Mr. Nick Gibb (Bognor Regis and Littlehampton) (Con): I should like to present a petition signed by 1,092 residents of my constituency. The petition raises genuine concerns about the level of council tax, which has been rising year after year above the rate of inflation, and which is as a consequence causing hardship to many people, particularly those on fixed or low incomes.
Bob Spink (Castle Point) (Con): In recent months, Castle Point has seen a massive increase in the number of applications for blocks of flats. That trend is causing concern across the region, not least to the Council of Mortgage Lenders. It is changing our community into flatlands, which I spoke about yesterday.
Declares that they object to the plan to build twelve flats in May Avenue, proposed development CPT/628/05/FUL). This is due to the site design and external appearance of the proposed development, including its height and bulk in relation to neighbouring properties, which is unacceptable. The Petition further declares that the impact of the development would unreasonably increase the pressure on local infrastructure, particularly roads.
Bob Spink: My second petition relates to the planning process in Castle Point. It is self-explanatory, and I hope that the Government will respond to explain that elected and accountable councillors decide how planning decisions are taken, and that it is up to them to decide whether officers deal with decisions in a way that does not lead to good democracy or whether they take it on the chin and make the decisions themselves.
Declares that we the residents of Castle Point and surrounding areas object to the undemocratic planning process whereby officers of Castle Point Borough Council decide planning applications without councillors' input, which causes special concern when these are major planning applications and particularly planning applications for blocks of flats.
The Petitioners therefore call on the House of Commons to urge the Government to impress upon Castle Point Borough Council the need to change this undemocratic practice so major planning applications that are of concern to the public are decided by elected members in full committee in future and to explain to the council how this can be achieved.
So that we may all rush off to our Christmas endeavours on behalf of our constituents, I present my final petition. It was compiled by the Canvey Independent party. That is not my political party, but I am happy to present this petition, because I agree with it. It calls for the provision of decent public toilet facilities on Canvey Island. The Canvey Independent
20 Dec 2005 : Column 1807
party is right to call for those and I congratulate it and Paul Peterson, a journalist on the Yellow Advertiser newspaper, who is running an excellent campaign for decent toilets, especially at the Knightswick centre on Canvey Island. I have consistently called for the borough council to maintain decent toilet facilities across the whole borough, for reasons that all hon. Members understand and agree with.
Mr. David Amess (Southend, West) (Con): I have the honour to present a petition signed by more than 1,000 residents, which was handed to me outside Belfairs post office on Monday. There was a large gathering of senior citizens who are very upset about the removal of bus services in their area.
Declares that bus routes 17, 23, 23a and evening service 29 in Southend-on-Sea were withdrawn in Spring 2005 and that Southend Borough Council should take steps to provide a replacement bus service for these routes.
The Petitioners therefore request that the House of Commons call upon the Government to do all within its power to ensure that Southend Borough Council urgently makes provisions for replacement bus services on these routes. The Petitioners further request that the House of Commons call upon the Government to introduce legislation to make funds available for this purpose.
Mr. Jeremy Browne (Taunton) (LD): I am grateful for the opportunity to raise this issue, because 2005 has been a momentous year in politicsnot least because, as I am sure the Minister will agree, it saw the election of a third consecutive Labour Governmentand it is fitting that we end the year on a bang with this important debate for my constituents about the problem of traffic congestion in Taunton. As I go about my constituency, knock on doors and talk to people in public places, I ask them what issues are of greatest concern and import to them.
Three main issues come to the fore. The first is antisocial behaviour, and I am sure that all hon. Members will recognise that issue. The second is the problem of council tax and ever-rising bills, which is raised with me especially by retired people on fixed incomes or those on typical local wages. The third issue, and possibly the one raised with the greatest vehemence and regularity is the problem of traffic congestion in Taunton, the county town of Somerset.
I accept that traffic congestion is a problem in towns and cities across the UK and, for that matter, in many other developed countries. However, Taunton is worse than most places and is certainly worse than most places of its size. There are probably two reasons for that. The first is the town layout, which is not conducive to the free movement of large amounts of cars, lorries, vans and other vehicles. That is a historical accident. Many of the buildings were erected before cars were invented and some towns tend to have better traffic flows than others. Unfortunately, the traffic flow in Taunton is particularly poor.
