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I fear that the transport innovation fund might eventually defeat the Government’s own policy, particularly on congestion. A patchwork of pilot
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schemes designed to tackle congestion might be difficult to bring together thereafter and to marry into one national scheme. I think that pilot schemes are emerging because that is the only show in town as regards local authorities getting money for transport innovation. We might be left with a series of areas where action to tackle congestion proves to be unpopular because it is seen as an extra charge. That could put at risk instead of encourage the creation of a national scheme, which everybody who is serious about tackling congestion should accept.

The House will soon consider the national concessionary bus travel scheme, which has already been dealt with in the other place. I am keen that we should all be able to unite around that scheme, which my party, in co-operation with the Labour party in Scotland, has been able to implement and to promote. My concern about the way in which it has been handled in the other place so far is that we risk taking an idea that everyone supports and implementing it in such a way that it will end up offending most people. Trying to fund a scheme as a bolt-on to the local government settlement is setting it up to fail.

Hon. Members will be aware that the basis on which local authorities are given their financial settlement every year is byzantine to the point of opaque, and has little to do with bus ridership in their areas. Significant numbers of local authority areas will struggle to finance the scheme because the funding has been given in such a way. I hope that when the Bill comes before the House the Government will look again at how the scheme will be funded and that they will take seriously the opportunities presented by a nationwide smartcard scheme, for example. That would be the best way of relating the money that goes to councils for the provision of services to their actual use. Failure to do that will mean that a significant number of areas, particularly in coastal and resort towns, will suffer, which surely cannot be an outcome that the Government intend.

8.25 pm

Graham Stringer (Manchester, Blackley) (Lab): It is important to put the debate about local transport planning and funding into context. With the best will in the world, any Government, of whatever colour, would have difficulty in operating the current arrangements between local democracy and central Government. The arrangements were arrived at, after a lot of confrontation and argument, in the mid-1980s, when the metropolitan counties were abolished, bus services were deregulated, and the poll tax was introduced and replaced by the council tax. That ended up with many public services not being controlled by directly elected local councillors, and where councillors did have control, it was over only a tiny percentage of their income, with the Government controlling the rest. That obviously puts some obligation on the Government to ensure that the money is spent sensibly. That is not the right balance, and it makes things difficult. I hope that Lyons gets it right and that after the ongoing reviews we will end up with a better balance between central and local government.

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I do not believe that there is another country in Europe where, if cities the size of Manchester, Leeds, Southampton and Nottingham wanted to control their buses and invest in tram systems, their central Governments could or would stop them, but that is the situation that we face. Some of the greatest cities in Europe cannot determine whether they have tram systems. That cannot be a satisfactory arrangement.

The Committee therefore first considered the context and interviewed Michael Lyons. Having done that, we considered the position as it is. We asked whether the relationship between local transport plans and central Government was the right one, and whether it functioned effectively, efficiently and economically. When we took evidence, council after council, expert after expert and councillor after councillor answered no. They said that the system was burdensome, costly and inefficient, and that they did not feel that they were in control of their local priorities.

A measure of the extent of central Government control or interference is that schemes costing more than £5 million are determined by central Government. One of the Committee’s minor recommendations was to increase that figure to £10 million and to provide for applying a light touch and light regulation to schemes of £20 million. I thought that the Government would leap at that and say, “Of course. These are trivial figures. What do officials know about such expenditure in local areas?” The answer to that is, “Almost nothing.” However, the Government have effectively deferred making a decision in their response.

Government decisions at micro level are not good. Let me give two local examples of Government officials forcing bus lanes on my constituency. Most of us are in favour of bus lanes and bus priority, but to achieve the right scheme the right debate must be held between local interests, such as shopkeepers, people who use the buses and bus operators; everybody has to have a say. Bus lanes were forced on the constituency in Cheetham Hill road and Bury Old road. Officials said, without examining the details, that if we did not accept the bus priority schemes we would not get money for other matters.

