Previous Section Index Home Page

13 Dec 2006 : Column 268WH—continued

13 Dec 2006 : Column 269WH

The Government’s failure to allow transport innovation fund money to be released to either Manchester or Birmingham for improvements in public transport without an element of road user pricing or congestion charging is an unwelcome reminder of the Government’s lukewarm and half-hearted support of light rail and better bus services. The Department is forcing pilot schemes on PTAs when they try to access transport innovation fund money. That has never been stated explicitly by the Department, although the hon. Member for Manchester, Blackley pointed out that it has been made fairly clear to the Greater Manchester PTA that without an element of road user pricing or congestion charging the bid will be unsuccessful.

Given that the Government have taken that position, we need some assurances from the Minister that improvements to public transport—I include better regulated buses as well as extensions to Metrolink—will be in place before any scheme of congestion charging or road user pricing is introduced. So far we have received no guarantee of that, so I hope that the Minister will give us that guarantee this morning. If the badly needed improvements to public transport are not implemented first, drivers will continue to use their cars and take the extra hit from the financial consequences.

I hope that the Minister will answer another question, which is: what does the Department expect to achieve from the pilot schemes? There would seem to be little merit in a basic congestion zone in Manchester, given that that has been tried and tested in London. In the centre of Manchester, such a zone could have a detrimental economic impact on the area covered, especially if it was restricted to the city centre, because the shops in the city centre would lose out to the Trafford centre. A small, focused congestion zone would not deal with the parts of Greater Manchester that have the most congested roads.

The hon. Member for Manchester, Blackley mentioned a Wigan by-election some years ago. When I was involved with the regional assembly for a short while, travelling to Wigan was incredibly difficult. The hon. Gentleman rightly pointed out that traffic between Manchester and Wigan is a major problem.

A road user pricing pilot scheme in Manchester and Birmingham will hardly prove that a national scheme will work. The majority of our congested roads are the inter-urban routes between Manchester and Birmingham and between other conurbations, which will be unaffected by the pilots. That prompts the question what the Department hopes to achieve through the pilots when it comes to rolling them out as a national road user pricing scheme. I hope that the Minister will address those points.

9.59 am

Richard Burden (Birmingham, Northfield) (Lab): I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Blackley (Graham Stringer) on securing today’s debate. I agree completely with him about the urgent need to boost investment in transport infrastructure in both of our cities, other conurbations and regions.

13 Dec 2006 : Column 270WH

I do not think that anybody present would deny the needs of London; it has big needs, too. my hon. Friend was right to point out that more could be done to ease some of those needs by decentralising jobs and activities and taking them outside the capital. Whatever the capital’s needs, however, they in no way diminish the fact that the scale of the problem outside the capital means that investment in transport, particularly public transport, must undergo a step change. If we get to a stage where conurbations are competing for investment, that will not make for good policy making and we will not necessarily get the benefits that we all need to get from any changes. If the transport system in Birmingham and the west midlands does not work properly and there are clog-ups, that will affect not only Birmingham and the west midlands, but the north-west and the south-east. One could say the same about other conurbations.

My view of road user charging is not identical to my hon. Friend’s. I am sure that he, as a member of the Select Committee, has gone into the statistics in a lot more depth than I have. However, it is projected that congestion in the west midlands conurbation will increase by a further quarter by 2021, and the Confederation of British Industry estimates the cost of that congestion to be about £250 million a year. My hon. Friend said that the statistics are questionable, but having talked to business people in the west midlands, I do not get the impression that they are dreaming up figures; they are genuinely worried about the costs of congestion.

Mr. Khalid Mahmood (Birmingham, Perry Barr) (Lab): One of my biggest concerns, which my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Blackley (Graham Stringer) mentioned, is the lack of consideration that is being given to improving bus usage and deregulating buses. Such measures would contribute to improving the figures, but they have been taken out of the calculations because investment in local bus services is not sufficient to reduce some of the congestion on the streets.

Richard Burden: I guess that the answer is yes and no. My hon. Friend is absolutely right to say that there is a need for greater investment in buses, and I will say something about that in a little while. However, I am not sure that such investment affects the figures strongly either way; it is probably a separate issue.

