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19 July 2006 : Column 113WH—continued

There is, however, very limited rail provision, which is why my colleague on the Greater London assembly, Geoff Pope, has been vocal in campaigning on the issue
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of orbital rail, a view endorsed in March by the London assembly transport committee report on the North London railway. It called for three things relating to funding, to which the hon. Member for Battersea and other hon. Members have referred: funding for the upgrading of the North London line; funding for phase 2; and funding for the electricification of the Gospel Oak to Barking line.

We already know what is in the pipeline on the North London line upgrades. A view from the boroughs and transportation officers is that when the North London line is opened up and publicised—the hon. Gentleman touched briefly on that point—one of the key issues that must be addressed is the travelling public’s awareness of the existence of some of the less high-profile lines. When there is such awareness, there will be a sudden growth in the number of passengers who want to travel on the North London line. The Government need to consider the issue of funding to enable the line to operate as a six-car train service to create the additional capacity that will be needed when people start to use it.

I want to pick up on the point made by the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster who asked if the Government have taken their eye off the ball in respect of transport in London. I hope that, when the Minister responds, he will be able to say whether he has had discussions with Transport for London about the North London line upgrades and, if so, whether he supports them.

I hope the Minister will say, too, what time scale will be involved, what costings are associated with the project and whether there is the risk of an impact on 2012. We need to know that a dialogue is going on; I hope the Minister will comment on that and on the line’s regeneration potential, which the hon. Member for Battersea mentioned in his opening speech. It is not only about cutting congestion, but about opening up new areas to regeneration which, in the case of the North London railway, could include a huge redevelopment area near the King’s Cross railway land.

Developers are looking at rebuilding the stations at West Hampstead and there is potential to reduce the pressure on the main termini, which we must all seek to achieve. Although it is not one of the stations that will be affected, anyone travelling through Victoria knows that anything that can be done to reduce pressure on people coming in to the main termini and swapping to other modes of transport would be welcome.

I do not need to refer to phase 2 of the East London line extension, as other hon. Members have done so, other than to say that I support what they are calling for. However, I shall underline one factor: the range of organisations and groups that are supporting the phase 2 extension, including eight or nine boroughs, the Corporation of London and a large number of businesses. They are very keen for funding for phase 2 to be approved. Will the Minister say what discussions he has had with Transport for London on the subject and the likelihood of the project proceeding? Does he, like the Mayor, believe that a £10 billion regeneration programme will be a spin-off of the proposal? Do the Government recognise that and will they therefore be able to factor it in when they are considering whether to allocate funds to the proposal?

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The final piece of the Orbirail jigsaw is the electrification of the Gospel Oak to Barking line, which other hon. Members have mentioned. Has the Minister been informed of the likely cost? Does he have a view about whether the Government would be willing to underwrite that cost in one form or another?

On the totality of the proposals, if the three different funding proposals were approved, or if one, two or three of those proposals were approved individually, what plans do the Minister and Transport for London have to publicise the availability of the lines within London and beyond to ensure that commuters coming in to London from much further afield are aware of the alternative transport services and can therefore reduce the pressure on main stations?

London is the UK’s major wealth generator. The nation’s prosperity and the success of events such as the Olympics depend on a transport network that is comprehensive and flexible and that reduces congestion and pollution. The creation of an Orbirail system based on the three transport enhancements that I and other Members have mentioned fits the bill and will complete London’s transport network. I hope, therefore, that the Minister will be positive and optimistic in his reply.

3.30 pm

Chris Grayling (Epsom and Ewell) (Con): It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr. Conway.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Battersea (Martin Linton) on his speech. He talked authoritatively about the transport issues that face both the area that he represents and other parts of London. He rightly talked about the falling numbers of people who live and work in the same borough and highlighted the fact that more and more people are travelling across London. He is right to say that if the right services are not in place, there is a risk that those people will seek to drive rather than use public transport, in so far as it is possible to drive given the levels of congestion in and around London. Clearly, it is in all our interests that people should use public transport wherever that is possible and practical.

