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21 Jun 2006 : Column 484WH—continued

The hon. Member for Pudsey challenged me to go and see the schemes in West Yorkshire and to find out about their problems. I would be delighted to do that, and I am sure that either he or my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Philip Davies), who is no longer in his place, would be happy to organise it for me. In my role as transport spokesman for my party, I have visited a number of regions. I have been down to the
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south-west, which has been devastated by the over-prescription of the Government’s timetable for the railway, and to the west midlands, where the PTA told me about underfunding by the Labour Government. I have been to Manchester, where PTA officials expressed very clearly their views on the withdrawal of funding for the light rail scheme, and I have listened to views around the country. I would be delighted to go to West Yorkshire, if that is the challenge.

We seem to have spent a lot of time referring to a relatively recent debate in this place on the funding of PTAs and local bus services. I stated in that debate, and reiterate today, that I am not in favour of re-regulation. However, I am in favour of greater co-operation, and I challenge the hon. Member for Pudsey, if he thinks that London is the great place—we might disagree on that—to go to Brighton, where the local private operator and the local council, operating together, have made substantial improvements to the bus service.

I laid out in the previous debate a number of the preconditions for that arrangement, which have enabled it to be such a success. A number of the hon. Gentleman’s colleagues asked me afterwards what they might learn from that lesson. It is instructive that a number of PTAs have decided not to co-operate, but rather to go against. That is an issue.

We have heard a lot in this debate about the difference between London funding and that in the rest of the country. It is true that some of that funding comes from central Government. It is also clear that some of it comes from the Mayor’s having decided to push prudential borrowing right up to its limit and that the London council tax payer has had to pay considerably more. As a result, we have increasing bus usage, but there is tension between Transport for London and the London boroughs. To answer my rhetorical question, the average number of passengers on a London bus is 15. There has been no clear analysis of the capital cost involved in that project.

Any moment now, the Minister will undoubtedly regale us with a huge number of statistics. She will tell us that local transport will receive £1.6 billion this year for capital projects, and that TIF has been a huge success and will receive extra pump priming. I know that she will tell us that £18 million is available for congestion this year. I would also like to hear the answers to some questions. What do the Government believe should be the relationship between local authority and regional funding? Who should take priority, and who should decide on that?

When will local authorities have adequate powers to raise funding for local transport? Can the Minister confirm that all TIF funding is to be congestion related in this round? What assessment have we of the planned projects? Have local authority transport schemes so far met expectations? Why do the Government not ensure an appropriate balance between revenue and capital funding in respect of local funding?

There are myriad schemes, and I would be interested to hear the answers to my questions. If the Minister cannot deliver them today, I am sure that she will write to everybody in the Chamber with some of them.

Due to the Lyons review, this could be one of the most important years for local government funding—so it is, of course, an important year for local
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authority transport funding. Sir Michael’s report could provide the opportunity for new funding streams, at a very local level, to supplement the council tax. Such streams would be available for the local authority funding of transport.

Sir Michael might, for instance, choose to consider sources such as planning gain supplements, congestion charging and road charging at local level, an extra levy on lorries and a local environmental levy on polluters. He might support the idea of municipal or project-specific local bond financing. Such opportunities would create a wider package of opportunities for local authorities to increase their funding. I look forward to the Minister’s answers to some of the questions posed during the debate.

3.46 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Gillian Merron): It is a pleasure to take part in this debate under your chairmanship, Mr. Bercow. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Pudsey (Mr. Truswell) on securing this important debate on the future funding of local transport.

My hon. Friend made his case well, and was right to concentrate on his constituency. The matters of local interest that he raised illustrate the important issues. I confirm that I would be delighted to meet him and his colleagues, as he requested, to discuss the 2007 comprehensive spending review and its implications for transport. I shall also be delighted to consider closely the points made by the hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) and write to him in detail about them.

We all agree that local transport is vital. Every one of us depends on it every day, for our own personal travel, for travel to our jobs, for the transportation of the goods that we buy and for the services that we access. Importantly, local transport also combats social exclusion. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Pudsey for his generous acknowledgement of the positive difference that this Labour Government have made and are making to the quality of the lives of all our constituents, including his own. I certainly share his view on that.