We need to look seriously at road user charging, and I say that as somebody who is known as bit of a petrol-head—I chair the all-party motor group and, in many ways, the motor industry is in my blood. Nevertheless, I think that we need to consider road user charging, so I am pleased that local authorities and others in the west midlands have produced the document “Gridlock or Growth?”, which looks at some of the options that can be adopted there.

Whatever position we take on road user charging—my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Blackley and I are at one on one issue—we still need investment up front in our transport infrastructure. That includes buses, as my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Mahmood) said, and I am sure that he is right about that. We should have a much greater expansion of measures such as real-time signing. We should have more customer-friendly buses, and we should,
13 Dec 2006 : Column 271WH
to put it bluntly, make sure that buses go where they are needed, when people need them and at prices that people can afford. Re-regulation must be part of that. I went to a conference in Manchester just a few months ago and I know that in Birmingham we do not have bus wars like those that I saw up and down the Wilmslow road in Manchester. Nevertheless, ensuring some democratic control over where buses go and how they operate must be a matter of importance for both our cities.

The same is true of our local railway infrastructure. Let me give an example from my own area of the crucial need for buses and rail to network together. Never does a speech go by without my mentioning Longbridge, but let me mention it again. We are trying to regenerate the former MG Rover site, and it is vital that we establish the necessary transport links to that regeneration area. At the moment, no one can park their car at the train station, which is built on top of a humpback bridge. However, there is an opportunity to create a new transport interchange, which will regenerate and revitalise the area and could link up marginal communities on the outskirts of the city of Birmingham in a way that we have not been able to achieve so far. That involves using the existing cross-city line as well as expanding bus numbers, and there may even be the option of using guided buses. That could make a real difference economically and could relieve congestion in south-west Birmingham. However, there is no way round the fact that it will cost a great deal.

We are right to say that some projects are nationally and regionally important, such as the renovation and rebuilding of New Street station, on which my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Ms Stuart) has done so much work and which has the support of all Birmingham Members of Parliament.

Lynda Waltho (Stourbridge) (Lab): Does not my hon. Friend agree that the extension of the Metro, particularly to the black country, is also vital? An early decision on that is key to the regeneration of the black country.

Richard Burden: I was going to make just that point about the Metro.

Lynda Waltho: Sorry.

Richard Burden: No, my hon. Friend was right to intervene. One thing that has bedevilled that project for many years is that, because we have never quite known how far it will get—literally—down the line or where the lines would go, the choice of lines has often ended up as a compromise, and the first lines have not necessarily been built where, objectively, they should have been built. A light-rail system could, for example, be extended through the centre of Birmingham, and it is great to go to Manchester and see the tram, which is vital to the local transport system there. However, these things cost. If we half do things, with a project in one place taking money from one in another place, we will not tackle congestion or achieve the important step change in attitudes that we need. That is why local authorities in the west midlands have clearly said that they will need an extra £2 billion up front and a further £2 billion thereafter to tackle such problems.

13 Dec 2006 : Column 272WH

Before I finish, let me say something about congestion charging and road user charging. They probably must be part of the solution, which is why I welcome the study that is being done in the west midlands. I have some concern about opting for camera-based systems as the best approach. The west midlands is not London and its economic profile is entirely different. The geography is also different, and the west midlands conurbation is not one centre, but a number of interlocking centres. The question of how we design and run the zones is therefore highly complex.

In a way, cameras are old technology. Satellite-based systems are generally regarded as having far more potential and can enable better and fairer charging. Of course, there are real issues around privacy, and we need to log and acknowledge those. It is also often said that satellite-based systems are too off in the future for us to move to them, but having talked to some of the companies involved, I am not sure that they are, or have to be, as far away as we sometimes assume. I therefore urge Ministers and local authorities to explore what will be possible in the near future, before we invest millions in camera-based technologies, which could be obsolete sooner than we think and which rely on zonal systems, that may not work in the way that satellite-based systems could. I am worried about that, because if we go down one route prematurely, when we all know that the other route is the right option, in a few years’ time we could be stuck with something just because it is then too difficult and expensive to do anything else.

We need to get a form of black boxes in cars, but we need to incentivise them in a way that makes them attractive to people. We also need to look at ways of incentivising the use of in-car technology, which could provide passports through to the extra use of public transport. Incentives in the road fund licence could be piloted in particular areas. There could even be discussions with the oil and petrol companies about the possibility of incentives connected with fuel, to encourage the use of such technology.

