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21 Jun 2006 : Column 478WH—continued

3.14 pm

Greg Mulholland (Leeds, North-West) (LD): I calculated that, with four of us wanting to speak, we had about eight minutes each to do so and I will endeavour to stay within that time. I congratulate the hon. Member for Pudsey (Mr. Truswell), my neighbour, on securing this important debate. I speak as a Leeds MP but also as the passenger transport executive group contact for the Liberal Democrats. I want to make it clear that I support the thrust of the debate and the argument that the hon. Gentleman has put forward today. I know that he is an advocate, as I am, of improved public transport in the region. It is appropriate that on the boundary between our constituencies is Horsforth railway station.

To reiterate the situation that we face in Leeds, the hon. Gentleman has mentioned the overcrowded roads and the fact that we simply do not have the capacity on the railways. In my constituency we have the infamous A660, which is reputed to be one of the top five congested roads in the country, while the hon. Gentleman has the similar A65, another traffic hotspot that causes many problems.

The hon. Gentleman and I have come from a pleasant lunch with the new editor of our local paper, and we had a vibrant and interesting discussion. We do not all agree on all issues, but all eight Leeds MPs strongly agree that we have an enormously successful city and city region, of which we are very proud, and that the one single thing that holds back that continued economic success is inadequate transport infrastructure. It is the one thing that needs to be dealt with as a matter of urgency.

I disagree with the hon. Gentleman on one thing: his comments on the Leeds supertram scheme. As a passionate advocate of the scheme, I think that it was a great shame and a disgrace that it was turned down for the city and that £39 million was spent without a single rail being laid. I look forward to the NAO report and its comments.

Mr. Truswell: At the risk of correcting the hon. Gentleman, I share his view about the supertram but my view was that the debate should look forward and not back.

Greg Mulholland: Absolutely, but it is important to get such points on record. I will go so far as to say that one day, when we have a more progressive method of transport decision making in this country, we shall indeed have light rail in the city. Of course, the hon. Gentleman is right to say that for now we must look forward. We are where we are.

Simply, public spending on transport is not keeping pace with the needs of the city or the region. At the same time, London has secured a five-year, £10 billion investment plan for transport. As has been mentioned, there is now a significant funding gap between Yorkshire and Humberside and London; it stood at £434 per head for the year 2005-06. That is a huge and scandalous difference.

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I wholeheartedly concur with the comments made by the hon. Member for Wimbledon (Stephen Hammond). Of course London needs and deserves a better transport system, but so do we in West Yorkshire. The point of the debate is to say that the comprehensive spending review offers an opportunity for us to achieve what is available in London. Halving the spending gap with London would generate close to £4 billion a year to improve transport in the north-east, Yorkshire and the Humber, the north-west and the west midlands. That is a significant factor.

My main point is that although I agree that that is an opportunity that we need to take locally and nationally, we also have to consider the decision-making process for public transport. At the moment, insufficient decision-making powers are granted to the generally efficient passenger transport executives and to the passenger transport authorities that are the publicly accountable side. Those bodies are in place, and they have huge professional expertise, but they simply do not have the ability to make decisions or the resources to do what needs to be done. That is especially true of long-term sustainable developments in public transport, which I am sure that we would all agree are essential. That is largely why these things are not happening. The Local Government Association report, “Improving local transport: how small reforms could make a big difference”, made recommendations about decisions on transport schemes such as light rail and bus services. I again put on record my wholehearted support for bus deregulation outside London.

Ian Stewart: Re-regulation.

Greg Mulholland: Absolutely, I am rushing to get through my speech in time, but I appreciate the hon. Gentleman’s intervention.

I want to put on record my support for bus re-regulation, to give power back to local authorities and local people rather than having bus routes determined by private bus companies as a result of profit.

