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12 Mar 2007 : Column 93

None of this is reprehensible or difficult to understand. The problem arises when, for one reason or another, that partnership begins to get slightly out of kilter. One could say that with that set of objectives, no local transport plan is, in effect, local. It is centrally decided and locally implemented, but the strategy, the money and the determination come from the Department for Transport.

Mark Pritchard (The Wrekin) (Con): Although I agree with the hon. Lady, does she agree that there is also the dynamic of the Office of Rail Regulation and Network Rail in relation to train services that are delivered locally, whatever the strategy of central Government? For example, in my constituency we want a new direct rail service from Shropshire to London, starting in Wrexham. Although the local authorities support it and, I understand, the Government support it, the Office of Rail Regulation and Network Rail are making it very difficult for that scheme to be developed.

Mrs. Dunwoody: The hon. Gentleman will forgive me if I do not wreck my entire career by getting involved in the politics of Wrexham. That was a lesson that I learned very early on and it is not something that I am likely to forget. Indeed, the Welsh Assembly Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire is likely to make known her views on the expenditure on transport from that Assembly without any help at all. One Dunwoody on the subject is quite enough.

We ought to accept that the guidance from the Department for Transport does not indicate what weighting is to be given to success in delivering against locally identified priorities. If there is to be a local transport plan, it must have clear local input. The Government have not yet told us how they weight their response. How do they judge the things that are important? The Government response said:

The difficulty is that local authorities do not have that much flexibility. They must know at an early point what is going to happen to their local transport plan. Although they have their own objectives, they need to know what the Government think is a priority. They also need to know clearly where the money is coming from.

Andrew Selous (South-West Bedfordshire) (Con): My constituents are beginning to think of local transport planning in my area as a sick joke. A previous Secretary of State for Transport announced that a key bypass would be built in 2003. I heard from the Highways Agency only a few days ago that it is not likely to be built until 2016. Does the hon. Lady think that things have come to a pretty pass when there is a 13-year delay on a road that a Secretary of State has announced will be built?

Mrs. Dunwoody: We can all play the constituency game and say, “I haven’t got everything I want on my particular wish list.” A previous Government got their transport policies into one great mess because they promised everybody that they would get everything on
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their wish list and then ensured that there was never any money to achieve it. I am not going to play that game. I happen to think that we should be looking seriously at the problems that local authorities face to see how we can help to sort them out.

The Committee said that it was unacceptable that local authorities were penalised for pursuing regeneration and job-creation schemes. We stated:

How did performance against local priorities influence the local transport capital settlement for 2007-08? Will the Government confirm that local authorities will be rewarded in their local transport planning scores for performing well against local objectives of regeneration and job creation? When it comes to comparing performance between various authorities, as every authority has some differences from its next-door neighbours, can we know exactly what local transport needs, targets and objectives the Department is using in allocating funding according to performance against local targets? Those things will make an enormous difference.

We said that the Minister had told us that the

However, after the Government response was published, the roads performance division within the Department wrote to 10 urban areas covered by the urban congestion target and said that if they wanted to submit “congestion delivery plans”—this Government are so clunky in the titles they choose that one would think they were Liberals—they could then have them assessed and payments would be awarded from a £60 million congestion performance fund over four years. Do these congestion delivery plans required of the 10 largest urban areas add another layer of planning and assessment, or are they a completely new approach? It would be helpful if we were told.

We looked carefully at capital funding and said that although the Department had told us it agreed with

we were not at all clear what proposals were going to be implemented to make that a reality. There must be some, and it would be helpful if they were stated transparently and clearly.

We considered the whole question of bidding. It is time to understand that a lot of the processes not only cost a great deal in terms of a local authority’s time, but they also cost money. If we assess the amount of work that goes into bids, it is clear that unsuccessful bidders, as well as successful bidders, are spending a considerable amount. Is the Minister going to tell us that the Department has got a target to reduce bidding time and costs?

