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Westminster Hall

Wednesday 13 December 2006

[Sir Nicholas Winterton in the Chair]

Road Pricing

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—[Mr. Alan Campbell.]

9.30 am

Graham Stringer (Manchester, Blackley) (Lab): This debate is important, and I am delighted to see in the Chamber so many hon. Members from Birmingham, the west midlands and Greater Manchester. It is unusual for an hon. Member from one urban conurbation to secure a debate relating to another, but I hope that why I have done so will become clear.

At present, Manchester and Birmingham, and Greater Manchester and the west midlands, are going through a competitive process for transport innovation funds to improve public transport in their areas. Competition between major cities in this country is not unusual, but that process is worthy of further examination through open debate and discussion. I am grateful for the opportunity this morning.

Both conurbations are bidding for the transport funds. If it all goes ahead, one area will win and the other will lose. In all probability, that will mean road pricing and a better form of bus regulation for one of the areas. That is my interpretation of yesterday’s consultation document on buses and all my discussions about the process with officials in Greater Manchester and elsewhere. However, when I have asked the previous and current Secretaries of State for Transport, they have said that road pricing and congestion charging will not be forced on the areas as a condition for funding tram schemes and other public investments. That is not what officials in Greater Manchester understand; they believe that if they do not bring in some form of road pricing, they will not get the funds.

The background is that, on an annual basis for the foreseeable future, the public transport funding allocated to the north-west is £115 million a year. All the officials in Merseyside and Greater Manchester tell me that that is not enough for the individual sub-regions, so there is terrific pressure on Greater Manchester to bid for the funding.

It will be helpful to consider what is happening to the national spatial distribution of funding for transport and other services. It is very difficult to have debates such as this without bringing London into the equation. London always gets more per head of population, and we can argue about whether that is right or wrong, or whether it is disproportionate. However, it is clear that as the economy grows under this Government, education and health funding in London and all around the country grow proportionately—but not transport funding. In transport, the difference has increased.

The other great cities of this country have gone from getting roughly 50 to roughly 40 per cent. per capita of what is spent on London. During a sitting of the Transport Committee on 29 November, I asked the
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Secretary of State for Transport why that was. His answer—and I paraphrase—was that London is different. Indeed it is, but it was different five, 10 and 15 years ago. It is important to the whole economy, but that does not explain the different ratios. That is one point.

All the great cities of this country—Manchester, Birmingham, Leeds, Sheffield, Newcastle—not only look for resources from central Government, but are in serious competition with other European cities and cities around the world. Let us compare Munich and Manchester. The funding of public transport per capita in Munich is eight times that of Manchester. The basis of what I am saying this morning is that if our cities are to be successful and economically viable, we have to look at how money is spent in this country and how it is spent in comparison with other areas.

The populations of the west midlands and Greater Manchester almost equal that of London—if we throw in West Yorkshire, the population is equivalent to London’s. It is vital that London gets the transport system that it deserves, but it is just as vital, both for the cities that I am talking about and the country, that we maximise the economic potential in Birmingham, Leeds, Manchester and the other great cities. That requires looking at our national priorities, which I do not think we have right.

We should also consider some of the investment that goes into London. Although it seems perverse, I think that some of that cash subsidises congestion and reduces the economic impact of other serious investment. There are simply not enough public sector jobs being moved out of London. That is not happening as quickly as it should. That is the background. That is why public transport in Birmingham, Manchester and other cities needs funding.

I have another question. Are we really saying that if Birmingham wins, Manchester should not get the investment that it needs, or that if Manchester wins, Birmingham should not get the investment that it needs? That would be a dereliction of duty. The process that the Government are bringing forward is to set up road pricing or congestion charging in the victorious city; they say that that will produce revenue and stop the damage that congestion does to the economy.

Why do we start by looking at road pricing and congestion charging in urban areas? What really differentiates this country from our European competitors is inter-urban congestion. I should have thought that the Government could lead by starting a national road pricing scheme rather than considering one for our urban areas and relating it to a lack of investment in public funding.

There are many difficulties in respect of congestion and economic development and its impact on the economy. In the Transport Committee, I have asked professor after professor about the relationship between those two effects, but they say that there are no direct studies that will show us. They can measure the extra time that people spend in cars, but it is difficult to determine the impact that that has on the economy.

We get estimates from the CBI on the impact of congestion. In one of the transport publications, Ben Webster of The Times recently showed that its estimate of £20 billion was complete fiction. The original
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estimate came from Deidre King, who said that it was £5 billion. The CBI rang up and asked whether they could treble it. She said, “Do what you like with it, but don’t quote me”, and it went up to £20 billion.