As my hon. Friend outlined, the city of Leeds has enjoyed remarkable economic success in recent years. I join him in congratulating all those responsible on helping him secure that growth. My hon. Friend brought a welcome note of realism to the debate in talking about what an improving transport system has contributed in this country. I particularly acknowledge the work of Metro, the West Yorkshire PTE, in spearheading the changes needed to cope with the transport consequences of success.

No one should underestimate—I do not—the challenge of dealing with commuter traffic that has increased by nearly 40 per cent. in the past 10 years. As my hon. Friend said, Metro has invested in a number of successful schemes, including the free city bus service, the yellow school bus service and an innovative partnership with Yorkshire Forward and Northern Rail to develop rail services.

I am pleased to say that the Government have invested substantially in Yorkshire. They invested £600 million in upgrading the A1 through Yorkshire to
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motorway standard. The final section of the Leeds inner ring road is to be completed and substantial investment in rail has enabled a 44 per cent. rise in daily GNER services between Leeds and London in the past 10 years. As my hon. Friend knows, I travel on said services each week.

Funding for local transport in the Yorkshire and Humber region has more than doubled since 2000-01 to £160 million in 2006-07. As my hon. Friend acknowledges, in addition to investment, an important factor in the success of Leeds—and of course this is not unique to Leeds—has been close working between the city and this Government.

To give a further note of realism, I would like to describe three ways in which our transport policies have helped to ensure continuing economic growth not only in Leeds but in many parts of the country. First, local authorities have benefited from large and sustained increases in transport funding. Second is our strong view that local people know what is best for them. Third is our encouragement of authorities to develop and deliver their transport policies in a broad context of objectives for the long-term future of cities such as Leeds.

This Government took steps immediately after the 1997 election to remedy the under-investment in local transport during the preceding decade and before that. We provided for a step change in the provision of local transport. The result is that Government-supported council investment in local transport projects has roughly trebled in cash terms since the late 1990s. That has enabled councils to deliver far more projects for the benefit of their areas. English councils outside of London have developed and delivered major improvements over the past four years, including more than 2,500 miles of bus route improvements.

Andrew Selous: The Minister’s second point was that local people know what is best for them. Everyone in Dunstable, including all the elected representatives, told the Highways Agency that the green wave scheme would not work and that we did not want it. They were overruled and £2 million was wasted. Have lessons really been learned by the Department?

Gillian Merron: I thank the hon. Gentleman for that point. I shall discuss local transport planning in some detail, particularly the regional allocations and how decisions will be made. They will, of course, be very much informed by local views.

The Government have provided the framework for investment. They have provided £7 billion of support to councils outside London for local transport investment over five years, and—this is important—they have provided stability for that investment.

Hon. Members will know that the Government replaced annual bids for funding with five-year plans. The local transport planning system has provided local authorities with a new level of certainty about funding so that they can tackle local issues that often require a long-term view, whether improving road maintenance, securing better traffic management, enhancing road safety or making buses more accessible and integrated.

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In introducing local transport plans, the Government recognised that stability is vital in helping councils make decisions for the longer term. Councils outside London have recently produced their second five-year local transport plans. We are continuing the investment programme and providing the financial stability that is so necessary.

Overall, the funding levels build on the expanded investment levels introduced five years ago. Some £550 million per year is available to councils in England outside of London for smaller transport improvements, and funding for highways capital maintenance is a further £670 million per year.

I have listened closely to the points that hon. Members have made about London. However, I do not feel that comparison is workable for the following reasons. First, transport spending per head will never be the same in every part of the country because projects in different parts of the country do not take place at the same time or in the same conditions. Secondly, successive Governments have all recognised the importance of London to the UK economy when making spending decisions. Expenditure in London includes spend on the London underground and is therefore always likely to be higher than elsewhere.

However, the third point is the key in determining how useful a comparison is. We must recognise the unique position of London and the fact that transport demand in London is on a different scale from the rest of the UK. It is enormous not only because of the spread of the capital and beyond but because of its sheer density and congestion and the challenges in responding to traveller demand. The comparisons that some colleagues have attempted to make are perhaps not the most useful for us to apply ourselves to. Good local transport is fundamental to prosperous, thriving communities. Since 2000-01, the Government have more than doubled transport funding to local authorities in every region to over £1.6 billion in 2006-07.

