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13 Dec 2006 : Column 282WH—continued

That is a very pertinent point. Where does one draw the boundaries? What is Manchester? What is Greater Manchester? Those inside the net and those outside it will feel aggrieved for different reasons.

It was interesting that the island of Lidingo in Stockholm had to be excluded from the scheme there, and people had to be given access through the congestion zone as long as they did not stay for more than 40 minutes. The main north-south Swedish motorway was also excluded, because that was thought to penalise people from outside.

We then have a huge technical problem: how will people be picked up? The hon. Member for Rochdale (Paul Rowen) mentioned that he is in favour of a national scheme and he did not seem to like tag and beacon, but what will be done about itinerant people coming from Yorkshire or people from Cumbria passing through Manchester? The complications technically will be very difficult to overcome. I think that it was as a result of that that, in a poll last week in Manchester, 74 per cent. of the people said no to congestion charging and 26 per cent. said yes. The Government have a major public relations problem in trying to win this argument.

The situation is similar in the west midlands. “Gridlock or Growth—Choices and Challenges for the future” has horrific figures on the costs of congestion: £2.2 billion, according to the CBI. In a poll of 5,000 people, 79 per cent. said that congestion was a key priority. However, the report is emphatic that the west midlands requires £2 billion of investment and improvement in transport ahead of any road-pricing scheme in order to provide choice and alternatives to the car, with a further £2 billion afterwards. Again, some 70 per cent. of people in Birmingham get to work by car. We cannot just put an extra charge on those people if there is no alternative. I think that that was
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the point made by the right hon. Member for Warley. I believe that people would go by bus, as they did in London and as they did possibly in Stockholm, as an alternative, but people must have those alternatives; otherwise, there is a real penalty on the hard-working people referred to by the right hon. Gentleman.

Lynne Jones: Might those people also cycle, which is very cheap?

Sir Nicholas Winterton (in the Chair): Briefly, please, Mr. Paterson.

Mr. Paterson: Those people may well cycle, but I suspect that some of them travel rather too long a distance to cycle. Cycling is certainly a possibility, but I do not think that it will answer the substantial problems of congestion in the west midlands.

Sir Nicholas Winterton (in the Chair): We hope that the Minister will have time to reply.

Mr. Paterson: I am about to conclude my comments, Sir Nicholas. Those who will make the decisions—I talked to a cabinet member for transport only yesterday in the west midlands—say that they have a healthy scepticism about congestion charging, as they do not want the west midlands to be put at a competitive disadvantage by isolated regional trials. Now I come to the macro point, which we raised in a debate last week. I do not quite understand what these trials will teach us for a national scheme. A national scheme, I suggest, will probably be satellite based—the hon. Member for Rochdale referred to that—but we will have these small isolated trials built around the peculiarities of congestion in the big conurbations. Can the Minister tell us what we will learn for a national scheme, and can he then mention the big elephant in the room, which we did not get an answer to last week, which is the European directive, not yet finalised, on the technology?

10.49 am

The Minister of State, Department for Transport (Dr. Stephen Ladyman): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Blackley (Graham Stringer) on securing the debate. He and I have differences of opinion on several aspects of this issue, but at least I know that he is keen to debate the issue and to bring matters out into the open. That is exactly what I want to happen. In our manifesto, we said that we would launch a major national debate on road pricing and we have honoured that. We are moving the issue forward, but we will win people over only if we have debates such as this to discuss the issues.

My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Richard Burden) struck exactly the right note—I hope that this does not do his career too much damage—and is in exactly the position that I would like Members of Parliament and local councillors to be at this stage. I want them to acknowledge that road pricing has to be part of the mix, but be a bit sceptical and ask questions about exactly how it will work and how it will be made fair. I want them to understand that we have to face up to these issues and answer these questions because road pricing is inevitable. I see no alternative to it in the long term.

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There will be national road pricing. We have said that that will happen around the middle of the next decade, although I shall not have a sweepstake on exactly which year it will be. It might be a little later than that; circumstances and the Government of the day will determine when it is. In no discussion with any transport expert, academic or other person who has studied traffic issues around the country have I heard any dispute that road pricing is coming to the roads near us at some time in the future.

Mr. Spellar rose—

Dr. Ladyman: I shall give way to my right hon. Friend in a moment; I want to make some progress first. The questions that we should be asking are about how road pricing should be done and in what order. How can we test it? How can we make it work? How fast should we do it? What alternatives need to be put in place?

