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House of Commons

Tuesday 13 June 2006

The House met at half-past Two o’clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked—

Swinden Quarry-Grassington Rail Service

1. Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle) (Lab): What estimate he has made of the cost of reinstating the railway from Swinden quarry near Linton to Grassington. [76574]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Derek Twigg): We have made no estimate of the costs of reinstating the railway from Swinden quarry to Grassington, but the current north Yorkshire local transport plan refers to a study of this proposal that was made in 2002.

Mr. Prentice: It is disappointing that the Government have not made an estimate, because at the moment quarry traffic runs to within two miles of Grassington, which, as you know Mr. Speaker, is the capital of lower Wharfedale—deep in the Yorkshire dales. At a time when we are trying to get people out of their cars to enjoy the countryside, surely it makes economic sense, political sense and good social sense to reinstate that railway and get people to the beauties of the dales without their having to rely on their own transport.

Derek Twigg: I agree that it is beautiful part of the world. My hon. Friend is a great champion of the need to improve the local railway and I know that he has raised many issues about it. However, the study did not show a positive cost-benefit ratio and therefore the business case has not been made. As he knows, we are investing a record amount in the railway. I am only sorry that I cannot be helpful to him today.

Mr. David Curry (Skipton and Ripon) (Con): The concern of the hon. Member for Pendle (Mr. Prentice) for my constituency is touching from a neighbour and I am grateful to him. Will the Minister note that, over the last few weeks, there have been four reports on the condition of the countryside, all of which highlight the problems of rural transport? If any resources were to become available for extending passenger rail links, will
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he bear in mind that getting ordinary people who do not have the means of transport to work and enabling them to carry out their normal daily tasks is more important than transporting tourists to the Yorkshire dales?

Derek Twigg: Rural railways and local railways are important, which is why we have developed the community rail partnership and why we are seeing investment in community rail. At the same time, there have to be enough passengers to justify the service. If there is a case for extending rail links in the future, that will have to be made by the local authority, working with Network Rail. We are keen on developing community rail, which is why the partnership has developed well.

Transport Innovation Fund

2. Kerry McCarthy (Bristol, East) (Lab): What role the transport innovation fund will play in tackling road congestion through demand management. [76575]

The Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. Douglas Alexander): Up to £200 million a year of the transport innovation fund has been made available to support local packages of measures to address congestion. Those include demand management measures, such as road pricing, as well as investment in public transport to ensure that our towns and cities support the long- term economic success of the UK.

Kerry McCarthy: I am sure that my right hon. Friend is aware that Bristol is one of the local authorities that is bidding for funds from the transport innovation fund to run a road pricing pilot. What support will the local authority be given from the Department for Transport in that bid?

Mr. Alexander: I thank my hon. Friend for that question. We have already given the greater Bristol area £1.5 million of so-called pump-priming money to support the development of a potential bid for the transport innovation fund. The four unitary authorities in the area are working together to investigate the potential for using demand management and road pricing to address the problems of local congestion. I would expect to receive the first scheme proposals next year, with pricing pilots possibly going live in four to five years.

Mr. John Leech (Manchester, Withington) (LD): Will the Secretary of State say whether he expects any bids for money from the transport innovation fund to be successful if they do not include an element of congestion charging or road-user pricing?

Mr. Alexander: Those issues are covered in the guidance notes. We have made no secret of the fact that we think that there is considerable potential to learn useful lessons from the pilots, but that is one element of the opportunities that are available to local authorities, given that there have to be local solutions that work in local areas.

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Richard Burden (Birmingham, Northfield) (Lab): I welcome my right hon. Friend’s inclusion of the west midlands conurbation area in the feasibility study to bid for money from the transport innovation fund. What consideration has he given—perhaps with his colleagues at the Department of Trade and Industry—to how initiatives such as the transport innovation fund can be used to maximise the technological, industrial and employment potential of different kinds of traffic management schemes, as well as reducing road congestion?

Mr. Alexander: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his remarks about the west midlands, which is one of the seven areas that are benefiting from the pump-priming money, as I described it. The broader relationship between transport and economic growth will be addressed by the Eddington study, which was commissioned jointly by the Chancellor of the Exchequer and my predecessor. The study should come to us later this year and will address exactly that type of relationship.