There were two consequences. First, 18 months after bus priority was accepted, a big sign went up at the top of Cheetham Hill road to tell people to beware because 75 accidents had occurred on the road in the past year. That happened because the scheme was forced and badly planned. Secondly, as was said in the recent bus debate, just as the buses have been given greater priority in a deregulated system, the bus network has contracted. In a micro sense, that is what central Government control does to local priorities.

Mr. Paul Truswell (Pudsey) (Lab): Is not there a danger in the otherwise welcome proposals in “Putting Passengers First”, to which the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael) referred, that we might go even further down the wrong track through the decision-making process outlined for quality contracts? Under it, the current system would be delegated to an unaccountable and unelected set of traffic commissioners, with an appeal to the transport tribunal. Even the democratically elected element of the current system—the Secretary of State—would be
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removed from the new set-up. Would not that take us even further down the path that my hon. Friend describes?

Graham Stringer: My hon. Friend makes a pertinent point. I do not want to say any more about buses, but I agree that although the recognition in the White Paper that the current system is working is welcome, some of the proposals in it could put more hurdles in the way of passenger transport authorities and local authorities trying to regulate buses than the previous system did.

Mrs. Dunwoody: I apologise for interrupting my hon. Friend, but I do not want him to give the impression that traffic commissioners are not part of a protection. Indeed, if they had more power to monitor bus companies’ day-to-day decisions, the quality of bus services might be much better.

Graham Stringer: I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. Traffic commissioners are badly underfunded. If they had more resources, there is no doubt that their impact, even on a deregulated system, would be positive. I hope that in response to my hon. Friend the Member for Pudsey (Mr. Truswell) I was making the different point that however good they are at examining the current system, they are unelected. There are also other hurdles in the White Paper that might be difficult to overcome.

There is a completely different system in London. The balance of funding between the rest of England and London has changed from roughly 50:50 to 60:40 in London’s favour. That has been done without being explicitly stated, and I would be grateful if the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Lincoln (Gillian Merron) could justify it. When we ask the Secretary of State, the reply is always that London is different. London is no more different now than it was 10 or 15 years ago. It is special, as are many cities in this country.

My hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) has already referred to other contradictions. Three sets of priorities sit on top of local schemes. There is the interference—as I would characterise it—of the regional transport plans, which are sorted out in a vacuum by people who are not directly elected. There are the local schemes, with priorities that have been agreed between the Government and the Local Government Association. Those for local transport schemes are congestion, access to public transport, safety and reduction of pollution.

I believe that every local authority representative who has come before the Select Committee and been asked the question, in this inquiry and in others, has always said that they wanted regeneration to be a priority. Clearly, there are conflicts between the set priorities and what most councils—particularly those representing deprived areas—want, which is to regenerate their areas, create jobs and bring wealth and prosperity to the people whom they represent.

On top of that is the transport innovation fund system. As the report says, it is a centralising system with two priorities, one of which is to relieve congestion and the other is to improve economic performance. Those are all central controls and they
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contradict each other. Last Tuesday, when I asked the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Lincoln to explain what a TIF bid meant for Greater Manchester, I was, in a sense, not surprised when, as I went through aspects such as the regulation of buses, tram system funding and control over trains, she said that it was “quite a shopping list”. It is exactly the same sort of control that obtains in London, but at the end of her reply on 6 March last week, the Minister said that “local solutions” were “the right way forward”. I agree, but when central Government are effectively imposing on people an extra tax of potentially more than £2,000 in real terms, we need to know what the public offer is.

Is it or is it not the Government’s intention under the TIF proposals to fund the whole of the Metrolink scheme, as approved in 2000? When we asked these questions, and in response to our report, the Select Committee was told—I refer hon. Members particularly to point 22 in the response—to see the Government’s consultation document on light rail and its improvement. Of course, when the Government recommend something like that, I immediately respond and look at it.