The second factor is that Taunton is not only the county town but a centre for the whole region. People come to Taunton from 20 or 25 miles away, for work or shopping, especially at this time of year when they can take advantage of the town's excellent shops and other facilities, or to visit the hospital. Musgrove park hospital serves patients from a much bigger area than the constituency I represent. People are sucked into Taunton from a large radius and when they get there they find that the problem of traffic congestion is acute.
At peak times, the town gridlocks. Taunton is a modest-sized county town, not a city, but sometimes it can take half an hour or longer to travel less than a mile. That is exceptional traffic congestion by any standards. It is bad for the environment, bad for local businesses and bad for the quality of life of residents of Taunton and the surrounding communities.
In preparation for the debate, I looked at projections for traffic growth in Taunton. I have been supplied with figures from a study showing what is likely to happen to traffic in Taunton over the 10 years between 2001 and 2011. We are of course already four years into that projection, and although the problem is acute at present, one can conclude from those statistics only that it will be worse still in the years ahead.
In that 10-year period, the total volume of traffic in Taunton will rise by 28 per cent. That is partly due to new housing. The town is expanding and is set to expand
20 Dec 2005 : Column 1809
further. Nearly all the people in those new houses will choose to drive. An additional problem is that so many new houses are built without adequate amenities, such as shops and bus routes, so that people need to drive more than if they lived in older houses.
The increase is also due to the overall growth in car use. A couple of decades ago, there would have been one car for the use of an entire family, but now there is often a car each for the husband and wifeif that is the composition of the householdand in many cases children aged 17 and over also have a car. Inevitably when more cars are owned, more cars are driven.
Those two factors explain the projected 28 per cent. increase in traffic congestion in Taunton between 2001 and 2011. However, we should not think that the increase in peak-time delays will also be 28 per cent. The projection for such delays in that period is a staggering 160 per cent. increase. In 2001, 1,093 hours were spent in traffic queues at peak times every weekday morning. That is a complicated sentence so I shall try to explain it: the total number of person hours during which people sat in traffic jams at the peak morning travel-to-work time came to 1,093 cumulatively. It is projected to be 2,847 hoursa 160 per cent. increaseby 2011 if nothing is done during the intervening period.
The county council and others want to address the problem, but even with the strategy that is already being implemented to deal with congestion in Taunton the projection is still for an increase of 121 per cent. between 2001 and 2011. Admittedly, that is less than a 160 per cent. increase, but it is still a huge increase in traffic congestion. As I say, the situation is already bad and we do not want it to get worse. The conclusion that we can draw is that doing nothing is not an option, and people who may have been more conservative about trying to deal with traffic congestion are increasingly coming to accept that view.
What are the possible solutions? First, the demand for road space could be reduced. Secondly, the supply of road space could be increased. I intend to deal with both possible solutions in turn. On reducing demand for road space, nothing should be ruled out, and I should like the Government and politicians of all parties to provide imaginative and innovative leadership and to think creatively about how we can try to address some of the problems.
I believe that the Minister is likely to refer in her remarks shortly to park-and-ride schemes. I have been personally somewhat sceptical about such schemes in the past. People buy cars, which depreciate at an alarming rate. They then spend more money insuring and taxing them, having MOTs done on them and putting petrol in them. After all of that, it seems likely that people will want to drive their cars. However, if they are stuck in traffic gridlock, driving the car is not as great a liberty as it might appear on first inspection.
A new park-and-ride scheme was opened in Taunton only a few weeks ago. It is called Silk Mills and is linked to a bridge over the railtrack on that side of the town. People who live in and around Taunton or visit the town must all wish that that park-and-ride scheme is successful, because it is an important part of the strategy for alleviating congestion there. I hope that an equivalent park-and-ride scheme to Silk Mills, which is operational in day-time hours, can be built on the other side of the town by the motorway.