It is our duty to do our best to ensure that our public transport system is capable of offering people as wide a range of options as possible given the limitations of our transport corridors. It is striking how much we depend on our heritage from Victorian times. Most of the corridors that we seek to reopen, redevelop and use to expand services date from that period, so we should be mighty glad to have that inheritance.

The orbital route is already coming about. Phase 1 of the East London line is going ahead—construction will begin shortly—and we have seen a change to service patterns on the other side of London. One can now take a train from Clapham Junction through to Stratford, as the hon. Member for Battersea will know, and the new stations at West Brompton and others on the way in west London are beginning to create an alternative service pattern that was not there 10 or 15 years ago. So, we have already started down the road that the hon. Member for Battersea rightly identified: providing people with different transport options around London.

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It is clearly desirable that we should improve service patterns in London. Evidently, if we hope, as we should, to continue to revive and regenerate our cities and encourage people to live in them—we are a small island, and cannot continue to build in green, open spaces—we need better public transport provision. People simply cannot drive everywhere in our cities that they might want to. I very much agree with the hon. Gentleman about the desirability of enhanced services and of an Orbirail-type system in so far as it can make a difference in London. I say that with a few caveats, to which I shall return.

Some of the issues that the hon. Gentleman highlights could and should have been dealt with by some of the other projects that were supposed to happen this decade but have not. I listened carefully to Labour Members’ comments about the different station options that would be available around an Orbirail network, and about how a number of communities who are not served by railway stations could be so served on such a route. That is all well and good and absolutely desirable; there is genuinely a market for radial journeys in London. However, I am less convinced that there is a market for people to come from the south coast, get off at Clapham Junction, go round an Orbirail network to Finsbury Park, for example, and get on a train to the north. I suspect that the real benefits will come for people in places such as Hackney by opening up links to other parts of London, such as south-east London, and by creating easier links to docklands and parts of north London. The network would open up places that are currently difficult to reach by public transport.

Of course, some of the pressures that the hon. Member for Battersea rightly highlighted in his speech could and should have been dealt with through projects such as the rather inaptly named Thameslink 2000, which was, according to the Government’s 10-year plan, due to be open and functioning by 2000. Indeed, it is slightly bizarre that even as we speak, there are two empty tunnels beneath St. Pancras station. They were built to create an additional dimension to cross-London transport, but will remain unopened because the Government have not, as yet, gone ahead with the commitment that they made in their 10-year plan to open up, develop and make a reality of the Thameslink 2000 service.

I am glad that phase 1 of the East London line is going ahead, but hon. Members should remember that it is one small part of a much broader range of projects to ease the congestion, to which the hon. Gentleman referred, that have not come to fruition despite having been clearly set out as commitments for 2010 in the Government’s 10-year plan.

Hon. Members rightly mentioned the significant costs of some of the proposed schemes. I suspect that that is one reason why, with the East London line, there has been a commitment only to phase 1, although the whole line was originally due to be completed within a few years. I can clearly see the potential benefits of the East London line coming to Clapham Junction; a link to Finsbury Park, as described by my hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Field); and various other suggested enhancements to the route. However, there are, of course, huge costs.

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It should be of significant concern to us all that the costs of such rail projects have risen so much in the past few years, and it should be a challenge for Governments and would-be Governments to address why they have risen so much. We have to bring those costs down so that we can spend the savings on projects such as phase 2 of the East London line and Thameslink 2000. We must get to grips with this issue: our railways are far too expensive, especially in recent times—much more so than they appear to be in other countries. We have not yet got to grips with that challenge, but we must do so.

There has been a lot of discussion about the work done by Transport for London and the Mayor of London, and comments were made about the professionalism of Transport for London. I think that TFL does some good work. The Mayor clearly has an absolute commitment to enhancing London’s transport infrastructure, and he is not wrong to identify transport in London as a key issue for its future economic success.

