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13 Jan 2003 : Column 522—continued

10.39 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. David Jamieson): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for South Thanet (Dr. Ladyman) not only on securing this Adjournment debate but on the clear and well-considered way in which he has presented his points. My hon. Friend the Member for Dover (Mr. Prosser) has been his useful aide on this occasion. My hon. Friend the Member for South Thanet asked whether I listened to his speeches. I can assure him that I listen to them avidly, and that those that I do not happen to catch I read in Hansard the next morning. My hon. Friend has painted a powerful picture in the Chamber on many occasions of the levels of unemployment in his constituency and the need for inward investment there. I can assure him that those are the Government's priorities, and using transport to help regeneration is one of our central aims.

My hon. Friend has clearly explained the importance of Thanet and east Kent to both the national and regional economy. The Government certainly support that view. We also agree that the transport infrastructure is a vital component for assisting in the regeneration of this area. Before I respond to my hon. Friend's specific points, I should like briefly to outline what is already happening to improve transport. We have made it clear in the 10-year plan for transport that we are fully committed to improving the nation's transport infrastructure, especially through effective local transport schemes. We have introduced local transport plans to support this commitment. These five-year plans give local authorities such as Kent the freedom to deliver local transport schemes that meet the needs of their communities. We have already allocated more than #24 million for 2003–04 to Kent county

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council to increase investment in local transport schemes and maintenance. I am sure that my hon. Friend will have noticed that that is an increase of #4 million over the 2002–03 allocation of #20 million. It is also more than double the allocation for 2000–01.

I understand that Kent county council is spending more than #750,000 in Thanet in 2002–03. That includes spending on safety measures, rural schemes, the A254 Margate to Ramsgate cycle route, a safer-routes-to-school project at Drapers Mill primary school in Margate, and the introduction of the Birchington 20 mph zone. We also continue to support schemes that will aid regeneration in north Kent, such as the south Thames development route and Fastrack. In recent years, we have given provisional approval for the A256 east Kent access scheme, and the Leybourne and West Malling bypass. In total, the amount provisionally committed to major transport schemes in Kent amounts to just over #61 million.

The Fastrack guided bus system is an example of an innovative public transport scheme, and we have committed #14.5 million to it. Its first phase will link Dartford station with Greenhithe station and Gravesend, taking in Bluewater and the Darenth Park hospital on its route. The concept of guided buses is being taken forward by Medway council, which is already planning a rapid transit system designed to link up with Fastrack and aid regeneration in Medway. We have also given #500,000 for complementary highway works to improve access to the proposed Turner centre in Margate. The centre is a key community development and will enable further regeneration of the waterfront at Margate. The south coast multi-modal study has now reached its recommendations and been supported by the south-east England regional assembly. Its recommendations encourage the use of rail for accessing the existing ports of Folkestone, Dover and Ramsgate. They also encourage the use of those ports for the transportation of freight, especially bulky goods such as aggregates.

Let me deal with the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Dover, who will be aware that all road schemes are undertaken strictly on a priority basis. Currently, even at peak times, the levels of traffic congestion on the A2 do not justify the dualling that he mentioned. However, the Highways Agency is discussing with the port authority and other interested stakeholders how we can improve the flow of traffic by other interim measures, which I hope will bring my hon. Friend some relief.

The report notes that the channel tunnel rail link provides the opportunity to operate domestic services that can also serve Folkestone, Dover, Canterbury and east Kent. That would significantly enhance accessibility in the area. In addition, depending on the future role of Manston airport, it may warrant a new rail access.

The consultants' report also supports Connex's proposal to increase the number of trains between Dover and Ashford from two to four. It also advocates completing the east Kent access improvements, including provision of priority lanes, but it will be for the Secretary of State to take the decisions on the way forward.

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I want to answer specifically some points that were raised by my hon. Friend the Member for South Thanet. The concern that he expressed on greater borrowing powers for local authorities will be addressed by the Local Government Bill, which had its Second Reading last week and which will allow local authorities to gain greater freedoms with borrowing. That will aid Thanet with its development of the port of Ramsgate, but it will be up to the local authority to manage its financial business using that new freedom. It will be able to determine how much money it can afford to borrow, and it will, of course, manage the debt.

My hon. Friend has heard of that as the new prudential style of borrowing. Under the proposed legislation, the Deputy Prime Minister and First Secretary of State may also regulate how the new powers may be performed. Those are seen as safeguards for the authority. The powers can relate directly to ports, and where the port is commercially viable the authority will be able to borrow over the limit of current Government support for capital programmes. Where the port is not commercially viable, there will still be the avenue of grants.

