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House of Commons

Tuesday 21 November 2006

The House met at half-past Two o’clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]


Sessional Returns


Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked—


1. Mr. Lee Scott (Ilford, North) (Con): What assessment he has made of the merits of a national road pricing scheme; and if he will make a statement. [100548]

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. The draft road transport Bill will seek to increase the opportunity for local authorities to introduce pricing pilots. Those pilots will help to inform decisions about national road pricing.

Mr. Scott: Will the Secretary of State please tell us whether provision for road pricing will be made in the draft road transport Bill —[ Interruption. ]

Mr. Alexander: Forgive me, Mr. Speaker, but I did not fully hear the hon. Gentleman’s question. Will he repeat it?

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Mr. Scott: Will the Secretary of State please tell us if provision for road pricing will be made in the draft road transport Bill?

Mr. Alexander: I am grateful for the clarification. The intention in the draft Bill will be to make it easier to establish local pilots. Concern has been expressed in the House about the interoperability of technologies; we are discussing that and similar matters with local authorities. However, our intention would be to introduce separate legislation, were we to decide in due course to introduce a national system of road pricing. That is not the intention in the draft Bill.

Graham Stringer (Manchester, Blackley) (Lab): I am sure that my right hon. Friend is familiar with the statistical bulletin, “Traffic Speeds in English Urban Areas: 2004”, which shows clearly that the speed of traffic in almost every urban centre in Greater Manchester is increasing. Why then is it sensible to start examination of congestion charging in Greater Manchester, rather than on inter-urban roads for which the Government are responsible and which are becoming more congested?

Mr. Alexander: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that characteristically helpful observation on transport publications. Our intention is to work effectively with local authorities as they develop local solutions to local problems. I have met representatives of the Manchester local authorities as they develop local solutions that work to meet the needs of the local economy. They are worried that, if congestion is not tackled in the months and years to come, it will have considerable potential to affect the economic dynamism and regeneration of that city.

Ann Winterton (Congleton) (Con): Is not national road pricing just another excuse to tax the already over-taxed motorist, especially given that the alternative—public transport—is almost entirely absent in many parts of the country, including rural areas? Where there is provision in the form of commuter trains, for instance, they are full to the brim, uncomfortable to travel in, and almost unsafe. What will the Minister do about that?

Mr. Alexander: We have seen considerable improvements in performance and reliability on Britain’s railways. I have to say that I struggle to understand the Conservative party’s position on road pricing, notwithstanding the terms of the question that I have just been asked. On 8 November, the Leader of the Opposition said that he was interested in

That seems to me to be wholly at odds with the hon. Lady’s question.

Mr. David Clelland (Tyne Bridge) (Lab): In metropolitan areas, if road pricing is not to end up being just another unpopular tax, it must be preceded by attractive, affordable and efficient public transport alternatives to the car. What plans does the Secretary of State have to provide such services?

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Mr. Alexander: I fully agree that, if local schemes are to be successful, it is essential that they be partnered by the sort of improvements in public transports for which my hon. Friend has campaigned for many years. I believe that the transport innovation fund offers real potential to achieve local solutions to local problems. A key element of tackling those problems will be improvement in the public transport offerings in those communities.

Chris Grayling (Epsom and Ewell) (Con): It might be easier to make a decision on road pricing strategy if we clearly understood the Government’s policy. May I press the Secretary of State on that? When the Prime Minister wrote to the right hon. Gentleman appointing him Secretary of State, he stated:

However, at Transport questions last month, the Secretary of State said,

Is it the Government’s strategy to introduce a national road pricing scheme, or not?

Mr. Alexander: Our intention at this stage is to advance the debate on a national road pricing scheme, while we develop learning and expertise based on the local pilots that will be facilitated by the draft Bill announced in the Gracious Speech last week. It seems to us entirely consistent to say that we should have practical experience on the ground which will, in turn, inform the national debate and the decision on whether to have a national road pricing scheme in the next 10 years.

