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24 Apr 2007 : Column 258WH—continued

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Gillian Merron): I congratulate the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Field) on securing this debate on an issue of concern to many people who are interested in transport
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safety, and in the very essence of our capital city, in which we have much pride, and its development.

Let me begin by saying that the Government believe that pedicabs have a role to play in transport provision, provided that they are properly regulated and managed. In that respect, I was glad to meet my hon. Friend the Member for Regent’s Park and Kensington, North (Ms Buck) and the hon. Gentleman, as well as interested parties, to discuss how we can sensibly accept that point and move forward. A number of people, including the hon. Gentleman and me, welcome pedicabs as an addition to the diversity of city life, particularly in our tourist areas, but I also know only too well that not everybody takes that view. For example, as the hon. Gentleman said, many taxi drivers would prefer pedicabs to be banned from London’s streets altogether.

The issue, as I see it, has always been about how to achieve proper regulation in the public interest and how to ensure safety. The issue specific to London is that there is currently no system of pedicab regulation in the capital. A proper system of regulation in London is both necessary and desirable. On that basis, I very much welcome the steps being taken by Transport for London, as the taxi licensing authority in London, to put in place measures to bring pedicabs into its existing taxi licensing regime. That is essentially a matter for TFL to take forward.

Once achieved, licensing will provide a means of exercising comprehensive but appropriate control over pedicabs in London. That will include dealing with important questions to do with safety and standards, about which the hon. Gentleman is rightly concerned. Licensing will also involve defining areas of operation, as well as the vetting, listing and identification of pedicabs, their operators and their riders, and of course the use of Criminal Records Bureau checks. Licensing will deal with the enforcement of those standards and rules, to ensure that the services offered are reliable and safe.

The hon. Gentleman referred to what he described as the Government blocking the inclusion of relevant provisions in the London Local Authorities and Transport for London Bill, in 2005. I assure the Chamber that that was not the case. Those provisions were removed by the Committee considering that private Bill after taking account of the views expressed to them, including those of pedicab operators and the taxi trade. Our view was that the weak registration system that the provisions proposed for pedicabs was an inadequate response to the safety and regulatory concerns about pedicabs, and that only a full, enforceable licensing system of the sort that TFL now proposes would provide the right answer.

Last year, TFL carried out a public consultation on its proposals. It set out in full how the organisation proposes to tackle all aspects of regulation. It is now for TFL to take the matter forward in light of responses to that consultation. In so doing, I am sure that it will take full account of the views of pedicab operators and others on the principle and details of its proposals.

I understand that TFL is now working on the necessary amendments to the London cab order to facilitate the licensing of pedicabs. It is seeking the right balance between regulation and control, and the particular needs and circumstances of the pedicab industry. I also understand that TFL is in the process of securing the necessary
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clarification from the courts. That would reverse a previous decision that prevented pedicabs from being classified as taxis for the purposes of the legislation.

Securing that clarification is one of the main reasons why the introduction of licensing has taken more time than all sides would have hoped. The matter remains before the courts, and the hon. Gentleman will understand that I cannot speculate on the likely outcome of the court’s deliberations, although I can say that TFL, having considered all aspects of the issue, remains confident of a successful outcome.

It is important to make early progress, but it is also important to get the detail of the new licensing arrangements right. On that basis, I welcome TFL’s proposal to initiate discussions with the representatives of the pedicab trade about the trade’s proposal for a voluntary licensing scheme, ahead of the resolution of the remaining legal issues. TFL is hopeful that a voluntary scheme, if that proves possible, could become the basis for the enforceable licensing scheme that it is trying to achieve. The Government share TFL’s hopes and ambitions in that respect.

I recognise that without a satisfactory enforcement regime, licensing will not help local authorities achieve suitable regulation in the public interest and ensure protection. The regulations to enforce the Traffic Management Act 2004 will enable enforcement action to be taken against any vehicle that contravenes local traffic regulation orders about parking, bus lanes and issues such as banned turns, pedestrian zones and one-way streets. I do not share the hon. Gentleman’s view that further primary legislation is required. It is incumbent on us all not to seek extra legislation unless it is required. As soon as a robust licensing system is in place and keeper information is available, local authorities can take action against pedicabs that break those traffic management orders.