In conclusion, we need a fairer and more equitable deal for areas outside London, and I specifically include my own Yorkshire and Humber region in that. Such a deal is needed to solve the increasingly acute problems of gridlock and overcrowding on both rail and road, and to provide sustainable economic development in these areas. Let us not forget that it is also needed to deliver environmental improvements, to which all the parties are now committed. We must also seriously examine how public transport decisions are made in this country and seek to give more power to local areas to enable them to make decisions to deliver appropriate, affordable and sustainable public transport systems for their areas and the people whom they serve.

3.21 pm

Ian Stewart (Eccles) (Lab): It is good to see you in the Chair, Mr. Bercow. I apologise for being slightly late to the beginning of the debate. I was taking part in the debate on the BBC on the Floor of the House. I
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congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Pudsey (Mr. Truswell) on bringing this important debate to this Chamber.

Manchester city region plays a crucial role in the UK economy, contributing £47 billion to its gross domestic product, but it needs significant transport investment to underpin its economic competitiveness. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Blackley (Graham Stringer) that the gap in funding between London and the north-west needs to be addressed. I also agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Pudsey about the important issue of the re-regulation of buses.

For our economic growth to keep going, we need better transport links. Connectivity is vital to the success of the Manchester city region and the whole of the north-west. If people cannot move about efficiently, the private sector will not invest. Public transport helps to promote agglomeration of businesses and therefore productivity, as well as providing significant wider benefits both in terms of sustainable growth and in helping to tackle social exclusion.

Research through the Greater Manchester integrated transport strategy has shown that Greater Manchester requires a £4 billion programme of investment by 2020 to support its economic growth. That investment includes getting more and longer trains, improvements at Victoria station, high-quality links such as Metrolink and Tram-Train, and improvement to the Manchester rail hub. Our Greater Manchester passenger transport executive is responsible for both bus and rail, and is doing a great job of implementing its integrated transport strategy. Not the least of the developments has been our successful and popular Metrolink tram system.

The PTE needs more resources to allow better access. For example, it would be good if some trains stopped at the relatively accessible and pleasant rail stations of Clifton Junction, Irlam and Eccles in my constituency. That would make the whole pattern useful to my constituents.

I have just come from the Chamber, where I made a contribution to a discussion on a major development in the BBC move from the south to the north. That will bring around 15,500 new jobs to the Manchester city region and the whole north-west. With such massive developments, transport infrastructure becomes a big issue, too. I hope that the Government will see the need for integrated economic, social and infrastructure development, and will make sure that the Manchester city region gets much greater transport investment. I urge the Government, through their comprehensive spending review, to provide Greater Manchester with funding on a similar scale to that for London.

3.25 pm

Paul Rowen (Rochdale) (LD): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Bercow. I congratulate the hon. Member for Pudsey (Mr. Truswell) on securing the debate, and on the contributions that he and others have made this afternoon. Although we are predominantly from metropolitan areas, many of the remarks made this afternoon are equally applicable to other areas.

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As has been said, the debate is timely. The comprehensive spending review has been mentioned. There is also the Lyons review of local government finance, and the White Paper on city regions is due in the autumn. All those provide us with an opportunity to move forward. However, it should be remembered that, in the 10-year transport plan White Paper, issued in 2000, the Government set a whole series of targets. It is instructive to consider those targets because, although huge sums have been expended, very few of them—only two, I think—have been met. One is about individuals being killed, and the other is about children being seriously injured.

Let us consider some of the other targets. The growth in bus transport that was mentioned has not happened. Outside of London, bus use has declined, on average, by 45 per cent. That is not acceptable, and hon. Members have mentioned the need for re-regulation. We have heard warm words from the former Secretary of State on that subject, but it is about time that we saw some action. On light rail and trams, we were told that there would be 25 new schemes. The reality is that only two of them are likely to go ahead: the Edinburgh scheme, which is predominantly funded by the Scottish Executive, and, hopefully, the scheme in Manchester—when we get an announcement from the Department.

