Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Richard Burden: I certainly acknowledge the investment that has been made. In my constituency, for instance, the Northfield relief road was on the stocks for about 30 years because there was no money, but work should start on the site at the end of this year or early next year, purely owing to the investment that is being put in.

In the west midlands, there is still a huge need for increased transport infrastructure investment over and above what is going in at present. The region not only needs to be able to move its manufactured goods around but, strategically, it is slap-bang in the middle of the route between the south-east and the north-west and beyond. My right hon. Friend will know that that is a real issue for businesses and others, as well as for commuters, in the west midlands, so although I acknowledge what has been done, will he revisit the need for extra investment in the west midlands?

Mr. Darling: I understand what my hon. Friend is saying. The west coast main line will help the west midlands, in particular, and the M6 toll, which is of course privately financed, has relieved much of the pressure on the existing M6 and freed up much capacity. Last year, I announced that quite substantial sums of investment were available to the Birmingham area and the west midlands to improve local transport. However, I fully understand my hon. Friend's point. Across the country, the argument about investing and capacity is powerful, but I come back to the point that if policy is to cut spending rather than to increase it, there is an inevitable consequence—we do not have to speculate about what it is because this country has been there before.
 
15 Jun 2004 : Column 668
 

I want to say a few words about aviation. The hon. Member for South Suffolk has held his appointment only for a few hours so I forgive him for not having read the air transport White Paper that we published in December. For the first time in a long time, it set out a framework for policy for airport development for the next 20 to 30 years, and has been widely welcomed outside. Of course, there is controversy at individual sites about runway development and so on, but as I listened to the hon. Gentleman, he gave me the clear impression that he was against development at Stansted, against development at Heathrow, against development at Birmingham and, I dare say, if a few other Members had stood up he would have been against development in their areas, too. Perhaps I should have asked him about his plans for Edinburgh airport, although he might want to check out local opinion before he gives his view.

The matter is difficult. The number of people flying has increased dramatically over the past few years; nearly half the population flies at least once a year, so if we are to avoid the problems we currently experience on our roads and railways we need sensible capacity increases in aviation. We have set out our stall. I used to ask the right hon. Member for Maidenhead what her policy was, but sadly, she never got around to telling me. Before the hon. Member for South Suffolk leaves his post, in six and a half months' time, I hope that he at least will come up with a policy.

Mr. Mark Francois (Rayleigh) (Con) rose—

Lembit Öpik rose—

Mr. Darling: I give way to the hon. Gentleman.

Lembit Öpik: Does the Secretary of State accept that small, regional airports have an important role to play for a relatively small number of passengers who need to get from one place to another fast? As long as development is carried out sensitively, with attention to planning and noise considerations, such airports can be an important aid to economic development, especially in rural and outlying areas. The Government should think about making small investments that deliver big returns of that sort.

Mr. Darling: I understand the hon. Gentleman's point. With the Welsh Assembly, we are looking at the Welsh airport network. He is right to say that small airports have an important role. But we must be realistic; we cannot put small airports everywhere. There has to be a balance. He would no doubt find that opinion among his constituents was sharply divided as soon as they thought that a runway would be built nearby.

Before I turn to abusing the Liberals, as I said I would, I shall give way to the hon. Member for Rayleigh (Mr. Francois).

Mr. Francois: I am reluctant to delay any initiative that leads to abuse of the Liberal Democrats, so I thank the Secretary of State for giving way.

On Stansted, the right hon. Gentleman will be aware that current capacity for the existing runway is approximately 20 million passenger movements a year,
 
15 Jun 2004 : Column 669
 
and that, with full utilisation of that runway, it would be possible to increase the number to about 40 million. Given the tremendous environmental damage that would be created in the county of Essex by the large expansion of the footprint of Stansted that will be required for the second runway, is not the logical compromise to increase capacity on the existing runway to 40 million? That would give some of the expansion in capacity that the right hon. Gentleman wants without causing tremendous environmental damage in Essex.

Mr. Darling: We looked hard at that matter and I fully understand the hon. Gentleman's point. However, when considering Stansted and the south-east, we took the view that we needed additional capacity, although the hon. Gentleman should remember that it will not happen next year or the year after, given the length of time that it takes to do such things. We are talking about a second runway at Stansted in the first part of the next decade and the Heathrow development will take place even later than that. At present, capacity at Stansted is almost fully taken up at peak hours, so we need to plan ahead. Our starting point was that we should make maximum use of what we already had and we considered that, but as the hon. Gentleman knows, we came to the conclusion that a second runway was necessary.

The Liberals have been very quiet, so I shall not say too much about them. However, I am curious about two things. When I looked at their rebuttal of our paper about their spending commitments, one of which was almost £2 billion more for the railways, they responded that that was no longer a commitment, owing to changed circumstances. Have the circumstances changed again? Secondly, their plan was to double investment in local transport schemes, but their response was that that, too, was no longer a commitment, owing to changed circumstances. Have those circumstances changed? I make those points only because occasionally the Liberals suggest that many things could be done, without always mentioning that the money has to be provided, too.

I conclude on this point: there is a lot more to do on transport. We face huge problems that have built up over many years, but the central point and, I suspect, the dividing line between the parties over the next period of time, is that we are prepared to sustain the amount of money that we are spending on transport, where we have already seen a steady increase, but the Conservatives are committed to a dramatic cut. For as long as that remains the case, whatever they say about transport will lack credibility. For that reason, I suspect that the House will reject their motion.

1.57 pm

John Thurso (Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross) (LD): I begin by welcoming the hon. Member for South Suffolk (Mr. Yeo) to his new post. It is nice to see him at the Dispatch Box, as his predecessor was rarely in the Chamber when we debated transport. I look forward to debating the subject with him on many future occasions. He will probably find that transport is one of the most fertile policy areas for his party, as it is currently entirely policy-free.

No one can doubt that transport is central to our future prosperity and we must pay great attention to it. However, we need to address a paradox at the centre of
 
15 Jun 2004 : Column 670
 
transport policy; it is a key part of transport policy, but I have not heard much about it this afternoon. On the one hand, transport is critical to the economy. The ability to move freight and passengers efficiently is vital to productivity; it is both a driver of, and is driven by, the economy. Equally important, people need good transport links to give them access to facilities and services—shops, education, culture and many other things. Sometimes, especially in rural areas, the lack of transport is a major cause of social exclusion.

On the other hand, however, in our modern, highly fossil-fuel-consuming, mobile society, transport has major environmental costs that we ignore at our peril. In March, for example, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs published a report on air emission estimates, which revealed that carbon dioxide emissions from road traffic were 31.9 million tonnes in 2002—the highest since 1970—while nitrous oxide emissions had increased to 14,800 tonnes, a rise of 55 per cent. over five years.

Aviation produces an even gloomier picture. Consumption rose by 21 per cent. between 1997 and 2003. London's three busiest airports alone produce a staggering 2 million tonnes of carbon dioxide and 13,000 tonnes of nitrous oxide each year. The aviation industry's emissions are projected to double between 1990 and 2010.

Clearly, such emission levels are wholly unsustainable. We are long past the time when we can stick our heads in the sand and hope that global warming will go away. Climate change is clearly a reality. We simply cannot go on like this if we want to avoid what the film "The Day After Tomorrow" shows us.


Next Section IndexHome Page