my hon. Friend mentioned. My recollection is that the Highways Agency is considering whether there should be a further crossing over the Trent to accommodate that problem. I shall look into the matter again and write to him. He is right to raise the general issue that if one sorts out congestion at one point, one should try to sort out the congestion at the next point down the line.

Mr. Don Foster (Bath): How will cutting rail services and increasing rail fares help to tackle road congestion?

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Mr. Darling: Over the next few years we will double the amount of money spent on the railways; from recollection, we are spending something like #12 billion on the railway system. I have made it clear on a number of occasions, as has Richard Bowker, the chairman of the Strategic Rail Authority, that the rail industry must get a grip of the costs that it faces. The Government are willing to spend more, and investment is being made, but, as in other cases, that must be coupled with reform. First, the industry must get a grip of its major project costs, but it must also deliver better standards in relation to reliability and the quality of service offered.

I am sure that many Members of the House will know from their own experience that too many rail companies in this country have not improved their performance. Richard Bowker and the SRA are therefore right to drive a hard bargain on behalf of the public, who expect us to make sure that money is spent prudently and to the best possible effect.

Helen Jackson (Sheffield, Hillsborough): But will my right hon. Friend not accept, as I believe he does, that the only answer to road congestion is an integrated approach that talks about long-term investment in the railways and public transport as well as in necessary road improvements? I am sure that he does not want to be called the son of Beeching, so will he assure the House that we will not have railway closures and public transport cuts? That is not the way to improve road congestion.

Mr. Darling: My hon. Friend is right. As I said last week, any transport policy has to be measured and balanced. That means that we have to spend more on our railways because they are suffering from year after year and decade after decade of under-investment. We also have to make sensible improvements in our road network, which, in many cases, was designed 30 or 40 years ago and now carries levels of traffic that could not have been anticipated then.

However, it is equally true that, if we spend more, we must make sure that we get more out of the system. I am sure that my hon. Friend cannot be the only Member of the House who becomes frustrated to find that, when we put more money into the railway system, too many companies do not make the improvements that they should make. Frankly, the reliability levels of the trains need to be improved. Poor maintenance and staffing problems are all problems that the industry needs to sort out.

I am very clear about this. The Government are prepared to spend more on the railways—it is substantially more—but, at the same time, we are entitled to say to the industry, XYou've got to get a grip of costs and you've got to get a grip of projects. Above all, you've got to provide a much better service than at present." I believe that the railway industry now understands that the Government, and through them the SRA, are extremely serious when we say to it that it has got to up its game and drive up standards.

Mr. Tim Collins (Westmorland and Lonsdale): If the Secretary of State is blaming what he calls an unexpected rise in congestion on unexpected economic growth, will he explain how a 5 per cent. growth in the number of jobs in the past five years translates into a

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16 per cent. rise in average journey times, into a 33 per cent. rise in the CBI's estimate of the cost to business of congestion and into a 40 per cent. rise in average congestion levels on motorways?

Mr. Darling: The principal cause of the rise in congestion on the roads and railways is that, for years, successive Governments failed to invest enough. Indeed, if we ask ourselves why much of the transport system in other European countries is, generally speaking, better than ours, we find that the reason is that they invested more year on year and decade after decade. The hon. Gentleman's problem—I put this to him last week—is that he does not have a policy for dealing with any of this. Until he has, he will forgive me for being a trifle sceptical of the criticism that he makes of us.

Mr. Collins: If the answer is investment, why are the Government proposing to spend in every year of the 10-year plan less on both roads and rail than Margaret Thatcher spent in every year of her premiership? If it is all unexpected, how come that it was predicted almost to the precise percentage point in the Government's own document XNational Road Traffic Forecasts (Great Britain) 1997"?

Mr. Darling: On spending, it is a trifle disingenuous of the hon. Gentleman to exclude from his figures private investment, which is also going into road and rail. It is interesting that private investment under this Government is 10 times greater now than it was under Margaret Thatcher's Government.

Angela Eagle (Wallasey): She got us into this mess.

Mr. Darling: That is as may be. However, the key point surely is that, unless all of us, including the Opposition, sign up to the proposition that we need to invest more in transport—public transport and in roads, rail and buses—the problems that face us will continue. I am clear that, as a result of the 10-year plan, we will stem the rising level of congestion that we would otherwise have faced. By investing in buses, railways, light transport and public transport overall as well as by putting more into the road system, we will steadily bear down on what is an undoubted problem. However, without the money and the commitment to investment, which the Conservatives certainly do not have, we will not crack the problem. The investment that the Government are putting forward will go a long way towards dealing with the problem. However, as I have made clear—let us face up to this—we have an awful lot more to do.

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