Given that Ministers have regularly said that they are committed to light rail schemes, will the Under-Secretary explain why that document was a year late? Since April 2005, and in our report on light rail, we asked what excuse there was for that document to be a year late. How many officials were reprimanded? Was it a change of Government policy? Are Ministers going to tell us why the report was a year late? Is it because they have no commitment to Metrolink? I would like to know. One Minister asked me why I thought officials in the Department for Transport were against light rail, so this is one of the reasons.

When I read the report—I advise my colleagues on the Select Committee to read it—I found that it was written in such a biased and unfair way that its clear objective could be only to damage light rail, not to respond to the needs of local people. The report carries on by saying that light rail is not always the best alternative. Of course not; sometimes buses are the right alternative, but in many cases light rail is. Does the report say what the benefits are? No, it is completely silent about them. It does not explain that the only real example of “modal shift” as the experts call it—people leaving their cars at home and using public transport—is Metrolink, which has an impressive record on regeneration and air quality. There is no response in the report on capacity issues, either.

If we really want to get more people to use public transport, we need to provide the capacity. Sufficient evidence has been given to the Government and to the Select Committee that, even if we took all the cars off the roads in areas such as the west midlands and Greater Manchester, there would not be the capacity for people to change to public transport. We would have to increase that capacity and, in the case of Greater Manchester, that would best be achieved by using Metrolink. Why is that not mentioned in the report? I look forward to hearing the Minister’s reply, but I can only draw the conclusion that officials and Ministers are anti-Metrolink. That is why I want to know whether the Government are going to fund
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Metrolink if congestion charging is brought in. Why is the contribution to Metrolink and the tram system 25 per cent. at the start and not 10 per cent., as for other major schemes? That shows bias against the systems.

Possibly the most worrying statement in the consultation document is that there is apparently a problem with giving state aid to tram systems. This appears in paragraph 7.45 of the document. It is unexplained, and no distinction is drawn anywhere in the report between new tram systems and existing ones that might be extended. I understand the statement to mean that the Government envisage a legal obstacle to investing in trams because it would create unfair subsidised competition with buses. If that is the case, the report should have taken more than two sentences to explain it. I would be grateful if my hon. Friend the Minister would explain whether there is a European competitive hurdle to be overcome before we can reinvest in trams. Has the position changed in the past few years? Several tram systems have been brought on track recently, including those in Nottingham, Manchester, Sheffield and the west midlands. Has something changed, or has this obstacle been thought up by unhelpful officials?

Many of the transport problems in this country were caused by the Tories over 18 years ago—

Mr. Graham Stuart (Beverley and Holderness) (Con): Of course!

Graham Stringer: Of course. The problems result from deregulation, under-investment, and the privatisation of rail. Having said that, I am also going to say something nice about the Conservatives. I do not often do that, so I have to put it in its real context. From the abolition of the Greater Manchester metropolitan council in 1986, which left no expertise on the new passenger transport authority, under a Conservative Government it took five years from the planning stage for the Queen to come and open the tram system in Greater Manchester. The applications for the extension of Metrolink have been in since the start of this Government. The Deputy Prime Minister gave his authority for Metrolink to go ahead in 2000. It is now 2007, and we are getting documents—a year late, according to the Government’s own timetable—that directly inhibit progress. That is completely unacceptable, as far as I am concerned.

I have talked a lot about trams, but there are two other schemes in Greater Manchester that provide an example of how the system is slow and fails to meet local priorities. The A57/A628 bypass round Mottram, Hollingworth and Tintwistle was agreed after public consultation in 1993. Tameside council wants it, Greater Manchester wants it, and there is no alternative. It has been through a whole series of reassessments under the previous Government and this Government. According to the latest projections, however, the earliest date by which it is likely to be completed is 2012.

