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House of Commons

Tuesday 17 July 2007

The House met at half-past Two o’clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

private business

London Local Authorities Bill [ L ords]

Read the Third time, and passed , with amendments .

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked—

Employment (Former Mining Communities)

1. Jeff Ennis (Barnsley, East and Mexborough) (Lab): What steps she proposes to take to improve transport services to enable better access to jobs for people in former mining communities. [149827]

The Minister of State, Department for Transport (Ms Rosie Winterton): Local transport authorities in former mining areas have made substantial investment to address local regeneration objectives, including enabling better access to jobs through new roads, improvements to public transport and facilities for walking and cycling.

Jeff Ennis: I welcome my right hon. Friend to her new position in the Government. Is she aware of the issue of access to jobs in the Dearne valley project, which is part funded by the housing market renewal programme? It is creating greater opportunities for access to jobs and services in the Dearne and South Yorkshire area in general. Does she agree that future housing development and housing regeneration projects have to go hand in hand with greater accessibility planning at their core?

Ms Winterton: I thank my hon. Friend for his kind welcome and I acknowledge his interest in the subject, which is extremely important for the South Yorkshire area. I read his speech at a conference in March, in which he set out the importance of transport to enable people to get to their jobs while also highlighting the importance of housing development. In preparing local transport plans, local authorities have to look, particularly now, at how disadvantaged people might get extra services and ensure that they plan public transport accordingly. That is exactly in line with what my hon. Friend said and it is particularly important for former mining areas like ours.

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Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire) (Con): Corsham in my constituency is very much a mining community, having had 13 stone mines, most of which—bar one—have now been closed. Sadly, Dr. Beeching closed our railway station. That creates a problem for new development in the town, particularly by the Ministry of Defence, which is opening a £1 billion new centre in Corsham. We badly need a new station as so many people have to travel by car. Will the Minister join her predecessor in supporting our venture to have a new station in the town of Corsham?

Ms Winterton: I would be most interested to hear more about the plans for such a local station. The hon. Gentleman is right to say that, in planning well in advance, it is important to look at the integration of transport. Where we have railway stations, we need to ensure that they fit in with local bus transport plans and people’s driving habits, for example.

Mary Creagh (Wakefield) (Lab): I, too, welcome my right hon. Friend to her new role in the Government. I would like to raise the issue of interchangeability. We are lucky to have the Penistone line and the Denby Dale station, but unfortunately the trains tend to arrive and leave five minutes before and after the bus arrives, bringing people from Wakefield and Holmfirth. That is a critical issue for people trying to commute. We have had huge problems and the parish council has written to me about that and other bus services being taken away in my rural areas. Will my right hon. Friend look into this and try to get some sense and heads knocked together on the problem?

Ms Winterton: My hon. Friend is right. If we are to succeed in getting more people on to public transport, it is absolutely right to look at how we achieve proper integration. We want local authorities to look at all modes of travel, particularly through local transport plans, and to ensure that, if necessary, they sit down with the train companies and bus operators to put forward people’s travel patterns. Frankly, it is to everyone’s benefit if they can get that sort of planning right.

Coventry Airport

2. Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby) (Con): If she will make a statement on the future use of Coventry airport. [149828]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Jim Fitzpatrick): The future use of Coventry airport is a commercial matter for the airport operator.

Mr. Robathan: I welcome the Minister to his new role—I am quite certain that he will enjoy it—and thank him for that rather opaque statement. May I press him further? Many of my constituents are very concerned by a perceived increase in the number of aircraft; they appear particularly to be flying over the Lutterworth area much more. Many others believe that an expansion of Coventry airport in an area of high population would be unwise. Should any plans to expand the airport come before him, would he please ensure that they go out for the maximum possible consultation?

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Jim Fitzpatrick: I am sure that I can give that assurance and I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s kind words. As he knows, Coventry airport serves a specialist role within the region with a mix of traffic. The 2003 air transport White Paper concluded that the airport could continue to perform that role “within existing constraints”. In the light of our conclusions on capacity elsewhere in the midlands and potential surface access and environmental and airspace constraints, the White Paper did not envisage that any significant further development beyond the current level of passenger throughput would be appropriate.