On local decision making, I assure hon. Members that the Government moved swiftly in 1998 to recognise that good decisions on priorities must be made as near as possible to those affected. What is important to people in Lincolnshire might not have the same priority as issues in Lancashire. Our local transport planning system, introduced in 2000, was designed to help authorities make the right policy and priority decisions.

It could be easy to forget the transport policies and programme system introduced by the Conservative Government, but I doubt that we will, because it was so universally disliked. It required local authorities to submit all their significant investment decisions to central Government. The result was vast bureaucracy and a series of unrelated top-down decisions that did absolutely nothing to help authorities and local communities form coherent plans and left them uncertain about the funding available even a year ahead.

It is not so easy to forget the Conservative Government’s neglect of the transport system, which led to our roads being in worse condition at the end of the ’90s than at any point since records began. Hon. Members will be glad to know that the Government’s significant increase in local road maintenance funding
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has halted that deterioration. Of course, we recognise that national and regional objectives must be met as well as local ones.

Stephen Hammond: Perhaps it has halted that deterioration, but how many of the 200 schemes promised at a local level in the 10-year plan have actually been implemented?

Gillian Merron: My reference was to the maintenance of local roads.

We have put a clear framework in place. Local authorities work within defined national policies and regional transport strategies, but the principle has been that all decisions should be made at a local level. Last year, we extended that principle for the first time not only to the myriad small investments that make up the bulk of transport investment but to larger schemes that authorities cannot fund without help from central Government. Until now, each authority has sought additional funding by making a direct application to the Government, and decisions on those applications have been made individually in the light of Government priorities.

With regional funding allocations, we have offered each region an opportunity to advise us, in the light of long-term indicative budgets, of their priorities for spending. The total indicative transport budget for regions outside London is set to rise steadily to more than £850 million per annum, over and above the amounts that I mentioned previously for regular LTP funding.

Regional funding allocations present a much more transparent system, which I know hon. Members will welcome. I also know that they will be keen to hear the Government’s response to regional advice, and they can expect an announcement shortly. The Government have provided sustained extra support for councils to invest in local transport, and that will continue as investment, which will be welcome up and down the country, as we enter the second local transport plan period.

I look forward to continued close work with our partners in regions and local authorities to develop a local transport system in which we can all take pride. We hope for further success in serving people throughout the country, whether in London or outside it, to create the kinds of improvement that my hon. Friend the Member for Pudsey has pressed for, worked for in Leeds and the surrounding area and explained to us.

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Transport (West Lancashire)

4 pm

Rosie Cooper (West Lancashire) (Lab): I welcome the Minister to her new position. I am grateful for the opportunity to discuss the variety of transport issues that affect my constituency today and that will affect it to a greater extent in the years to come.

Unquestionably one of the great advances of the 20th century was that transport opened up the world to nearly everyone in the UK. We think nothing of continent-hopping or of going away for a weekend break. The problem that we face in West Lancashire is not travelling to Australia but the lack of bus services and the difficulties faced in going to the local hospital to visit relatives.

4 pm

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

4.15 pm

On resuming—

Rosie Cooper: As I was saying, the problem lies with day-to-day travel in my constituency. People are now trying to negotiate a public transport system that does not get them where they need to be when they need to be there. That is serious in places such as Skelmersdale, where there is low car ownership. There is no doubt that the Labour Government are and have been committed to local transport, since their election in 1997, and that there have been year-on-year increases in transport investment. That is, indeed, a stark contrast to the policies of previous Conservative Governments. In particular, privatisation of buses has led to companies vying with each other for the most lucrative routes and deserting the less profitable ones without conscience.

I know that this is the third Adjournment debate on transport in the past two days, and that reflects the challenging agenda that faces us. I apologise to the Minister for the wide-ranging nature of the debate, but an efficient, sustainable and successful transport system is built on the right mix of transport forms. I believe that West Lancashire is disadvantaged in two ways on transport matters. First, we are at the edge of major regional cities such as Liverpool, Manchester and Preston, which attract much support and many services. I believe also that West Lancashire is not helped by its position in a two-tier authority, as its priorities are not necessarily those of Lancashire county council.

I want to deal in the debate with the roads issue in relation to the Ormskirk bypass, and then move on to public transport, in the form of bus services and, finally, rail services. There is a temptation to deal with space travel as well, but I leave that to another occasion.

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