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House of Commons

Tuesday 17 October 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—

Road Pricing

1. Mr. Jim Devine (Livingston) (Lab): What assessment he has made of the potential of road pricing to cut congestion. [94002]

8. Kerry McCarthy (Bristol, East) (Lab): What recent discussions he has had with local highway authorities about road pricing. [94009]

The Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. Douglas Alexander): The initial work conducted by my Department indicates that a well-designed road pricing scheme could offer real potential to cut congestion. Last November my Department awarded pump-priming money to seven areas to develop innovative ways to tackle congestion. My officials and I continue to discuss with both those and other authorities what role road pricing could play in tackling congestion.

Mr. Devine: Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is the height of hypocrisy for political parties to advocate green policies in this place but then, when it comes to making hard local decisions that need leadership, to run away, as they have in Fife, Lothian and London?

Mr. Alexander: I have consistently made clear my hope that we can sustain a national consensus on road pricing, but that consensus is more challenging when some parties choose to support national proposals in principle, but then actively work to make sure that congestion charging is not implemented on the ground, as happened in Edinburgh.

Kerry McCarthy: My right hon. Friend will be aware that many people are coming to the view that to tackle congestion we need not only road pricing pilot schemes but more local control over buses. What discussions has his Department had with Bristol city council on that matter, and if there have been no such discussions recently, is he prepared to meet council representatives?
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Mr. Alexander: Conversations continue with the Greater Bristol authorities, which are among the authorities I mentioned that have secured pump-priming money to investigate ways to tackle congestion. I have always made it clear that I regard road pricing as one element of the strategy; another element—a key element—is an improvement in the quality of public transport. Given the significant number of public transport journeys that are made by bus, I charged myself and the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Lincoln (Gillian Merron), who is responsible for buses, over the summer to take a long, hard look at bus provision not only in London but across the country. I hope to be able to make proposals in due course.

Mr. John Leech (Manchester, Withington) (LD): Passenger transport authorities have been advised to include road pricing schemes that make use of existing technology in any bid to the transport innovation fund. Given that the schemes are supposed to be pilot schemes in preparation for a national scheme, is it not possible that advancing technology will negate their usefulness as a way of assessing the viability of a national scheme?

Mr. Alexander: I am not sure that I accept the logic of the hon. Gentleman’s question. We have allocated £10 million from the Department for Transport to research into precisely those technological issues. I spoke at the intelligent transport systems congress that took place here in London only last week, and between the delegates from around the world there was strong discussion of the potential for finding technological solutions to road pricing. The logic of conducting the pilots is to ensure not only that the technologies work on the ground, but that we have experience in communities across Britain before we move towards a national scheme, if that is what we decide to do.

Adam Price (Carmarthen, East and Dinefwr) (PC): Hundreds of Irish haulage firms use the M4-A40 as one of their main transit routes into the European Union. While the Government continue to dither, what can local authorities along those trans-European networks do now to recoup some of the costs incurred from foreign hauliers that currently do not contribute a penny?

Mr. Alexander: We continue to discuss that challenge with the road haulage industry. Work on the foreign lorry road user charge is now being developed as part of the work on a national system of road pricing. However, I recognise that there are continuing challenges, in particular in relation to cabotage, which is why we continue to discuss such matters with the industry.

Lynda Waltho (Stourbridge) (Lab): It has been estimated that this year congestion will cost the west midlands approximately £2.2 billion. In the light of that, will my right hon. Friend comment on the outcome of his discussions with the west midlands authorities and his early assessment of the transport innovation fund bid?

Mr. Alexander: Tempting though it is to offer a running commentary on each of the transport innovation fund bids that we have received, I shall
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resist. Suffice it to say that I met the west midlands authorities in July and heard directly from them about the work that they are doing. Since then we have received the west midlands congestion management study, which is with my Department for consideration.

Mr. Owen Paterson (North Shropshire) (Con): We are interested in the merits of dynamic and variable road pricing to reduce congestion, but we do not quite understand why, following the collapse of the lorry road user charge scheme, the Government are setting up a number of unco-ordinated tag and beacon congestion schemes. Is it the Secretary of State’s intention to set up a national road pricing scheme?

Mr. Alexander: The hon. Gentleman is simply wrong to say that there are to be a number of unco-ordinated projects across the country. The rationale behind the pilots is to make sure that we have both the experience on the ground from the individual pilots, and scaleable propositions in respect of the technology, which could inform discussions on the national scheme. I struggle with the Opposition’s position. In principle they say that they are interested in the scheme. They then criticise it as potentially involving a massive use of public money for a Government computing system—yet they appear to resist the pilot system, which seems the perfect answer to taking forward public support for the scheme and learning the technology lessons that need to be learned.