The Government also said that they were going to give final guidance on major scheme funding, including sharing scheme development costs, in early 2007. When will that appear? Please can we have an idea of what it will say about streamlining the bidding process and reducing the costs for local authorities? We have had enough bidding processes for us to make those assessments. Surely it is time that local councils were given the right support at the right time to enable them
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to make sensible decisions on whether they should continue with a bid if it is painfully clear—we were told this again and again in evidence—that, for one reason or another, the bid from a particular authority for a scheme that it regards as important is not going to be successful. Someone should tell local authorities at a reasonably early stage why a bid will be unsuccessful and on what basis that decision has been made. They should be told to begin to rethink their plans and not be allowed to continue at considerable expense and with considerable difficulty.

I come to our old friend, the private finance initiative. The Committee said that if PFIs are not appropriate for transport, the Department should consider making the funding available through other forms of procurement. Sometimes there is a commitment—almost an ideological commitment—to the idea that only by using private finance schemes can Government policies become a reality. Frankly, not only is that totally difficult to understand, but in transport matters it is transparently untrue. Most of the PFI schemes that are operating—whether in railways or other forms of transport—have not produced the results and are making a lot of money for a lot of people without a lot of effective results.

The Committee looked at the Department’s decision to introduce a transport innovation fund, which will override the four shared priorities agreed between central Government and local authorities. The response did not give us any clear justification for that decision. Perhaps the Minister would like to explain how the national objectives in terms of congestion and productivity will be included in the transport innovation fund.

I have no intention of taking time that should go to other Back Benchers, but it is important to say one or two things. We know that the Government are striving not to break their fiscal rules, but because of that local authorities frequently face the difficult conundrum of how they should balance their finances between revenue and capital, and how they are going to sustain the new transport schemes that many of them are introducing.

As the example has been set, I want to refer to what is happening in the bus scheme in Cheshire. It is an excellent scheme. It has great support and my constituents are highly delighted with it, but the counties have not received support for administering that highly complex and rather difficult scheme. Given the constraints of Gershon and the other problems that have been put on local authorities, it is clear that there is a cost in administering the scheme which has not been allowed for or even properly planned for. Indeed, the differences between one area and another mean that some local authorities receive rather more financially than they had expected and some receive rather less. Local councils have found it almost impossible to pool those resources and to work together, which has put an even greater strain on the services. That cannot go on year after year. If costs are constantly taken out of local authority finances, those costs will become plain and will not only produce a
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shortage of revenue, but hinder the use of prudential borrowing by local authorities because they cannot service the debt.

The Transport Committee felt that not only had the Government got an excellent set of priorities, but they wanted to deliver those services where such services count most. What therefore upset us was that we felt that the guidance did not contain sufficient transparency, clarity or even evidence of exactly what the Government wanted local authorities to achieve. Yet again, I return to the point that it is a partnership between the Government and local authorities. Perhaps that partnership is uneven—it may be like the partnerships that one finds in medicine and legal affairs, where the senior partner gets the money and the junior partner does the work—but at some point it is nevertheless essential that the Government make their plans crystal clear. We cannot expect locally elected councillors not only to undertake responsibility for planning complex schemes and prioritising their interests, but to take the blame when the money is not available for schemes that have been promised. It is essential that the Government back up their extremely good intentions with a little more clarity and, dare I say it, a little more plain speaking. Ministers can do it, and it is about time that they got into the habit.

8.11 pm

Mr. Alistair Carmichael (Orkney and Shetland) (LD): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody). Her speech was a fair reflection of the report produced by her Committee. I commend the Committee for the report, which is as cogent as it is comprehensive—she has done the House a service. However, her reference to clunking titles and Liberal Democrats was a little gratuitous, but in view of the fact that some in my party have had worse maulings at the hands of the hon. Lady, and in view of a certain fondness in which I hold her, I will not pursue the point.

The overall picture that emerges from the report, and from the Government’s occasionally thin response to it, is one of an increasing tension between transport planning at the centre and transport planning at the local level, particularly at the local authority level. Such tension is not a bad thing per se—the right balance of tension can be creative—but the picture that emerges from this report, which has been confirmed by my experience of visiting different parts of the country, and dealing with different local authorities in different areas, is one in which the relationship between the centre and the local level has got so fundamentally out of kilter—the term used by the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich—that the tension is not creative, which is influencing how many local authorities, passenger transport authorities and passenger transport executives approach transport planning. We are seeing a disturbing lack of boldness, radicalism and innovation, which is to the detriment of the potential of the local transport planning structure.

