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12 Mar 2007 : Column 119

Mr. Graham Stuart: I am sure that hon. Members on both sides of the House, and especially those who have spoken this evening, will welcome the Minister’s words about releasing central control. Does she accept the central tenet of the Committee report and of all the contributions made this evening that the Government have been too prescriptive over the past 10 years?

Gillian Merron: I do not.

The record investment levels that we have set in government are being sustained. For smaller schemes, we have announced year-on-year increases for the next four years. Local authorities receive that funding as a block grant to enable them to identify and fund local priorities, with the level of funding for an area reflecting pressures and the Department’s overall assessments of the local transport plans—I hope that that has set the record straight on funding. For larger schemes, decisions are made in the light of advice from the particular region and are met by either the regional funding allocation or, potentially, the transport innovation fund. The regional funding allocations increase year on year over the 10-year guideline period. I therefore find it difficult to recognise the reference to the Government imposing their will and refusing to fund, which is clearly not the case.

On top of that, the transport innovation fund will provide substantial extra resources to those local authorities interested in addressing local congestion problems through innovative demand management responses. We are working with local authorities to develop local transport plans further, as the Committee wanted us to. I am happy to report that the Department and local authority officials are working together on how progress on delivering plans should be reviewed in future.

The hon. Member for Wimbledon (Stephen Hammond) correctly reported our national priorities for local transport plans as tackling congestion, dealing with road safety, undertaking accessibility planning, and tackling air quality hotspots. However, contrary to what he said, those were all agreed with the Local Government Association. As that is Conservative led, I find it difficult to recognise the allegation that those priorities were imposed.

My hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich called for improved guidance. The Department issued final guidance on the second local transport plan 16 months before the final deadline for the completion of the plan. We recognise the need for local authorities, including those participating on joint plans, which we encourage, to have enough time to draft and approve their plans, and in future we will endeavour to publish guidance about plans even further in advance. We are here to support local authorities, not in any way to make life difficult for them. The Department is committed to enabling them to present local priorities within local transport plans, and the criteria are widely advertised and well known. There will be an assessment of the coherence of plans as a whole. People sometimes draw an artificial distinction on priorities, but these are common priorities locally and nationally. We are keen that local authorities find the right answers for their local areas and that we assist them in doing so. I wish to
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re-emphasise that we are working very closely with local authority officials to improve the manner of assessments.

Reference was made to the possibility of increasing the threshold of the scheme to £10 million. Views have been put to us on that, although they are somewhat mixed. We gather that there is now a consultation on the regional funding allocations. It is worth saying that increasing the limit would reduce the ability of authorities to apply for extra funding for schemes, and that must be taken into account. Nevertheless, we are considering the matters that have been raised with us.

The hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael) referred several times to a lack of boldness. I was reminded that it was once said that we are at our best when we are at our boldest. That is indeed the case when it comes to transport.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich said, the national concessionary fares scheme is extremely popular. The Government are extremely proud of it. From April next year, we will provide about £1 billion a year to fund concessionary travel, which we believe will be sufficient to ensure its roll-out. We do, however, recognise that local authorities have concerns about the distribution of funding. We are therefore considering several options in conjunction with local authorities, other stakeholders and users to find the right way forward for the roll-out of the scheme, which will benefit some 11 million pensioners and disabled people throughout the country.

Mrs. Dunwoody: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way. The scheme is important and popular, and the Government should take credit for it. However, may I have her word that a positive attempt will be made not only to work out the cost of administering the scheme but, where there is a need for harmonisation, to take account of some sort of equalisation when local authorities are being asked for their views?

Gillian Merron: I can confirm that that will be taken into account.

My hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Blackley (Graham Stringer) raised several points. He sometimes overlooked some of the positive developments in his area—for example, in July 2006, we gave conditional approval for Manchester Metrolink phase 3a extensions to Rochdale, Oldham and Chorlton. The Department will provide up £244 million, which fulfils the commitment made to Manchester in December 2004 that the £520 million package remained available, subject to detailed proposals.

There is a delay on the Mottram to Tintwistle bypass because we are waiting for advice from the region on the schemes that are affordable within the budget. It is therefore not owing to national diktat; we are following local advice.

The Government are not anti-tram. We realise that the tram can be an effective way in which to attract people to public transport and that it may be the best solution. However, it is also expensive and schemes will not be approved at any cost. Again, it is a matter of finding the right solution within the available resources.

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Graham Stringer: My hon. Friend is not convincing me at the moment, hard as she tries. If the Government are not against trams, why does the consultation document not include any of the positive cases? The consultation finished on 9 March. I did not mention, for example, that the document does not compare like with like. It compares the revenue costs of buses with the capital costs of trams. How is that fair? Why does not the consultation document include any of the positive cases?

