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Rural Transport Links (Norfolk)

12.59 pm

Mr. Christopher Fraser (South-West Norfolk) (Con): I know that some of the issues that I want to raise were discussed in the Chamber earlier this year in the debate secured by my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson). Time has passed since, but questions still need to be answered. As a new Member in Norfolk, it has become apparent to me that Norfolk gets a bad deal under the Government's financial commitment to our old, worn out and disparate transport infrastructure.

I should like to address roads, public transportation and the Government's road pricing consultation. The following quotations describe the problems with rural transport in areas such as Norfolk. The Highways Agency has said:

The National Farmers Union said recently:

It has been said:

The Government note:

The Government speak of

They mention ensuring that

The RAC Foundation, the well respected voice of the motorist, said recently that the whole A47, from Peterborough to Great Yarmouth,

reflecting its key status in linking the midlands and the north with East Anglia and its ports of Great Yarmouth and Lowestoft.

The Highways Agency announced in December 2004 that three important schemes to improve road access to Norfolk—the A47 Blofield to North Burlingham dualling, the A11 Attleborough bypass and the A11 Fiveways to Thetford dualling—were being downgraded from national importance to regional schemes. All three schemes were originally scheduled for completion by the end of 2008, but will now be

and considered by the regional transport board.
 
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The A11 trunk road, which runs between Norwich and junction 9 of the M11, forms part of the core national route linking London, Cambridge and the northern part of East Anglia. The road carries a substantial volume of traffic throughout the year, particularly during the summer months, owing to traffic heading for the holiday areas of Norfolk.

At all times of the year the route carries a high proportion of commercial heavy goods vehicles. As has been said here before, Norwich is the only city in England and Wales that is not accessed by a dual carriageway. Following the downgrading of the schemes on 8 December last year, on 23 December the Government made a U-turn by announcing in a letter to the right hon. Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Clarke) that the A11 Attleborough scheme would be included in the programme for 2007. There was no mention of the other schemes.

Will the Minister explain how the dualling of the A1 section of the A11 can be a matter of national importance, whereas the dualling of another section of the same road is merely a matter to be decided subject to regional priorities? What can she say about the establishment and remit of the regional transport boards? Does she accept that there is a complete lack of strategic understanding of the importance of the road network in Norfolk? How does she expect the economy in Norfolk to prosper if it does not have adequate road links to the rest of the country? Will she explain how 72,600 homes can be built in Norfolk by 2021 if the necessary road infrastructure is not in place? Has she made any assessment of the numbers of lives lost and of the serious injuries that could be prevented by the improvements to the A11 and A47?

Mr. Keith Simpson (Mid-Norfolk) (Con): Before my hon. Friend leaves that point, may I briefly intervene and congratulate him on achieving this important debate? I wish to re-emphasise the importance of getting a decision about when the regional transport boards will be established. Large parts of the A47 go through my constituency and I am afraid to say that trust in the Highways Agency and in the Minister has been seriously undermined by what happened just before Christmas.

Mr. Fraser : I concur with my hon. Friend that it is not just words but action—positive action is what we need in Norfolk.

In September 2003 the Countryside Agency, the Citizens Advice Bureaux and Transport 2000 published a report, "Rural Transport Futures", which found that

The report found that in rural areas 74 per cent. of all journeys were made by cars, while only 4 per cent. were made by local bus or train. The report stated:


 
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The then shadow spokesman for transport, Tim Collins, said at the time that the report

Does the Minister recognise that for many people and for many of our constituents in Norfolk, especially the elderly or disabled in rural areas, the car is currently their only practical means of transport?

Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk) (Con): A number of bus companies in Norfolk are keen to expand and to provide better services but are being inhibited by a number of European directives, in particular the road transport directive and the 50 km rule. Does he agree that if the Government seriously want to expand services, they must look at the burdens that directives place on bus companies?

Mr. Fraser : Unsurprisingly, I agree entirely with my hon. Friend. It is a big issue. There are rules and regulations, but precious little action. What we need is real action for real people. I ask the Minister what assessment she has made of the lack of transport provision and of the substantial areas of social deprivation that we have in Norfolk.

In July 1998 the Government published a White Paper setting out their plans for an integrated transport policy. The White Paper plan to increase bus usage criticised Conservative deregulation of bus services. In March 1999 the Government published "From Workhorse to Thoroughbred", with more detail on how people could be attracted to use buses rather than the car. The plan promised statutory backing for quality partnerships. The Government's 10-year plan was published in July 2000, promising an extension of the rural bus subsidy grant, covering more journeys serving market towns. A 2000 analysis of the grant, produced by the Campaign for the Protection of Rural England and Transport 2000, noted:

In their 10-year transport plan, the Government pledged to revive at least an hourly bus service within a 10-minute walk for a third more rural households. In fact, bus passenger numbers are falling outside London and the Government will miss the target they set in 2000 to increase bus usage.