Chris Grayling (Epsom and Ewell) (Con): First, I welcome the Secretary of State to the Dispatch Box for the first time in his new job and congratulate him on his promotion to the Cabinet. I also congratulate the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, the hon. Member for Lincoln (Gillian Merron) on her promotion. It is a shame that they come to the Dispatch Box on a day when the Government have cut back the time that is available for Transport questions, which demonstrates what a low priority transport is for this Government. In the Secretary of State’s first speech, he confirmed plans for a national road pricing scheme. He has made reference again today to the concept of pilots by 2010 in areas such as the west midlands and Bristol. Does he yet have an idea of what form the pilot will take? In particular, will it involve only vehicles registered in the area covered by the pilot, will it be fiscally neutral for those involved and what technology will it use?

Mr. Alexander: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his kind remarks, in relation both to me and to my ministerial colleague. I said in the speech that I wanted to make a personal priority of taking forward the debate on a national road pricing scheme. We need such a debate, partly because there are genuine questions in the minds of motorists and other members of the public that need to be addressed. We would aim for a national consensus, and I hope that we can secure it over the months ahead, or at least begin to unbundle some of the questions that have been directed at me today. I make no secret of the fact that genuine technological questions need to be addressed. I hope that the local pilots will help us to answer other questions, which is why I think that it is sensible to have a graduated response that shows the benefits of road pricing in areas in which that can be seen to be an effective solution to congestion.

Chris Grayling: I was interested to note that the Secretary of State was not able to give specific answers to my questions. I have talked to people in the west midlands and Greater Manchester who are involved in
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the potential pilots and they have no idea of what is going on, what the technology involved will be, or what the pilots will look like. When will they get some information about what they should expect?

Mr. Alexander: Business cases are being worked up and it is important that those responsible for the areas themselves work out a solution that works for them. I have examined the matter quite carefully in recent weeks. The hon. Gentleman puts his points to me, but I have no idea whatsoever about his position on the questions that have been asked. We will bring forward detailed proposals from the seven areas, and that will be the basis on which we can examine the range of alternatives that, in turn, will inform the thinking that we develop on national road pricing.

Graham Stringer (Manchester, Blackley) (Lab): My right hon. Friend’s predecessor assured the House on many occasions that road charging would not be a condition for future funding of the tram system in Manchester, yet we appear to be entering into a competition for transport innovation funds between Manchester and Birmingham that will almost certainly require road charging. Does my right hon. Friend agree that rather than getting into such a destructive competition, it would be much more sensible to use the TIF money to lever in private sector funds, or as a basis for prudential borrowing, so that Birmingham, Manchester, Leeds, Bristol—all the cities—can have the tram systems that they require?

Mr. Alexander: I pay tribute to the leadership role that my hon. Friend has played in Manchester over a number of years, both in local government and now here in the Commons. Within days of my appointment as Secretary of State, I travelled to Manchester and reiterated the commitment that my predecessor had given on the funds available for the Manchester Metrolink. Discussions continue with the Manchester authorities and I hope that we can bring them to a conclusion relatively quickly. I understand that in addition to those discussions, consideration is being given in Manchester to the applicability of TIF funding in the future. However, in the weeks ahead, I will not in any way resile from the commitment given by my predecessor to Manchester.

Rural/Community Railway Lines

3. Ann Winterton (Congleton) (Con): If he will make a statement on his policy on the future of rural and community railway lines. [76576]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Derek Twigg): The Government recognise the importance of local railway lines to the communities they serve and seek to support their development, primarily through the implementation of the community rail development strategy.

Ann Winterton: When will the Government publish their response to the recent consultation on the future of rural and community railway lines? Does the Minister accept that it is vital that there are improved
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connections between the rural lines which survive the forthcoming cuts and the national network, which would bring increased revenue to offset public subsidy? Would that not be a simple example of an integrated transport policy, which was much heralded nine years ago by the Deputy Prime Minister, although it subsequently appears to have sunk without trace?

Derek Twigg: I do not accept that. We launched three franchises only last week: new cross country, west midlands and east midlands. They will lead to a 3 to 5 per cent. increase in services. The east and west midlands franchises will be asked to work with and develop community rail. We are thus seeing an improvement to services and an increase in their number as a result of what the Government are doing. Part of the west midlands franchise will be a new hourly service between Birmingham and Manchester that will serve Congleton, which is in the hon. Lady’s constituency.

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): Will the Minister give an indication of the Government’s thinking on the National Forest line, a passenger service that would be restored to the Leicester to Burton section of the rail network? It seems to tick all the boxes that are necessary, but in his answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Pendle (Mr. Prentice), he talked about a business case. This line has one that is strong environmentally, economically, socially and, dare I say, running through four marginal Labour seats, politically?