My hon. Friend also raised municipal seaport regulations and support, setting out how other European ports appear to have greater backing from their Governments. A European Commission paper on public funding and state aid in ports is due shortly, and I understand that it aims to clarify the position in more detail. I look forward to it with interest. We continue to work to persuade the Commission and other member states of the need for a level playing field across Europe, which my hon. Friend realises is important to him and to the ports in his area.

The work on the proposed study of municipal ports has, I am afraid, been delayed for some time owing to the necessary temporary reallocation of staff caused by 11 September, but the aim is that it will be undertaken as soon as possible this year. I can reassure my hon. Friend that the review is important to the Government.

The potential of the port of Ramsgate has been greatly aided by the opening of the Ramsgate harbour approach road. The scheme, which takes freight lorries and port traffic from the town centre directly to the port, was completed in 2000 at a cost of #30 million. It has improved port access and removed a major impediment to the development of the port and the marina.

I am indebted to my hon. Friend for reminding me that I opened the new apron and taxiway at Manston airport on what I recall as an extremely hot day last year. I was made very much aware that the owners of Manston have indeed put considerable resources into developing the airport and the related business park.

I understand that there are also proposals for a new passenger terminal at the airport. My hon. Friend will be aware that we are consulting on the development of airports across the south-east of England; indeed, I am sure that that has not evaded his notice. We expect the consultation to continue into the summer, and the aviation White Paper is likely to follow in the autumn. I am sure that he will contribute to the consultation exercise, as will those others with an interest in Manston

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airport, and I can assure him that we shall consider the case thoroughly, although he would be surprised if I made any particular comment on it tonight.

On rail services, I know that my hon. Friend met the Minister for Transport last week. The Strategic Rail Authority has been remitted by the Government to achieve train services that will create a strong intercontinental link to increase trade and tourism in Britain. Because the level of infrastructure required will impact heavily on Kent, a provision was made to allow domestic services in Kent to operate using the channel tunnel rail link. The difficulty is the way in which those services will link into the other railway lines already operating in Kent—the north Kent line and the east Kent line. The Strategic Rail Authority has undertaken an analysis of the options for providing services using the channel tunnel rail link and the way in which they can be delivered. That analysis included taking on board issues such as connecting to already existing tracks, the type of rolling stock required to operate on the different tracks, the difficulty of harmonising signalling and the cost to the train operators of services lost because of overcapacity. I hope my hon. Friend appreciates the complexities and difficulties that that has entailed.

My hon. Friend proposed that the maintenance and storage of the channel tunnel rail link domestic stock be carried out at Ramsgate. The franchise for the full Kent domestic services will run from 2007, and all prospective tenderers will look at the resources available to them to make the most competitive tender. The siting of a train manufacturer with maintenance facilities at Ramsgate would seem to be an attractive package. My hon. Friend has made representations tonight, and I am sure that he is promoting the facilities at Ramsgate to all the potential franchisees. Once the consultations on the options identified in the SRA report have been completed, it will be for Ministers to examine all aspects and effects that they may have on the areas concerned, particularly the wider benefits for regeneration, employment and liveability in the area—I know that those are important issues for my hon. Friend. I can

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assure him that any decision on the channel tunnel rail link consultation will take into consideration all the factors that I have outlined.

My hon. Friend also mentioned the current services to his constituency provided by Connex, presenting them in his usual quiet but robust way. The present deal allows Connex to provide a level of stability to its customers. The package incorporates continuing measures to improve performance and secures commitment to the removal of mark 1 slam-door trains. Connex has already ordered 500 new vehicles to fulfil its commitment to replace that ageing rolling stock. My hon. Friend has the look of someone saying XWatch this space." I am sure that he will do so, and will inform us if that commitment is not met in the expected time scale. The shortened franchise will enable the SRA to market a new integrated Kent franchise from 2007, making use of the new high-speed channel tunnel rail link. As is normally the case, the bidding process for that franchise will be an open competition.

I have already set out in general terms the support for the funding of local authority schemes through the local transport plan. Phase 1 of the east Kent access scheme has already received provisional approval, and funding has been set aside this year in readiness for the scheme achieving full approval. The next two phases have now been combined, and we are expecting a bid for that part of the scheme in this year's annual progress report.

I hope that in the time available to me I have been able to cover the points made by my hon. Friend. If there are matters that I have not covered, I am sure that he will point them out to me, and we can deal with them in correspondence.

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend not only for the way in which he has presented his case tonight but for the way in which he has conducted himself for a number of years in presenting most forcefully in the House matters of interest to his constituents. I commend him strongly for all the good work that he has done.

Question put and agreed to.

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