What progress have the Government made in Norfolk in increasing the number of rural households that have an hourly bus service within a 10-minute walk? What steps is the Minister taking to extend bus provision in rural areas, especially in South-West Norfolk? Does the Minister agree that the best way to extend bus provision is through a market-driven approach? Does she have any plans to allow parish councils to provide demand-responsive bus services that meet local need, such as the "Nippy bus" service currently operating in south Somerset? The Government made great play during the election of their pledge to provide free off-peak bus travel to all pensioners. Will the Minister please explain how that will benefit my constituents who live in remote villages without a bus service?
 
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The railways are a problem for us in East Anglia. In November 2004, the Strategic Rail Authority released a strategy document, setting out its commitment to rural railways:

On 21 November 2004, the Secretary of State for Transport unveiled the Government's community rail development strategy, which aims to increase the number of passengers using rural rail lines. The document, produced by the SRA, provides a framework for developing local and rural railways and sets out

The Secretary of State commented at that time:

Rail services between London and Norwich and other towns in Norfolk are provided by a franchise service in East Anglia that has recently been amalgamated into One. What discussions has the Minister had with representatives of One about extending services to the people who live in Norfolk? Will she give an assessment of how she feels that that new amalgamated East Anglia franchise is operating?

The last area of concern is the current consultation by the Secretary of State for Transport on road pricing. He has outlined plans for a new "pay as you drive" system for Britain's roads, and last weekend he suggested that the scheme could be introduced within the next decade, leading to some estimates that that could mean people being charged as much as £1.30 a mile to use the busiest roads at peak times.

The Government's record on transport over the past eight years hardly inspires confidence that the scheme will be a success, or that it will not be used as yet another stealth tax. In 1997, the Deputy Prime Minister said:

Since then, car usage has increased and congestion has soared. The Government's flagship pledge in their 2000 10-year transport plan was to reduce congestion by 5 per cent. by 2010, but the 2002 review of the plan showed that congestion will actually grow thanks to their botched efforts to control it. In a 2004 review of the 10-year plan, the Government announced that they were scrapping their previous targets for congestion, admitting that they could not be met. The Secretary of State for Transport said that they would develop "better indicators" of congestion in 2005.

Petrol prices in the United Kingdom are the second highest in Europe, although the pre-tax price of fuel is among the cheapest in the European Union. Currently, 77 per cent. of the pump price of petrol is taxation. In
 
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1996–97, the Government took £21.4 billion off motorists in vehicle excise duty and fuel duty. By 2004–05, the figure had risen to £28.3 billion—that figure comes from the Treasury Budget Red Book of 2003. Under the Government, petrol prices have risen from 59.4p per litre in 1997 to about 84p per litre today.

Of course, the Conservative party accepts the need to consider modern solutions to the problem of congestion on our roads, yet we believe that any road pricing scheme should be an alternative and fair way of raising revenue. It should not simply be a vehicle for imposing more stealth taxes on hard-working people.

Will the Minister say whether a price will be levied on every road? If not, how will we avoid rat runs through residential areas? Will local people have a say on local tariffs, and will the Government promise that there will be only one national scheme? Will higher cc cars pay higher charges? If not, how does one justify charging the same for a Mini as a Bentley? Will the Minister also give a cast-iron guarantee that the average motorist will not be worse off as a result of the measure? Will she undertake to abolish fuel excise duty once the scheme is fully operational?

Norfolk is fortunate to have a thriving tourist industry that attracts many visitors from overseas, and to have first-class Members of Parliament, who have turned up for the debate today. How will the new scheme deal with charging foreign motorists? Norfolk deserves a better deal. We need inward investment to the county to support our economic base. Without the right transport infrastructure, economic growth will be stifled, not only for large businesses but for ordinary people going about their daily lives. We pay enough tax; it is about time we got something in return.

Rural transport links are essential in Norfolk. I hope that today the Government will give the people of Norfolk a commitment that they will get a transport system that they well deserve.

1.16 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Ms Karen Buck) : I congratulate the hon. Member for South-West Norfolk (Mr. Fraser), on securing the debate, which gives us another opportunity, as he rightly said, to discuss several issues that were discussed not long ago. I hope to address all the issues that he raised, but I may need to respond to some of his questions after the debate.

