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Only last week, the hon. Gentleman pleaded with the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, South (Mr. Harris), to grant his alternative Reading station partnership board a meeting in December. That meeting may take place next year, but the hon. Member for Reading, East will be overtaken by events, because it is with great pleasure that I can announce that the Secretary of State has kindly agreed to my request to meet the real Reading Station Partnership Board on 19 December to receive a full presentation of its excellent bid, which makes a powerful case for upgrading the capacity of Reading station, improving services on the Great Western main line and providing better facilities for passengers at Reading. The Tory transport hypocrisy
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continues. The hon. Member for Reading, East plays his pathetic partisan games but, in the end, it will be a Labour Government who deliver the Reading station upgrade and, hopefully, many more transport schemes that are badly needed in the Thames valley.

8.35 pm

Mr. Peter Atkinson (Hexham) (Con): The hon. Member for Reading, West (Martin Salter) is a Jekyll and Hyde character. He began with a 10-minute rant against the Tory party, before changing tack and providing a shopping list of six major schemes in the Thames valley that he wants the Government to fund. He finished with another rant, making an intemperate attack on my hon. Friend the Member for Reading, East (Mr. Wilson). His speech was as disappointing as the speech given by the Secretary of State—I am glad that the right hon. Gentleman is here, incidentally, so at least I can be rude to his face.

It was deeply disappointing that, only a few days after the report by Sir Rod Eddington was published, the Secretary of State had so little to say about it. He was more interested in scoring petty party political points, rather as one would do in a school debating society, which is a great pity, because there is a great deal of cross-party compliance on the issues. We all know the problems of the transport system, including congestion on the roads and railways, and the subject deserves a more mature and sensible approach than it received from him tonight.

Mr. Carmichael: May I remind the hon. Gentleman that the hon. Member for Reading, West (Martin Salter) at least has the virtue of consistency? He has a long pedigree of profound dislike for the Member representing Reading, East, whoever they happento be.

Mr. Atkinson: I agree. The hon. Member for Reading, West is a curious combination. He is an enthusiastic angler who likes catching fish, but he voted to ban hunting, which is a difficult piece of moral gymnastics.

Martin Salter: It is amazing that the hon. Gentleman should eat into his time to discuss angling and hunting. I do not know of any angler who would catch a prize specimen fish, throw it to a pack of dogs, watch it being ripped to pieces before smearing the blood on their forehead and calling it a sport. Anglers are not like that.

Mr. Atkinson: With respect to the Chair, who may not wish us to continue to debate the subject, may I tell the hon. Gentleman that I, too, am a keen fisherman, but I support hunting?

It is a pity that the Secretary of State did not deal more fully with the Eddington report, which is an indictment of Government inaction over the past nine and a half years. It applies just as much to 2000 as to 2007, because it identifies critical problems that were in evidence then and that have resulted in seven years of virtual inactivity by the Government. It contains much that is good, but it also has some serious flaws. My hon. Friend the Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling), for example, pointed out that Sir Rod
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detracted from the abilities of locally elected democracies to determine big transport infrastructure problems. Today’s report by Kate Barker seeks to establish an independent planning commission to take over from local government the role of dealing with large infrastructure problems, which is regrettable.

I hope that when my hon. Friends write their manifestos on transport and other issues, they will sweep away the regional structure set up by the Deputy Prime Minister, including regional spatial strategy, regional transport planning boards and, of course,the grand panjandrum of the regional assemblies. If they went along with the independent planning commission, it would do a great deal to damage local democracy. Large-scale transport infrastructure planning in localised and regional areas should be undertaken by a combination of locally elected councillors, who, knowing the circumstances better, are better able to take those decisions.

I agree with certain points raised by the Eddington report. In his well titled report, “The Case for Action”—the Government should have taken note of that—under the heading of “Key economic challenge”, he says that

There could be no better local example of an under-performing key route than the A1 Newcastle western bypass—the busiest stretch of dual carriageway in the entire UK. It is jammed in the morning, jammed at the weekends when people go shopping at the Metro centre, one of the largest in Europe, and jammed again in the rush hour at night. That road is causing a serious economic drag on the north-east of England.

Car ownership is increasing faster in the north-east than in any other region—admittedly from a low base— but there are no plans to improve the A1. A few months ago, a plan was promised to try to manage the traffic better and increase capacity. I understand that the report was promised for about this time, but I am now told that it will not be published until winter 2007. Meanwhile, the economic problems get worse.

This is not just a matter, incidentally, of Christmas special pleading in the manner of the hon. Member for Reading, West. It is a much more serious matter. What has happened in the north-east is the result of the road structures of the A1 and the A19. Proposed new industrial and commercial developments have been frozen by the Highways Agency’s serving what are called article 14 orders on the development plan. Those orders effectively put a stop to development for up to six months and can then be renewed.