In 2004, the Department for Transport commissioned an independent study on congestion charging and road pricing. It concluded that cordon systems did not work in complex conurbations, and there is no more complex conurbation than Birmingham or Greater Manchester. It is obvious, really, that putting a line around an area and saying that people going into it will pay more will disadvantage that area. In the centre of Manchester, some of the poorest populations would be taxed. The Institute for Public Policy Research looked at the issue and said that if such measures are revenue-neutral, they increase the amount of carbon dioxide and other pollutants because people avoid the cordons. They are not good economically nor are they good for the environment.

I come back to my original point: why do the Government not give a lead and consider where we are at a disadvantage with competitors on the inter-urban roads and put satellite-based systems there? The only advantage of barrier systems in urban conurbations that I know of is that they are easier to install than satellite systems, which offer a road-pricing system that is time and distance dependent. If we got the system right, it would probably relate more directly to congestion than would just taking one area of an urban conurbation and putting it at a disadvantage.

Another leg of this discussion is bus re-regulation. I shall not tire the Minister and other hon. Members by repeating the many debates that we have had about it, except to say that I do not think that the Greater Manchester or the South and West Yorkshire conurbations can wait until there is a congestion charge or real change to re-regulate the buses. It is an outrage that senior managers of Stagecoach in Greater Manchester turn up to meetings and say, “If UK Bus does not stop competing with us, we will bring your city to a halt.” They have done that on several occasions. A democratic, civilised country does not allow narrow-minded, selfish bus operators to bring cities to a halt for the sake of their bottom line. We need re-regulation as soon as possible.

Lynne Jones (Birmingham, Selly Oak) (Lab): Of course I agree with my hon. Friend that we need re-regulation of the bus services, but it has been found that bus journey times in Birmingham are twice as long during the rush hours, which are ever-lengthening, than in off-peak hours. Even if the buses are re-regulated, there will still be the problem of journey times, which can be tackled only by measures to deal with the amount of car and other traffic on the roads.

Graham Stringer: I hope that my hon. Friend is not misunderstanding me. I am not opposed to improving traffic flows, nor do I have a religious opposition to road pricing or congestion charging. I believe that the solution to the problems in Manchester and Birmingham is investment in public transport, and that what we are being offered is not a solution to the problems, whether in terms of resources or methods of tackling them.

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I looked up the traffic speeds during the past six or seven years for the west midlands and Greater Manchester in the 2005 Department for Transport study. The situations in the cities are not satisfactory—clearly, traffic is slower during the rush hour than at other times—but the report showed, rather surprisingly, that speeds had increased. In Greater Manchester, that was clearly because of the M60. I make that point not to say that we do not need to restrain traffic, but that we must do it carefully so that we do not do more damage to the economy, and we must address the present problems. In fact, according to the statistics, traffic speeds in both conurbations are improving.

The Association of Greater Manchester Authorities responded to the proposal. The authorities are in a difficult situation. If Birmingham, for example, is offered £1.5 billion or £2 billion, can it say, “No, Secretary of State”? The association said that authorities want investment in public transport first, that they want to know that their competitiveness will not be affected, that they want public acceptance of the system—I would like to ask my hon. Friend the Minister whether he agrees in principle that there should be a referendum before such a scheme is introduced, as there was in Edinburgh—and that any scheme must be relevant to congestion.

Congestion occurs in surprising parts of Greater Manchester, which I know better than I know the west midlands. When I visited Wigan during the by-election some years ago, it took me an hour and a quarter to travel through Wigan to get back into Manchester. In many ways, it is much more congested than the city centre. It is a complicated situation.

There are some background issues to be considered. The real problem that we have in the whole country, not just in urban conurbations, is that car travel is getting cheaper and public transport is getting more expensive. The Government need to reverse that and thereby dramatically affect what is happening at present. I may be in a minority, but I thought that it was a mistake to take off the fuel duty escalator at the first whiff of grapeshot from some extraordinarily reactionary farmers and lorry drivers, and I am pleased that there is an attempt to put it on again. It meets the polluter pays criterion, and it does not impoverish and attack some of the poorer people in the country.

In conclusion, every study has shown that to deal with the economic problems and assets of cities, investment in public transport is likely to give greater rewards immediately than a road pricing or congestion scheme. At the back of that, of course, is the fact that the Government said that the Greater Manchester tram system would be funded from 2000 onwards, but it has not been. Some of the problems with price increases have been beyond anybody’s control. My hon. Friend the Minister and I had an interesting debate about that when the Transport Committee discussed its report on transport. However, the Government are responsible for other issues because they slowed down and micro-managed the work and chose the wrong systems. The decision in principle to wait from 2000 to 2007 for the second phase of the big bang to come through was wrong. The process has been inadequate.

