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10.23 am

Ms Gisela Stuart (Birmingham, Edgbaston) (Lab): I shall be brief, Sir Nicholas, as I would be happy to put my name to all that my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Richard Burden) said.

I have some thoughts on subjects that have not yet been mentioned. Today’s debate is easy for the Minister; he has only to stand up and say yes. We all agree that we need massive investment in the transport system, but the question is where to start. We have not quite reached that stage in our debate.

We need to be much more rigorous when considering the nature of the journeys that we are talking about, some of which may impact on the economy and some of which we can do without. We need to know the reasons for the journeys and to decide on the most appropriate ways to travel. I can tell my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Lynne Jones) that when I lived in Holland, I saw massive traffic jams being caused by bicycles, so it should not be thought that they cannot cause congestion. However, she is right that that we need to do more in Birmingham.

A crucial factor is the cost of journeys. How should we price them? The Department for Transport has to be extremely careful. If it wants a pricing mechanism—ultimately, that is what we will have to do—it will have to provide alternatives that are not based only on the ability to pay. Those alternatives will require a decent infrastructure for our buses, cycles, trams, trains—and even our waterways.

Goods should be taken off the roads. One of the most bizarre conversations I have had on the subject was with a manager at Hams Hall. I asked him how he would get the car engines from Cowley to Hams Hall, and he said that it would be done by road. I said, “Why on earth are you doing it by road? You have the railway.” He said that the roads were even more reliable than the railways. There is something wrong.

I agree with my colleagues that competition between cities can be rather unpleasant. I spent 10 years of my life in Manchester, and along with Birmingham, it is a city for which I have the greatest affection. However, when the Department for Transport is faced with limited funds, it will have to give the money to those places that already have got their acts together—places that can more effectively implement Government policy. Indeed, all Governments expect local authorities to implement their policies.

As the Minister gets ready to go home with his red box, I recommend that he takes two documents with him. The first is “Gridlock or Growth”, a west midlands metropolitan area congestion management study. In the final paragraph, it considers the options and spells out the blunt conclusion:

The second document is Birmingham city council’s prospectus of November 2006. It shows that if the Minister has limited funds, he might insist on road
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pricing as one of the conditions for allocating transport innovation fund money. I hope that he will tell us whether that is likely. I hope that he is confident that the west midlands, and particularly Birmingham, is ready to start that long and necessary debate.

10.27 am

Lynda Waltho (Stourbridge) (Lab): I associate myself with most of what has been said by my right hon. and hon. Friends. I want to draw attention to the findings of the west midlands “Gridlock or Growth” study on congestion, particularly as it affects the black country. It is often said that one can get to the black country but that one cannot get through it. That is very true, particularly on Fridays. Indeed, because of the way in which our diaries work, that is when I do most of my travelling in the black country. The traffic is almost like rush hour all day long. It is horrific.

Congestion is a serious and growing problem in the west midlands metropolitan area. The road network regularly reaches the point when everything could all stop; we are never far from gridlock. There are several congestion black spots. The Birmingham study shows that congestion in the area will grow 22 per cent. by 2021 and that an extra 300,000 hours of travel delay should be expected every day. That is the equivalent of an extra 469,000 car journeys. That will continue to damage the competitive position of the west midlands.

In my part of the black country, we have managed to reduce unemployment, and new investment is starting to come in, but congestion will stop that growth. It is vital for the black country that the problem is addressed and that city regions are not left to compete with each other. I hate to be boring on the issue, but it vital that early decisions are made, particularly on the extension to the metro and on the plans for Birmingham New Street station, which affects the wider west midlands area.

Sir Nicholas Winterton (in the Chair): I thank hon. Members for their co-operation. We now start the winding-up speeches. I call Paul Rowen.

10.29 am

Paul Rowen (Rochdale) (LD): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Nicholas. I thank the hon. Member for Manchester, Blackley (Graham Stringer) for initiating this debate and other hon. Members who have made a valuable contribution to what is an increasingly important issue.

Although the debate is about Birmingham and Manchester, I would like to set out some clear principles of the Liberal Democrats with regards to road pricing. There are several reasons why we are talking about road-user pricing and an obvious reason has been mentioned already. It relates to reducing congestion because a punitive charge shifts behaviour. That shift presupposes that there is another route people can drive their car down or that people will use public transport. Therefore, there has to be investment in public transport. A reduction in congestion is not just needed in towns and cities, but as other hon. Members have said, if we are serious about tackling the problem, it is needed in the inter-modal routes—
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whether those are the national motorways or the routes between places such as Manchester and Wigan.

Road-user pricing is about raising revenue. We know that this Chancellor often raises huge sums of money that disappear elsewhere. I hope that some of the money raised will be used to fund public transport investment, but this issue is also about reducing CO2 emissions and doing something for climate change. Road-user pricing probably relates to all three points I have mentioned: reducing congestion, raising revenue and reducing CO2 emissions.

Mr. Spellar: Can the hon. Gentleman tell us whether he considers the road-user charge as additional to fuel duty or whether he thinks it will be compensated by reductions in fuel duty?

