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19 Oct 2005 : Column 263WH—continued

Local Transport (Somerset)

11 am

Mr. Ian Liddell-Grainger (Bridgwater) (Con): I shall start, unusually, by praising the Government. Then again, there is nothing like good news. I thank the Government for calling in the Exeter airport bid. I do not think that there is any doubt in my constituency that we did not want Bristol and Exeter airports owned by one company, whoever it might be. I hope that the Government will consider the issue in the light of transport competition and will take the right decision, which is to put the matter back into the melting pot so that we do not have two regional airports in the west country owned by one company.

I am grateful to have secured the debate, but also rather sad. This is not the first time that I have stood in Westminster Hall to question the transport policies of my local county council. The Minister may be relatively new to her office, but her capable team will certainly have given her chapter and verse about my regular parliamentary interventions on the subject over the past four years. The trouble is that there are enough chapters and verses to fill the Library. I have stood here and bemoaned Somerset county council's road speed management policies more times than I and probably the Liberal Democrat rulers of the council would care to remember. I have criticised the council for cutting bus subsidies and I have fearlessly, on occasion, had to name names. Today, I reserve the right to do the same all over again.

Perhaps the leader of Somerset county council, Mrs.   Cathy Bakewell, is already bracing herself for another personal tirade. Perhaps down in her bunker in Taunton, the official spin doctors are even now loading fax machines with a counter-attack, a spirited defence of their Lib Dem leadership. I can already sniff the cordite, but just hold your fire and hear me out. The truth is that I would much prefer to be sharing the warm glow of civic pride. How refreshing it would be to pat Mrs. Bakewell on the back and pamper her with praise. I would love to stand here and congratulate the county council on a terrific transport policy. That is one of my genuine ambitions, but I am sorry, Mrs. B.; it ain't gonna happen today.

What follows is a tale of muddle and woe, a story that would be more plausible if it involved a chaotic boarding house run by John Cleese. It is about what really goes on down in county hall or, as everyone else in Somerset seems to call it, Bakewell towers. We are talking about a branch of local government that has a huge impact on people's lives. The transport division runs the buses, maintains the roads and, importantly, gets children to school. We all accept that that is not an easy task in beautiful rural Somerset with its meandering roads. It requires a dedicated and experienced team of people behind the scenes, with a thorough and businesslike approach. It cries out for annual progress reports. I believe that Her Majesty's Government insist on such reports; APRs are very important things.

The last one conducted for Somerset's transport division was called APR4. It was a study of how the council had performed in the year ending April 2004 and it considered specific targets and compared them with
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real results. APRs are ready-reckoners of local government; at a glance, one can spot what has gone wrong and what has gone right. In Somerset, the comparison was stark. Between APR3 and APR4, something went badly wrong. The wheels of the transport department are—dare I say it?—perilously close to falling off. Who is to blame? Aha! This is where the plot begins to thicken.

Before the electors of Bridgwater and west Somerset sent me to this place, I was an Army officer. When something goes wrong in the Army, it is the officer who has to take the blame, and rightly so; it is the officer's head on the block. The same should, and usually does, apply to local government. That is why the top people—the departmental managers of county hall—are paid upwards of £44,000 a year. That is why we have elections to keep in, or kick out, the politicians. The whip hand is with the people.

It is all fine and dandy if the council leaders produce sensible policies for the highly paid managers to undertake and the highly paid managers have a dedicated team of people. In Somerset, however, the council leaders have come up with a tuppence ha'penny transport policy; actually, I would not give them as much as half a tuppence. The highly paid transport managers cannot get enough people to work for them. I want everyone to hold that thought. In Somerset they cannot get the staff. When one hears the whole story, I suspect that one will understand why.

It is a bit like running an army with generals and officers but no troops; that may be rather too close to home. It is a guarantee of cock-up and disaster. Remember that this is a department with the power to spend millions of pounds of public money every year; it is the department that organises road repairs and deals with multi-million pound, blue-chip contractors, negotiates with bus contractors and deals directly with Government. We would rightly expect such responsible tasks to be undertaken by a team with experience, but we would be bitterly disappointed, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Wells (Mr. Heathcoat-Amory) has said on many occasions.

Many of the important and responsible tasks requiring experience and professional know-how in Somerset county council's transport division were at the time being executed by—wait for it—an office junior. I said earlier that I reserve the right to name names, but in this case I will withhold it; I do not attack the executive. The junior in question turned out to be a minor. With such a degree of inefficiency displayed by the transport division, the Government office for the south-west ordered a full internal inquiry, in the course of which it became clear that the junior officer was doing far too much important work and doing it with understandable inefficiency. How could he cope? It was not his pay grade.

I would not have been so bad if the junior had possessed the magic powers of Harry Potter, but that junior was what Alastair Campbell would describe as a bog-standard junior. I do not blame him personally; I would never do that. Fresh out of school, perhaps, still a bit spotty, very keen but wet behind the ears. I certainly blame the managers and, above all, just like the Army it is the general's fault. The buck must stop with Councillor Bakewell.
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In Dickens's day they sent boys up chimneys; it appears that in Councillor Bakewell's day they seem to have found a new use for child labour in Somerset county council's transport division.