This is a key issue and there are many ways to deal with it. If any of us were in any doubt about that, the Stern report and the Eddington review have given emphasis to it, for all of us. We must all face up to it. Competition between cities is not the way to achieve our ends. Investment is the way. Thinking big and creatively and being ambitious must be part of the package. The west midlands has been in the forefront of innovation for decades—centuries—and when we develop these systems we need to consider whether we can secure the technological and industrial benefit, getting into the design and production game as well as piloting and using the systems in the relevant areas. The best system in the long term will be a national one—there is little doubt about that—but such a system will be highly complex, which is why it needs to be trialled. The time to do that is now, and we need to ensure that our big cities can carry out the trials a way that is imaginative and which will boost the economy and cut congestion—not the reverse.

Sir Nicholas Winterton (in the Chair): I remind hon. Members that just 19 minutes are left of the debate before I call the Front-Bench speakers to wind up.

13 Dec 2006 : Column 273WH
10.11 am

Mr. John Spellar (Warley) (Lab): I take your point, Sir Nicholas, and in deference to other hon. Members, I shall be brief and cut some of my remarks.

I shall get to the nub of the issue straight away: road pricing is a tax. It is quite proper in Government to use tax to modify behaviour, but I want to consider the impact of the tax. My first question is whether it will be an additional tax. Motorists already pay £24 billion in fuel duty. We have, and already had even before the recent increase, the highest fuel duty rate in Europe, particularly for diesel users. I want to know whether there will be any offset on that, and more particularly who will pay for the very considerable costs of setting up and running the system. Going by the west midlands study, it does not get to break-even point until year 17, so there is huge public expenditure in set-up costs at the start, let alone the cost to individuals.

My next question is who will pay. By definition the people who will pay at the highest level—according to the Department’s own study—will be those who use the busiest roads at the busiest times. That, certainly in the west midlands, means those in the urban conurbation. Therefore the people who pay will be the people using the roads at peak hours, which are the travel-to-work times. We are therefore targeting a tax at urban workers on their way to work—people who used to be called hard-working families. If we have a national scheme, who will benefit? It will be those who live in rural areas. I do not, as a Labour Member, find it intrinsically attractive to tax my constituents in urban areas when they go to work, for the benefit of people who live in Herefordshire. Incidentally, collecting fuel duty is an extremely cheap and efficient way to collect tax; some 99 per cent. of that £24 billion is collected from some 20 companies.

Is there a problem? Of course there is. We have a dynamic economy; there are 2 million more people in work. We also have internet shopping, with a massive delivery economy. What can we do to mitigate the problem? I should have more confidence in the Department for Transport’s proposals if at the same time it was making progress with mitigating existing problems. Let us consider lorry bans, for example. In this instance I give credit to the Minister—it is a shame that he is answering, because he is a real can-do Minister in Government—who is considering the matter of delivery bans. Often there is an insistence that delivery vehicles for supermarkets turn up in peak hours; they are not allowed to deliver in the early hours of the morning, even though the supermarkets are often open then.

Other relevant matters are hard shoulder running and active traffic management. Again, all credit is due to the Minister, who gave the Highways Agency a real shove when it had been ducking and dithering about the issue for years. When I asked him about it early in the year, the date was supposed to be March 2007. When I asked him in the summer about progress with the equipment needed for active traffic management on the M42 to the east side of the midlands conurbation, he said that it was all in place, and got the Highways Agency to get on with it. In September, it was introduced. What happened? There were no problems, and a 13 per cent. increase in capacity. By the way, about a 15 per cent. reduction in traffic is needed to do away with most congestion. That is why school holidays have such an impact.

13 Dec 2006 : Column 274WH

Is traffic information accurate enough, and are the signs put up by the Highways Agency making enough use of the technology? Are we using the national traffic control centre?

As to street works, we have been putting legislation through, but we are still miles behind New York, Sydney and many other places which manage the system day by day. Departments are very good at 20-year plans and long-term projects, but they are not good—and nor are the police, frankly, although they try to guard their powers—at running the system in real time.