It is clear from the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Blackley that he believes there is an alternative to road pricing in Manchester: massive investment in public transport. We have made massive investments in transport around the country and we will continue to do so and to make big investments in public transport, but one has only to take a cursory look at the Eddington report to realise that if we do not do something else as well, those massive investments will fail.

My hon. Friend knows as well as I that when our constituents say, “If only the public transport system was better, I would use it,” they mean, “If only the public transport system was better, everybody else could use it and I could carry on driving my car down a nice, clear road.” If we are to provide the carrot of increased investment in public transport, we must also use the stick of road pricing to make people use it. That is the only way in which we can make sense of those massive investments.

A 25 per cent. increase in congestion is coming soon, according to the Eddington report—all the facts and figures are there—unless we start to manage demand. That has to be through road pricing. It is going to be difficult, as the hon. Member for North Shropshire (Mr. Paterson) said. There are many questions to be answered and we have to work out how to do it, but we must answer those questions and do those things because we cannot avoid that.

I was not in Manchester or Birmingham yesterday; I was in Brussels. I do not know if they were simply having a bad day there, but if hon. Members want to see what congestion might look like in 15 years if we do not do something about it, they should go to Brussels on a bad day and see the utter chaos. People there even ignore red lights because there is no other way of making progress in the traffic system. That will be the story everywhere if we do not face up to these difficult questions.

Mr. Spellar: May I take the Minister back to the academics who are all applauding road-user charging? How many of them are involved with consultancies that advise on road-user charging and can see themselves having very lucrative careers for a long time to come?

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Dr. Ladyman: I am sure that many of them are so doing, but, equally, I have met many experts who are not making that sort of link between the future and the policies that they propose. My right hon. Friend should consider the journey that the British Chambers of Commerce has made. When I was appointed to this position and had to start going out and trying to sell road pricing, the BCC said, “Over our dead body.” Six months later, it had changed its position to saying, “Oh, yes, we must do road pricing, but it must be revenue-neutral.” Now it has published a report saying, “We have to get on with road pricing and it should be revenue raising with the money being spent on transport systems.” It has made the journey that I would like everyone in the country to make. If the BCC is prepared to see the benefits of road pricing, including those to public transport and transport investment, we can all come to that position.

I want to correct a few inaccuracies in what my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Blackley said. He began by talking about a competitive process but it is a competition only in the sense that our colleagues in Manchester and Birmingham have decided in their heads that it is a competition between those cities. It is true that if we were to give all the money to one of them, there would be nothing left for the other, but we have never said that that is our intention. I know that the west midlands has produced a document that basically says, “You need to give us £2 billion and then another £2 billion a few years later,” and it is true that if we gave £2 billion to the west midlands in that time scale, there would be little left for anyone else, so perhaps people in Manchester have interpreted that to mean, “It’s us or them,” but it could quite easily be both of them. If we get the right plans, we will consider how we can support both.

It will be key to the whole process that the pilots are able to teach us something because the innovation fund is meant to help us move towards introducing a national road-pricing scheme. We are therefore unlikely, as both the hon. Members for Rochdale (Paul Rowen) and for North Shropshire said, to make major investments to learn about another barrier scheme because we know what a barrier scheme looks like and what we can learn from it. We have the London congestion charge. We are more likely to support a scheme that uses a distance-based approach.

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My hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Blackley said that people were being forced into the transport innovation fund partnership, but there are no pressed men in the partnership. We may have attracted them with the prospect of a good dose of honey, but if the political leaders in Manchester do not want to proceed down that path, and if the political leaders in Birmingham and the west midlands do not want to continue to explore these issues with us, by all means let them say so and step aside now.

Graham Stringer: Obviously, there is a great deal more to debate on that point later, but if Manchester were to withdraw from a congestion-based road-pricing scheme, would the Government still be willing to fund the second phase of the Metrolink extension?

Dr. Ladyman: Manchester would have to make a business case for that funding along with everyone else. We have made it quite clear that we expect our partners in the TIF pilot scheme areas to look seriously at demand management, the business issues that they are trying to address, local congestion problems and alternative solutions to them. I am delighted to tell my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Lynne Jones) that that includes cycling and walking. Those partners need to consider bus and tram scheduling, regulation and provision in their local areas. All that we ask at this stage is that they consider all those issues sensibly and take into account the potential of demand management and road pricing.

We are not asking anyone to sign up to road pricing. Neither are we specifying any particular technologies at this stage. I know that some people have started to speculate about camera-based systems, but I have been pressing on all our partners that at this stage they should focus on the business case and the problem that they are trying to solve. I have stressed that that must be identified before we start considering technological solutions or other ways of moving forward. I very much hope that they will do that and that local politicians in Birmingham and Manchester will take forward the debate with local people and ask them what they want to see—

Sir Nicholas Winterton (in the Chair): Order. I am afraid that I must tell the Minister that time is up. I believe that we had 10 speakers in this most interesting debate of an hour and a half.