The Government recognise the particular challenges that face isolated and dispersed rural communities, which the hon. Gentleman discussed at the start of his speech. The transport responses that we need for the urban environment are very different to those needed in areas represented by hon. Gentlemen who are here today.

Where I differ with the hon. Gentleman, however—he will not be surprised to hear me say this—is on the Government's response. The Government have made considerable investment and progress through several measures, which I will outline in the next few minutes, and will continue to work appropriately with regional and local authorities to find correct ways to respond to the issues.

The hon. Gentleman criticised what he called the lack of strategy. That is a genuinely hard argument to sustain, because the Government's introduction of local
 
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transport planning and the rolling five-year process of transport planning have provided an opportunity that simply was not there previously to make a co-ordinated and strategic response driven by a local authority's assessment of its needs. The authorities that are closest to the ground are best able to give a clear indication of particular patterns and the changing patterns of need for a service and some of the best ways of responding to that need.

I am pleased to tell the hon. Gentleman, although he probably already knows, that Norfolk county council is one of the best performing local transport authorities in the country and the best in the east of England. It was graded well above average for its progress in delivering its local transport plan last year, and has been granted centre of excellence status for its record of delivering transport schemes and projects.

The hon. Gentleman may be surprised to hear that I fundamentally disagree with his belief that Norfolk got a bad deal in transport funding. In the past five years, the Government have given Norfolk more than £54   million for its local transport budget, and the county council has used that and its own resources to develop several innovative schemes to make rural public transport more accessible.

The county council has also increased its spending on community transport in the past three years, and has developed 14 demand-responsive transport schemes, which allow rural residents to book a bus to take them to local services such as doctors' surgeries, schools and leisure centres. More than 170,000 passengers were carried under such schemes in Norfolk in 2004–05. That form of transport continues to expand not only in Norfolk but in other rural areas, and we believe that it should be developed extensively because it provides accessibility for the isolated rural communities that the hon. Gentleman describes.

Norfolk also has six community bus or car schemes, which carried more than 40,000 passengers in 2004–05. It is important that the hon. Gentleman recognises that, when we talk about bus services—which I am about to come to—such personalised community services are often an important complement and sometimes even an alternative to traditionally provided bus services.

I was pleased to hear the hon. Gentleman note that the Campaign to Protect Rural England describes services as having improved overall, although he went on to make some criticisms. London is not the only urban authority and not the only area of the country in which bus services have improved. Bus service delivery has improved in many towns and cities. I do not have the Norfolk figures at my fingertips, but if he was making the point that it was a London-only phenomenon, I assure him that it is not and that there are models of excellent practice across the country on which we need to build. If they do not include Norfolk, discussions can be had about that.

In terms of direct support for bus services, Norfolk county council has received substantial extra resources under the Government's various rural bus funding initiatives. It has consistently received high levels of funding through the rural bus subsidy grant and, for the last financial year, it received the highest allocation in
 
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the country—more than £2.4million. That increased funding demonstrates our continuing commitment to providing improved public transport in rural areas.

The services supported by the grant play an increasing part in tackling rural social exclusion and improving transport choices in rural areas. The range of services on which the grant can be used has been broadened to give a further boost to new, flexible solutions to meet local transport needs. That has allowed a number of new services to be introduced and maintained, and we understand from Norfolk county council that those have included services that supply new links to training and work opportunities as well as those catering for a variety of needs such as shopping and health care through the day.

For many of the parishes in the constituency of the hon. Member for South-West Norfolk, there has been an improvement in bus service provision since the rural bus grants were first awarded five years ago. Parishes that are still below the county council's preferred level of service are a priority for action and the extension of the rural bus grant has enabled the number of parishes that are well served to increase.

In addition, in the past five years we have funded nine separate rural bus challenge schemes in Norfolk to the tune of £2.95 million, ranging from, for example, a very small £30,000 scheme to take people to farmers' markets in Diss, to a much larger £400,000 scheme to develop with Cambridgeshire county council a new cross-boundary route and rural interchange to give Norfolk residents—some of whom live in the hon. Gentleman's constituency—access to services in Cambridgeshire as well as in Norfolk market towns.

Mr. Bellingham : I do not know whether the Minister is aware, but her predecessor agreed to meet me and a delegation from Norfolk bus companies to discuss some of those bus company issues. Is she prepared to meet me and perhaps my colleagues to discuss regulation issues in the future?

Ms Buck : My door is always open to the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues. I would be delighted to meet him and any hon. Members who wished to discuss that topic.