I listened closely to the hon. Gentleman. He raised the question of pedicabs parking on the pavement. Once again, I do not believe that primary legislation is the way forward. To be effective, decisions about what vehicles should have the right to park and where can only, in practice, be taken by local authorities. That is why they have been given the power to make traffic management orders. Instead of attempting to introduce unnecessary primary legislation, local authorities should use the powers that they have been given, and that they wanted, to ban the inappropriate parking of pedicabs on the pavement so that there is no illegal parking to cause difficulty for pedicab passengers and the general public.

Mr. Mark Field: Our concern about traffic management orders is that allowing one local authority to have particular rules and another to have different ones—or, indeed, none at all—often means that the problem is simply displaced. It could also lead to a very confused system among adjacent local authorities. Obviously, I am considering the London context, but the same could apply beyond the boundaries of the capital. The local authorities concerned feel that although having the discretion to make traffic management orders provides a potential opportunity, it is relatively unworkable. Relying simply on it rather than on the primary legislation route could be a bureaucratic nightmare.

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Gillian Merron: Clearly, local solutions are necessary to meet local conditions, and such decisions should be made at the local level. Although I take the point about adjacent local authorities, particularly in respect of London, there is nothing to stop local authorities from co-operating on such issues; indeed, I would encourage them to do so. However, they might be the first to complain if we took away local decision making and put it elsewhere.

The hon. Gentleman expressed concern that a ban introduced by a traffic management order would have to be indicated by traffic signs on the street. Restrictions should be clearly signed for all concerned. One of the most frequent concerns expressed by road users is that traffic signs are not clear about what restrictions are in place, so restrictions are broken inadvertently. Information should always be widely available in the appropriate form, through traffic signs or other means, so that everybody can abide by them. We are seeking to prevent the problem, rather than cure it afterwards.

As I have stressed, our objective is to support TFL and the London boroughs so that they are in a position to ensure safety and secure the proper regulation of pedicabs in the public interest. We are preparing regulations that will enable local authorities to ensure that all vehicles, including pedicabs, comply with traffic regulations. We will continue to work closely with TFL and its partners to find a satisfactory outcome.

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Power Generation (River Severn)

1.27 pm

Steve Webb (Northavon) (LD): Good afternoon, Sir Nicholas.

The timing of this debate could not be more appropriate and I am grateful for the opportunity to raise the issue of generation in its broadest sense from the River Severn. I deliberately did not call the debate “The Severn Barrage” or “Fifteen things you didn’t know about tidal lagoons”. The idea behind the debate is that there seems to be an overwhelming case for making far more use of the River Severn’s tidal power and I urge the Government to take a lead on the idea.

The timing of the debate is significant for two reasons; the Minister will be familiar with one, but not the other. The Minister knows that an energy White Paper is due imminently. I hope that the ink on it is not quite dry and that my representations even at this late stage will encourage him to ensure that a serious, publicly funded appraisal of the options, benefits and costs of different forms of power generation from the Severn becomes an important feature of that document. That is one of the principal reasons why I have sought this debate now.

The second reason, of which the Minister may not be aware, why the timing of this debate is particularly appropriate is that I have just extensively consulted my constituents. I e-mailed several thousand of them to ask their views on whether they support in principle a Severn barrage. I posed it in that way not because I have a closed mind on the issue—I do not, as will become apparent—but because if I had simply asked whether we should get more power from the Severn, I was in danger of getting results such as those of newspaper phone-in polls, in which 100 per cent. answer yes and no one answers no. I did not think that that would be very helpful.