A variety of transport challenges are building up: it is becoming increasingly difficult to get an easy and comfortable journey into central London, and there is a significant under-provision of transport to parts of central London such as Hackney. The Thames Gateway also causes me great concern. We cannot build a city of a million people on the Thames without proper infrastructure provision. Those issues will have to be addressed.

I have a few concerns regarding some Labour Members’ remarks about the Orbirail project, and about some of the consequences of its creation. The first such issue that I shall address is that of cost and prudential borrowing. It is becoming commonplace for people, when they talk about transport in London—people in TFL, and Labour Members—to regard prudential borrowing as something easy that can just happen. The bottom line is that the Mayor intends to spend £10 billion, raised by prudential borrowing, on transport projects over the coming years. After that money has been spent, the debt has to be paid. It is not like a zero-percentage-rate credit card on which one can go out and spend up to the credit limit and it is all fine thank you very much. We have to pay the debt off in the end. The cost of servicing that £10 billion of prudential borrowing will be about £800 million a year; TFL’s budget is about £4 billion a year, so the equivalent of £1 in every £5 will be spent on servicing the debt. We cannot simply look at the Mayor’s prudential borrowing for transport infrastructure as being some great nirvana, because ultimately it has to be paid for, and I am not convinced that he has the money to pay the bills.

At the start of the debate, my hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster pointed out that many people who come into London, and many people upon whom its economic prosperity depends, do not come from within the London geographic area. My constituency is inside the M25, but I am not a London MP. My constituents cannot vote for the Mayor of London and do not have a say in what Transport for London does.

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I do not have profound concerns about the desirability of sensible stops being made by trains coming in from outside London to link in with an Orbirail-type development. I think that is sensible and would happen anyway. If a metro-type service is using an orbital route around central London, for someone who is running a suburban train in it will become natural and logical to stop at the stations where an interchange on to that service is possible. I do not think that that in its own right would be a problem. I think it would simply happen as a matter of course.

Mr. Mark Field: My hon. Friend and the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake) would understand that precisely that sort of mentality existed with the tramlink between Croydon, Wimbledon and Beckenham. Precisely that linking up of a range of different residential areas was involved. It predated Transport for London, so, as my hon. Friend rightly points out, it is not just the existence of TFL that has allowed some joined-up thinking in transport matters in the capital.

Chris Grayling: My hon. Friend makes a valid point and gives a further good example of where such thinking has worked well in the past without politicians seeking to direct it.

As somebody who represents people who travel into London from outside the Mayor’s catchment area, I do not wish to see the Mayor taking direct responsibility for changing the service patterns on trains that come from areas outside his control. It is simply not right to have the Mayor taking decisions about service patterns to fit a particular need in central London when those decisions materially affect commuters who live 30, 40 or 50 miles away. The Minister must be extremely careful before he hands over too many powers to the Mayor over the timetabling of the suburban rail network. Doing so may allow the Mayor to achieve his transport aspirations within London, but it will work to the detriment of those who come from outside London and will ultimately impact on the competitiveness of London and the south-east.

I have two other brief points to make. First, for all the Mayor’s aspirations for the north London line, and for improving and continuing those services around an Orbirail route, we must be careful about the impact on freight. Labour Members are right to say that some of the freight coming through north London should be going elsewhere—another of the commitments in the Government’s 10-year plan for transport that has not so far been kept. Of course it is crazy that goods coming in to Felixstowe and going to the midlands have to come through central London; that should not be happening. However, some freight comes into London in its own right, and if we fill the north London line with passenger services to the extent that those freight trains can no longer come into London, the consequence will be additional lorries on the roads. Ministers, TFL and Labour Members must be mindful of that when talking about the growth of services on the north London line.

The last point I want to make relates to a comment made by the hon. Member for Battersea, and is about the specification of services. He offered some hopes about the kind of service provision that the train
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companies would come up with. My message to him is that they have no freedom to do that now. The rail service in this country is specified in fine detail by the Minister and his colleagues. They have a team of civil servants who write train timetables and set out in minute detail which services can and cannot run. If the hon. Member for Battersea is looking for a specific level of service on the Orbirail route or in other areas that he represents, it is the Minister he needs to go to see, rather than the train companies.