On roads, the picture is not very rosy. The hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) mentioned his own particular scheme. The average overspend on road building is 45 per cent. I am pleased to report that, as a result of Liberal Democrats complaining about that, the National Audit Office is investigating not just the scheme that the hon. Gentleman mentioned, but all road schemes—and about time, too, because it has already been stated that in the next comprehensive spending round there will not be huge sums of new money. We have to make sure that the money available is used properly and to best effect.

On rail, the picture is much better: there has been an increase in the number of people using rail, but it is not as large as the Government said it would be. There will be serious problems if there is a continual increase in rail use, because of the overcrowding that many of us experience on commuter lines even now. There are new rail franchises. Northern Rail, which combined three franchises and is the largest franchise in the country, was let last year, but there have been no new developments, no new rolling stock. Apart from what Yorkshire Forward are doing in west Yorkshire, there is no new rolling stock planned. The average age of that rolling stock is 17 years, and that is clearly unacceptable.

In other areas, the Government are not only letting new franchises, but are stipulating the timetable. On the west coast, we have seen reductions in the commuter services that are being operated, which is not acceptable. One simple way for us to move forward would be not to let rail franchises on 10-year contracts. The original transport plan envisaged a longer term, and giving companies a 20-year contract would enable them to invest in new rolling stock and the development of services. That is not happening now.

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We have had local transport plan 1, and we are now on to local transport plan 2. There have been good schemes, and the hon. Member for Eccles (Ian Stewart) mentioned our passenger transport authority. Like him, I think that it has an excellent record on delivering public transport, albeit without the resources that it needed.

We also have the transport innovation fund, but I am concerned that Ministers talk about congestion charging as if it were the panacea for all ills. That is what the new Secretary of State did in his first public speech, but I must tell the Minister what many local authority leaders are saying. Interestingly, the Department for Transport has today published a survey of people’s attitudes to congestion charging, but many local authority leaders believe that it works in London only because the investment has already been put in place. No local authority leader—whether in Manchester, Leeds or elsewhere—will agree to introduce congestion charging. That is the view of Greater Manchester Transport, and that will remain the case unless and until there is investment in improved public transport. Those who responded to the survey accept that there is a problem, but very few of them—only 10 per cent.—see themselves switching their journey, because many people have no alternative.

So what do we need to do? We must have investment, which must be put in place before we have road user pricing. We also need greater democratic devolution because we have some of the most centralised decision-making processes in the world. It is ridiculous that Department for Transport officials stipulate the timetable for the Rochdale-Oldham loop line, and that will not bring about efficiencies. We therefore need greater devolution to city regions, but they must be accountable. That is the Liberal Democrats’ major concern about the current proposals; handing over complete control to the 10 leaders in Greater Manchester is not the way forward.

There needs to be re-regulation of the buses. I think, for example, of the money that private sector companies are making on the London operation, where they are on a 9 per cent. return. Elsewhere, companies are on an average of 16 per cent., so cost savings can be made by allowing local authorities to stipulate and control the services.

There is a need to look at other forms of funding if, as the hon. Member for Pudsey said, we are to raise the £4 billion extra to bridge the gap between London and elsewhere. That money must come from somewhere, and it will need to be found.

There also needs to be an integrated transport policy. We need to make sure that we have responsive rail franchises that are let over a longer time frame and deliver the services that are needed. We need to ensure that the pricing on all franchises cuts across others. People in London can use their Oyster card, but there are myriad pricing schemes everywhere else, and people cannot go from one bus service to another using the same card. I travelled around on the buses last week as part of green transport week, and it was ridiculous that I could not buy a pass in Rochdale that enabled me to travel on the services run by the different bus operators.

In the next few months, we have an opportunity to move forward, which, as many hon. Members have
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suggested, is what we all want to do. I hope that the Minister can respond to some of the concerns that I have raised so that a decent transport system can develop.

