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House of Commons

Tuesday 15 May 2007

The House met at half-past Two o’clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Private business

London Local Authorities Bill [Lords]

Read a Second time, and committed.

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked—

Public Transport

1. John Robertson (Glasgow, North-West) (Lab): What policies he has considered to encourage the use of public transport. [136903]

The Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. Douglas Alexander): The Government have provided record and sustained investment in transport and have brought decision making closer to local areas to ensure that public transport better meets the needs of passengers.

John Robertson: I thank my right hon. Friend for his reply. He is right to say that the Government have invested heavily in public transport, yet the perception is still that more needs to be done. What does he propose to do to try to get people out of their cars and on to quality public transport in future, thereby solving some of the problem of our CO2 emissions?

Mr. Alexander: I fully accept my hon. Friend’s suggestion that more needs to be done. That is why we are investing £88 million a week in the country’s railways after decades of under-investment, and why there has been sustained investment in our bus network. In addition, we have brought forward proposals, most recently at the turn of the year in “Putting Passengers First”, to advance the cause of ensuring a better bus service in this country, because although there are communities where buses operate effectively, in too many communities there still is not the standard of service that people want. With regard to both buses and trains, we are seeing real improvements on the back of real investment.

Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield) (Con): The House debated public transport matters only yesterday, and I am pleased that the Secretary of State acknowledged that there are areas of the country where
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there is no meaningful public transport at all. He was talking about buses, but clearly there are other forms of public transport, such as taxis and minicabs, that might well be used in areas where the demand is limited, but where the interest in services is great, particularly among elderly people who do not have their own transport. What encouragement will he give to counties such as Cheshire, which has sadly had to reduce the amount of subsidised public transport, because of the reduction in revenue from central Government?

Mr. Alexander: I am not sure that I agree with the hon. Gentleman’s characterisation of the reduction of the revenue support grant. It is of course for individual local authorities to determine the level of concession that they offer their residents. He makes a fair point in recognising that in the longer term and in the future, there may well be opportunities, for example through smart ticketing that allows cash to be credited, to consider providing pensioners with facilities that would make a more flexible range of services available, whether that is through dial-a-bus, community travel or taxis. However, those are discussions for the future, as well as for today.

Mr. Ian Austin (Dudley, North) (Lab): The one form of public transport directly managed by my right hon. Friend’s Department is, of course, the Government car service. Why does his Department require British Government Ministers to drive around in the Japanese-built Toyota Prius, which has two engines and a wasteful manufacturing process, and has to be shipped halfway around the world on boats that pump out emissions, when we could be supporting the environment and showing British industry that we are on its side by using Birmingham-built Jaguars, which use the cleanest diesel technologies in the world?

Mr. Denis MacShane (Rotherham) (Lab): Give him a Jag!

Mr. Alexander: I am not sure whether that call was “Give him a job” or “Give him a Jag.” My hon. Friend the Member for Dudley, North (Mr. Austin) is a tireless campaigner for the west midlands, and I once again pay tribute to his efforts. It is fair to recognise that the Government car service has an obligation to consider where we can secure the best environmental technologies, given the commitment that has been shown, not just by the Government but by Members on both sides of the House, to taking our environmental responsibilities seriously. I am happy to write to my hon. Friend on the subject.

Mr. John Redwood (Wokingham) (Con): More people would use rail services at busy times if there were more seats and more regular services. Will the Secretary of State look into the technology to see how we can get more friction and traction for trains that run on commuter lines, so that we can double the number of trains that use the existing lines? That cannot be done at the moment because there is not the technology.

Mr. Alexander: Perhaps rather unusually, I find myself in agreement with the right hon. Gentleman in recognising— [Interruption.] Perhaps I will live to
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regret that comment. I join him in recognising capacity as a serious challenge. That is why I announced in March, when we published the high level output specification, that we will specify 1,000 extra carriages for the rail network. However, that is without prejudice to the continuing work that we need to take forward on, for example, considering platform lengthening or the possibility of double-decker trains. The number of trains that we can run on the existing network is limited, but I assure the House that we are seriously considering all options to make full use of that network.

Sarah McCarthy-Fry (Portsmouth, North) (Lab/Co-op): Residents in Paulsgrove in my constituency have had one of their bus services—the 1C—withdrawn by First Bus, but following pressure from residents a partial service has been reinstated, which finishes at 5 o’clock. Many people consider the needs of elderly residents, and the partial service means that elderly residents cannot go out at night, but I was told of the case of a young lad of 15 who used to go to a theatre group and get the bus back late at night, but now cannot go. Does my right hon. Friend agree that we should consider the needs of young people for bus transport and try to make them less dependent on their parents’ cars?