Mark Pritchard: Does the hon. Gentleman share my concern that although the input of regional assemblies is often well intentioned, it can sometimes confuse the line of communication between local communities, local authorities and the centre?

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Mr. Carmichael: I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman has a specific instance in mind, but I can see how that might happen occasionally. The approach should be based on “horses for courses”. In some areas on some issues at some times, there will be a role for the regional assemblies, but that will not always be the case. Yes, I share the hon. Gentleman’s concern that occasionally we seem determined to involve everyone, apparently for the hell of it. The difficulty that causes a lot of disillusionment for many local authorities is that, as the report confirms, they have responsibility without power.

I want to deal with a few issues that the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich mentioned in the course of her remarks.

Bob Spink (Castle Point) (Con): Before the hon. Gentleman moves on, does he agree that one of the causes of disillusionment among local authorities is that they cannot trust the Government not to keep changing their plans? In the Thames Gateway, for example, the Government target for the number of houses to be built is being increased, but infrastructure investment is being delayed, which is damaging both the public and the local authorities’ ability to do transport planning. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the infrastructure should go in before the houses are built?

Mr. Carmichael: I commend that general approach. The Department for Communities and Local Government is a relatively young Department, but there is greater scope for some joined-up thinking and joint working between it and the Department for Transport. The social consequences, never mind the economic, congestion and environmental consequences, of not putting in the transport first and letting the other developments follow are obvious for all to see. If we have learned nothing else since the 1960s, when that approach was specifically disavowed, we should at least have learned that much.

As the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich said, this should really be a Back Benchers’ debate, but I want briefly to touch on the following areas: first, the departmental guidance on the preparation of local transport plans; secondly, the operation of the transport innovation fund; and thirdly, the strengthening of passenger transport authorities and passenger transport executives.

There could not be a more unambiguous statement of the situation that local authorities face than paragraph 31 of the report:

I have always been of the view that transport exists as a service to underpin and reinforce Government policy in other areas. Social inclusion is one of the greatest opportunities, particularly when it involves a bus service, and economic regeneration and economic
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development is another. That relates to the point made by the hon. Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink) a few minutes ago. The inability to integrate transport planning into other policy areas is one of the biggest failings, and it is one of the biggest frustrations for many people in local government today.

The final point in paragraph 31—

is absolutely true, but we must recognise that such failures often stem from the almost siege mentality that now exists in many local authorities as a result of the constant battering at the hands of central Government.

Turning to the measurement of local transport plans, the Committee should be commended for its work in that area. Paragraph 36 states:

That is an irrefutable conclusion. I am delighted that this is something of a work in progress, now that we have the Government’s White Paper on reforming bus regulation. If what is produced at the end of the process strengthens local provision, and in particular local accountability, I would certainly be prepared to support it.

On bus regulation, the Committee’s comments at paragraph 177 on the strengthening of the powers of passenger transport authorities are particularly pertinent to the metropolitan areas, because those are the areas where there has been the greatest failure in the deregulated bus market, and it has ceased to operate effectively. Allowing for more powers and meaningful resourcing of passenger transport executives and passenger transport authorities must lie at the heart of developing the Government’s bus policy. The deregulated system has worked well in some places—I think of Brighton, Harrogate, York and Cambridge—but that is because they are towns and cities of a certain size that have the critical mass of population to be able to make the integration of partnership working effective. In areas such as Greater Manchester, for example, it is pretty clear that that has not been the case. I should place on record my appreciation of the work of the Greater Manchester PTA, which is among the most effective of the authorities with which I have come into contact since I took on this brief. Particular credit goes to the Labour chairman, who has been assiduous in bringing the concerns of his organisation to Government.

On the transport innovation fund, I agree with the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich that we can all welcome the significant injection of funds that it represents. However, in paragraph 116 the Committee makes pertinent comments about the way in which the transport innovation fund threatens the very concept of local transport planning:

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