Keith Vaz (Leicester, East) (Lab): I agree with the hon. Member for Blaby (Mr. Robathan). The situation relating to Leicester and Leicestershire has become much worse, and any expansion of Coventry will have a serious effect on the environment in my constituency. The best place in which to expand services is Birmingham airport. Will the Minister bear that in mind if he makes any decisions on the matter?

Jim Fitzpatrick: I can only repeat the assurances that I gave the hon. Member for Blaby about the proposals for Coventry and our view of capacity elsewhere in the midlands. The White Paper “The Future of Air Transport”, published in 2003, sets out the strategic framework for the next 30 years. As my right hon. Friend knows, it aims to create a balance between the economic importance of aviation and environmental and other considerations.

Jeremy Wright (Rugby and Kenilworth) (Con): The Secretary of State’s recent decision not to permit the development of an extended passenger terminal at Coventry airport has been welcomed by many of my constituents who live very near the airport, but one of the difficulties experienced during the lengthy planning inquiry was that Warwick district council had to bear the financial burden of dealing with the matter, in competition with an airline company with extremely deep pockets. Will the Minister consider—in general terms—ways in which in we can help local authorities to deal with substantial planning inquiries of this kind?

Jim Fitzpatrick: That is a fair point, but when planning issues such as that arise, expenditure by local authorities is always necessary so that they can make representations. I can only tell the hon. Gentleman that the Department for Communities and Local Government always listens to representations made by any local authority in respect of the annual settlement—which, as he knows, has been growing over the past 10 years, and will doubtless continue to grow—and reassure him that his local authority’s representations will be taken into account at the appropriate time.

Humber Bridge Board

3. Shona McIsaac (Cleethorpes) (Lab): When she last had discussions with the Humber bridge board. [149829]

The Minister of State, Department for Transport (Ms Rosie Winterton): Officials from my Department have had frequent and regular discussions with the Humber bridge board on a range of issues. The most recent discussions took place on 19 June, on the restructuring of the Humber bridge debt.

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Shona McIsaac: I thank my right hon. Friend for her answer, and welcome her to her new position. I appreciate that the debt has been restructured, but will she confirm that that means that the board will retain more money, which could potentially be invested in local transport initiatives such as concessions for people travelling to Hull hospitals for cancer treatment?

Ms Winterton: I congratulate my hon. Friend on all the work that she has done in this area, not least with the rather splendid Bill that she promoted some time ago.

It is for the Humber bridge board to decide what to do with the £16.5 million or so that is available following the debt restructuring. If the board wanted to offer concessionary fares we would certainly consider its proposals, but we would have to be assured that it could meet its financial obligations. My hon. Friend might like to consider whether local health authorities would be interested in working with the board to enable people to be transported to hospital.

Local Bus Services

4. Mr. Khalid Mahmood (Birmingham, Perry Barr) (Lab): What arrangements she plans to make to give local authorities a greater say over local bus services. [149830]

The Secretary of State for Transport (Ruth Kelly): The draft Local Transport Bill proposes changes that will give local authorities stronger levers to improve bus services and work in partnership with bus operators. That includes making bus franchising a realistic option in areas where it is in the public interest for local authorities to take greater control of bus services.

Mr. Mahmood: I welcome the Secretary of State to her new role. Will the draft Bill allow local councillors to determine local routes for their constituents to provide the better service that is needed in local areas?

Ruth Kelly: I can give my hon. Friend a firm assurance that that will be the case. It might be made possible in a number of ways, including a voluntary partnership between a local authority and a bus operator. If the authority so chose, the arrangement could be put on a statutory basis. Alternatively, quality contracts—a form of bus franchising—would enable local authorities to have much more control over bus services. Behind all that is the idea that passengers must come first, and that local authorities must seek the powers that they need in order to ensure that passengers receive the best possible service.

Dan Rogerson (North Cornwall) (LD): In investigating the furtherance of bus travel, will the Secretary of State revisit the effect on rural transport of limiting the length of bus journeys? Many rural passengers nowadays have to interrupt their journeys and change unnecessarily because of the new regulations on the length of a bus journey before drivers and buses must be changed.

Ruth Kelly: I certainly will do that. The powers we propose under the draft Local Transport Bill will enable local authorities to do as they see fit by working with the bus operator companies to put in place not only
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routes but frequencies and to determine punctuality and potentially the fares charged. Those powers will go a long way towards making sure that passengers get the facilities that they need. Also, community transport in rural areas will become more viable as it is made easier for there to be buses of different sizes and for drivers to be hired to operate them.

