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I will now address the measures that my Department will introduce to build on the objectives set out in the Gracious Address. The concessionary bus travel Bill will implement the announcement set out in the Budget
that from April 2008 people aged 60 and over and people with disabilities will get free off-peak travel on all local buses in England. The Government will provide up to £250 million per annum to pay for the scheme, which is in addition to the £350 million already provided to local authorities. I am proud that, together with measures such as winter fuel payments and free eye tests, this Labour Government will introduce free local bus travel for every pensioner in the country.
The draft road transport Bill aims to underpin regional economic growth, tackle road congestion and improve public transport by giving local authorities greater flexibility to implement transport measures that meet real local needs. The Bill will update the powers that allow the development of road pricing pilot schemes, so that motorists and businesses benefit from reduced congestion and more predictable journey times in local areas. It will also provide local authorities that need them with real powers to improve the standards of their local bus services.
As has been mentioned, 20 years ago last month the Conservatives deregulated bus services and then watched bus patronage drop by about 20 per cent. in their remaining years in office. This Government recognise that despite growth at the national level in recent years, the quality of service is not good enough in too many of our communities. With two in every three public transport journeys made now taking place by bus, we recognise that buses are a lifeline to many in our communities. That is why I shall shortly make proposals to change the way in which bus services are run.
Chris Grayling: We will look carefully and constructively at the Secretary of States proposals on buses. However, I ask him to acknowledge that in reality the decline in bus passenger ridership began in the 1950s and was more rapid prior to deregulation than subsequently.
Mr. Alexander: My recollection of history is that the Conservatives were in power in the 1950s. If they are now seeking to disown not only the 18 years that they were last in office but every previous Conservative Administration, it takes to new heights their desire for cross-dressing.
In addition, we have carried over the Crossrail Bill, which is being scrutinised by the Select Committee on the Crossrail Bill. Since 1997, in contrast to the 18 years of Conservative government, the UK economy has been stronger and more stable than any other major economy, whereas the previous two decades saw two of the deepest recessions of the past century. It is that economic foundation, which the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development was recently moved to refer to as a paragon of stability, that has enabled us to begin to address the decades of under-investment that previously afflicted our transport system. As a consequence of that economic growth, people have become richer and they seek to travel more. Consequently, the long-term solutions for transport lie in sustained investment, in the effective management of the transport infrastructure and in planning ahead to ensure that transport meets the needs of the future. As a number of speakers have made clear, those aims all
need to be achieved in a way that recognises the impact of transport on the environment and meets our environmental obligations.
By next year, transport spending will have increased by more than 50 per cent. in real terms to above the level it was in the last year of the Conservative partys last Administration. Indeed, planned transport spending over the next three years will grow from more than £12 billion to more than £15 billion by 2008. That investment is delivering real improvements for passengers.
I was genuinely sorry that the Conservative spokesman did not take the opportunity to explain the effect on the transport budget of the £21 billion of public spending cuts specified in recent weeks by the Conservative partys tax commission, led by Lord Forsyth of Drumlean. That proposal to put spending cuts before economic stability and before transport investment was, of course, endorsed by none other than the hon. Member for Tatton (Mr. Osborne), the shadow Chancellor, who said at the commission launch on 18 October that
the framework for our tax policy is now set.
I can understand why after years of under-investment, a botched rail privatisation, neglect of the bus network and cuts in the roads budget, the Conservative spokesman said so little about his partys record in government. On reflection, perhaps the reason he said so little about his present transport policy is that he has so little money to spend. As my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary said at the outset of the debate, the Opposition cannot with credibility will the ends but not the means.
Our approach to roads is to provide targeted investment when it is warranted, with 39 major trunk roads and motorway schemes since 2001, and to improve the management of the road space while taking forward the debate on road pricing. More than 1,100 traffic officers are deployed across the motorway network, helping to assist traffic flow after accidents and incidents. The national traffic control centre provides real-time information for motorists for better journey planning. The seven regional control centres based around England monitor our motorways to keep traffic moving and congestion to a minimum.
With nearly 33 million vehicles on our roads, compared with 26 million in 1996 and the 60 per cent. increase in cars in the past 20 years, we cannot simply build our way out of the challenge of congestion. That is why my right hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, South-West (Mr. Darling), the former Secretary of State for Transport, and I have tried to advance the debate on road pricing. The road transport Bill will make it easier for local authorities to introduce pilot schemes in their areas, alongside better public transport, to provide local solutions to local needs. The transport innovation fund will support that work.
I had hoped to gain a clearer view of the Conservatives position on road building during todays debate but my hopes have been dashed once again. The Leader of the Opposition said on 8 November 2005:
Britain now needs a concerted programme of road building.
That position was flatly contradicted only two months later by the man that that same leader appointed to co-chair the Quality of Life Commission. The right
hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer) was quoted in the Daily Mail in January as saying,
there is no doubt about it, there must be a presumption against road building.
We face three key challenges on our railways. First, we need to strengthen performance and reliability. Secondly, we must provide the extra capacity for a now growing railway. Thirdly, we need to ensure that rail meets the environmental obligations. Those challenges can be tackled only now that we have brought stability to the economy and the industry.
With Labour, we now have the fastest growing railway in Europe. More than 1 billion rail journeys are made every year. Indeed, people are now travelling further by rail than at any time since 1946. In the past year, almost 700 miles of track have been renewed, compared with fewer than 300 miles a year renewed at the time of privatisation. With around 40 per cent. of trains and carriages replaced since 1997, we have one of the youngest fleets of carriages in Europe. That has been achieved by sustained investment. The Government are currently spending £88 million a week, with significant sums being spent by the private sector.
We are planning for the long-term, sustainable future that the industry needs. In the next few weeks, we will receive the Eddington report, which examines the relationship between transport, investment and economic growth. Next year, we will publish costed proposals for rail for the next five years, set in the context of an even longer-term framework.
In contrast, we are now beginning to discover how little the Opposition have learned from their botched privatisation, notwithstanding the fact that they recently chose to apologise again for the privatisation that they visited upon the United Kingdoms railways.
Transport is only one aspect of the Gracious Speech, which contains a set of proposals that will enhance economic stability and underpin growth, promote prosperity and opportunity, and create a fairer, more secure and more just society. For all the reasons that I have outlined, I ask hon. Members to oppose the amendment and commend the Gracious Speech to the House.
Mr. David Ruffley (Bury St. Edmunds) (Con): I wish to present a petition initiated by BBC Radio Suffolk and the East Anglian Daily Times, signed by more than 1,250 Suffolk and East Anglia residents. The petition calls for St Edmund, the former king of East Anglia who was martyred in the year 869 for refusing to renounce his Christianity, to be reinstated as patron saint of England. It states:
The Petition of BBC Radio Suffolk and the East Anglian Daily Times declares that St Edmund should be reinstated as the true and original patron saint of England. The Petitioners therefore request that the House of Commons backs them by formally supporting proceedings to reinstate St Edmund as patron saint of England.
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