I specifically asked whether my constituents supported a Severn barrage in principle. In their ever-creative manner, they responded yes but added in their comments that they did not mean a barrage, but something slightly different. I had to interpret the results carefully. However, I received more than 1,500 replies—unique answers—from my constituents. The majority were in favour of the principle. I should explain that I asked the question as neutrally as a politician ever can. I provided internet links to the arguments in favour and against. For example, my initial question contained links to the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds site, the World Wild Fund for Nature and so on. Those who wished to do so had the opportunity to read both sides of the argument before coming to their judgment, and a majority of six to one in my constituency supported the principle of a barrage although, as I say, the nuanced replies were slightly more complex.

What was interesting was the variety of people who supported the principle. Constituents who are pro-nuclear thought that a barrage or a tidal power scheme was a good thing just as much as those who are anti-nuclear. We have the interesting position of being a constituency with a coast along the Severn and a nuclear power station, so there is a lot of local interest in energy matters. As I say, being pro-tidal power from the Severn does not mean that people are in any particular faction on wider aspects of the energy debate. There appeared to be a broad spectrum of local opinion.

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I have consulted my constituents on other issues, and the issue of tidal power from the Severn saw perhaps the biggest spontaneous write-in response that I have ever had. We all know that when we do surveys and so on one or two people might spontaneously fill in a blank box with an idea, but when person after person says, “Never mind that, what about tidal power from the Severn?” one starts to realise what a groundswell of support there is for the idea.

I am sure that the Minister will be familiar with the context, but I shall set it out for the record. We are talking about an estuary with the second largest tidal range in the country. Many of my constituents who, although I have reached the grand old age of 41, still regard me as a bit wet behind the ears tell me that such issues have been talked about for a very long time. Even as recently as the 1970s, the dear old Central Electricity Generating Board undertook a study. At that time, the argument was that because oil was cheap, we did not need power from the Severn.

In 1981, the Severn barrage committee considered a range of locations. One thing that one starts to discover is that there is no such thing as “the Severn barrage”; it could go in various locations. Interestingly, the committee recommended a barrage location that would not necessarily generate the maximum power. There are some interesting trade-offs between full-blown all-singing, all-dancing schemes way down the estuary that block the entire thing off, go for miles and generate huge amounts of power but probably have the maximum environmental knock-on, and a few lagoons and bays that will cause limited environmental damage but might have less potential for generating power. Part of my point in urging a fast and substantive cost-benefit analysis is that there are so many trade-offs. We can maximise the power potential, but might thereby do more environmental harm than we are willing to do.

The important thing is to come at the issue not doctrinally but independently, almost pragmatically. We should start with a blank sheet of paper—although the sheet is not blank, because it has been gone over many times before—and not commit ourselves in advance to a particular answer. The technology is evolving and the energy market is changing all the time, and we need someone to take a hard, up-to-date look.

The biggest substantive study seems to be the one undertaken at the end of the 1980s by groups including the Severn tidal power group, which came up with the idea of a 10-mile barrage stretching from Lavernock point near Cardiff to Brean down near Weston-super-Mare. To give an idea of the scale, that barrage was envisaged to provide electricity equivalent to 5 per cent. of the UK’s entire electricity needs. It was costed in those days at £8 billion—we might double that number; on Olympic budgeting we might triple it. It is a familiar technology, which has been in operation at La Rance in France for 40 years, albeit on a much smaller scale. It could take eight to 10 years to construct, but could last more than a century. The technology is familiar, albeit on a larger scale than has been envisaged before.

At that time, the idea was shelved again; there seems to be almost a tidal flow to the idea. High interest rates were an issue. Since then, energy costs from other sources have risen, as has the desire for renewables and concerns about CO2 emissions. We are in a different
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world. It is worth mentioning that the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution, when considering different scenarios to reduce UK greenhouse gases by 2050, included some form of Severn tidal power in three of its four principal scenarios. This is a mainstream idea whose time has come.

Last year, in its energy review, the Minister’s Department said:

When do we move from potential to actual? Part of the thrust of the debate is to get a steer from the Minister. Obviously I do not want him to break the embargo on his White Paper—well, I do. However, people say to me, “We’ve heard it all before. It has been talked about for 30 or 40 years. This is more talk, more hot air—or whatever. When are we going to get more action?”