Paul Rowen: I was about to answer part of that. The charge relates to a mixture of both. If we are serious about wanting people to use more user-friendly and environmentally friendly cars, the present fuel duty and road tax system should be replaced with a system that rewards people who have such vehicles. However, there also has to be a balance with raising additional resources.

On the tension between local and national concerns that the hon. Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Richard Burden) raised, we are all agreed that, in the long term, there must be a national road-user pricing policy. The problem is how to get that and when to concentrate solely on the urban areas. As the hon. Member for Manchester, Blackley said, there are problems with that.

The Government have missed a trick. In Germany, Switzerland and Austria, road-user pricing is being introduced for HGVs. In this country, our road haulage industry is rightly complaining that it is subsidising cheap, foreign transport, which is taking away some of our jobs. A major step would be for HGVs to have satellite systems installed. We should insist on that as it would ensure that foreign hauliers begin to pay some of the costs. While it should be revenue-neutral for British HGVs, the extra resources should be used to obtain some of the national systems that need to be introduced.

Birmingham and Manchester have been given transport innovation fund pump-priming and are in direct competition with each other. I agree with other hon. Members who have questioned whether that is fair when the investment has been found in other great cities on the continent to ensure those cities can grow and develop. Economically, it is absolutely vital that Birmingham and Manchester get the additional resources. We have already heard the cost of that: for Birmingham it is £2 billion now and £2 billion later. In the next few months, we will no doubt have an indication from Manchester about just how much its funding will cost. In terms of operation, any system that is adopted must be fair and be seen to be fair to the people who use it and to the people who may want to invest in those great cities.

A lot has been said about the use of barrier systems. Like other hon. Members, I have huge concerns about the effects of a barrier or camera system on economic development. We know what will happen and where people will go if, for example, the towns in Greater Manchester have a system and the Trafford centre is
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excluded. As the hon. Gentleman said, congestion will shift on to the M60 and town and city centres will die.

The report on Birmingham, “Gridlock or Growth”, has been mentioned. I have spoken to colleagues in Greater Manchester and they have serious concerns about some of the proposals. Those concerns relate to the way the proposals dissect Birmingham in two, and avoid some urban conurbations, and to the fact that that its recommendations are unfair.

A crude camera system, as the hon. Member for Birmingham, Northfield said, is not fair. We need to develop satellite systems. I know that local authorities want the resources and that many of them are willing to play the Government’s game, but what will happen if and when they get the money? That is not the right way to proceed. We need to invest, to cut CO2 emissions, and to tackle traffic congestion—not just in urban areas, but in our cities. In order to do that we need a system that uses satellite technology. Such a system needs to be rolled out so that it starts in certain areas. However, people should not have to go along with the system as a prerequisite to getting the funding needed to improve public transport. We must all accept that climate change and our way of life mean that we must take action, but we first need a clear system that is based on the national road network and on the motorways and trunk roads that already exist. That will do far more to tackle congestion than drawing lines on maps and saying, “If you are in that area, you are paying and if you are outside it, you are not.” That is not a fair and equitable system and it will not bring about fair economic growth.

10.36 am

Mr. Owen Paterson (North Shropshire) (Con): It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Nicholas. I congratulate the hon. Member for Manchester, Blackley (Graham Stringer) on bringing this interesting subject to our attention.

There has been a genuine national debate on this issue. Our party is convinced that a price mechanism can change people’s behaviour and manage demand. I have seen several projects in the past year and the one that most clearly proves that point is the SR 91 road in southern California, which joins a residential area to an area where many people work. As there were four lanes of freeway—or motorway—jammed solid morning and evening, the central median was ripped out and a four lane high-occupancy vehicle lane was built with free access for people with more than two passengers. That was a complete waste of time as it was jammed morning and evening. The HOV lane was then converted to a high-occupancy toll lane with a varying charge. The intention was that a maximum of 3,200 vehicles would travel every hour and, in simple terms, the number of vehicles was doubled and the speed of those vehicles trebled. The lesson is that those prepared to change their behaviour in the morning and go to work at 5 or 11 o’clock paid a modest charge of around $4 for a 10-mile run. In the afternoon, when there are strong incentives to arrive home on time, such as a $10 per minute charge for being late at the nursery to pick up a child, people wanted reliability and they bought it. In the afternoon, people were prepared to pay a much steeper fee of up to $8.50 at 4 o’clock on Wednesdays and Thursdays.

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As the right hon. Member for Warley (Mr. Spellar) said, the lesson is that people will pay more on top of what are huge charges for vehicle excise and fuel duty in this country if there is a genuine product. As with the M6 toll, we have seen that people will pay because they are buying the certainty that they will arrive at the other end—29 or 31 miles away— on time. That is an absolutely key lesson.

Mr. Spellar: Before the hon. Gentleman moves on, can he clarify whether he sees the road-user charging as additional to fuel duty or whether he sees there being an offset?

