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9.21 pm

Geraint Davies (Croydon, Central): What a rag-bag of rubbish we have heard from both the Liberals and the Tories. We heard that the hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker) would tax, tax, tax the motorist and the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) told us how much he would tax those who want to fly out of the country in order to fund his party's plans. Yet, we heard earlier from the Secretary of State that the Liberals' strategy is not to increase tax but to generate new schemes using existing resources. In sharp contrast, the Tories' only policy is to cut taxes for the motorist and then increase investment using money that they would not have. That was an incoherent suggestion—they have a monopoly on tittle-tattle without policy.

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Mr. Don Foster: Does the hon. Gentleman agree with his Government's policy that aviation should cover all its externalities and, thus, the tax subsidy to airlines should be reduced?

Geraint Davies: The Government's policy is not to reduce tax. Obviously more tax would be generated by the natural increase of aviation at 6 per cent. a year. A European-level review of the environmental costs of aviation is required and, in the meantime, that may be proxied by the rate of increase of supply lagging behind the rate of increase of demand for airport delivery.

The simple fact is that we have heard tittle-tattle and incoherent rubbish. I note that the motion moved by the hon. Member for Bath does not call for a full-time Secretary of State for Transport but for a full-time Secretary of State for the time being. That is because the Liberals do not really know what they are doing, as has been revealed. They have not factored in the reality that regional assemblies might take control of aspects of transport policy in the way that has happened in Scotland and London. They are not looking to the future—we heard the usual opportunist rubbish. They also say that the Transport Secretary's scope should be widened to the environment. That does not really stack up.

The key issue of policy delivery is what we will do in the next 10 years to deliver an integrated transport plan. That is the challenge facing the Government and it is why they are spending £180 billion on a mixed package to balance development that respects the needs of the economy and the environment, and the requirement for social access to a networked system of transport.

The difficulty has been caused because 1.5 million more people are in jobs and there was chronic underinvestment for many years. The Conservative spokesperson, the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Mr. Collins), asked how a 5 per cent. increase in employment can lead to a larger increase in congestion—I shall speak slowly at this point.

If a network ran at a capacity of 95 per cent. and an extra 5 per cent. was added to it, it would become gridlocked and there could be an infinite increase in congestion. The basic knowledge of the science of transport is woefully inadequate, as we might expect.

What problem do we have to tackle and what have we done about it so far? Rail usage has increased by a fifth. Investment in rail in the 10 years up to 1997 was half that planned for the 10 years from 1997. Modern modes of transport have emerged in my town of Croydon. I was instrumental in creating the public-private partnership of Tramlink, a £200 million scheme that shifts 16 million people a year in an environmentally sensitive way. The PPP is making progress on the tube and will bring £16 billion to it to keep the capital moving.

Proper consultation on the aviation strategy of the future is also emerging. Aviation policy is difficult. We cannot simply have the plain approach of predict and provide, as the Conservatives did for roads. It is not sustainable in terms of environmental damage. There is not just the problem of noise and pollution, but the visual impairment of Britain's skies as planes criss-cross everywhere. We need a balance between that and the hair-shirt approach of no more aviation.

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Hon. Members mentioned factoring in the environmental cost in a tax. I have sympathy with that. In the meantime, that can be proxied, as I said, by ensuring that the rate of increase in supply does not hurtle forward at the rate of increase in demand. It is important to balance the strategy for hubs and spokes for airports that serve the regions, the capital and large cities with access, communication and pollution. We need to think about the extent to which the rail network needs to feed new or existing airports rather than having more airports and air travel, which is more polluting.

On the road and rail balance, predict and provide is discredited. We need to think about how to maximise the efficiency of the existing network. Sadly, for some people that will mean reducing the number of small rail routes, which are not used so frequently, that stop strategic rail routes. There are bottlenecks. We need to increase efficiency and prioritise. Ultimately, we need to advance the rationale behind congestion charging, which is the targeted rationing of road space through the marketplace. The bold step to provide the powers to do that was led by the Deputy Prime Minister. The Mayor of London put his foot in the water—half his leg, in fact—to show that we can work on that idea. I am glad that the new Secretary of State is considering ways to build on that rationale to use our network more effectively so that more people can move around with greater ease and without causing unnecessary congestion.

The hon. Member for Bath raised the idea of bonds for congestion charging. The revenue raised in London is less than predicted. One reason for that is the success of the congestion charging scheme, which underlines the risk involved in making predictions. If we went down the route advocated by the hon. Gentleman and gave bonds to cities and towns, they would have to bear the downside of the financial risk of those predictions being wrong and could come a cropper in terms of local taxation. The system is not completely thought out.

I want to draw to the Minister's attention the impact of e-commerce on the landscape of transport infrastructure. The reality is that if people in our communities spent one day in five working from home by e-mail and if one in five purchases were made by e-mail, one in five offices and one in five shops would close down. The transport infrastructure and the renaissance of a town centre in terms of houses would be transformed.

We need to take a long-term view and think how behaviour will change over the next 10 years. People want to travel, but they do not want to do so if they do not have to. We therefore have to factor such revolutionary changes into our transport planning.