We all agree that London’s transport infrastructure is essential not only to the future economy of the city, but to that of the country. We should all work to enhance it in the right way for the future. I commend the hon. Member for Battersea on highlighting the issue of Orbirail, which is often a forgotten project, but potentially a very valuable one. I hope that the jigsaw puzzle pieces that the Government put together in their 10-year plan for transport, which would all come together to form an Orbirail route, will come to fruition by 2010, as promised by this Government.

3.44 pm

The Minister of State, Department for Transport (Dr. Stephen Ladyman): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea (Martin Linton) on securing this debate and on the passionate case he puts for an orbital rail route to serve his constituents.

One of the nice things that I have discovered about being a transport Minister is the opportunities it gives me to bring people together; I think of the good folk of Clapham junction being able to enjoy cultural interchange with the good folk of Dalston junction, and of bringing Haggerston and Hoxton on to the map. Another thing I have discovered is that when somebody comes up to me and mentions a small place, whether it be a small village far away from London or one of the villages of London, or when they ask me about the B205 or some small station that I have never heard of, the one thing I should never do is admit to never having heard of the place, because everybody thinks that transport Ministers keep an encyclopaedic knowledge of such places. I am not going to boast about whether I know of Haggerston and Hoxton or not; all I shall boast is that we will want them to be provided with a comprehensive rail and public transport service. The steps that the Government are taking, hand in hand with Transport for London, will deliver that.

I want to take issue with the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Field), who seemed to imply that we take our eye of the ball and leave London’s transport to TFL. TFL, like local authorities outside London, passenger transport executives around the country and other bodies are the delivery mechanisms by which the Government deliver most of their transport schemes. TFL is just one such body. Most transport in this country is local. The Government must have some direct input into the Highways Agency trunk road network and the main rail services, but the vast majority of goods and people are moved on local roads and through local transport. We have a very close relationship with all those local authorities.

In London, we have the close relationship with TFL and the Mayor in order to deliver London’s transport.
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We are certainly not taking our eye off the ball by relying on the local expertise of the Mayor and his team at TFL. The hon. Gentleman might feel that the voice of Members of Parliament is not heard because they are somehow divorced from TFL, but I would argue that it is the job of MPs to get engaged with their local transport delivery mechanism. Just as I try to engage with Kent county council on behalf of my constituents, he should be engaging with TFL.

Mr. Field: Does the Minister not accept that for strategic funding purposes, one of the difficulties that we have in London is that the Mayor has a precept? He is able to charge tax, part of which goes to transport, although other bits go to policing and are spent in other high-profile ways. That breaks that nexus and makes it more difficult for all of us; it is the devolution debate writ large. I speak for Conservatives, although perhaps not for Labour Members of Parliament with London constituencies, when I say that there has been a sense in which the Department for Transport has taken its eye off the ball as far as London transport is concerned.

Dr. Ladyman: I do not accept that at all. Every local authority has the power to raise funds through its council tax to supplement the money that the Government give it for its transport systems. I was listening to the comments made by my hon. Friends, particularly my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott), who talked about the views of Members of Parliament who represent constituencies outside the M25. She believes that they have a negative view of the amount of money that is spent on London. It is true that many Members who represent constituencies outside the M25 think that all the money is spent on London and that more of it should be spent on their areas.

The Government clearly take the view that spending on London transport is a necessary part of our national transport infrastructure, and that we have a largely radial transport network in this country and it comes in through London. We think that there are benefits to spending on transport in London. If there is a tension between Members who represent constituencies outside London and those who represent London constituencies, I would like to encourage London Members to start engaging with Members who represent constituencies outside London and explaining to them the importance of travel investment in London. That would also give them the opportunity to explain the difficulties that they feel. The fact that both Members who represent London constituencies and Members who represent constituencies outside London think we are spending too much on the other area probably indicates that the Government are getting the balance about right.

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