Mr. Alexander: Improved bus services benefit all ages in the community. It is right to recognise that in my hon. Friend’s community, in mine and in the communities of many Members, bus services are a vital lifeline. That is why, all too often, following the arbitrary withdrawal of services on which people rely, there is understandable concern and anger in those communities. That is one of the reasons why, last summer, we took a long hard look at bus provision in the United Kingdom, why we published “Putting Passengers First”, and why we are determined to drive forward better arrangements to assure effective partnership between local authorities and the bus operators.

Mr. Alistair Carmichael (Orkney and Shetland) (LD): If it is Government policy to encourage greater public transport use, why has South West Trains been allowed to increase its fares at off-peak times by 20 per cent. without any consultation? Does the Secretary of State think that that decision will help the Government meet their policy aims?

Mr. Alexander: The fares at off-peak times, to which the hon. Gentleman refers, are not regulated fares. Although I understand that there was real concern and public interest in the fares that were announced, it is important to emphasise that those are not fares set by Government. The regulated fares, which are set by Government, in addition to the advance purchase discount fares, account for about 70 per cent. of the journeys made on Britain’s railways. Beyond those regulated fares and advance purchase fares, there must be a degree of flexibility for train companies to set prices against other modes of available transport, but I would urge all train companies to act responsibly when considering the setting of unregulated fares.

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Clive Efford (Eltham) (Lab): My right hon. Friend is no doubt aware of the overcrowding on train services in the south-east. We recently had an Eltham to Victoria service cut by two carriages. Such a penny-pinching approach to the provision of services in south-east London is not good enough and will not deal with the congestion on our lines. When my right hon. Friend next meets representatives of South Eastern Trains, will he impress upon them the fact that south-east London is not served by the London underground, train services are essential, and that it is important that we extend the length of our trains, not cut them?

Mr. Alexander: Here in London, particularly south of the river, there is clearly a strong reliance on the over-ground train network, and I will be happy to ensure that in the discussions that the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, South (Mr. Harris), has with officials from South Eastern Trains, the points that my hon. Friend has raised are put directly to them.

Philip Davies (Shipley) (Con): Further to the excellent point made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood), one of the biggest barriers to people using public transport in my part of the world is overcrowding on the Airedale and Wharfedale lines into Leeds. When will the Government start putting right the chronic underfunding of transport in west Yorkshire? In everything done by the Government, west Yorkshire always gets a bad deal.

Mr. Alexander: I am always happy to receive representations, but it is an interesting charge to be put to us by the Conservative party that there is chronic under-investment in the railways of the United Kingdom. As I have made clear, a commitment has been made for 1,000 extra carriages for the network by 2014. It is important that all of us in the House recognise that any party that says that it is possible simultaneously to have lower fares, lower taxes and higher investment is not being altogether straight with the general public.

Rail Industry

2. Ian Lucas (Wrexham) (Lab): What assessment he has made of the barriers to entry to the rail industry. [136904]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. Tom Harris): The operation of passenger and freight train services is subject to a range of regulatory requirements designed to safeguard the public interest. Before being awarded an operating licence, therefore, a new operator has to satisfy the Office of Rail Regulation that it has the necessary competence, especially in safety management.

Ian Lucas: Business, commerce and industry in Wrexham all support the application by the Wrexham and Shropshire Railway for a direct rail service to London for the first time since 1957. The only people who are opposed to that are the subsidised franchised train operators in the midlands, who do not provide a
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direct service to Wrexham. Does my right hon. Friend believe that the rail regulator should take into account the interests of passengers first, not the interests of subsidised franchised rail operators?

Mr. Harris: My hon. Friend has made a persuasive and eloquent case in favour of the new service. He will understand, of course, that a decision on access to the network is one for the Office of Rail Regulation to take, and it will be made over the next few weeks. He also knows that it would not be appropriate for Ministers to seek to influence that decision. However, he should be aware that Network Rail has also raised concerns about the number of pathways that might be available to the new operator. As I say, a decision will be announced in the next few weeks.

Mark Pritchard (The Wrekin) (Con): Following on from the comments of the hon. Member for Wrexham (Ian Lucas), can the Minister give a commitment to the House that he will ensure that Network Rail and the Office of Rail Regulation do not put up unnecessary barriers to entry as regards the direct link from Shropshire to London? Has he had any discussions about that route in relation to the issues raised today?