I know that the Minister of State is aware ofthe particular problem with article 14 orders and the damage that they have caused to the economy of the north-east. I am pleased to say that most of them have now been lifted, but the abiding legacy of the threat of article 14 orders is that quite a lot of developers who would have developed regional projects have been frightened off. To delay a development for six, 12 or in some cases 18 months—as has happened—means that
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a developer incurs losses of many millions of pounds, particularly on large developments. They do not want to take that risk, which means we have lost the opportunity to create a large number of new jobs in the region.

The deadening impact of those orders and of the poor infrastructure relating to the two crucial routes in the north-east has been the subject of an excellent campaign by the North East chamber of commerce, well supported by the local media, particularly The Journal and the Evening Chronicle. The campaign is called “Go for Jobs” and I know that the Minister is aware of it. Last month, it won the North East chamber of commerce an award for being the best campaigning chamber.

Sir Rod Eddington specifies the importance of good transport links in the growing economy of a region such as the north-east. As he states in recommendation 10, to which I hope the Government will pay attention:

he is talking about the inter-urban corridors and congested urban areas—

That illustrates precisely the problem facing the north-east because of the failure to invest in new and crucial road systems. So I ask the Minister, please may we have some grown-up, joined-up government when dealing with transport in the region?

The region’s budget for transport has been settled at £457 million for the next 10 years. That is a trivial amount for a region where there is a shortage of decent transport infrastructure. If we compare that with Scotland, just across the border—I am sorry that the Secretary of State is not here—it is interesting to note that £3.5 billion has been allocated for transport infrastructure there in the next decade. I admit that the country has a population of about three times the size of that of the north-east, but one can see how disproportionate spending in Scotland is compared with that in the north-east of England.

I add my support to a high-speed link between London and the north and Scotland. It is wrong ofSir Ron to dismiss it so simplistically—it is capable of improving the economy and we should support it.

8.45 pm

Kitty Ussher (Burnley) (Lab): I am delighted to follow the hon. Member for Hexham (Mr. Atkinson). I am intrigued about whether he takes the train back to his constituency—I am sure that he does and I presume that my hon. Friend the Member for Reading, West (Martin Salter) does, too. If the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael) wishes to intervene to clarify whether he takes the train back every week, I should be delighted to let him.

Mr. Carmichael: It is a matter of public record that there are no train services in Orkney or Shetland. I fly and I challenge the hon. Lady to explain a better way of travelling while doing the job of Member of Parliament.

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Kitty Ussher: I am sure that Liberal Democrat proposals for that will prove interesting.

Each hon. Member probably has a travelling tale to tell since such a large part of the job involves being in two places at once. I can speak only from my experiences but I think that the story is telling. My predecessor, Peter Pike, who was a Member of Parliament during the years when the Conservative party was in power, often flew between London and Manchester because the trains were so unreliable. Thanks to the recent improvements to the west coast main line under the Government—I am delightedthat the Conservative party acknowledges the improvements, although it opposed the funding for them—it is now far more time efficient to take the train. I travel to Manchester or Stockport in around two hours, which is fantastic. From there, it is less than an hour’s drive to the constituency.

That was a simple example with which to begin my contribution, but it proves the point. When, as consumers, we are faced with several options, we choose the easiest one. Thanks to the improvements to the railways under the Government, the easiest is often to travel by train. Our constituents are doing that, so I do not recognise the picture that Conservative Members paint.

Let me present some facts that I do recognise. Investment in Britain’s transport infrastructure will be 60 per cent. higher next year than it was 10 years ago. It needs more investment in the future, which we are providing, yet Conservative Members were unable to say this evening whether they would prioritise that investment over tax cuts. That was revealing.

The Tories botched privatisation and starved the railways of the investment that they needed. They brought the railways to their knees; we have brought them the stability from which they can grow. Forty per cent. of trains have been replaced in the past five years; passenger numbers are growing at the fastest rate since the 1960s; passengers miles are growing at the fastest rate since the 1940s; and rail freight has increased by40 per cent. since 1997.

When the Conservative party was in charge, Railtrack was laying as little as 250 miles of track a year. In 2003-04, Labour’s replacement for Railtrack, Network Rail, was laying well over three times that, replacing 870 miles of track that year. That leads to this evening’s all important question: why is the Conservative party implying that the improvements are long overdue when the work is being done and we have a sustained strategy for them? I can conclude only that it is up to its old tricks. In the words, which areworth repeating, of the Conservative Transport spokesperson, the hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling) about his party,

Tonight’s debate is about another tactical position adopted by the Opposition. The country is getting used to this, and it is responding by asking, “Where isthe policy?” The answer is that the policy is all overthe place. The right hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) said a year ago that Britain needed a concerted programme of road building, yet the chair of his policy commission on quality of life—that title
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amuses me all by itself—has said that there is no doubt that there must be an assumption against road building. The only thing that I am left in no doubt about is that the only way to get a coherent policy on railways is to stick to the one that we have.