Mr. David Clelland (Tyne Bridge) (Lab): But what would be the point of introducing road pricing in a locality unless the local authority in the area concerned had some power to introduce alternative public service provision? Will my right hon. Friend guarantee to the House that no road pricing system will be brought in unless the local authority concerned has new powers to regulate bus services in its area?

Mr. Alexander: In relation to the bids for the transport innovation fund, we have been clear that the kind of demand management measures, including road pricing, that local authorities are considering would be complementary to exactly the kind of improvement in public transport that my hon. Friend suggests. I have made it clear in recent weeks that I am concerned that the present free-for-all is not serving the public well in relation to bus services, and we will be publishing proposals on that in due course.

Mr. John Redwood (Wokingham) (Con): Will the Secretary of State give a pledge that when he recommends a scheme for national road pricing, it will not put an additional tax burden on British motorists and British road users, but will increase the burden on those who use the roads at popular times and will include taxing foreign use of our roads?

Mr. Alexander: At the previous Transport Question Time, I made it clear that the anticipated time scale, if a national road pricing scheme were to be developed, would be the middle of the next decade. The right hon. Gentleman cannot reasonably expect me to write the Budget for 2015 at the Dispatch Box today, but I will assure him that we recognise that if we were to move to
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a system of national road pricing, that could have an effect on systems of road transport taxation.

Road Improvements

2. Mr. Robert Flello (Stoke-on-Trent, South) (Lab): How many major trunk road and motorway schemes have been completed since 2001. [94003]

The Minister of State, Department for Transport (Dr. Stephen Ladyman): Thirty-nine major trunk road and motorway schemes in the Highways Agency’s targeted programme of improvements have been completed since 2001.

Mr. Flello: I am sure my right hon. and hon. Friends will agree that the completed £50 million-plus improvement work on the A500 through Stoke-on-Trent demonstrates the Labour Government’s delivery to the people of north Staffordshire. Will my hon. Friend—or even my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State—take a trip up to north Staffordshire and Stoke-on-Trent to see that scheme, and the £10 million road bridge across the A50 opening up the Trentham Lakes development, providing the opportunity for more businesses to come into the area? Will my hon. Friend join me and welcome that?

Dr. Ladyman: I look forward to visiting my hon. Friend at some point in the future, but unfortunately, the delivery of the road scheme that he mentioned has been so efficient that it is to open at the end of the month, and neither my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State nor I can find a gap in our diaries to come and open it. My hon. Friend is right. This is a road scheme that could be delivered only because we have a Government committed to public investment, and we look forward to coming and seeing it for ourselves in the not-too-distant future.

Mr. Brooks Newmark (Braintree) (Con): Consultation on the extension of the A120 between Braintree and Marks Tey was completed about 20 months ago. My constituents were promised a preferred route proposal, and we are still waiting for that proposal. Can the Government tell us when we will get it, and if, when it is proposed, there will be enough money left in the pot to complete it?

Dr. Ladyman: The information on the preferred route will be made available as soon as is practicable, but whether the money is available for the scheme will depend upon the regional funding allocation process. We will take the advice of the local region and local people as to what their priorities are. We have just sought that advice, and we stuck closely to it, so we have devolved responsibility for setting priorities to local people, and we will continue to do that in the future.

Gregory Barker (Bexhill and Battle) (Con): Will the Minister reconsider the proposed improvements on the A21 between Flimwell and Robertsbridge? The community there is extremely unhappy. There is no prospect of the completion of that road in the next few years, and the route is jeopardising the few employers
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in that part of my constituency. Will the Minister reconsider and address the concerns of the local community?

Dr. Ladyman: We are always keen to take account of the views of local people and stakeholders, but I am sure the hon. Gentleman will accept that it is often difficult to balance the different needs of the environment, a transport scheme and local businesses. We do the best we can. If people have constructive advice about how we can improve a route, we will consider it, but the delivery time of any scheme will depend on the advice of the regions. My advice to the hon. Gentleman and other Opposition Members is to work in their local regions to make sure that other people in the region understand the priority that they attach to a particular scheme, and work locally to raise the priority if the scheme if they do not think it will be delivered rapidly enough.


3. James Brokenshire (Hornchurch) (Con): What measures he is taking to secure the transport network against terrorist attack. [94004]

The Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. Douglas Alexander): Working with police and other agencies, my Department works to maintain effective and proportionate security regimes that seek to minimise vulnerability across the transport networks. For obvious reasons it is not our practice to detail all of the required measures or procedures.

James Brokenshire: Since the terrorist attacks of 7 July 2005, the focus of attention has understandably been on the preparedness of the capital to respond to and deal with any future terrorist attack. However, we have seen from Madrid how other commuter or domestic rail services may be viewed as a potential target. What steps is the right hon. Gentleman taking to ensure that train operating companies are engaged in the threat reduction process, and what role does he see for the British Transport police in that regard now that the plans for the police merger have been dropped?