My final point, because I am mindful of the time, is about demand. Why do schools in many areas all start at the same time? That adds considerably to congestion on the school run. Why do many firms that are not on flow-line production not have flexible working? Why do Government Departments, for example, not encourage people to work at home for one day? That, incidentally, happens in Washington, precisely to deal with traffic congestion there. Several issues need to be addressed, but the Minister needs in particular to answer the question of my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Blackley (Graham Stringer) about whether there is conditionality in properly evaluating transport schemes in the west midlands and Manchester. Will they be assessed on their merits rather than on whether we are going along with the current fad?

10.17 am

Lynne Jones (Birmingham, Selly Oak) (Lab): Ever since I became an MP 15 years ago, transport has been an item on the agenda of the annual meetings that take place with local business leaders. Even when the Tories were in government, business leaders were pressing for a bigger budget on transport. It was the one area of public spending in which they wanted an increase. Although we have increased transport investment, that has not, outside London, been on the scale that is needed. My right hon. and hon. Friends have already touched on this issue, but I understand that spending on London is three times that on Birmingham and Manchester—or five times if one includes the £3 billion prudential borrowing that Transport for London is able to put in. We are, I think, united in this Chamber on the need for greater public investment. It should not be a matter of competition between conurbations. We need greater investment, which, overall, would pay for itself.

We must, however, also tackle congestion. I accept that there are measures that could be taken, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Warley (Mr. Spellar) has mentioned, but if we get the economic growth that we want, a 25 per cent. increase in congestion is predicted over the 20 years to 2021. I do not believe that that can be tackled without some road pricing. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Richard Burden) that it would be better if we could introduce the more sophisticated satellite system, and I hope that he is right to say that we might be able to bring forward the date of 2020, which has been given by the transport experts from Birmingham whom we have met. If that does not prove possible, we cannot wait until 2020. We need to do something more quickly, because of the scale of congestion.

An hon. Member who represents Manchester said that we should have a referendum before any road
13 Dec 2006 : Column 275WH
pricing was introduced. Had there been a referendum in London, it would have gone against congestion charging. Sometimes, politicians have to put their heads above the parapet and do the right thing even though it is unpopular. I know that Liberal Democrats are not fond of doing that.

Mr. Leech: I did not suggest having a referendum before charging was introduced.

Lynne Jones: I did not say that it was the hon. Gentleman. It was a Manchester Member, but I cannot remember which part of the city my hon. Friend represents.

Generally speaking, as many decisions as possible should be taken locally, but in this case we need to follow the Government’s lead. We need a national scheme. In the west midlands, we have considerable congestion on the M6, and some argue that charging should be introduced on motorways, but we also need action in our conurbations.

In London, the Mayor can take decisions for the entire conurbation, but that cannot be done in Birmingham or Manchester. I agree with the hon. Member for Manchester, Withington (Mr. Leech) that it would be difficult to impose congestion charging in Manchester without doing the same in Trafford. We have a similar situation in Birmingham; traders in the city centre would be adversely affected by congestion charging in the city but not, for example, around the Merry Hill centre in Dudley. We need a regionally based system, and the Government are right to encourage council leaders, often from different political parties, to get their act together.

I finish by introducing a subject that no other speaker has mentioned. That is cycling. We need to encourage far more cycling in our urban areas. I cycle in London and in Birmingham. I feel safer in London—although I do not feel entirely safe—as it has a more extensive use of feeder lanes and advanced stops for cyclists. In London, I am frequently accompanied by dozens of other cyclists, but in Birmingham I cycle alone; there are no other cyclists on the roads. The investment in cycling in places such as Birmingham is minuscule in relation to the sums invested in our roads. The traffic engineers still do not think of cycling when investing in road schemes, although they sometimes paint a few white lines to give cyclists feeder lanes and advanced stops.

We need to do far more to encourage cycling. People need to believe that it is safer than they perceive. Not only would that help relieve congestion, but it would make us fitter. As a cyclist myself, I recommend it: it is good for health and good for congestion, and it is about the quickest way of getting around in London—and in Birmingham during the rush hour, although not necessarily at off-peak times. I urge the Government to do more to encourage investment in cycling.

Several hon. Members rose—

Sir Nicholas Winterton (in the Chair): I am not sure how many more Members want to speak. I hope to call another two.

Next Section Index Home Page