Select Committee on Environmental Audit Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 320-337)

Tuesday 1 July 2003


  Q320  Mr Thomas: What are your views now on congestion charging?

  Mr Darling: In relation to congestion charging, as you know, there are only two schemes in this country, and only one significant one. It has worked far better than we thought. We made it possible to do so because of the legislation that we introduced. Whether it works in a particular town or city depends on the circumstances. I have made the point before that in London 85% of people coming into the city centre come in by car. Nowhere else in Britain approaches that. Manchester is 60% and most are down at 40%. It is up to local authorities and if they want to work up schemes, which I have to approve unlike London, the Department has made it clear it will help them to do that. Just at the moment we are not being overwhelmed with requests to put them in place.

  Q321  Mr Thomas: The principle of congestion charging is one that you accept?

  Mr Darling: I am not sure whether you are aware of it, but you may have seen in the newspaper about three or four weeks ago I made the point that if we look at the pressures we face over the next 20 to 30 years we cannot simply seek to build our way out of the problems we face. We need a judicious mix of new construction where it is needed, investment in public transport, but I have said that we do need to look at options such as road pricing.

  Q322  Mr Thomas: You cannot see the read across to aviation from that?

  Mr Darling: Of course—

  Q323  Mr Thomas: Without accusing anyone of wanting to stop people going on holidays!

  Mr Darling: The point that I was making is that if your policy is to price people off the aeroplanes it has a consequence.

  Q324  Mr Thomas: You are happy to support a policy which prices people out of the city centre and encourages them to take an alternative view both about the way they travel and the way they can go about their business?

  Mr Darling: You are right on that. If you take congestion charging, the object of that is to encourage people coming into the city centre to use public transport, not to not come in at all.

  Q325  Mr Thomas: Or not come in at all or to do their business in a different way?

  Mr Darling: I think you will find that the Mayor of London is very keen that people should come to the city centre because, at the risk of raising another problem with tourism, a lot of people come and spend a hell of a lot of money in the city centre.

  Q326  Chairman: Some people will be deterred, i.e. priced out of their journeys, because you are saying, "We are pricing you out."

  Mr Darling: Except that on the evidence so far—

  Q327  Chairman: In principle some people will be deterred.

  Mr Darling: The explicit aim was to reduce congestion in the city centre, not to keep people out of it. There are some people who do not come through but there is evidence to suggest that for north-south and east-west travel people are varying their transport.

  Q328  Chairman: Are you saying that nobody is going to be deterred by the congestion charge?

  Mr Darling: Nobody can say nobody is but that was not the object of the exercise.

  Q329  Mr Thomas: The object of the exercise with aviation is not to deter people flying, it is to make them pay the cost of the environmental impact.

  Mr Darling: Let me finish the point in relation to road pricing. Again the advantage of road pricing is that certainly you do not want to deter people from travelling because you want them to look at alternatives, like trains for example, but road pricing would also allow you, for example, to try and spread the load on roads throughout the day, because at the moment the congestion is very peaked around morning and, to a lesser extent, the evening rush hour. It comes back to my central argument; both in those policies in relation to our railway policy, which I discussed with Ian Lucas, and in relation to road pricing, the objective is not to stop people travelling. When you are talking about domestic air travel I made the point when you have got a good rail alternative, then yes, that is something you ought to encourage, but in terms of international air travel, at the risk of being again accused of taking an extreme example but I think it is one worth making, if you take trans-Atlantic travel, you either go across the Atlantic in an aeroplane or you do not go, assuming that you cannot afford the QEII. The whole thrust of the Government's transport policy is to enable people to move around as efficiently and as quickly as possible whilst at the same time taking account of the environmental impact.

  Q330  Mr Barker: But this is not across the Atlantic, it is in the low-cost airlines and they are in short haul primarily, not across the Atlantic so, Secretary of State, your example is irrelevant. It is short haul growth, is it not, that is the principle?

  Mr Darling: Trans-Atlantic travel, as you know, took a huge dip for obvious reasons two years ago; it is now recovering.

  Q331  Mr Barker: To previous levels.

  Mr Darling: Yes, in some cases, depending on the routes, it has recovered to that. Obviously we are looking 20 to 30 years ahead, not three or four years ahead, and that is something we are consulting on. Simon Thomas's point was we were being inconsistent as between certain aspects of domestic policy and air travel. The point I am making is in domestic travel our objective is not to stop people travelling but to try and—

  Q332  Mr Thomas: You had the objective in your 10 Year Plan to reduce the number of road journeys.

  Mr Darling: No, we did not, we wanted to tackle congestion.

  Q333  Mr Thomas: Mr Prescott said he would have failed if he did not reduce the number of road journeys.

  Mr Darling: Go and look at the 10 Year Plan and you will see what the position is. I have studiously not said that anything that people want to put forward is a no-hope policy or anything like that. What I am doing is saying all these arguments have their difficulties. As the Government we will reach our view at the end of the year and you will be able to see what the position is then. It is inevitably a difficulty when you are asking me things at a stage when we have not yet come to a concluded view. I understand full well why you are asking me from different perspectives these questions but I am afraid I have to answer as I can.

  Q334  Mr Thomas: One of the other things you have said today is you have to be alive to the consequences in response to several questions here. Are you alive to the consequences of your predict and build way of approaching aviation at the moment?

  Mr Darling: Our policy is not predict and provide.

  Q335  Mr Thomas: It is not?

  Mr Darling: No, as I have said.

  Q336  Chairman: That is a very good moment to finish the session on—not predict and provide. I think it was a very robust session. Thank you very much for enjoying the exchanges, as I think you probably did.

  Mr Darling: I thoroughly enjoyed it!

  Q337  Chairman: And I wish you well on your air journey to the north of England!

  Mr Darling: Thank you.

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