The Government have always had difficulties with road pricing. I do not underestimate how extraordinarily difficult it is politically. The previous Secretary of State waited for the Mayor of London to
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introduce congestion charging. It is wrong for the Government to tell Manchester and London, both of which need the resources, to have a go at congestion charging in urban areas. If we are concerned about congestion in this country, we should be looking at the inter-urban roads.

The Secretary of State said that the real choice for our cities is between growth and gridlock. I gave my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Lynne Jones) some information about current traffic speeds. The real choice for the country and for our great urban conurbations is investment in public transport or gridlock. It is bus re-regulation or gridlock. They will make a much greater impact. Studies of people going into city centres show that trams get the most people into a city centre the most quickly. Buses simply cannot offer the same capacity. Even if they ran end to end, their speed would be determined by the road space available.

There is no evidence or analysis to show that leaders of the Greater Manchester districts—I cannot speak for the west midlands—consider what is on offer through road pricing and congestion charging to be a solution. The situation has been turned around: when I asked the Secretary of State why he is going for cities first, he said that the leaders of the cities were considering the schemes, but they are considering them because they have been put first. I do not want officers and leaders in Greater Manchester and the west midlands to fiddle figures in the way that the CBI did in order to justify something that will not solve the economic and transport problems of Greater Manchester. I want a real focus on the problems. When the Secretary of State is saying that there is that desire, he is quoting his own echo, if that is not a mixed metaphor.

I shall finish on that point. I am grateful that so many hon. Members have turned up. Such issues are vital not only for our cities but for the whole economy. If our cities do not work economically, the country cannot do as well as it should.

Several hon. Members rose—

Sir Nicholas Winterton (in the Chair): Order. I intend to try to start the winding-up speeches at half past 10, unless those speaking for the Opposition indicate that they need less than the normal time allocated. I ask right hon. and hon. Members to bear that in mind.

9.50 am

Mr. John Leech (Manchester, Withington) (LD): First, I congratulate the hon. Member for Manchester, Blackley (Graham Stringer) on securing this important debate on a subject about which I know he is very knowledgeable, which makes a welcome change from his early-day motion earlier this week on cancer services in Greater Manchester.

I confirm my support for the principle of national road user pricing. If we are serious about tackling climate change and congestion on our roads, we need to discourage people from making unnecessary car journeys. We must also provide public transport that is good enough to persuade people out of their cars.

My constituency of Manchester, Withington will be one of the greatest beneficiaries of a successful
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transport innovation fund bid by the Greater Manchester passenger transport authority. People in Manchester were understandably angry when the Labour Government cancelled Metrolink money, and it was only a concerted all-party campaign, with tremendous support from businesses and the local newspapers, that forced the Government into a U-turn. The possibility of further money for Metrolink is great news for my constituents as not only would it ensure that the link to Chorlton would go all the way to the airport, but it would result in the Didsbury spur being built through my constituency.

The airport link and the Didsbury spur would have a dramatic impact on congestion in south Manchester and would also massively improve air quality. Thousands of people work at the airport, and the Metrolink would provide a vital quick route to work for them. In recent years a large number of people have moved to south Manchester because they thought that the Metrolink was coming and wanted a quick, reliable service to get them to and from the city centre where they work. A lot of those people are forced to drive to work, because the Metrolink has not been forthcoming, so it would have a real impact on the number of car journeys through the constituency into the city centre.

It is still a great disappointment to me that there has to be some element of local congestion charging—I stress the reference to local—or road user pricing to gain access to the transport innovation fund money.

Mr. John Spellar (Warley) (Lab): The hon. Gentleman has stressed his support for national road user charging, which is of course the normal Liberal Democrat mantra. Can he tell me anywhere where the Liberal Democrats support local road user charging, particularly if they have to face the public in a referendum on the subject?

Mr. Leech: If the hon. Gentleman had waited until I had developed my argument, he would have realised that my concern about a local scheme is that a national scheme is far more sensible than introducing local schemes that do not tackle the main problem of congestion.

Lynne Jones: Do not we need both? We have congestion in our city centres and urban areas and on our motorways.

Mr. Leech: I accept that we need a scheme that includes both local and national road user pricing. I am not personally in favour of a congestion zone in the centre of Manchester, because that would be counter-productive. I believe that a national road user pricing scheme that includes national roads as well as local roads is the way to proceed.

Ms Gisela Stuart (Birmingham, Edgbaston) (Lab): I am trying to understand. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that we need to introduce some market mechanism that will introduce a cost to the use of roads? If his answer is yes, then clearly such a scheme must be national and local.

Mr. Leech: I am not specifying what sort of scheme I would like to see, other than a national road pricing scheme that would involve all roads rather than merely major routes between major conurbations.

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