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17 Dec 2002 : Column 715—continued

Mr. Darling: I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman did not send an advance copy of his statement to me, as he has clearly been preparing it for some time.

The hon. Gentleman raises a number of matters, but I have made it clear that the progress report merely details what has happened in the 18 months since the 10-year plan was put in place. It is an investment plan, and its essential element is the allocation of #180 billion of private and public money over a 10-year period. That money remains in place, and will be spent. Indeed,

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some #6 billion in the second half of the plan remains unallocated, and I shall allocate that in the coming period.

The money is there, and the hon. Gentleman's assertion that something has happened to change that is simply wrong. The money is there, and it is beginning to make a difference. There is no doubt that the scale of the task in relation to road congestion and the railways is far greater than many people believed when the plan was put in place, but that is something that we must face up to. People know from their day-to-day experience what the problems are, and it is no use politicians pretending that there are easy and simple solutions.

The hon. Gentleman implied that he would want to spend more on public transport, and I understand that that is the Liberal position. I tackled the hon. Gentleman last week about his party's new spending plans, but his fellow Liberals may not be aware that they contain five tests that must be met. One test is that the pledge has to be funded within current budgets, so the hon. Gentleman's party is not making any more money available. Another test that must be passed is whether any project could not be delivered better by the private sector. That goes rather further than any other major political party.

The hon. Gentleman says that his policy is to raise the cost of motoring, at the same time as complaining about it. I would love to see that being peddled around some rural constituencies as a Liberal policy.

Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock): Does the word Xabracadabra" come to mind?

Mr. Darling: Many words come into my mind in connection with the Liberals, but most of them are probably unparliamentary.

The key point is this. The 10-year plan set out an investment strategy, involving both public and private money, covering a far longer period than had ever been covered before. It is our job to make sure that we tackle the problems, which is why I announced the investment in roads last week. Incidentally, although the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) condemned it, three of his colleagues said that they wanted even more to be spent on the roads. We must also get to grips with the rail problems, but they are deep-seated. I have always said that we are in this for the long haul.

We need to gain control of costs, but I am confident that in time we can begin to change, and build a transport system that will underpin our continued economic success. We will not do that, however, without the continuing investment to which the Government are committed—unlike the Conservatives, who are committed to the opposite, and unlike the Liberals, who would never be able to fund all their aspirations despite the injunction now imposed on them.

Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich): I congratulate the Secretary of State on the quality of the opposition that he has managed to arouse this afternoon. Few people, surely, could have such obtuse and unhelpful policies to offer as criticisms of his plans.

May I ask the Secretary of State a rather simpler question? As his Department knows, it is important to remember that if we manage to keep motoring costs

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constant we can affect congestion by 6 per cent. Given that public transport costs appear to be rising despite his best efforts, will he please accept that we must now start looking at the costs of motoring as well as railways?

Mr. Darling: I understand my hon. Friend's view, which she has expressed consistently for a long time, but we must consider not just the costs of motoring but the attractiveness, as well as the availability, of public transport. In too many parts of the country, it needs substantial improvement. I am thinking particularly of rural bus services. As for the railways, while there is no doubt that more money is going in and reliability and punctuality have improved over the past year, there is still a long way to go.

Our strategy is this. We need to invest in public transport—to spend more on supporting railways and buses—and also encourage local authorities to draw up proper plans for improving the environment of town and city centres, thus encouraging people to use public transport and leave their cars at home whenever that is possible. As I have said, however, it is also important for any transport strategy to be balanced and measured. There must be a balance between the private car and public transport, and that is the objective in our plan

Mr. Peter Lilley (Hitchin and Harpenden): Can the Secretary of State confirm that the Thameslink 2000 plan, announced with great fanfare in his predecessor's 10-year plan and delayed within 10 weeks because of environmental problems, has now—after 10 months—been deferred indefinitely owing to cost overruns? Can he also confirm that there will be fewer services on the lines taking my constituents to London? When will they see any improvement, rather than deterioration, while plans are constantly being delayed?

Mr. Darling: The environmental problems to which the right hon. Gentleman refers are planning problems. No Government and no railways can get around the fact that planning permission must be applied for.

As I have said a number of times in the House when I have been asked similar questions about Thameslink, we must bear it in mind that we are trying to build a railway rather than redeveloping parts of London. In the case of Thameslink, some people have seen an opportunity to do an awful lot of redevelopment along the way. That inflates costs, and while it may be desirable for development reasons it does not help us to build the railway.

I am anxious to get Thameslink extended. The right hon. Gentleman is right: it has been a major boon for London, opening links between north and south that existed to no real extent for a long time. Two things are necessary for the extension. We must secure the planning consent, which is being considered at the moment, and the project—like all rail projects—must be both affordable and deliverable. If those things can be achieved, Thameslink will significantly improve north-south links across London, and I for one would dearly like that to happen.

Linda Perham (Ilford, North): May I ask my right hon. Friend about the prospects for the Crossrail project? It is extremely important that reliability and

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congestion for those who commute from my part of east London are improved. Will he assure me that the Government are committed to backing that project for the next 10 years?

Mr. Darling: It might help if I tell my hon. Friend and the House where we are on that. When I looked at the plans a couple of months ago, it was clear that we did not have something that was sufficiently worked up and deliverable to be able to cost it and draw up plans to put in place. I therefore asked the Strategic Rail Authority and Transport for London to come up with workable, affordable and deliverable plans by the end of February. That work is being done.

On the general point, there can be no doubt that, with what is happening in London now, and especially taking into account forecasts for the future, the need for an east-west rail link is important. The amount of development at Canary Wharf, the Thames gateway and other areas means that there will be significant transport pressures. Given the time it takes to deliver any major rail infrastructure project, the sooner we get on to producing such plans, the better. I must emphasise, not just today but no doubt for many weeks to come, that I make no bones about the fact that, unless we start to control costs and tell people that they cannot just think of a number and expect us to pay it, we will not see such projects. As it is, I very much hope that we can get something done because those two main crossings—Crossrail and Thameslink—are critical for the future of London for the next 50 years.

Alistair Burt (North-East Bedfordshire): When the Government and their associated transport agencies can be so cavalier and treat so lightly their targets and commitments, why do they still require the county of Bedfordshire to build a substantial number of new houses over the next decade, thus adding to rail and road congestion?

Mr. Darling: On targets, as I said earlier, the scale of the congestion problem is far greater than people thought, but that does not mean that we do not tackle it. I am telling the House—I have been open about this for sometime—that because the scale of the problem is greater, it will take longer to achieve the targets. That does not mean, however, that we abandon the objective.

Sadly, I do not have ministerial responsibility for housing policy, but I know that there are pressures on transport links between Bedfordshire and London and other parts of the country. I respectfully suggest that the hon. Gentleman take up the issue of housing with my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister.

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