In addition to the two bus grants that I have described, we have recently launched a programme called Kickstart, of which the hon. Member for South-West Norfolk may be aware. It involves bus service improvements that will offer real prospects for growing bus patronage. Kickstart funding will pump-prime new services—that was an important point that the hon. Gentleman raised—or service improvements, and we have provisionally set aside a total of £20 million over the next three years for that scheme. Local authorities have been asked to bid for support for Kickstart projects this summer, and the closing date is in the next two weeks.

Mr. Fraser : Will the Minister, either now or in writing, give me a breakdown of the figures for the £20 million investment that she just referred to? As far as I can tell, arbitrary figures are being bandied about and they do not necessarily relate to local need.
 
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Ms Buck : I assure the hon. Gentleman that I do not make figures up, but I understand his point and will aim to give him a breakdown of that information.

As time is pressing, I shall make a couple of points about the rural rail service. The hon. Gentleman is correct to say that not only buses are important in the rural areas of Norfolk. The Strategic Rail Authority last year published the community rail development strategy, which focuses on improving the financial performance, value for money and social value of local and rural railways, to ensure their long-term future.

Norfolk has two existing community rail partnerships which will benefit. The first is the Bittern line, which runs for 30 miles, connecting Norwich with the north coastal towns of Sheringham and Cromer via the Norfolk broads. The second is known as the Wherry line and comprises a number of routes linking Norwich via Acle to Great Yarmouth or Lowestoft—which I acknowledge is in Suffolk—on the east coast. Both lines can look forward to a more secure future as the strategy sets out ways in which income can grow and costs can be reduced so that subsidy can be reduced to a more affordable level. That does not mean abandoning the lines or letting them deteriorate, but it means, for example, that more appropriate maintenance regimes and standards can be applied to them where the general level of rolling stock is less damaging to the lines. Also it will enable the local communities to be much more involved in determining which services they want. We believe that the strategy is the antithesis of the policies that led to the closure of many branch and rural lines 40 years ago and that it will lead to the preservation of lines for the future.

The hon. Member for South-West Norfolk asked several questions about road links and I shall have to return to him later on a couple of those. As he said, the Highways Agency has recently dualled the stretch of the A11 between Roudham Heath and Attleborough; the work was completed in March 2003. Work is also due to start in 2006 on the Attleborough bypass.

I think that the hon. Gentleman acknowledged that the improvement scheme between Fiveways and Thetford entered the targeted programme of improvements in March 2000. We are now considering proposals to involve regional bodies, local authorities and other local stakeholders in shaping the programme of future transport improvements in the area. That emphatically does not mean that the scheme has been cancelled. However, as with all other areas of the country, we want to ensure that a proper regionally
 
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based prioritisation programme exists to make determinations. Funds will never be infinite, and changes are taking place in all relevant areas, including the growth that the hon. Gentleman mentioned. We need to ensure that our use of resources gives the best value and that we proceed with the schemes that provide the best value for money and most appropriate level of service.

The hon. Member for North-West Norfolk (Mr. Bellingham) raised the question of road safety statistics, and I shall provide him with such information as we have. It may be that the question that he asked cannot be answered in the form in which he put it, but I shall return to him on that point and on the other schemes.

I want quickly to respond to the points about road pricing that the hon. Member for South-West Norfolk raised. In line with manifesto commitments, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has launched a debate on the potential for moving away from the current balance of motoring taxation towards a national system of road pricing. The feasibility study on road pricing in the UK, which was published by the Department for Transport in July 2004, concluded that a scheme could reduce congestion by up to 40 per cent. and achieve benefits of up to £12 billion a year in time savings and increased reliability.

However, I hope that the hon. Gentleman will acknowledge that the study recognised—this is the most important point at the outset—a range of variants of prices and the interrelationship between road pricing and other forms of taxation. It is far too early to be specific about the details of implementation of such a scheme. It will need to be part of a debate about how to tackle road congestion.

Car use has, as the hon. Gentleman recognised, risen on the back of rising prosperity. That is true in most, probably all, developed societies. It is up to the Government to develop a long-term response to the pressures. We shall learn from, but not replicate, existing schemes such as the London congestion charge. We need to design a system that works well for road users as well as the country as a whole. Key considerations will include the need to safeguard our environmental objectives and respect privacy and the setting of prices. More detailed work is now being done.

I welcome the debate and the opportunity to reassure the hon. Member for South-West Norfolk that we intend to continue to support rural transport in his constituency, his county and, indeed, the country as a whole.
 
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