Ms Angela C. Smith (Sheffield, Hillsborough) (Lab): I think that all Labour Members welcome the Bill’s inclusion in the draft legislative programme, but will my right hon. Friend address concerns that the process set out in the Bill for franchising bus services is too long, especially given the falling levels of bus patronage in metropolitan areas?

Ruth Kelly: I understand that that is a concern, particularly in Sheffield. My right hon. Friend the Minister of State will travel to Sheffield to meet people and discuss their concerns. However, I hope that my hon. Friend realises—as the local authority in Sheffield does—that our proposals will lead to the biggest shake-up in bus services for 20 years and that we are lowering the hurdle by making it much easier for local authorities to take the powers they need. I know that Sheffield is already working towards having a quality contract. We must make going down that route as easy as possible. Under the proposals, we envisage that there will be a timetable of about 14 to 20 months for a quality contract to be assured, which is similar to the length of time that a local authority would usually in any event want to spend making sure that it had got its proposals right. My right hon. Friend the Minister of State will be delighted to discuss the proposals not only with my hon. Friend but with the local authority.

Adam Price (Carmarthen, East and Dinefwr) (PC): Will the draft Bill include a proposal for a separate traffic commissioner for Wales so that we can finally end the anomaly of the regulation of bus services in Wales being based in Birmingham? Although it is a splendid city in every respect, it is hardly an appropriate vantage point from which to make decisions on transport in Wales.

Ruth Kelly: I hear the hon. Gentleman’s enthusiasm for the return of powers to Wales, but the important point to make is that traffic commissioners must have the powers that they need to hold both bus operators and local authorities to account—and the Welsh Assembly thereto, where appropriate—in order to make sure that buses run on time and serve people well. As the hon. Gentleman knows, we will propose reforms to the traffic commissioner body. He will have to wait for the consultation exercise to be published, but I hear what he says on this matter.

Graham Stringer (Manchester, Blackley) (Lab): The Confederation of Passenger Transport UK has boasted that it has more influence on bus policy than MPs or local government, and we know from today’s edition of The Times that it has influence in the other place. Will my right hon. Friend check the 4,000 passes to the Department for Transport and assure me that the CPT and its members do not have undue influence in that Department?

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Ruth Kelly: I would be delighted to speak to my hon. Friend and any other Member who has concerns about bus policy or its operation at local authority or city level. My right hon. Friend the Minister of State is travelling not only to Sheffield but around the country to meet people who have particular concerns, and I am sure that she would be happy to discuss such matters with my hon. Friend.

Andrew Gwynne (Denton and Reddish) (Lab): I welcome my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to her new Government post. If we are to accept the concept of road pricing, those areas making bids to the transport innovation fund must offer better co-ordination and planning of the bus network. What assurances can my right hon. Friend give that, if Manchester’s bid proceeds, the Greater Manchester passenger transport executive will have the powers it needs?

Ruth Kelly: Of course, I will have to look at the bid from Greater Manchester when it comes to my Department for examination, but the principle is that if a local authority or a city wants to pursue road pricing, it is right that the public services, and public transport in particular, work well and in an integrated fashion. Local authorities must have the powers that they need, especially over buses, to make that possible and they must also have the funding to put in place transport that works to serve the needs of the local population.

Birmingham New Street

5. Mark Williams (Ceredigion) (LD): What progress has been made in reducing train congestion at Birmingham New Street station. [149831]

The Secretary of State for Transport (Ruth Kelly): Network Rail and Birmingham city council have been developing a scheme for the redevelopment of the station. My Department is assessing whether it addresses future needs and represents value for money.

Mark Williams: I am grateful to the Secretary of State for that response. She will be aware that Arriva Trains Wales, which links mid and west Wales and Shropshire with Birmingham, has frequently had to terminate services at Wolverhampton because of lack of platform capacity at Birmingham New Street station. In view of what she has said about the discussions between Birmingham city council and Network Rail, can she confirm whether platform capacity, as opposed to the necessary improvement of surroundings, will be a part of the discussions? There is a great need for that, because many of my constituents think that they receive a lamentable service.

Ruth Kelly: I sympathise with the hon. