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Mr. Yeo: On the increase in traffic, does the hon. Gentleman accept that some evidence now suggestsI do not dispute the conclusions of the report to which he referredthat the growth in traffic was the result of more people getting driving licences? We have almost reached saturation point on that. A much larger proportion of women have driving licences today than 20 years ago, which means that some of that growth in traffic was the result of more people being qualified to drive.
That is undoubtedly an element, and I am happy to accept that, but the more roads we provide and the more road capacity we produce, the more we encourage people to switch from rail to road or to make longer journeys. People now commute from Sussex to places like Watford because of the M25. They would not have dreamt of doing so before. It is possible
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to argue that that brings a freedom which was not available previously, but it has an environmental cost as well.
People in my constituency are clamouring for the dualling of the A27 between Lewes and Polegateit is not a Government proposalat a cost to the taxpayer of more than £100 million. A parallel railway service is underused. It could take up some of the slack. A parking scheme, which is not quite a congestion charge, has been introduced in Lewes. As a consequence of my negotiations with the rail company, season ticket fares between Eastbourne, Polegate and Lewes have reduced by a third. The second measure has resulted in a 35 per cent. increase in season ticket sales on that line. It is perfectly possible, using economic measures, to shift from road to rail when the conditions are right. The idea that we can simply build our way out of problems is discredited. We tried that for 100 years. It does not work. Traffic jams are worst in, for example, Birmingham, which probably has more roads per head of population than anywhere else. We need a different approach to roads.
Someone asked about Liberal Democrat policy on that. We are not in favour of a massive expansion in the road network. We are in favour of the budget that the Government have and accept that cases for expansion may be made, perhaps for bypasses when there is a particular environmental problem. We are not in favour of a big expansion of inter-urban roads. The days of that need to be brought to an end.
My hon. Friend the Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (John Thurso) has rightly championed the issue of road user pricing. There is a debate about how quickly that can be introduced. The Secretary of State intervened when that matter was raised earlier. There is no doubt that in the longer term or even the medium term, charging motorists based on the environmental performance of their vehicle, where they are driving and when they are driving, which relates to the amount of congestion on the road, has to be fairer, more equitable and environmentally preferable. It means that we could eliminate the problems that we have at the moment; for example, people in the north of Scotland, who are dependent on their cars because they have no alternative, pay far more for petrol than people in Edinburgh or London, where there is competition. It does not make sense environmentally to have cheaper petrol where there is a public transport alternative, and very expensive petrol where there is not.
A road user pricing scheme would be able to factor in such information and come up with a more equitable system. Of course, that couldand, in my view, shouldend up in the abolition not only of road tax but of fuel tax. My hon. Friend the Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross would not forgive me if I did not use his soundbite: fair tax, not fuel tax. I will now be able to tell him that I have got that on the record.
In the short term we will need to look at the road tax bands. I pay tribute to the Government for basing road tax increasingly on emissions, but the bands at either end need to be widened. The top band does not reflect the damage done to the environment by, say, 4x4 vehicles, and there should be a greater economic incentive to drive cleaner, greener vehicles than there is at present.
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One of the problems with transport over 30 years has been the signals sent out, on cost, to the public about the mode of transport that they should choose. Too many people see rail and bus services as the alternative for those who do not have a car, rather than their first choice. Part of the reason for thatI make no apology for raising this matter againis that, according to the answer that I received from the Department for Transport on 16 June, at column 937W of Hansard, the cost of travelling by rail increased by 86.5 per cent. in real terms between 1974 and 2002; the cost of travelling by bus over that period increased by 68.5 per cent.; and the cost of motoring went down by 3.7 per cent. So much for the fuel protests in which motorists complained that they were being caned. It is actually the rail and bus users who have been caned over the last 30 years.
Train fares are still going up. This year, a 1 per cent. above inflation increase will be allowed. We have to face up to the problem and link it with the development of infrastructure for the railways. At the moment, the railways are becoming congested. In a sense, that is a success story because it means that more and more people are using the railways, and I welcome that. The rail utilisation strategies being developed will give some extra space and make better use of the network, so we will get increased capacity out of that, but it is a short-term solution. I want to know from the Government what their strategy is for the next 10 to 15 years on the railways. They have so far failed to set that out. Is it to have further infrastructure investment, or are they going to price people off the railways, as British Rail sought to do in the late '80s and early '90s?
My party broadly welcomes the Railways Bill in the Queen's Speech. Many of its provisions have been advocated by my colleagues over the last two or three years. The Strategic Rail Authority spent a gigantic amount on consultancy fees over that periodone reason for its abolition, which we supportbut if the Minister had simply read Liberal Democrat policy he could have saved all that money, because we made the suggestions, free of charge, which he has in any case taken up. He would have got better value from us than he got from the SRA.
We support the restructuring of the industry set out by the Government. That will deliver some benefits. I am not in favour of the mark 2 privatisation that the Conservatives appear to be advocating today for the railways: once bitten, twice bitten seems to be their way of approaching these matters. I do not think that that will commend itself to the public, but in the months ahead I am happy to argue with Tory politicians on political platformsnot railway platformsthe benefits or otherwise of reprivatisation, which seems now to be their policy for the railways.
I mentioned rail operating companies in an intervention on the Secretary of State, but he did not respond to that point except, obliquely, to say that discussions are taking place. Will the Minister of State say in his response exactly what discussions are taking place, with whom and about what? We all recognise that ROSCOs were the biggest rip-off in the Tory privatisation of the railways. They took a gigantic amount of money and have given very little in return. Talk about milch-cowsROSCOs are the epitome of a milch-cow. If we are to get some value from the railway, we have to tackle that issue. At the very least, we ought
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to end that arrangement and let train operating companies buy their own rolling stock from now on. I would like the Government to come up with an innovative solution to the problem that we already have with ROSCOs creaming off lots of public money and giving very little in return.
On refranchising, it is right to move to longer franchises, a point that was touched on earlier. However, I draw to the attention of the Minister and Labour Back Benchers the example of South Eastern Trains, which, of course, is currently being run in the public sector and, it has to be said, is doing quite well. There is a value in keeping that franchise in the public sector, not least as a not-for-profit comparator, to allow some judgment to be made about how private sector franchises are doing. I do not know why the Government do not endorse that idea, particularly as South Eastern Trains is doing quite well and, I understand, about £100 million has already been spent on that refranchising exercise.
In principle, the Government's community rail strategy is sensible. It has to be right to try to encourage greater use of branch lines and it is right to involve the communities that those lines serve to try to increase patronage. The famous example is the Carlisle to Settle railway. There had, over many years, been an attempt to cut that line by closing stations and winding down the operation, but it was successfully turned around. Perhaps that is the model that the Government have in mind. I say to them, however, that I hope that this is not Beeching by the back door, a last chance for communities to demonstrate that their lines can make a fist of it economically. If it is Beeching by the back door, the Minister will face a mountain of resistance from local communities. This country wants an expansion of the rail network, not a contraction, and I hope that that message will be heard.
The community rail strategy should not simply be defensive, identifying existing lines and stations that might be boosted by being given greater patronage. A strategy worth its salt would also seek to reopen stations and lines. The Government ought to be identifying, say, 100 cheap schemescheap in railway termswhich could be implemented, bringing significant benefits to local communities. I can give the Minister a couple of examples from my constituency, with which, obviously, I am more familiar than elsewhere. There are three stations at Newhaven, all of which are run down, untidy and unwelcoming. They are an embarrassment for people who come from France on the Dieppe ferry. They have no car parking; they have no proper public transport interchange. It would be possible to have one brand new station, realised, to a large extent, from the disposal of assets from the other stations, so it need not even cost a great deal. However, our atomised rail industry seems incapable of delivering that. That is the sort of small scheme, which would benefit not many people but a lot of my constituency, that the Government should be promoting up and down the country.
There are many such schemes. There is a head of steamno pun intendedbuilding up for the reopening of the Lewes-Uckfield railway line, which is supported by the hon. Members for Brighton, Pavilion (Mr. Lepper) and for Brighton, Kemptown (Dr. Turner) on the Labour Benches, by the hon.
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Member for Wealden (Charles Hendry) on the Conservative Bencheshe has been very activeby myself, for the Liberal Democrats, and by all local councillors, irrespective of political party. The scheme makes absolute sense.
An independent study commissioned by the county council recently established that the track bed has been largely maintained, so it would be very easy, comparatively speaking, to reopen that line. Yet it seems impossible to achieve anything with the rail industry that would make progress towards that end. Why is it so difficult to secure the reopening of a railway line which is supported by everybody in the local community, which is relatively low cost and which would bring tremendous economic, social and environmental benefits?
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