That is not to say that action does not need to be taken, but let us be clear about what is going on. We have economic growth, better trains, and greater reliability leading to trains becoming more popular. That creates more demand, which is creating the greater need for investment. I agree with the Conservatives when they say that if they were in power, we would not be in this situation. When they were in power, we did not have the sustained economic growth, quarter on quarter, year on year, that we have seen for the past 10 years. Nor did we get the necessary investment in the trains or the track. So it is no wonder that people did not want to travel on the railways. Does that count as success, in the Conservatives’ book? The overcrowding on some parts of the railway network, which we are addressing, is a symptom of our success. The question for the public out there is whether they would rather have a party that is committed to the long-term sustainable future of the network or one that is unable to say whether rail investment ranks as more or less important than tax cuts for the well-off.

I shall give the House a local example. Manchester is experiencing a renaissance; it is booming. Obviously, the combined effect of a Labour council and a Labour Government has worked well. Of course, there are good jobs to be had, and my constituents up the road in east Lancashire want to have them. So the trains and buses into Manchester from my part of the world are crowded. The Conservatives try to make political capital out of this symptom of our success. Would they prefer it if there were no opportunities in our great northern cities that people wanted to travel to take advantage of? Sometimes that seems to be the case.

Yes, success has led to issues that need addressing, and they are being addressed as part of the routine policy of this Government. In the north-west, it is timely that Network Rail is currently out to consultation on its rail utilisation study. As Members will know, this contains proposals as to where future passenger demand is likely to come from, and what changes will be required to the necessary infrastructure. Network Rail, created by this Government, is adapting to the challenges faced by the network over time. I welcome this study, and also the opportunity to explain how it can be used to improve the job opportunities available to my constituents.

Burnley is a mere 30 miles from Manchester, but there is no direct train line between them. My constituents either get the bus—which offers a decent service, but is not always reliable at peak rush hour times—or they have to change trains at Blackburn or Hebden Bridge or, I am sorry to say, they give up their jobs in the city. I do not think that people should have to choose between their careers and their communities in that way—

Mr. Charles Walker (Broxbourne) (Con): That is Labour.

Kitty Ussher: There was not a direct line when the Conservatives were in power either. It is nonsense that there is no direct train from Manchester to my constituency—

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Mr. Walker: That is Labour.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): Order.

Kitty Ussher: Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

I hope that Network Rail will use the opportunity of the rail utilisation study to correct this anomaly, particularly as I am told by Northern Rail, which holds the franchise in my area, that the projections of passenger numbers into the next decade that form part of the report have already been surpassed due to high economic growth in the region.

There are various ways in which a direct line could be established. One would be to have a direct train via Blackburn, which could be done fairly easily. However, establishing a regular service would require serious investment to upgrade the heavily congested single track between Blackburn and Manchester. Or we could go round the other side of the hill and reinstate a few metres of track known as the Todmorden curve, which would allow a direct train service between Burnley and Manchester using a bit of the Calder line. Either would do, and both would be supported not only by my constituency but by the neighbouring constituencies, which would also reap economic benefits. We must remember that investing in transport infrastructure is necessary not only to relieve bottlenecks, but as a tool for regeneration. People often get bogged down in the terminology of travel-to-work areas without realising that, by investing in the right infrastructure, we can enable those geographical areas to change quite substantially.

The industrial revolution, which took place a long time ago in my part of the world, is a case in point. People often presume that the canals that criss-cross my constituency were built to take the textiles to market. In fact, it was the other way round. It was because of the existence of the Leeds-Liverpool canal, which was originally built to transport more basic commodities, that the cotton mills were built in Burnley. The same is true today: better rail links into the booming cities are a tool to regenerate towns such as mine. They will enable my constituents to commute to higher-paid jobs and make it easier for city folk to come and relax in a bit of Pennine Lancashire. The links between economic and transport policy need to be made more explicit. I am hopeful that the Government’s response to the Eddington report will accept that.

I welcome the increased investment in our railways under the Government. I welcome the greater prosperity and opportunity that economic stability has brought. I believe that the public do, too, and are voting with their feet and choosing to travel by train. That leads to capacity issues, which we are sorting out. As part of that, I hope that my plea for better transport links between my constituency and Manchester in particular will be heard. As this is an Opposition day debate, my question to the Conservative party is simple: is it simply positioning itself once more, or will it put its so-called commitment to the railways above its commitment to cut taxes for the better-off?

8.55 pm

Mr. Christopher Fraser (South-West Norfolk) (Con): I welcome this Opposition day debate, as it is on an important subject close to the heart of many people who live in Norfolk.

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