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Road Traffic Projections

3. Mr. Mark Lancaster (North-East Milton Keynes) (Con): What assessment he has made of the number of motorists who will be using roads in England by 2014. [42344]

The Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. Alistair Darling): The Department estimates that there will be about 36.4 million driving licence holders in Great Britain in 2014, compared with just over 32 million in 2004. Furthermore, 27 million cars were licensed in Great Britain in 2004 and we think that that will grow to 31.3 million by 2014.

Mr. Lancaster: The M1 is due to become even more congested due to the Government's plans to build 100,000 houses between junctions 13 and 16. Is the Minister aware of the special problems with junction 13? The much-needed dualling of the A421 to get people off the M1 into Milton Keynes appears to be going nowhere because the plan falls between two regions that have given it different priorities. May I simply ask the Secretary of State to knock some heads together and arrange a meeting of the planners from the two regions to try to ensure that the much-needed project moves forward?

Mr. Darling: I understand the point that the hon. Gentleman makes. We are about to receive from different parts of the country their views on priorities for transport. There will undoubtedly be roads that affect different regions, in which case the Department will have to reach a view. The Government have made additional money available for several projects in Milton Keynes. On public transport, we made about £24 million available for rebuilding the station, which we hope will help as well. I am aware of the point that he makes about roads. There are a lot of pressures on the road budget, but in some cases we will have to find out what we can do to enable traffic to flow better.
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Sarah McCarthy-Fry (Portsmouth, North) (Lab): Before 2014, the Olympics will of course come to London, which will bring an enormous number of visitors and lead to additional traffic on the roads of this country. My constituency hopes to take advantage of the boost to tourism, but I am worried that visitors who wish to drive to Portsmouth will be deterred by the bottleneck at Hindhead. Does my right hon. Friend agree with me and the South East England regional assembly that the Hindhead tunnel is the top transport priority for the south-east region?

Mr. Darling: I am aware that the region attaches considerable importance to the Hindhead tunnel. I am also aware of considerable concern about the cost increase. Ministers will examine the matter in the fairly near future.

Peter Viggers (Gosport) (Con): I echo the concern expressed by the hon. Member for Portsmouth, North (Sarah McCarthy-Fry). There is concern in Hampshire and other parts of the south of England that major road projects are, in effect, parked on the hard shoulder while priority is given to infrastructure projects relating to the Olympic games. Will the Secretary of State give an assurance that projects such as the tunnelling of the A3 at Hindhead will continue to have priority?

Mr. Darling: I assure the hon. Gentleman that the Government's aim is to continue to spend increasing sums in parts of the country where road improvements are necessary. The money for projects that will be needed for the Olympics has already been allocated, so that has no bearing on decisions relating to Hindhead or   any other area.

The hon. Gentleman and the House will accept that, as I have said before, our problem in relation to roads generally is that we have not spent as much as we should have over the years. Looking at the figures earlier today, I noticed that in 1990 the then Government had 500 schemes in their roads programme; by 1997, the number was down to 150 because of spending cuts. We have been able to increase the amount of money available and a number of projects are now possible, but inevitably it will take time to put in place all the projects that we want.

Kerry McCarthy (Bristol, East) (Lab): I welcome the Secretary of State's decision to consider road pricing as a way of tackling congestion on our roads, rather than building more roads. I also welcome last year's decision to include Bristol in one of the feasibility studies, but does he accept that our efforts to get motorists out of their cars and on to public transport will fail in the face of the situation in my constituency, where First Group, which runs the buses, has increased fares three times in the past year, most recently by up to 22 per cent.? Will he respond to that?

Mr. Darling: When tackling congestion in Bristol or any other city it is important to achieve the right mix of adequate public transport, including affordable bus services, and appropriate measures to restrict traffic growth. That is especially important in a city such as Bristol, which I visited just before Christmas and which is already quite severely congested. I welcome my hon.
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Friend's remark about road pricing. I agree that we need a sensible building programme—additional capacity is needed in some places—but we must be mindful of our environmental obligations. The key is to balance the two, which is not always easy, but I believe that it can be done.