Mr. Paterson: If it was national, it would almost certainly have to be an offset, but the point I am making is that there would be public support for delivering a product that involved reliability and certainty of arrival.

The Government have a real job on their hands, as perhaps we all do, to differentiate between congestion charging and road pricing. They are two completely different animals. The congestion charge in London is, bluntly, a brutal socialist club designed to discriminate against people who have the temerity to enter Ken’s kingdom in a private motor car. There is a single charge and no incentive once one has entered the kingdom not to use the car as much as possible. There are some extraordinary anomalies with the congestion charge and the scheme is a real lesson of what not to do in London. It is heroically inefficient: 49 per cent. of the revenues go on administration, as opposed to 19 per cent. in Singapore. Also, the product has not been delivered because, as the right hon. Member for Warley said, enormous changes have been made to the road space. Some 1,000 extra traffic lights have been imposed, and the infamous bendy buses have come along. The situation is admitted in Transport for London’s own “Transport vision for a growing world city”, published last month. It states:

We have seen that very expensive scheme set up. Speeds before charging were 8.9 mph. After charging, they were 10.4 mph, but they are now back down to 10 mph. What is extraordinary is that there has been a decrease of 11 per cent. in the number of vehicles, but the total vehicle kilometres driven in the zone have gone up. This is my point: there must be varied charging and it must take account of the fact that people, once they have paid a charge, will maximise what they have paid for and drive around as much as possible.

There has also been quite a severe commercial impact. The chairman of the John Lewis Partnership, which has done a lot of research on the matter, told me that the turnover of its store in Oxford street is significantly less now on a seven-day week than it was before on a six-day week. That has been confirmed by the Greater London authority’s own economics unit, which says that small retailers, which represent—

Sir Nicholas Winterton (in the Chair): Order. May I say to the hon. Gentleman, who is making a most interesting contribution to the debate, that the discussion is directed specifically at Manchester and Birmingham, not London?

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Mr. Paterson: I am most grateful for your guidance, Sir Nicholas, but there are clear lessons from the experience in London about the commercial impact. I have some interesting comments from west midlands business men, which I will come to in a second.

One of the other key lessons from London concerns evasions. Last year, 5,500 people received penalty notices on a daily basis, 25 per cent. of which were not paid. The Minister must address this point, which I raised in a debate last week. We all give credit to the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency, given the titanically difficult problem that it has of tracking 47 million drivers and 36 million vehicles, but its database is only 68 per cent. dead accurate. It is 10 per cent. so inaccurate that people cannot be traced, so that involves 3.6 million vehicles and 4.7 million drivers. That will create a huge sense of unfairness. Even in the Stockholm trial, accuracy became an issue. Even the good, law-abiding Swedes found that a substantial number of people did not pay. I just do not see how we can get off base one on road pricing until we have a cast-iron accurate database.

Let me turn to the Greater Manchester project. There is a clear link in this respect: those who are in favour of the scheme in Manchester seek a large increase in investment in Metrolink. The way in which the Government are behaving is quite clear. They are offering substantial extra sums of public money to the authorities around the country in the provincial zones being targeted for congestion charging or road pricing, if they will introduce a road pricing or congestion scheme. That will enable them to pick up an extra large slug of money. The danger is that they might get it the wrong way round.

There were comments last week in Manchester showing that the Metrolink is already extremely clogged up. There was one very interesting comment in the Manchester Evening News only a few days ago that

An unnamed commuter described how the buses and trains were full and commuters had to squash on and how, on at least two occasions, they had not been able to get on the train at all.

The Government have a problem in this regard. We are talking about a chicken-and-egg situation. If an aggressive road pricing scheme is introduced, where will such commuters go? In London, they had an option. Edmund King of the RAC said:

There was substantial investment in extra buses in London; there was an alternative. The situation was the same in Stockholm, where 200 extra buses were bought.

What will happen in Manchester if the main aim of the exercise is to get a huge slug of extra money to extend Metrolink? Obviously, there will be interim monster disruption while Metrolink is extended, but where will people go? I agree with the right hon. Member for Warley that there will be a penalty on what he called hard-working families who are trying to get in and out of Manchester on a daily basis at times when they simply have to travel.

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I also entirely endorse the right hon. Gentleman’s comments on deliveries to shops by heavy goods vehicles. If we are to have road pricing, we have to address the question of evening curfews. I walk to this place every morning past a Tesco truck delivering to the Tesco mini-store by the Home Office. Presumably, that truck can deliver only at that time of the morning. It seems crazy to have an articulated lorry driving into Westminster at 9 o’clock in the morning when, if the delivery was made at another time, the only people who would, I suggest, be disturbed would be MPs getting up early preparing for a debate, civil servants or possibly cleaners in the Home Office building itself. The right hon. Gentleman is right. It is pointless to introduce a road-charging scheme on the Californian model that will encourage people to get up earlier in the morning and arrive home later at night if the planning regulations prevent rational decisions from being made and deliveries from being made at different times.

I detect in Manchester some scepticism about charging. Roger Jones, chairman of the Greater Manchester passenger transport authority, said:

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