Lawrie Quinn: Does my hon. Friend agree that there will be a large increase in leisure travel across the globe? It is estimated, for example, that 100 million Chinese will soon be joining world travellers. That is the challenge that we need to prepare for in global transport policy, and are not Ministers and the Department doing so?

Geraint Davies: Indeed they are. My hon. Friend has underlined the challenge facing the global economy

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alongside the Kyoto targets. We need to establish a framework in which we think of everyone, not just one person. There is a parallel in the comments of the hon. Member for Lewes about the micro-logic of a postal service being taken off a train, but the macro-impact not being in the long-term public interest. In connection with that, a "Save Mail on Rail" campaign will be launched at a media conference at 11 o'clock on Tuesday, 24 June in Conference Room C, 1 Parliament street.

In conclusion, we face massive challenges, not just in e-commerce but in the global environmental and economic sphere, and the way in which we fit that in with social access. At a time when we face momentous challenges, it is sad that the Liberals and Tories should support a petty and opportunistic little motion about what people should have in their in-tray, rather than grasp strategic opportunities and lead people into a rosier future.

9.31 pm

Norman Lamb (North Norfolk): The perfect preparation for tonight's debate on the crisis in transport was spending just over an hour on a train outside Stowmarket going absolutely nowhere this morning. At least we had the benefit of being able to contemplate the Suffolk countryside, which you know very well, Mr. Deputy Speaker. However, that did not affect the frustration and anger that other passengers and I felt. Sadly, that is all too common an occurrence on that line. This morning, the excuse was that the train in front of us had broken down, but that is just one of a range of excuses, including leaves and the wrong type of snow. Last year, we even had a cow on the line near Colchester. The excuses are myriad, but the failure to improve the system and the network continues.

Interestingly, the Government amendment recognises the importance of an efficient transport system for economic growth and the economy in generally, thus highlighting the Government's failure to get to grips with the problem over the past six years. One of their big failures in economic policy is the failure to improve productivity, which is affected by a transport system that does not work efficiently. We have such a system in abundance in this country. As other hon. Members have said, the problem is getting worse. The SRA recently produced statistics for East Anglia showing that 20 per cent. of trains in the region are running late. Since last year, the number of such trains has been increasing, accompanied by falling passenger satisfaction, more complaints and more reasons for passengers to choose to go by car rather than take the risk of going by train. The problem, at least in part, is dire infrastructure and a failure, as many Members on both sides of the House have said, to invest in it over a long period. The Secretary of State made the point that both money and management are needed, and the management of Network Rail continue to leave a lot to be desired.

Insiders in East Anglia refer to the constant failed management in dealing with the problems of maintaining the network in a reasonably efficient way. Nevertheless, a number of good things have happened. In my constituency, on a branch line, we have new evening services and a new service from Norwich to Cambridge, but all too often journeys end in frustration and anger because of endless delays.

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I want to go on to another issue, which I mentioned in an intervention: the future of community transport schemes. Throughout the country they are facing a funding crisis. In Norfolk some impressive schemes have been developed, such as dial-a-ride schemes, to which the Secretary of State referred, and hospital medi-bus schemes, which allow people to phone to arrange for a bus to take them from their door to the hospital or to their GP. Such rural transport partnerships have been funded by the Countryside Agency. Their remit has been

Various groups involved in community transport have written to Norfolk MPs and told us of the financial crisis that they face, as they are unable to obtain funding to operate in future. Their call is for sustainable funding that will ensure the survival of those services. The services get to the people most in need in some of the most remote villages, and as we heard earlier, avoid the problem of large empty buses, sometimes double-deckers, hurtling round country lanes with no passengers. They help to ensure that people in isolated and very rural communities can get to jobs and engage in the economy in a way that they were previously unable to do.

The North Walsham Area Community Transport Association in my constituency was mentioned in the social exclusion unit's report published in February this year. That association was used as a case study to show how the community transport sector exists to provide additional transport in order to reduce social exclusion, by getting people to work and to the services that they need.

What is the problem? The problem is that the association has come to the end of its three-year funding from the Countryside Agency. I accept that in an ideal world, it is best for the funding to come from local authorities, but the local authorities themselves are strapped for cash. In Norfolk, we had an increase in council tax of more than 15 per cent. From its precept the county council could not replace the funding from the Countryside Agency. The association is happy to work on the basis of a reduced subsidy, but it will need longer to get established so that the services will survive.

Community transport schemes are not commercial services. They meet a social need identified by the social exclusion unit. The Government have stumbled on an effective, flexible public transport system, which is ideally suited to sparsely populated rural areas. Please do not let us lose the good service that has been established.

It is clear from what we have heard tonight that the scale of the problems confronting the transport infrastructure and transport services cries out for a full-time Secretary of State for Transport and a competent one. When the story of the Government is told, I suspect it will identify four wasted years while transport was the responsibility of the Deputy Prime Minister. There were no obvious achievements or progress during those four years. Instead, the right hon. Gentleman presided over increasing chaos. The public are paying the price. The Government must get on with their task urgently. The debacle over the reshuffle shows that they are still not serious about sorting the problem out.

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