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Rail Services (Northampton)

5. Ms Sally Keeble (Northampton, North) (Lab): What plans he has to improve train services to Northampton. [25398]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Derek Twigg): New air-conditioned trains have been progressively introduced since June 2005 onto the west coast, serving Northampton from both London   and Birmingham. Furthermore, there will be an upgraded London to Northampton timetable from December 2005 and other improvements in June 2006. The Department is working with Network Rail, the train operating companies and stakeholders to pursue further improvements from 2008.

Ms Keeble: I welcome the improvements that have been made to the service to Northampton. However, can my hon. Friend say when the Government will invest in the upgrading of the Northampton line so that we can have faster services to Birmingham? In particular, what will the Government do to support the bids for funding for improvements to Northampton station, which will have to serve a much larger town as we grow as part of the growth plans for the region?

Derek Twigg: As my hon. Friend may be aware, the timetable change in December is expected to replace two of the slower trains with faster ones. Northampton, like many of the areas through which the west coast main line passes, has benefited from the billions of pounds that have been invested by the Government. It is important that we bear in mind the fact that the upgrading and enlargement of Rugby station will lead to improvements when completed in 2008. As she knows, I recently had a productive meeting with her and members of the Northampton rail group to hear the
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plans for an inter-modal interchange at Northampton station to provide better linkage between buses and trains. I am waiting for the full proposals to be put forward.

Mr. Brian Binley (Northampton, South) (Con): I was delighted to hear the Secretary of State say that he would continue to put money into railways where necessary. May I remind him of the sustainable communities project in which Northampton plays a major part and of the fact that the population there is about to increase by more than 50 per cent. to 100,000? It is our view that the plans put forward in that programme are not sustainable, so will the Minister give us more hope in Northampton that we will have a railway service that serves those people?

Derek Twigg: The hon. Gentleman makes an important point in terms of investment: £87 million a week is going into the railways, with the biggest ever improvement in rolling stock and refurbishment of rolling stock in recent history. We have the fastest growing railway in Europe, with more than 1 billion passenger journeys last year. As I have just made clear to my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton, North (Ms Keeble), we are waiting for details of the plans for improvements at and around Northampton station. There have already been improvements to the London service, and the enlargement of Rugby station will have major benefits not only for Northampton but for the wider west coast.

Transport Funding

6. Colin Challen (Morley and Rothwell) (Lab): If he will set a date for the ending of the per capita difference in funding for transport between London and the regions. [25399]

The Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. Alistair Darling): No, a range of factors, not just resident population, helps to determine how transport funding is distributed.

Colin Challen: The Government are to be congratulated on nearly doubling their transport budget over the last five years, which is reflected in Yorkshire and Humber where five years ago the Government were spending about £150 million and are now spending more than £350 million. But even with those great improvements, only £1 per head is spent on us compared to London's £3 per head. Despite the regrettable decision of my right hon. Friend's Department not to go ahead with the Leeds supertram, will he reconsider his answer and look at how our needs can be addressed more seriously and with a lot more resource?

Mr. Darling: I understand my hon. Friend's point; he also makes the reasonable point that the Government have doubled transport spending over the last few years and that the Leeds area has seen that improvement, too. Transport spending will never be the same per head in every part of the country, because transport projects in   different parts of the country do not all take place at the same time—especially the major ones—so from year to year more may be spent in one region than another.
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The amount of money spent outside London is broadly similar. Successive Governments have recognised the fact that due to London's importance to the whole UK economy—including the fact that London has an underground and no other transport authority has anything like that—spending in London is always likely to be higher than elsewhere.

I understand my hon. Friend's disappointment about the Leeds supertram. The problem was that the building costs had gone up by about 40 per cent., but I have said that I want to work closely with Leeds to improve transport, in particular to see whether we can build a modern, up-to-date, rapid bus system such as those in other parts of Europe. We are committed to increasing spending outside London, but there will always be disparities from time to time both between regions and between London and the rest of the country.

