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Tom Brake (Carshalton and Wallington) (LD):
I, too, thank the Secretary of State for an advance copy of the statement. But in keeping with the experience of the official Opposition spokesman, my office received this unusually long statementcompared with normal statements in this Houseonly 20 minutes beforehand. As the official Opposition spokesman also suggested, a title for today's statement such as "Road User Pricing" would perhaps have been a more accurate description of the subject that we are briefly debating today. However, our position on road-user pricing has not changed. We welcome this debate, we agree with the Government that radical measures are needed, and it is of course sensible to implement pilots first. Only in years to come will the House be able to tell whether the transport innovation fund has proved effective in funding delivery of the pilot schemes.
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A number of questions arise from the statement. Is the transport innovation fund new funding, or has the money in fact been taken from elsewhere in the Department for Transport budget? The statement makes it clear that such funding is available only for pump priming, yet for many projects there will be revenue implications. It is regrettable that, apparently, the transport innovation fund will be unable to provide such support. Will the Secretary of State say whether there is any risk of local authorities that have secured transport innovation funding discovering that they then have to underwrite the costsunderestimated costs, regrettablyassociated with providing free bus passes, for instance? The risk is that funds coming into the system at one point might have to go out at another.
The transport innovation fund might deliver the pilots that we need to test the feasibility of road-user pricingor not. In three years' time, when the fund really comes on stream, the House will find out.
Mr. Darling: I shall ask for inquiries to be made about the provision of advance sight of today's statement. All that I know is that I asked that it, together with the supporting documents, be in the hands of the official Opposition an hour beforehand, which is the normal practice. I must say that that did not always happen in my time in opposition, but I do feel strongly about this issue and if something has gone wrong, I apologise. I will find out what happened, given that it appears to have happened to both principal spokesmen.
The transport innovation fund will rise from about £290 million to £2.5 billion by 201415. It is part of the additional money allocated to the Department for Transport in last year's spending review. The purpose of the fund is specifically to support innovative projects to tackle congestion and improve productivity. It is in addition to the normal course of funding that the Department embarks on, whether it be for local authorities, the Highways Agency, railways or whatever. The vast majority of the Department's budget is allocated in that way and the fund is supplementary.
The hon. Gentleman asked specifically about funding for pensioners' travel. As he will know, the Chancellor allocated an additional £350 million in the last Budget. That is a completely distinct amount, which is available from next year. It is wholly separate from the transport innovation fund.
I take the hon. Gentleman's point that, at this stage, before a pilot scheme has been established, it is impossible to evaluate it. My point is that if we as a country decide to make the change, it would be foolish to switch over from the present system to something entirely new without having seen, tried and tested a system. That is why I would encourage local authorities or groups of local authorities to work with us to achieve that. I repeat the point that I made to the hon. Member for Rutland and Meltonthat the transport innovation fund is also available for other measures. I used the example of Manchester, which has the opportunity to put in a bid, so the fund is not exclusively for road pricing. That is why I said that the transport innovation fund is about the transport innovation fund.
Mr. Doug Henderson (Newcastle upon Tyne, North) (Lab):
We all know that there is severe congestion in all
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parts of the country. In my constituency on the west of Newcastle, the A1 is very heavily congested in the morning and the evening, partly as a result of commuters from the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Blyth Valley (Mr. Campbell) making their way into the Tyneside conurbation. May I tell my right hon. Friend that I support the principle of differential pricing, which I believe is a way of getting better capacity out of the roads? However, I believe that it will be unsuccessful unless we have working patterns different from our current ones. In that connection, does my right hon. Friend agree about the need to consult employers, trade unions and school governors about working times?
Mr. Darling: I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend about that. Indeed, a number of employers are already looking into varying the times at which their employees start and finish work. That is happening in different parts of the country and I believe that it will become commonplace in the years to come. As to schools, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Skills is considering the problem with local education authorities. Something like one in five cars on the road at 10 minutes to 9 in the morning are on the school run.
I appreciate my hon. Friend's point about the A1. Much of the traffic comes from different parts of Newcastle, Gateshead and the surrounding areas. When the Department considered a study that was set up to examine the problem, we realised that whatever happens to transport in Newcastle, it will have to be looked at across the piece. It is not just a question of the A1, as much of the volume on that road is commuter traffic rather than traffic coming down into England from Scotland. We certainly need to reflect further on the problem.
Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire) (Con): The Secretary of State may be relieved to hear that at least one of his predecessors is not unsympathetic to the concept of road pricing, but subject to a crucial condition that my hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Melton (Mr. Duncan) mentionedthough the right hon. Gentleman did not reply to him. Is this proposition to be revenue-neutral on the motorist and, if so, will the right hon. Gentleman confirm that those who travel in rural areas on lightly used roads may find that their motoring costs go down?
Mr. Darling: I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman, who I know has spent a considerable amount of time thinking about transportnot just when he was Secretary of State, but since. He will understand some of the problems that we face, but I have to say that they have got rather worse, simply because of increased pressure on the roads, since he was Secretary of State.
I have made the point on a number of occasions that if we move to a system of road pricing, we would be moving away from the present system of taxation. We could not have a charge on top of a charge. It would
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have to be something instead of the present system. I strongly recommend that the right hon. Gentleman, if he has not already done so, have a look at the feasibility study that I mentioned in my statement. It found that we could have almost 40 per cent. less congestion at peak times and that nearly half of people would pay less than they do at present. In fact, if we could reduce even 4 to 5 per cent. of the volume of traffic at peak times, it would have a very dramatic effect. I understand perfectly well where the right hon. Gentleman is coming from on this matter and I am grateful to him for putting his point so reasonably.
Mark Lazarowicz (Edinburgh, North and Leith) (Lab/Co-op): My right hon. Friend is obviously right to try to achieve consensus on the proposed scheme, although the attitude displayed by the Conservatives, and the less than wholehearted support given by the Liberal Democrats, suggest that that might be hard. Will he ensure that we do not end up putting all our eggs into the basket of the national road user charging scheme, at the expense of the fairly radical measures to tackle road congestion that must be taken in the next 10 or 15 years? Congestion will get a lot worse before any road user charging scheme can come into effect.
Mr. Darling: As I said in my statement, we must secure a degree of consensus on this matter. Consensus among politicians is desirable, although achieving it may take time and in the end may not be possible. However, there also needs to be a wider debate in the country on these matters, as they represent a huge change. On the day that I gave my speech to the Social Market Foundation, a Conservative Member stopped me and said that we would have to see how long the consensus lasted
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