Mr. Harris: I have had meetings with my hon. Friend the Member for Wrexham and several other colleagues about the merits of the case. However, I did not undertake to raise it directly with the Office of Rail Regulation, because it would not be appropriate for me to do so. I have every confidence that the ORR will make a decision based entirely on the merits of the application.


3. Mr. Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): When the Highways Agency expects to publish detailed proposals on the improvement of the A14 around Kettering. [136905]

The Minister of State, Department for Transport (Dr. Stephen Ladyman): I have asked the Highways Agency to submit recommendations on potential improvements this autumn.

Mr. Hollobone: I am grateful that the Minister is urging the Highways Agency to get a move on, because the people of Kettering have been waiting a long time for the proposals to be announced. When that happens, will the Minister ensure that plans for a parallel distributor road include provision for that road to be as close to the A14 as possible so as not to encroach on neighbouring villages? Will he also ensure that the Highways Agency liaises with Northamptonshire county council to provide that a connecting eastern bypass is built round Kettering?

Dr. Ladyman: The hon. Gentleman is asking too much if he expects me to commit to all those things in advance of the proposals. However, I can assure him that I have taken a personal interest in transport issues in the growth area around his constituency. I have visited the sites and spoken to developers, councils and development agencies, and I will continue to do so. I will commit the Highways Agency to working closely with everyone in the area to ensure that we come up with the best possible solution for local people.

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Regional Airports

4. Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West) (Con): What measures he is taking to reduce noise from aircraft at regional airports. [136906]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Gillian Merron): The Civil Aviation Act 2006 strengthens airport operators’ powers to control noise at airports. Those powers enable airports to introduce noise control schemes and to charge penalties to operators of aircraft that breach noise controls.

Mr. Swayne: What will the Minister do to encourage aerodromes to use the powers granted under section 4 of the Act and to implement the technology that will enable them to track aeroplanes that depart from minimum noise routings and to have a robust regime to fine those that do so?

Gillian Merron: It is important that airports take control over noise. It is Government policy to ensure that we work to reduce the numbers of people who are adversely affected. I am aware that Bournemouth airport, which is local to the hon. Gentleman, plans to install a noise and track-keeping system in July. The new provisions under the 2006 Act are welcome, but the consultative arrangements are also working well in many cases throughout the country.

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): Despite the fact that some years ago East Midlands airport introduced noise preferential routes, track monitoring and penalty schemes, the rapid growth of aircraft numbers to up to 200 air traffic movements a day means that communities around the airport periphery are still suffering a great deal from noise. Does the Minister accept that the 2006 Act should include a fall-back option to allow, in extreme circumstances, ministerial designation under the Civil Aviation Act 1982 to relieve the communities of south Derbyshire and north-west Leicestershire from the problems that they endure at the moment?

Gillian Merron: It is worth reminding the House that the air transport White Paper seeks to strike a fair balance between the local and national economic benefits, as well as the local environmental costs described by my hon. Friend. In respect of designation, where self-regulation is not enough the Government already have the power to designate airports for the purposes of section 78 of the 1982 Act. However, that does not mean that control by the Government, which my hon. Friend requests, ensures a quieter noise environment. What matters is that local consultation produces that, and I urge him to work locally to do so.

Adam Afriyie (Windsor) (Con): It is the noise of a single aircraft that wakes people up in the middle of the night, thus causing stress in their daily lives and generally upsetting their quality of life. What plans does the Under-Secretary have to measure aircraft noise by the noise that is heard on the ground in the eardrums of sleeping individuals rather than by obscure and complicated noise quotients, quotas and
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averages, which do not especially affect anyone? I stress that the noise of an individual aircraft affects people. What are her plans?

Gillian Merron: I presume that the hon. Gentleman is offering to be a volunteer to have the noise measured in his ear when asleep. I shall take that information back to the Department.

The Department continues to review measurements of noise—indeed, there is wide discussion about what constitutes the best form of measurement. I am sympathetic to the hon. Gentleman’s points and I shall ensure that the Department considers his comments.

Danny Alexander (Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey) (LD): My constituents in Inverness want to hear more, not less noise from aircraft. They are especially worried that the transatlantic agreement on open skies will threaten essential services between Inverness and London Gatwick and Heathrow airports. Will the Under-Secretary act to protect those vital services by using a public service obligation, thus ensuring that my constituents continue to hear those economically essential journeys for many years to come?

Gillian Merron: Regional airports add much to local economies. That is why several hon. Members welcome such development in their areas. I confirm that the air transport White Paper recognises the importance of good air links to London to the UK’s regional economies. The Government’s guidance on the protection of regional air access to London was published in 2005 and it set out the way in which we will interpret the criteria for imposing the public service obligations in European regulations.

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