Mr. John Redwood (Wokingham) (Con): Would the Secretary of State consider squaring the circle of inadequate capacity and inadequate funding outside London by bringing forward proposals for the private sector to raise money and build toll highways along the lines of the northern Birmingham relief road, which has been a success?

Mr. Darling: I agree: the Birmingham relief road has been a great success. It has taken traffic off the M6 and allowed for faster journeys, and shows that if people are getting a better service, which is an important point, they are prepared to pay for it. I have absolutely no objection whatever to the private sector bringing money into transport. Indeed, we currently spend £87 million a week on the railways and a similar amount of money comes from the private sector, so I have no difficulty whatever with that, on the simple grounds that two sources of money coming into the transport system must be better than one.

Mr. Paul Truswell (Pudsey) (Lab): Further to the rejection of the Leeds supertram proposals and the Department's preference for a bus solution, will my right hon. Friend look again at the process for introducing quality bus contracts in the region? Will he also look at the role that rail could play in meeting some of the transport challenges that face Leeds?

Mr. Darling: Yes; there is a general point that affects not just Leeds but other conurbations, such as Greater Manchester and so on. What I have said is that, if local authorities or groups of local authorities are prepared to propose a comprehensive system for managing traffic, which may well include road pricing—I have told the House before that I want to test it in one area of the   country and possibly in some smaller-scale schemes elsewhere as well—I am prepared in turn to amend the legislation to allow greater control of bus services where that happens.

I will not go back to the regulation that we had in the 1980s because that would be the wrong thing to do, and there are many examples of where the present bus service works perfectly well. However, if there is an area where we can bring together demand management and improve public transport, it is necessary to have greater control over the bus services than we have at present. I   want to make it clear that there will be no return to the
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regulation of the 1980s—that would be the wrong thing to do—but in the specific case where an area has a comprehensive plan, I am prepared to consider it. I have told Leeds, Greater Manchester and councillors in the west midlands that, if they make such proposals, I shall look at them very carefully indeed.

Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield) (Con): Does the Secretary of State agree that road maintenance is part of transport? Does he accept that, in many rural and county areas, the road authority—the county council—is finding it very difficult to maintain to an acceptable standard minor roads, which are increasingly used by traffic and ever heavier commercial vehicles? Should that not be taken into account in the allocation of transport funding, given the problems faced particularly by rural areas in counties throughout the country?

Mr. Darling: I agree with the hon. Gentleman. Road maintenance is absolutely essential. The problem is that many councils tend to consider it as a soft option for cuts if they want to spend money elsewhere, quite simply because it takes some years before that neglect becomes apparent. Unfortunately, despite the fact that we have dramatically increased the amount of money given to local authorities over the past seven or eight years, many authorities have not been spending the money where they ought to spend it. I do not know whether the hon.   Gentleman has in mind his own county council, but perhaps he and other hon. Members who have this problem should have a word with their councils and ask them why they are not spending the money that the Government are giving them on road maintenance. It is a false economy to cut road maintenance; sooner or later, it results in major expenditure. Most people tend to judge transport by the state of their local transport and local roads, which is why it is important to get it right.

Ms Gisela Stuart (Birmingham, Edgbaston) (Lab): Will the Secretary of State consider making available extra funding so that all local authorities can take part in operations, such as the one that we saw today in the west midlands, to crack down on uninsured drivers?

Mr. Darling: We intend to extend the programme whereby people who drive without insurance can be identified instantly and their cars will be taken from them unless they insure them. I was in Birmingham this morning and saw the start of that programme. It is worth bearing in mind that, in the past two months when the West Midlands police force were piloting the programme, nearly 3,000 people whom they stopped were found not to have insurance. A lot of those people did not have MOTs or licences. I saw a case this morning where other criminal activity was discovered, so it is an extremely useful exercise. Modern technology makes it   possible to carry out such checking instantly. The message to people who have been driving in the past without insurance is that the chances are that it will be much easier to catch them in the future, and the police now have the power to crush or sell cars that are not claimed or insured within two weeks. That ought to concentrate the mind wonderfully.
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