3.34 pm

Stephen Hammond (Wimbledon) (Con): Good afternoon, Mr. Bercow. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship. I congratulate the hon. Member for Pudsey (Mr. Truswell) on gaining this debate. He may be surprised to hear that I agree with some of what he said, but probably not surprised that I do not agree with it all.

Since being appointed to speak for the Conservative party on transport, I have had the honour of contributing to six Westminster Hall debates in the past six months. I started each in the same way, and I shall do so again. I shall ensure that the Conservative party is committed to delivering value for money on public transport.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for South-West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous), who will be glad to hear that the Minister is going to write to him. We have heard numerous contributions, including from the Liberal Front Bench spokesman, the hon. Member for Rochdale (Paul Rowen), and I am particularly pleased to hear that his party will join us in calling for longer railway franchises. That is to be welcomed.

Before speaking on the future funding of local transport, it might be instructive to consider some promises made by the Government in their now infamous 10-year plan. That plan promised more than 200 major local road improvements, including 70 bypasses. I would be interested to hear from the Minister how many of those improvements and bypasses have thus far been funded and built.

On light rail, the plan said:

It went on to promise up to 25 new light rail lines, but the Minister can count on her left hand the number of light rail routes introduced under a Labour Government. Over the last couple of years, funding approval has been revoked for schemes in Manchester, Leeds, Liverpool and south Hampshire. I could go on, but I have made the point. Whatever the Government’s plans for the future funding of local authority transport, one has to hope that they have considerably greater longevity than the 10-year plan, and substantially better delivery.

The transport innovation fund—TIF—is designed to enable local authorities to research radical and innovative ways to reduce congestion. It is supposed to encourage local solutions to local problems, but councils have discovered that they are entitled to be as radical and as innovative as they like as long as the plan involves road pricing with Government backing. Perhaps the Government are worried that an errant council might come up with another awkward light rail scheme, and that the Secretary of State will have to pull the plug on it.

My colleagues and I are not against road pricing—it should be noted that it is very different from the simple
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congestion charge—but local authorities should not be asked to go to the trouble and expense of preparing a bid for TIF money only to find that their plans, which are appropriate for the local area, do not meet what central Government want and therefore have to be withdrawn. There is an inherent contradiction between what TIF and the local authorities want to do.

I wonder what the Minister will have to say about the expectancy of the new approach. Will the fund quietly be dropped, along with the 70 bypasses and the 25 light rail schemes? We shall see. I think it was Groucho Marx who said that history repeats itself first as tragedy and then as farce. Whatever local transport funding the Government settle on, it will inextricably be tied up with the future of local government funding, which has been referred to several times.

I hope that the Government resolve the problem of imposing obligations on local authorities without giving them the extra requisite funding. I used to be a local councillor, and I know that that habit is a notable feature of the Labour Government. However, they are not the only ones to have it.

The hon. Member for Pudsey eulogised London, but council tax payers in my constituency faced a 13.5 per cent. rise in the Mayor of London’s precept this year and last to fund some of his schemes. The council had to divert 9 per cent. of the social services budget to pay for transport policies that were imposed on it. London boroughs are forced to implement Livingstone’s transport policy through local implementation plans, yet a number of those schemes are often of no direct local benefit to the boroughs. There is an inherent contradiction between local transport and regional transport funding.

Ian Stewart: Does the hon. Gentleman realise that the criticism that he just made of the Mayor of London can also be levelled at the Conservative Government, who reduced grant to local authorities year-on-year for 18 years, and forced them to divert money from social services and roads?

Stephen Hammond: Indeed, the same criticism could be made of this Labour Government in respect of numerous authorities all over the country. I do not think that we need any lessons there.

Let me return to TIF, and the revenue support grant, because that is where the bulk of funding for local transport comes from. Local transport plans and local funding are inextricably linked to the Lyons review, and to the slings and arrows of fortune that might result from the rate support grant settlement. However we look at it, over the past few years the rate support grant has been disproportionately favourable to some authorities and disproportionately unfavourable to others, which has had implications for local transport funding.

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