John Bercow (Buckingham) (Con): That is a maybe.

Chris Grayling: Indeed it is. Let us press the Secretary of State on the technology and the learning. When his predecessor first outlined the strategy, he said that such a scheme would be based on satellite technology. Does it remain the Secretary of State’s policy to use satellite-based technology to underpin a national scheme, and will it be a requirement that any pilot use that technology, to ensure that it can serve as a meaningful pilot for a national scheme?

Mr. Alexander: The hon. Gentleman has on previous occasions, at the Dispatch Box and in speeches outside the House, raised concerns about the technology that would be appropriate for a national system of road pricing. For exactly that reason, we are engaged in discussions on technology solutions not only with the private sector but with local authorities to ensure that we gain experience that is scalable, so that it can inform a national system of road pricing, and appropriate given the technology challenges that we face. I would have thought that the Opposition would be keen for us to work with the private sector and with local authorities to ensure that we get the right technology in place.

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Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock) (Lab): In the spirit of the Secretary of State’s reply, will he support two Bills that I am about to introduce to Parliament, on the Ramsgate pilot scheme for road pricing and on entry to England from Scotland road pricing? They would enable him to test his technologies at £1.50 a car, which is the sentence that he is giving to my constituents and those of my hon. Friend the Member for Dartford (Dr. Stoate) when he expects them to pay £1.50 each time they cross the River Thames. That is unacceptable; he can experiment as much as he likes, but he cannot do it with the people of Kent or Essex.

Mr. Alexander: I fear I might disappoint my hon. Friend, but on the basis of his advocacy of the two Bills that he is proposing, it is unlikely that I will be able to support him in the Division Lobby.

Transport Innovation Fund

2. Mr. Neil Turner (Wigan) (Lab): Which local authorities are receiving money from the transport innovation fund. [100549]

The Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. Douglas Alexander): The transport innovation fund money will become available from 2008-09. However, in advance of that, in November 2005, my predecessor awarded pump-priming funding to seven areas to develop transport innovation fund proposals to tackle congestion. On 6 November, I announced to the House that three further areas were being awarded money.

Mr. Turner: I thank my right hon. Friend for that reply. In Wigan, the poor transport infrastructure is a major factor in holding back economic regeneration. Will he ensure that economic regeneration is at the forefront of decisions on exactly where to allocate the transport innovation fund in the future?

Mr. Alexander: As I have said, I have already been engaged in discussions with Greater Manchester authorities about the potential use of the transport innovation fund. I shall ensure that the points raised by my hon. Friend are passed on directly.

Ian Lucas (Wrexham) (Lab): Is my right hon. Friend aware that one of the fastest growing and most congested areas in the UK is north-east Wales and west Cheshire, where the Deeside hub project is taking forward cross-border arrangements? Will my right hon. Friend assure me that the fact that the transport innovation fund is restricted to England will not prevent proposals from being taken forward to ease congestion affecting the cross-border region?

Mr. Alexander: I am glad to say that we are seeing economic growth not only in one part of the United Kingdom but across it. I have had the opportunity in recent weeks to meet the Transport Minister of the Welsh Assembly Government, and I will be happy to take up the point raised by my hon. Friend.

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3. Helen Goodman (Bishop Auckland) (Lab): What assessment he has made of the impact of deregulation policy on bus services. [100550]

The Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. Douglas Alexander): I have taken account of the concerns that many hon. Members have raised with me on the standard of deregulated bus services and will shortly set out proposals on the direction of future bus policy. Legislative measures will be included in the draft road transport Bill.

Helen Goodman: It used to be a joke when people said, “You wait for hours and then three come at once”, but that is exactly the impact of deregulation on my constituents. Will the Secretary of State confirm that when he introduces legislation he will make provision for social enterprises, such as Durham Integrated Transport and the Dene valley community transport scheme?

