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Mr. Tim Collins (Westmorland and Lonsdale): I thank the Secretary of State for his customary courtesy in providing me with a copy of his statement. Let me begin by declaring both an interest and a direct personal experience. In the 1960s and early 1970s the farm on which I grew up was surrounded by peaceful countryside. Then it was decided to put the M11 through a field to one side of the house. Later, the M25 was put through a field directly behind the house. After that, we had to get used to bright lights throughout the night and a constant roar of traffic 24 hours a day. Quick checks indicate that what the Secretary of State has announcedwidening motorways largely within the present embankmentsseems unlikely to have much effect on that family home or the businesses on those parts of the surrounding land owned by my family, but it may make things a little noisier.
Given that personal background, I have every sympathy with those who are concerned about the impact on themselves and their environment from road projects. However, like the vast majority of those living near motorways, I use them myself; and like absolutely everyone else in this country I rely on goods and services almost entirely carried by road. Whatever the personal inconvenience to some of us, and however close to home it gets, the fact remains that Britain urgently needs an upgraded road network. Whatever other accusations may be levelled at me, I therefore hope that I can be acquitted of nimbyismmy family's back yard is already more than playing its part.
I will not ask the Secretary of State to apologise for the shocking blind alley down which the Government went after 1997 when they seemed to believe that, if they stuck their head in the sand and refused to build any new roads at all, the needs of business and motorists would simply go away. I will not ask him for an apology, because it was not his decision. However, will he please
Does the Secretary of State understand the genuine anger of many businesses, large and small, at the fact that their competitiveness has been steadily eroded by the growing gap between the quality of the British road network and that in the rest of Europe? Will he confirm that, even with today's announcements, we will still have a smaller road building programme than in many other European Union member states and that, after its completion, we will still have significantly fewer miles of motorway per head of population than any other major EU country? Will he also confirm that, even with these projects, he does not think he has a prayer of hitting the targets in the 10-year transport plan for cutting congestion?
On rail, will the Secretary of State confirm that, while he boasts that he will double the amount spent by the taxpayer between 2001 and 2005, it will be 2010 before train punctuality returns to the levels of 2000. On buses and coaches, why has he specifically rejected the recommendation of the M25 orbit multi-modal study for a strategic authority to create a high-quality orbital coach network?
The Secretary of State indicated today that he wants to toy with the idea of road pricing in order, presumably, to appease the environmentalist lobby. But, characteristically, he does not actually want to commit himself, lest he antagonise motorists. Should he not stop playing a game of tease, and admit his real intentions? Was not his silence on several key points about road pricing immensely instructive? Who would pay for the installation of the necessary hi-tech equipment in each and every car on our roadsthe Government or the driver?
What about the confidentiality of the records kept by the road pricing computers? This Government used medical records to smear a little old lady who complained about her hospital treatment, so how could they remotely be trusted not to abuse computer records giving information about where every driver in the country drives for every minute of the day or night?
With Ministers having already exempted themselves from paying the congestion charge, why was there no pledge that they would themselves pay any road pricing charges that they introduce? Does the Secretary of State not see that it would be absolutely scandalous if, yet again, the Government introduced one law for themselves and a different law for everyone else? Above all, why was there no categorical assuranceindeed, no assurance at allthat road pricing charges would not be additional to the sky-high motoring taxes that we already have? Does not that show that the Chancellor of the Exchequer would simply use road pricing as yet another stealth taxthis one a particularly punitive, regressive and vicious stealth taxon top of all the other tax rises the Government promised not to bring in but then slapped on the British people?
How can the Secretary of State possibly believe that charging motorists for driving on any road, at the eye-watering figure of up to 50p a mile, can remotely be justified when we already have the highest fuel taxes in the western world? When will the Government learn
All that the Secretary of State has promised us today on the roads is what last month he promised us on the railways. If the nation gives the Government billions of pounds in extra taxes and waits patiently for 10 years or so, things might just get back to being only as bad in 2010 or 2013 as they were in 2000. Does he not recognise how utterly unacceptable that is? Is it not now clear that motorists and businesses will never get a fair deal from this Government?
Mr. Darling: Let me deal with the hon. Gentleman's final point, which was all too predictable. As I know from experience, it can sometimes be difficult for Opposition spokesmen to look ahead and consider the bigger picture, but the hon. Gentleman clearly failed to do that. I shall return to that point shortly.
I shall deal with some of the points that the hon. Gentleman raised. The road studies are all entirely consistent with what we said in the 10-year plan, namely, that existing roads would have to be widened and improved. It was all clearly set out. I caution the hon. Gentleman about suggesting that somehow we have been neglectful of road building. It is common ground in many parts of the House that successive Governments have been guilty over the years of stop-go funding for transport. I remind him in the nicest possible way that, in 1990, the then Conservative Government announced plans to build 500 routes. By 1997, only 150 were left on that list; the rest had to be cut because of the public expenditure difficulties that they had got themselves into. He should be careful about suggesting that somehow his Government were not guilty, as other Governments have been, of stop-go funding. With the £180 billion of public and private expenditure that is available, we are now ensuring that we are putting money steadily into our transport infrastructure.
In relation to the railways, spending is doubling and reliability will improve. One thing is certain: if spending were to be cut by 20 per cent., reliability would get worse and worse, and we would go back to the problems that we inherited.
Given everything that the hon. Gentleman said about bureaucracy, I am astonished that his one new policy announcement is that he wants a strategic authority for coaches. I should have thought that running buses and coaches was best left to existing organisations, rather than to a new quango set up to do it.
That brings me to the points that the hon. Gentleman made about road pricing. Let me plead guilty to the fact that road pricing is not something that the Government dreamt up. Indeed, I am sure that some Conservative Members will recall that, in 1993, an excellent document called "Paying for Better Motorways" was published by the Conservative Government under the signatures of the Secretaries of State for Transport, for Wales and for Scotland. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Mr. Collins) says that he rejected it, but perhaps he should take a good look at Hansard of 1993 and 1994. On 2 December 1993, the now Lord MacGregor set out what the then Government were going to do, including taking forward plans for pricing and legislation. Guess who asked the
To claim that the Tories know nothing about road pricing and would have nothing to do with it is slightly disingenuous. I understand that the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale once had a job as a researcher in Conservative party central office. He should go back and start doing his research.
We are about to introduce, with the complete support of the road haulage industry, lorry road user charging from 2006. It will be accompanied by a reduction in fuel and other duties so that the industry will not pay more overall. The advantage to the industry, which it recognises, is that the charge will be based on the distance that the lorries actually travel. That also gives us the potential to ensure that, if people travel at off-peak times when the roads are less crowded, they will pay less. All that I am saying at this stage is, for goodness sake, let us have the courage to see whether it is feasible to do this for cars.
The hon. Gentleman is in substantial difficulty. If he says no to that suggestion and will not think about it, he has two alternatives. The first is to try to build one's way out of the congestion problems with more and more concreting over of the country. That would be astronomically expensive, as well as environmentally disastrous. Even worse would be to consign motorists to unlimited congestion with no relief in sight. I suggest that we as a Governmentperhaps with some degree of cross-party consensusshould at least ask ourselves whether road pricing could provide a better deal for motorists. We are looking a long time ahead but, if we do not have the courage to do that, future generations will rightly condemn us for not doing so.