Last year's White Paper undertook to establish the so-called transport innovation fund, the purpose of which was expressed in the inevitable jargon that bedevils the well-meaning intent that goes with this policythat the Government wish to
"give our delivery partners incentives to develop and deploy coherent, innovative, local and regional transport strategies . . . which will include road pricing, modal shift, and better bus services".
Today, therefore, we get this somewhat unexpected announcement. Given the past track record of the Secretary of State's Department, we will all be suspicious that something of far greater magnitude is going on behind the scenes, about which we are not being told. From what he has said today, we can now see exactly what he is up to.
The entire statement is only obliquely about the transport innovation fund. In fact, it is about the introduction of road pricing. For the Secretary of State to label it as a statement on the innovation fund, and then at 20 minutes' notice to reveal that it is in fact a detailed announcement about road pricing, makes a complete mockery of our parliamentary proceedings, and makes it very difficult for an Opposition spokesman, or indeed the whole House, to have any respect for his integrity in honestly handling parliamentary courtesies.
The innovation fund is not in any way about helping local authorities devise integrated transport policies for their local area: it is the Trojan horse through which nationwide congestion charging will be established throughout the UK. Why could not the Secretary of State have been honest and straightforward about that in advance? Perhaps that is why we now know why the fund's budget will increase from about £200 million to £2 billion over the next 10 years.
This is not about innovation but about centralisation and the imposition of road pricing. The supposed benefit to local communities is in fact an extension of the central power of Ministers to direct money where they choose, outside the usual system for allocating funds, and to establish road pricing through the back door. Were this genuinely about the innovation fund, many of us would want to know what the Secretary of State's definition of innovation is. I might not be alone in sharing a concern that this centralised scheme might create perverse incentives for local councils to devise schemes that spend a budget, rather than support schemes that they really need.
Were this genuinely about the innovation fund, we might also ask whether the fund will be applied to "innovative" schemes already under way. The Secretary of State has mentioned in written answers to me and to others that the Manchester metrolink will be a candidate for money from the fund, but can he guarantee that other ongoing projects will be able to apply for money?
We now know that by that he meant congestion charges and higher road taxes. Now that we are aware that this is all about road pricing, let me repeat some, if not all, of the questions I asked the right hon. Gentleman on the occasion of his lecture to the Social Market Foundation, to which I have not yet received a reply.
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Will every road have a price levied on it? Will local people have a say on local tariffs? Will there be one national scheme? Will the Mini pay as much as the Bentley? How will foreign cars be charged? Has the right hon. Gentleman considered the civil liberties issues, given that the state will trace our every move? How long will car-tracking data be held? Will the police and the Security Service have access to that data? What is the status of the "spy in the sky" technology? How much will a tracking box cost? What will the pilot scheme assess if it is working only in a limited local area? Can the right hon. Gentleman give an unqualified guarantee that the motorist will be no worse off as a result of what he is proposing?
For the sake of completeness, the hon. Gentleman might wish to report that he and I have had a number of conversations about this subject, and about road pricing. I said, among other things, that I would be happy for him, and indeed his colleagues, to visit the Department to discuss the issues.
Mr. Darling: I understand that arrangements have already been made for such a meeting. I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman feels that he has somehow been wronged. He knows, as do others who have dealt with me, that I try to be straightforward. I am also rather puzzled by his reference to having received the statement "at 20 minutes' notice". I devoted considerable effort to ensuring that he received it, and supporting papers, an hour in advance as usual, and he should have done so.
"We will establish a new Transport innovation fund, to support the costs of innovative and coherent transport measureswhich will include road pricing, modal shift, and better bus services. And we will also support innovative mechanisms which raise new funds locally."
I do not think the hon. Gentleman can say that he did not know what the transport innovation fund was for. True, the information was on page 134, perhaps requiring the reader to peruse the preceding 133 pages, but it was fairly clear. Similarly, in the opening paragraph of my statement today I made it clear that I wanted to talk about the innovation fund, and about how we were progressing with the national road pricing scheme. [Interruption.]
The hon. Gentleman keeps pointing at the monitor. As he will knowbut perhaps he does not; I am not sure that he was ever in the Governmentit cannot carry an entire essay. It tends to truncate the headlines. I think that he is making a fuss about nothing.
The hon. Gentleman made a couple of more important points. He asked about Manchester. The position on Manchester and its access to the innovation
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fund is exactly as I described it on 16 December last year in a written statement to the House. The fund is there to encourage local authorities and passenger transport executives to consider imaginative ways of dealing with congestion.
As for road pricing, as the hon. Gentleman knows, a number of big questions still need to be answered. I raised the matter a few weeks ago and returned to it today because I believe that the country has an obligation to look at the problems that we face over the next 20 or 30 years and do something about them. I am bound to say that I was pleasantly surprised when the hon. Gentleman said on the day of my announcement that he was prepared to consider some of these proposals. The attitude that he struck today is rather different and I am somewhat surprised by it. I should point out to him and his colleagues that these are huge issues and that they need to be looked at. If we are to make progress, we will need to consider piloting in a smaller part of the country, rather than going straight to a national scheme. I am pleased to tell the House that different parts of the country have shown a surprising amount of interest in beginning to tackle what is a big problemone that will affect successive Governments in years to come.
Mr. Ronnie Campbell (Blyth Valley) (Lab): For people in my constituency, the only means of transport into the conurbation of Newcastle is by bus or car, so they will have to be charged for going there. There is a rail linkthe Blyth and Tyne linebut there is no money to be spent on it. Will this innovation fund spend money on such rail links?
Mr. Darling: We are already spending considerable sums on the railwaysin fact, in the past seven years we have doubled the amount being spent. Moving to road pricing involves moving away from the current system of taxation to a charge based on distance travelled, so it is a big step. The objective is to get more out of the existing capacity, but I repeat the point that I made to the hon. Member for Rutland and Melton (Mr. Duncan): much of the detail still needs to be worked out, but if we do not start thinking about the system's possibilities, we face a future of increasing gridlock. I will get back to my hon. Friend concerning the railway line that he asks abouthe has mentioned it on several previous occasionsbut as he will appreciate, I do so without promising anything specific.