Mr. Alexander: I know of the important work that such organisations provide in supporting bus travel in rural and in urban areas, and I welcome their important contribution. As I understand it, Durham has successfully bid for funding for three rural bus challenge schemes. We support the efforts of the sector in a number of ways, and my officials are happy to discuss how we can further increase its effectiveness in years to come.

Mr. Alistair Carmichael (Orkney and Shetland) (LD): The Secretary of State will be aware that bus use is highest among the poorest 20 per cent. of our population and that the decline in bus use has hit hardest those who are least able to afford an alternative. Does he accept that the deregulation of the mid-1980s has failed? After eight and a half years of Labour Government, when will we see some action to give local communities back the power they need to provide the bus services that their communities want?

Mr. Alexander: If I interpret the question rightly, it seems to be an endorsement of the proposals that I am contemplating. Certainly, I recognise that in the 20 years since deregulation, some communities have not enjoyed the bus service to which they are entitled. It is therefore important not simply to highlight areas where there are successful local bus services, such as Brighton, York and Oxford, but to focus on communities, not least those in many Labour constituencies, to which buses can be a vital life-line. That is why I intend to bring forward proposals and draft legislation to address the exact point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Bishop Auckland (Helen Goodman). I fully recognise that, in many local communities, bus services are a vital link to economic and social regeneration.

Ms Angela C. Smith (Sheffield, Hillsborough) (Lab): Does my right hon. Friend agree that the road transport Bill must redress the balance in favour of bus passengers, whose experience of bus travel all too often leads them to believe that business interests override passenger interests in areas such as south Yorkshire?

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Mr. Alexander: Certainly, in many areas a free-for-all has left the needs of passengers far behind, and that is why it is important that, in the proposals that we bring forward, we recognise that there is a genuine desire for improved bus services in many communities across the country.

Stephen Hammond (Wimbledon) (Con): The Secretary of State will know that No. 10’s website on the draft transport Bill states that it will enable

He will also know that, since deregulation, the average age of the fleet has fallen as investment has risen, and that fares have risen at less than half the rate of council tax. In 2006, overall satisfaction levels are increasing. His predecessor as Secretary of State said:

Will the Secretary of State confirm today that that remains the policy of the Government, and that his proposals will not take us back to the era of regulated buses?

Mr. Alexander: It encourages me greatly, in respect of the debate that we are about to have, if the hon. Gentleman is suggesting on behalf of the Opposition that he is content with, and indeed complacent about, the bus services enjoyed in every community in the country. It is an entirely false choice to say that we should either go back to the state-owned and state-controlled system that existed before 1986, or accept that the present system is beyond improvement. I believe that improvements can and should be made, and it is on that basis that I shall, in due course, bring forward proposals.

Angela Eagle (Wallasey) (Lab): While my right hon. Friend considers the evidence, before bringing forward the draft Bill, will he look at the experience of people in Merseyside? Passenger numbers have halved since deregulation 20 years ago, there has been an increase of 30 per cent. in fares, and there have been no extra bus miles. There is an unstable system under which bus routes can be, and indeed are, changed regularly; legally, they can be changed every 56 days.

Mr. Alexander: I will certainly look into that. The Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Lincoln (Gillian Merron), who has responsibility for buses, and I engaged in a series of discussions and made a number of visits over the summer and in recent months to try to ensure that we are informed; that will be the basis of the proposals that we will bring forward in due course. Tomorrow, I will meet the “big five” bus operators to discuss our emerging thinking on bus travel. I fear that the situation described by my hon. Friend the Member for Wallasey (Angela Eagle) is not unique to her area, and that is why we need to take action. It is on that basis that we will bring forward our proposals.

Adam Price (Carmarthen, East and Dinefwr) (PC): Buses in Northern Ireland were not deregulated, of course, and they are still under public ownership. Will that successful model be offered as an option in the draft Bill for Wales?

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