Gillian Merron: My hon. Friend the Minister of State heard my hon. Friend’s comments. I confirm again that the Government are not anti-tram but that the right solution has to be found within the resources available. There are occasions when the bus is a better, cheaper, more effective and economic alternative.

I was interested that the hon. Member for Reading, East (Mr. Wilson) talked about the Government playing “fast and loose”. I have never known that said of a Government who have given conditional approval to a scheme to improve junction 11 of the M4 and make related improvements to Mereoak junction, which will allow Reading to invite tenders for construction. The Government expect to provide more than £62 million for the scheme, which will ease congestion on the main access from the M4 into Reading. If that is playing fast and loose, many hon. Members would welcome it.

The scheme for Reading station was originally developed by the council with Network Rail. Following further review in the emerging conclusions of the Intercity Express project, a larger scheme than was originally envisaged is now required at Reading to create an interchange that is capable of handling the forecast growth in passenger numbers, including the possibility of new direct airport services. Key stakeholders, including my hon. Friend the Member for Reading, West (Martin Salter), support that view. The Thames valley regional planning assessment for the railway is in the final stages of development and is considering the required upgrade of Reading station. We hope that the required documentation will be published around Easter.

On the Reading inner-distributor road, I, like my hon. Friend the Member for Eltham (Clive Efford), was somewhat confused because it appeared as though the hon. Member for Reading, East wanted local decisions at all times unless they were not the decisions that he supported. To clarify, I am aware that this is a controversial scheme. However, it is proposed in order to address congestion, which we all know needs to be done, and I also emphasise that the Department for Transport is not being asked to contribute any funds. I am aware that Reading borough council is fully apprised of the requirements on it.

I would like to say a few words of clarification about the transport innovation fund. That is extra money allotted for an additional purpose: that fund is not taking money from anyone and no one is forced to apply for it. It has a separate set of requirements and criteria. It is intended to deal with both congestion and productivity. It is important to clarify that, as a misleading or strange impression has been created that TIF is somehow taking money away, but it is not.

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We had some discussion of road pricing, on which I am interested to see that the Conservatives have many views. The hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling) said:

The hon. Member for Tatton (Mr. Osborne) said that the Conservatives were

and the right hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) said:

It seems to me that there is quite a lot of support among those on the Conservative Benches for the transport innovation fund, which I am delighted to discover.

The hon. Member for Beverley and Holderness (Mr. Stuart) referred to Yorkshire not receiving enough money. Well, I must put further questions to the hon. Gentleman. From where would he seek to take the money and how on earth can he reconcile the call for more money for his own region with the various points put forward by his party about plans to share the proceeds of economic growth, which is a code for tax cuts? Indeed, in an article on ConservativeHome, which has since been removed, the hon. Member for Wimbledon called for £20 billion-worth of cuts, and the Forsyth tax reform commission advocated £16 billion-worth of cuts. I understand that hon. Members always want more resources for their own area, but it is incumbent on us to show some responsibility and say where that money will come from.

My hon. Friend the Member for Eltham made the point, as forcefully as always, about the need for a further station in Woolwich under the Crossrail development. I have noted that and I can confirm that the Secretary of State is looking further into the matter and has committed to reporting back to the Select Committee on Crossrail.

This has been an interesting debate. I have not recognised all the reflections on the Government’s local transport policy, but I can say without any doubt that more funding and more effective planning is going into local transport today than was the case 10 years ago. The Select Committee supports the principle of local transport plans and I am grateful to it. I also welcome the constructive points that have been put forward. I can confirm that we are aiming and working towards further improvements in our support for local authorities so that they can achieve even better results in serving the people for whom they work. I hope that the House will support that.

9.59 pm

Mrs. Dunwoody: With the leave of the House, I would like to say that we have had a very useful debate. There is a great partnership to be had between local authorities and the Government and we look forward to developing it in the future.

It being Ten o’clock, Mr. Speaker proceeded to put forthwith the deferred Questions relating to Estimates which he was directed to put at that hour, pursuant to Standing Order No. 54 (Consideration of estimates, &c.).

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Department of Health


Department for Transport

Mr. Speaker then proceeded to put forthwith the Questions relating to Estimates which he was directed to put at that hour, pursuant to Standing Order No. 55 (1) and (3) (Questions on voting of estimates, &c.).









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Consolidated Fund (Appropriation) Bill

John Healey accordingly presented a Bill to authorise the use of resources for the service of the years ending with 31st March 2006 and 31st March 2007 and to apply certain sums out of the Consolidated Fund to the service of the years ending with 31st March 2006 and 31st March 2007; and to appropriate the supply authorised in this Session of Parliament for the service of the years ending with 31st March 2006 and 31st March 2007: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time tomorrow, and to be printed [Bill 78].

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