The other example is the Leigh guided busway. I have already talked to the Minister of State, Department of Health, my hon. Friend the Member for Leigh (Andy Burnham), about this matter. In a way, he is a good
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exemplar of the lack of understanding of what is local and what is national. Last Wednesday, I was in a very happy mood, having voted to abolish the other place. I was sitting down in the Strangers Bar to watch Manchester United go through to the next round of the European cup, when along bounced my hon. Friend. I was sitting with Councillor Roger Jones, the chair of the Greater Manchester passenger transport authority, whom the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael) has already mentioned. My hon. Friend the Member for Leigh asked, “Where’s my guided busway?” He should really ask his ministerial colleagues in the Department for Transport why a £26 million scheme that was agreed seven years ago and has had three public consultations—for planning, and under the road traffic legislation and the Transport and Works Act 1992—has still not been approved. The scheme is very pro-public transport and anti-congestion, and I hope that my hon. Friend and the people of Leigh get it. He should not, however, harass the chair of the passenger transport authority; he should harass my hon. Friends the Transport Ministers.

The report shows that even in the context of the present local government settlement, the balance between central Government and detailed interference in national priorities, which sometimes has perverse effects at a local level, is wrong. The Government need to take more notice than they have done of the Transport Committee’s report.

8.46 pm

Mr. Rob Wilson (Reading, East) (Con): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Manchester, Blackley (Graham Stringer), who has great experience of local government and was one of the authors of the Transport Committee report.

I was not going to speak in tonight’s debate, as I have spoken in so many other transport debates over the past 18 months. I remembered, however, that transport planning and funding wind up my constituents probably more than any other subject.

I am therefore grateful to the Transport Committee for producing the report, which covers the sort of local-national relationships of which Reading’s transport infrastructure has many. Reading station is a national hub, and Crossrail might end up coming to Reading. In addition, the Heathrow link from the west, M4 widening and a third Thames bridge, which is important to north-south transport communication, make up the tip of a big transport iceberg facing my constituents.

In many ways, it is no surprise that my constituency faces big transport issues. The area is growing economically, and has done extremely well from the economic reforms of the 1980s, and yet one sometimes despairs of my local authority’s approach to local transport planning. Most authorities use the opportunity to consult, take the temperature locally and get people on board—literally, in some cases—for new transport projects. Reading’s local authority, however, likes to have what I regard as sham consultations, in which local people never feel engaged. That is a serious point, because the Government have a duty, when funding local projects, to ensure that the
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projects have substantial local backing. If they do not have such backing, where is the accountability? What is the justification for handing over so much taxpayers’ cash?

For example, a one-way system around the town centre is currently being foisted on my constituents. Every poll in my constituency demonstrates massive opposition to a scheme that increases car journeys, worsens pollution and creates havoc for traffic bordering the Reading borough area. The scheme merely displaces traffic, costs £12 million to £15 million and has no local support—the neighbouring local authority is taking the matter to the High Court. Surely that is no way to fund and plan local transport in my area.

When I wrote to Transport Ministers, asking them to intervene in this expensive folly, I was told that they could do absolutely nothing about it. Local people will therefore have to use what they will regard as the default option: if they want an expensive folly, they can vote Labour in the local elections; if they do not, they can vote Conservative. I know that when she replies to the debate the Minister will speak of local people making local decisions. I am entirely happy with that, but I predict that, in Reading at least, the local Labour transport councillor will struggle to hold his seat in May, if indeed he stands for re-election: he may withdraw to save face.

That brings me to a second, important point about road pricing. Reading borough council is keen to use it, and, as the Minister will know, has been given a significant amount of money for a pilot scheme. I am not against road pricing in principle—many local areas might well support it, and it sometimes serves as a helpful local solution—but there are planning and funding issues. When I asked the Minister about them last week, her answer was not particularly reassuring.

Although the Government deny it, there appears to be a link between access to investment funding to improve local transport and road pricing and congestion charging schemes. The chairman of Greater Manchester passenger transport authority has said:

If that is true, it is nothing short of an abuse of funding and, indeed, power. Pushing or forcing local authorities to introduce road pricing by refusing to fund local transport schemes would certainly be an abuse of power. I urge the Minister to state categorically that there will be no strings attached to any bid for funding by a local authority, as it should be done without fear or favour.

Gary Clarke, chairman of West Midlands PTA, said recently

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