20 Dec 2005 : Column 1810
The second issue is public transport. I have dug out the statistics on how people in Taunton travel to work each day. The statistics are quite revealing and say a fair bit about how we might try to address the problem. Some 57 per cent. of people in Taunton travel to work by car, but 20 per cent. either walk or cycle to their place of work. That is an impressive statistic. One in five people in Taunton gets to work either by walking or cycling. It is important that we try to make that option more attractive for people in Taunton and other comparable towns and cities throughout the country.
Only 2 per cent. of people in Taunton travel to work by bus, however. One person in 50 in the county town of Somerset travels to work by public transport. That is a serious issue for towns such as Taunton, and it is not helped by the increases in bus fares that take place. Recentlyagain, in the past few weeksthere has been a dramatic increase in bus fares in Taunton. Fares on some routes have increased by as much as 30 per cent.
It is hardly surprising when we have such low levels of bus usage for people getting to work at peak times and travelling home at the end of the day that people who might be inclined to use buses are further discouraged from doing so because of price factors. I appreciate that convenience, the reliability of the service and other factors are also important, but price is clearly a factor. One of the things that we need to do in Taunton and other towns is to encourage people to use public transport.
Another area that I am keen to encourage people to explore to reduce demand is car sharing. There have been some interesting schemes in other countries, including the United States, to encourage car sharing, one of which involves a reserved lane, and there are places in Britain where that also applies. At peak times, the lane can be used by cars with more than one adult in them, but not by cars carrying a single adult. Whichever town or city we visit, we see big lines of cars and almost every one of them has a single person in it going to work. The innovative ideas that we must explore include introducing priority lanes or car parking places for people who have shared their cars.
The survey on how people get to work in Taunton showed that 11 per cent. of people who work do not travel to work because they work from home. That is a significant and interesting fact. We need to explore further the extent to which people can do their jobs from home on some days of the week, if not every day. I congratulate the Government on encouraging the roll-out and expansion of broadband internet access in villages and smaller rural communities around Taunton, because that will give people in manyalbeit not allwalks of life the opportunity to work from home and vary their working hours in such a way that traffic congestion might be reduced, as well as other benefits.
I will not explore all the many other options, but I want to make a general point on reducing demand. It is important that we retain public support for all the options. I am anti-congestion, but I am not anti-motorist. If people assume that all the measures that we need to encourage would penalise motorists in an unreasonable manner, we will lose public support for them.
20 Dec 2005 : Column 1811
Having considered at length how we can try to reduce demand, I shall address the way in which we can increase the supply of road space. I accept that there is a limit to what can be done. Unless we go down the path of widespread demolition of buildings that were constructed before the invention of the car, there will always be a limit on the extra road capacity that we can create. Neither I nor people in Taunton have any appetite for such a scheme in our town. However, we could increase capacity through measures such as the better phasing of traffic lights and improving the flow of cars. The number of extra cars that can be accommodated without changing a road layout, but improving the flow of the vehicles that use it, is sometimes striking.
Two new projects have been earmarked for Taunton: the northern inner distributor road and what we now call the third way in Taunton. I do not know whether the Minister is an exponent of the Government's version of the third way, but the scheme in Taunton is a compromise between people who wanted to keep a part of the town with a cultural dimension and those who saw the merits of putting a new bridge and road through that area. Both projects require bridges and Government funding, and they would both improve the flow and distribution of traffic in Taunton. The schemes are not magical solutions. They would not solve the problem, so I would not wish to pretend that they would, but they offer good value for money and form part of the vision for Taunton of improving the quality of life of people in the town and ensuring that extra houses are well served. I urge the Government and the Minister to support both projects.
Taunton is suffering from suffocating traffic congestion. It is a dynamic and successful town that is growing because people want to live there and enjoy living there. However, there is a risk that the traffic congestion is putting businesses off relocating to the town or remaining there. It causes people to waste hours of time every day and week that they could spend more profitably and enjoyably doing other activities. There is no simple solution to traffic congestion in Taunton or any other town or city in Britain, but we must examine the problem seriously and act now.