Derek Twigg: My hon. Friend makes an interesting point, especially his last comment. On business cases, there is a great demand for services and improvements to stations and lines. Although a record amount of money is going to the railway and significant improvements have been made, we have to consider such cases. In the first instance, it is up to the local authority, as the promoter, working with Network Rail to produce a business case. However, my hon. Friend will be aware, that as I just mentioned, last week we published the east midlands and cross-country franchise consultation documents, which set out the minimum service required. We want views from a range of stakeholders, and I am sure that we will hear from him, about what people want. We will consider responses carefully before we make final decisions about the franchise.

Mr. Boris Johnson (Henley) (Con): Will the Minister repeat the assurances of earlier occupants of his post that neither the Henley-Twyford line nor any other such line will be converted to a community railway without the express support of the community concerned, even though the line runs through solid Conservative territory?

Derek Twigg: Community rail development obviously has to have the support of the community; otherwise, it does not stack up and make sense. If there is no community support for a line to be designated as a community line, it will not happen. The important point to make is that the more involvement there is, whether it is through the more formal process of
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community development or from the local community, local business and people generally within particular areas covered by a railway station and service, the better it is. If the line is supported and more people use it, its viability is increased and it makes good business sense. There are, however lots of opportunities without necessarily going down the community rail development route. That said, it is an excellent scheme, but if it is not supported, it will not happen.

Stephen Hammond (Wimbledon) (Con): In the Minister’s answers to my hon. Friends, he reiterated the Government’s rhetoric that rural, community and light rail are important to them. However, if they really believed their own rhetoric, they would not be closing rural railway lines but increasing their usage, and they would have spent more than 0.3 per cent. of the Department for Transport’s budget on light rail. The consultation that is now happening is leading to the closure of rural, smaller and community rail links. They are surely on the way to ditching another policy. That means another policy will be ditched, another policy will be U-turned, and there will be more problems for the travelling public.

Derek Twigg: That is a bit rich coming from the Conservatives, who gave us botched privatisation, Railtrack, and years and years of underinvestment in the railway. We have seen record investment in the railway under this Government. I keep asking, as I did earlier, which line we have plans to close. Can the hon. Gentleman let us know?

We have 2,500 stations, and I have opened two or three new ones in the past 12 months; for example, Liverpool Parkway is opening and the east midlands line is being developed. There has been a growth in services as part of the franchises for east midlands, west midlands and Virgin. I am afraid that the hon. Gentleman’s arguments do not stack up.

Mottram-Tintwistle Bypass

4. Mr. Michael Clapham (Barnsley, West and Penistone) (Lab): How many submissions have been received by the Highways Agency in connection with the proposed Mottram-Tintwistle bypass; and what proportion of these submissions objected to the proposal. [76577]

The Minister of State, Department for Transport (Dr. Stephen Ladyman): The draft orders for the scheme were published on 31 January 2006 and a 13-week period ending on 5 May 2006 was provided to allow affected parties and other members of the public to provide their comments. By the end of this period the Highways Agency had received 2,691 pieces of correspondence concerning the proposals. Some 1,446 objections, 997 support letters, 28 representations and another 220 miscellaneous pieces of correspondence, which included queries, freedom of information requests and other questions were received.

Mr. Clapham: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that answer. May I tell him why I could not agree to the proposals? In my constituency, the scheme will displace
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the problems that have been experienced in Tintwistle. For example, on the A628, over Salters bridge, the traffic in 2010 will increase by 56 per cent. and in 2025 by 94 per cent. Those are already busy roads. It is a similar story through Penistone, Thurlstone and Millhouse Green. On the A616 on the other side of my constituency, there will also be marked increases in traffic through Bolsterstone, Midhopestones and Langsett. Does he agree that there need to be robust restraining measures to ensure that the lorries—

Mr. Speaker: Order. I think that the Minister knows that the hon. Gentleman is displeased with his proposal.

Dr. Ladyman: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for bringing his concerns to my attention. I am happy to hold a meeting with him so that he can discuss them in detail. However, he is entirely right that there are issues that need to be addressed, including possible restraint measures and restrictions on heavy goods vehicle access to the road if it goes ahead. The Highways Agency has already considered such proposals, and I am happy to pass on any suggestions that he wishes to draw to my attention.

Ms Angela C. Smith (Sheffield, Hillsborough) (Lab): My hon. Friend will be aware that the proposals affect my part of south Yorkshire, too, including the villages of Langsett, Midhopestones and Bolsterstone. I am therefore pleased that he has made a commitment to a meeting, and I hope that he will invite all the MPs in south Yorkshire who are affected.

Dr. Ladyman: I am certainly happy to meet my hon. Friend, too, to hear her objections. I do not know whether she wishes me to invite to that meeting Government Members who support the proposals strongly, or whether we should have a separate meeting to discuss the issues.

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