Tony Baldry (Banbury) (Con): Another way to reduce pressure on the roads budget and on the roads is to invest more in railways. One way to reduce pressure on Milton Keynes would be to invest in the east-west rail link, which will eventually link Southampton and Felixstowe via Oxford, Bicester and Milton Keynes. The project has the comprehensive support of every local authority along the route and it has been the subject of more surveys and project reports than any other scheme that I can think of; all it requires is a Government funding commitment. It seems strange that Milton Keynes is expanding purely on the basis of increased road use. May we have some sustainable communities and investment in the railways, especially the east-west rail link?

Mr. Darling: I am glad that across the board the Conservative party is repenting the sins of the past. I   recall that the hon. Gentleman was a Minister in the last Conservative Government, when Government spending on rail fell dramatically until 1996. One reason we have problems in some parts of the railways is that, as with roads, we did not spend money when we should have.

The hon. Gentleman is right to say that there have been a number of studies in respect of the east-west rail link, but even though we have doubled spending on railways since 1997, I am not convinced that that project is the right place to put our money. I believe that other areas where we need to increase capacity take priority over that scheme. If he and his colleagues are saying that we need to spend more on transport, they are absolutely right, and if they have changed their mind about the position that they have taken in the past few elections, that is very good as well.

Chris Grayling (Epsom and Ewell) (Con): It is all well and good for the Secretary of State to continue to blame the last Conservative Government for all the problems with our transport system. His Government have been in power for nearly 10 years now. Does he remember that five years ago the Government published a detailed strategy on transport and how all the problems would be solved during the current decade? It was called the 10-year plan for transport. Can he tell the House why so many of the commitments and promises made in that document have been abandoned?

Mr. Darling: In relation to the hon. Gentleman's first point, I have been very careful in the past four years not to lay all the problems of underfunding in transport on the Conservative Government. [Interruption.] True, they were in power for 18 years and one might have thought that something would be done during that period, but unfortunately the underinvestment goes back through successive Governments right back to the   1960s. The point that I was making to the hon.   Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry) was that in 1992 Government support for the railways was about
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£2 billion, but by 1995–96 it had plummeted to £431 million. It is not surprising, therefore, that in the years that followed there were severe difficulties in relation to the railway because of a backlog of maintenance and investment. Money is essential, not just on the railways but elsewhere.

In relation to the 10-year plan, the Government set out a spending programme for 10 years—one that was renewed and increased in the spending review in 2004. There is a key question that the hon. Gentleman must consider—I do not expect him to answer it today, but at some point he will have to tell us. It is all very well to say that his approach is changing and that he now understands that investment is necessary, but is he able to come up with the money to do so? He must know that his leader is committed to spending less on public expenditure than we are.

Chris Grayling: So let us look at the Government's real commitments on spending. For example, in the 10-year plan and in many of the things that the Secretary of State has said since, he has talked about solving the   congestion problems on our roads, or at least contributing to solving those problems, by getting freight off the roads and on to the railways. Can he explain why his Department has cut funding for rail freight by nearly half in the past three years?

Mr. Darling: Rail freight has gone up 36 per cent. over   the past few years. I have said before in the House   on many occasions that I do not believe that the   way to encourage freight is continually to subsidise it. We want to encourage the carriage of freight that is a   commercial proposition. I am surprised that a Conservative Government—Conservative Opposition, rather—[Interruption.] It is worth reminding people of the threat that there might be a Conservative Government one day. We know what happened when there was a Conservative Government—investment in roads and in railways was cut, and we know the consequences of that. As the hon. Gentleman is in such a combative mood, can he tell me what the Tories' policy is on the railways? His leader said in December:

yet the right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr.   Gummer) said that

What is the Tory party policy on it?

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