I am afraid there is a lot more. The Government office of the south-west did a lot of digging and found a great deal of dirt and, in my book, dirt is inefficiency. Here is an example. The investigators looked at the strategic performance targets set for the divisional transport division; two-thirds of them—66 per cent. of the targets—had been missed badly. In the Army, that is a rate of miss for which a person would have been court-martialled. I do not just mean a miss by several miles, I mean that in many cases the targets were not just missed; they were never fired at in the first place.

Money allocated for specific targets and projects in Somerset was not spent at all in many cases. The report from the experts at the Government office describes the efforts and efficiency of the transport division as "weak". It is an appalling circumstance. It is a rather genteel description, but, surprise, surprise, Somerset county council is already behaving as though it was unfairly treated. It says that being weak is awfully close to being not so weak. However, it is a heck of a long way from being strong, which it should be.

I approached county hall for a report, but it did not want me to have sight of it. I wonder why? Could it be that it did not want me to read about the serious lack of managers? Yes, the managers have been leaving like rats from a sinking ship. I had to get a copy of the report from the Minister's Department and the Library. It was finally e-mailed to me after I had threatened to name names in Parliament. That is a damning criticism of a body that handles so much public money.

There is more. The report looked at Somerset county council services overall and came to the conclusion that it is obvious to those of us that use the service that the thrust of corporate thinking is directed at social services and education.

Mr. David Heathcoat-Amory (Wells) (Con): Is my hon. Friend aware that the administrative confusion, added to the fact that there is an annual raid on the transport budget for other purposes, has led to a marked deterioration of the secondary roads in Somerset? There is no routine resurfacing of those roads and there is an enormous backlog of maintenance. Is that not a direct contradiction of the promoted sustainability, which we hear all the time? Does my hon. Friend agree that that is a further illustration of the great gap between words and deeds with which we are familiar from the Government, but which has now also crept into county council government?

Mr. Liddell-Grainger : I thank my right hon. Friend and agree with the point that he makes. He is the senior MP in Somerset, and for 20 years has held the county council to account.

As my right hon. Friend said, the secondary roads in Somerset are a disgrace. In fact, a local county councillor called them

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At the moment, the county council is desperately trying to sort them out—to tar them and bring them up to standard—but it is failing dismally. I agree with my right hon. Friend that if the roads are not sorted out, they will get much worse.

It is small wonder that, in 2003, transport was considered so unsatisfactory by the public that Councillor Bakewell gave the budget an extra £3 million to try to paper over the cracks. Did that work? Did it heck. That was the year when major internal organisational changes were implemented. In other words, the report identified a clear muddle. It was also the year of the wretched road sign fiasco, when half-baked policies to cut down accidents led to hundreds of silly speed signs in all the wrong places. That policy was implemented without decent consent and millions of pounds was wasted. No one was consulted. The only pleasure that I take in criticising the county's policies is that at least they had the guts to reverse them, even though they had spent £2 million in the wrong way.

The road management policy was reversed simply because the public in Somerset rebelled and said, "Enough is enough." I again have to pay tribute to the Government, because the Minister's predecessor said that they would not support the policy.

I admit to one extra personal pleasure; the fate of the Liberal Democrat councillor who shared the implementation of those policies. At least the electorate had the sense to chuck out ex-Councillor Tim Carroll.

I read the Government's own report, or as much of it as the county council was prepared to let me have, with a growing feeling that it explained many things that had gone wrong and are still going wrong with the council's transport policy.

Now I understand why the county was so stupid as to slash its bus subsidy by a quarter of a million pounds. It happened because the division that could have defended bus subsidies was woefully short of senior managers with the brains or the clout to intervene. They did not dare to do so.

Many thanks are in order to the investigators from the Government office for the south-west and the Department for Transport. Without their investigation we might never have known, and without their efforts nothing would have been done to put things right.

I am prepared to give Councillor Bakewell one single benefit of the doubt. Her officials say that the next annual progress report will be better, and claim that the Government office for the south-west is now content, or slightly more content. Perhaps the Minister can enlighten me on that matter. Perhaps it will be worth waiting a little longer to see what happens.

The report is a classic; a textbook example of how not to run a vital council service. I think that it will be known forever by the people of west Somerset as "Bakewell's folly".

11.13 am

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Ms Karen Buck) : I congratulate the hon. Member for Bridgwater (Mr. Liddell-Grainger) on securing this important Adjournment debate on local transport in Somerset. I have listened with interest to what he has had to say.
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I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will forgive me for not wishing to comment in any detail on the representations that he has made about the leader of Somerset county council. That is beyond my brief and I do not think it would be appropriate for me to comment on those strongly held views.

However, I will talk through the Government's approach to local transport in Somerset and the funding arrangements, and I will refer to some of the points that the hon. Gentleman made about some of the allegations concerning the delivery of local transport.