I do not want to talk only about barrages, although they are obviously the subject that grabs the headlines. On the face of it, a barrage-type scheme has a number of attractions. Clearly, tidal power through a barrage is tremendously predictable. We know the times and scale of the tides and we know when electricity can be generated and when not. Compared with some other forms of renewable energy, it is far more predictable.

I have mentioned the substantial scale of what could be achieved and the saving of millions of tonnes of CO2 every year, which has to be welcome. Such tidal power is clearly a secure domestic source of power and in a changing and troubled world many of us would sleep better at night—even those of us who live near the River Severn—if we knew that we were not quite so dependent on imported sources of power. It is clearly a clean source of power, as there is no issue of long-term waste disposal. One interesting idea to arise from the responses from my constituents was the suggestion that a barrage could be used as part of the transport infrastructure. It has been suggested that there could be a rail route across it. Some of my more pessimistic constituents have noted that the Severn bridge, which is in my constituency, is rusting. They feel that sooner or later it will rust away and we might need another route across. I hope that we will act sooner than that, but the potential to use a barrage as part of the transport infrastructure is important.

Flood protection will be a growing concern to coastal constituencies, and there is potential for that. The next idea is double-edged, for reasons that I will come back to, but the construction of a barrage has huge potential consequences for tourism, water sports and so on. We can see why such an idea is attractive to people.

The big reservation that people have is about what such a move would do to the environment in a special place. The Severn estuary has many environmental designations already, with more under consideration. National and international laws and obligations would, rightly, be central to any appraisal. That is why, as someone who is interested in the issue but does not claim to be an expert, I do not know whether the environmental costs would outweigh the potential benefits of the schemes. I want to see the work that has been done looked at through modern eyes, in the way in which we now consider the marine and coastal environments. That has moved on greatly since the last comparable study.

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There are concerns. I know that the hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew), who represents Slimbridge, is hostile to the barrage idea because he is concerned about the mud flats further up the estuary. Something on this scale cannot be done without a big impact on the ecosystem. There are arguments on both sides. Some people say that if there is less tidal flow, less sediment is disturbed, which means that the water becomes clearer, more sunlight gets through to the river bed, more life grows on the river bed and so there is more plant life, more fish life and more birds. I would not have thought of that, but that argument has been put to me. The RSPB has made an interesting observation on that point in its briefing:

Those are difficult things to weigh up if a scheme would make an area more habitable for some sorts of wildlife, but damage a habitat for others, and if there are not many similar habitats elsewhere. How do we weigh such things up? It is clear that we need to get down to specifics. Since the matter was last fully appraised, the arguments about the birds have changed. Patterns of migration have changed, as have the birds in the estuary. This is a moving feast and that is why we need up-to-date analysis.

The view is, interestingly, that the cost of an appraisal such as that which I am talking about, and the cost of getting it through the planning system is probably difficult for the private sector to bear, which comes back to the question of the Government’s role. The construction and operation costs are commercially viable, certainly according to the Severn tidal power group. In other words, nobody is saying that the Government should build a barrage or other tidal scheme, but they probably must act as co-ordinator. The Welsh Assembly Government will clearly have a key interest and role in the matter; the Welsh Secretary (Mr. Hain) is a great advocate himself. An awful lot of co-ordination will have to occur. Somebody will have to take the lead, and I see the Minister, whose innate leadership skills are called on, to be the person who steps into the breach. I look forward to seeing him step into that mantle, if one can step into a mantle, in a moment.

I mentioned development. Clearly, there will be lots of jobs—somebody who replied to my e-mail survey said, “It’ll be like the south coast, only cheaper,” although I do not know about that—but development could easily be inappropriate as well. The estuary is an environmentally sensitive area. We do not necessarily want a raft of development alongside it. A balance must be struck. Also, development will obviously have an effect on shipping. It will depend on where in the estuary the barrage is built, but if it is below Bristol and other ports, that must be considered.

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