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Universities Research Assessment Exercise

11 am

Dr. Tony Wright (Cannock Chase) (Lab): I am glad to have this opportunity, however brief, to draw attention to some of the issues surrounding the way in which research in universities is evaluated and rewarded, and to some of the consequences for activities that seem to me to matter. I should confess that I have had a bee in my bonnet about this for some time, and I would like to transfer it to the bonnet of the Minister for Higher Education and Lifelong Learning. I see that he has sensibly decided to be abroad, but it is a great pleasure to see the Under-Secretary of State for Education and Skills, my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Mr. Dhanda), in his place.

I need to make further confessions: I used to be a university teacher, and I am an honorary professor at the university of Birmingham and a visiting professor at the university of Westminster. I should make it clear that nothing that I say today has any connection with those fine institutions.

I am also joint editor of a journal called The Political Quarterly, which was founded in 1930 with money from Bernard Shaw by Leonard Woolf, Kingsley Martin and William Robson. Its past editors have included John Mackintosh, a former distinguished Member of this House, and Professor Bernard Crick, that great public intellectual who has retrieved the idea of citizenship for us and put it, belatedly, into the national curriculum. The journal’s mission, which is still announced inside its back cover, is to publish articles on issues of public policy aimed at the most demanding level of intelligence but without being technical and pedantic. The tradition of the journal has always been to accept articles written in plain English—without jargon—that deal with issues of political importance, or that provide background material or basic speculation directly related to those issues. The terms of that mission statement have implications for some of what I want to say. Let me explain why.

During a previous research assessment exercise—RAE—there was an attempt to get objective indicators of the worth of journal articles. When that was applied to politics journals, The Political Quarterly scored highly when people were asked about its impact, but much less highly when it was evaluated for research content. In other words, in terms of audience, there were high rewards for writing for fellow political science professionals but low rewards for writing for a wider public readership. That means that quality was being defined in a way that explicitly excluded the ability to reach a wide audience, and that for a discipline that supposedly had civics at its centre. The situation is frankly bizarre.

There are many disciplines on which I have no authority to speak—science, engineering and technology. It may be that they have no difficulties in the way that research is assessed, whether it is done in the present RAE form or in the form of the metrics that is planned to replace it. Indeed, it is widely said that one of the general problems is that the research assessment that is designed for the natural sciences is inappropriately applied to the humanities and the
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social sciences. That is particularly said about the application of metrics, which compounds the deficiencies of the RAE.

I want to concentrate on what I think I know and on what I have been told by the distinguished academics in social science and the humanities whom I have consulted about the impact of research assessment and whom I shall quote, albeit anonymously. Some point to the benefits that RAE has brought in establishing the importance of research and challenging received reputations and funding. However, all also identify its deficiencies and damaging consequences for activities that matter. One has to spend only five minutes in the company of academics before talk turns to the malign consequences of the RAE.

What are those consequences? Let me start with the main bee in my bonnet. The RAE encourages production for its own sake of stuff that people do not need to write, in a form that is impossible for most people to read. In social science in particular, the RAE drives the profession in upon itself, cutting itself off from a wider public discourse. It is marooned in a private and impenetrable language, and it is consumed by its own publishing preoccupations. No thought is allowed to go unreferenced, and sentences become ugly aggregates of borrowed phrases.

George Orwell put it well in that wonderful essay on “Politics and the English Language”:

One has only to pick up a copy of a political science journal to find oneself immediately in the linguistic world of prefabricated henhouses. The Orwell mission of turning political writing into an art has no chance at all in this kind of academic environment.

Journals are invented just to consume the products of the RAE, and the more obscure and professionally introverted they are, the better. Public relevance is despised and devalued. One young academic, a representative of many, was warned by his head of department to stop doing policy-relevant research and concentrate on getting stuff into “the high-ranking journals”. Of course, as a general rule, the higher the ranking, the less such journals are read and the less sense they make to anyone in the real world.

Another academic writes:

It is widely remarked that the whole RAE exercise has become a game. One head of department put it to me, that it

New players, and sometimes whole new teams, are shamelessly brought in to improve the ratings, and old ones are disposed of despite their general contribution to the life of the institution.

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The preoccupation with assessed research has a particular and serious consequence for teaching. Another departmental head observed that

One of these younger academics points to the gap in salary and regard opening up between the high-earning RAE academics and

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