Mr. Alexander: I have discussed a range of such issues with the Association of Train Operating Companies as well as with the chief constable of the British Transport police. I am glad to say that following the conclusion of the review in relation to the future of the BTP we can now move forward, and those discussions will continue against a backdrop of significantly increased funding. Resource spending for the BTP has risen from £167 million in 2004, when the British Transport police authority was established, to £220 million now, and the number of police officers has increased by 20 per cent. during the last two years, up from 2,280 officers in 2004 to 2,780 officers in 2006. In addition, 200 police community support officers have been recruited in the last two years.

Barbara Keeley (Worsley) (Lab): I understand that Manchester airport did a very good job in handling the issues that arose at the difficult time of the enhanced threat of terrorist attacks in August; considering what passengers reported, it probably did better than
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elsewhere. Does my right hon. Friend therefore think it appropriate to ask Manchester to give some pointers from their better experience in handling such matters? Clearly we want to thank it for the good work that it did for my constituents and those from elsewhere, but we also need to understand why things went better at Manchester.

Mr. Alexander: I am delighted to join my hon. Friend in congratulating Manchester. I did so to the head of the Manchester Airport Group only last month, and it is a matter of public record that in my interviews on radio at the time I acknowledged the outstanding contribution that Manchester airport staff made in very challenging operational circumstances. I hope that my hon. Friend will also be reassured that we are in constant dialogue not just with BAA but with other airport operators about what lessons can be learned from the events of 10 August.

Paul Rowen (Rochdale) (LD): Is the Secretary of State aware that up to four police forces operate at airports such as Heathrow, with not one in overall control? May not that have contributed to some of the chaos that occurred during the summer, and will he carry out an independent review of the circumstances leading up to those events?

Mr. Alexander: The hon. Gentleman is right to the extent that there has been a review of policing at our airports, but on the basis of that report I am not convinced that it contributed to the challenges that we faced, which were very distinctive in relation to a particular alleged plot that was foiled on 10 August. I place on record my gratitude and admiration for the work that was taken forward, not just by BAA management but by trade unions, employees and many others at Heathrow airport. We should remember that, in the face of an unprecedented level of threat, the airport stayed open, a significant number of flights continued to operate, albeit with delay—and that Heathrow is literally the busiest airport in the world. In those circumstances, of course we should look at what lessons can be learned, but we should be careful about bandying around words such as “chaos”.

Patrick Mercer (Newark) (Con): The House will be aware that the only successful terrorist attack to date has occurred against the transport system in London—but if we think that that will continue to be the case, clearly we are deluded. Can the Secretary of State therefore explain why anti-suicide-bomber barriers have already been mounted in places such as London Victoria, whereas places such as Manchester Victoria, and many of the other regional stations, have absolutely nothing?

Mr. Alexander: It is a matter of newspaper coverage that there has been a trial of such barriers here in London for a fixed period. While we evaluate the conclusions of that review, I would not wish to anticipate what steps we might take. I would also ask the indulgence and appreciation of the House for the fact that these are not matters that we often wish to discuss in public—but if it would be helpful to the hon. Gentleman, I will certainly write to him on the matter.

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Traffic Officers

4. Jeff Ennis (Barnsley, East and Mexborough) (Lab): How many Highways Agency traffic officers on average are deployed on motorways to help traffic flow better after accidents. [94005]

The Minister of State, Department for Transport (Dr. Stephen Ladyman): On average there are 120 patrols, each with a two-person crew, deployed on motorways to help keep traffic flowing. These are supported by approximately 50 control room staff proactively searching for and deploying traffic officers to incidents using various technology feeds including CCTV, motorway incident detection and automatic signalling, emergency roadside telephones and information from the emergency services.

Jeff Ennis: There is no doubt that traffic officers are doing a good job on the motorways in south Yorkshire, as well as in the rest of England and Wales. Does the Minister agree that in addition to looking at new road building schemes, we must improve capacity on existing roads? One of the best ways to achieve that goal is introducing effective ways of clearing up motorways after major accidents.

Dr. Ladyman: I entirely agree with my hon. Friend, who has touched on the rationale for the traffic officer scheme. We cannot build our way out of such problems. As I intimated in answering an earlier question, a significant road building programme is currently taking place, but it cannot be our total solution to congestion. We must find better ways to use existing capacity. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has discussed road pricing, which is one of the long-term solutions, but solutions such as traffic officers clearing away incidents very quickly and keeping traffic moving are also an important part of the picture, and they are proving to be extremely successful.

Mr. Andrew Mackay (Bracknell) (Con): Will the Minister accept that despite the deployment of Highways Agency traffic officers, it still takes far too long to clear up after accidents—far longer than it used to? That not only causes frustration for those who are using the motorway, but is potentially very dangerous. When will more be done to ensure that accidents are cleared up as quickly as they used to be?

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