I shall begin by stating that the Government are committed to sustained long-term investment to improve local transport as a key element of our 10-year plan. We announced in December 2000 that £8.4 billion would be made available to implement local transport plans across England over the following five years. In December 2000, we said that Somerset county council would receive more than £22.5 million

In December 2000, we said that Somerset county council would receive more than £22.5 million for integrated transport measures in its first local transport plan. In fact, we provided almost £3 million in reward funding and supplementary bids in addition to that figure. In last year's White Paper, "The Future of Transport: a network for 2030", we confirmed our commitment to continue that high level of investment in all forms of transport. The planning guidelines, published for the five years of the second local transport plans, maintain those levels of high investment.

Subject to the results of the consultation and the final assessments of Somerset county council's second local transport plan, we plan to make available to it similar levels of investment of almost £24 million in the next five years. Of course, that figure could increase significantly if the local transport plan were assessed as being one of the best in the country. On the other hand, a bad assessment could reduce the level of funding.

Local transport plans are intended to address the very real needs of people in Somerset. The focus will be on our shared priorities, which have been agreed with our partners in local government. There are four main priority areas on which we focus. First, we expect plans to tackle congestion, which is a cost to us all in lost time and in air pollution. Secondly, the local transport plan will aim to improve people's access to the jobs and services that they need for day-to-day living. This is not necessarily about improving transport, although it will be in many cases, but about taking services out to the people who need them. Thirdly, local transport plans will continue the excellent work undertaken in the past five years to improve road safety. Finally, local transport plans are intended to improve air quality overall.

Mr. Jeremy Browne (Taunton) (LD): The Minister said that two of the objectives were to reduce congestion and to improve air quality. Congestion is a particularly acute problem in Taunton, the county town of Somerset. The vision for Taunton, as part of an overall regional strategy, is that two new bridges will be built in Taunton to improve traffic flow and to ease congestion in the town. Will the Minister, either this morning or at
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some point in the future, say where the Government have got to on the decision to fund those two bridges, and whether she is sympathetic to those projects?

Ms Buck : I am afraid that I cannot tell the hon. Gentleman today what the Government's position is on the funding or the general commitment to those bridges, but I am happy to write to him with an update.

Transport authorities are now working up final plans to take account of lessons learnt and to plan for the next five years. My Department is working closely with authorities across a range of topics and is advising where necessary on improving delivery and achievements of targets. Final local transport plans will be presented to Government next March.

I emphasise that we are still consulting on the precise way in which we will allocate funds through LTP2. Under the current proposals, as I have said, Somerset will enjoy similar levels to those in the first local transport plan as a result of this formula. I note the hon. Gentleman's concern that rural areas appear to lose in this process, but that will not be the case in Somerset. We are keen that the way in which these important resources are allocated to local authorities should be clear and transparent, which is why we undertook the consultation.

I listened with interest to what the hon. Member for Bridgwater said about Somerset's particular local transport problems. Last December, my Department allocated Somerset £20.5 million for this year's integrated transport allocation, including £16 million for maintenance. As he knows, last year's assessment of all transport authorities' performance classified Somerset's performance as weak. In order to help Somerset to improve its performance, my Department has commissioned W. S. Atkins to advise it, as the hon. Gentleman pointed out. This work has highlighted several areas that require improvement, and W. S. Atkins has recommended measures to address those problems. I am sure that Somerset will consider how to implement the report, and that its officials will work with my officials in the Government Office for the South West to improve their performance. We are assessing Somerset's latest APR, and will make the result public later this year.

The hon. Gentleman will also be aware of the need for prudent management of regional transport funds. We have taken a bold step by introducing regional funding allocations so that the regions will have a responsibility to advise Government on their priorities for the future funding of projects and schemes. Somerset will no doubt contribute to the prioritisation process, and I look forward to hearing more about the county's involvement.

Somerset has also contributed to, if not led, the south-west region's discussions on improvement of freight movements across the county by co-ordinating the production of a regional freight map. That crucial work will ease local people's concerns about HGVs in villages, and will provide operators with clear route guidance to avoid problems. Again, I look forward to seeing how the work can inform a sensible and consistent routing of HGVs to minimise their impact on local communities, and to provide an efficient network for the delivery of goods throughout the region.
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The hon. Gentleman will be aware of the recent opening of the Silk Mills road bridge in Taunton, which now spans the main south-west rail line, replacing an historically congested level crossing. That is part of an additional £14.5million package of local transport major projects improvements, providing free flow of traffic to complement the development of a new park and ride facility that will soon be offering temporary parking for Christmas shopping. It is further evidence of the Government's commitment to address congestion points within the county.

In addition, an £11.6m package of transport measures designed to alleviate congestion in north-west Taunton is currently being assessed by my officials, with a decision expected next year following receipt of the region's advice on its priorities for that type of scheme.

I hope that I have been able to demonstrate that the Government are committed both to continuing investment in local transport in Somerset and to working with local authorities to ensure that their performance is raised. We are closely monitoring that performance and will continue to do everything that we can to work in effective partnership, both in setting priorities and in ensuring that our investment is delivered properly in order to improve the transport system in the hon. Gentleman's constituency.

Sitting suspended until 2.30 pm.

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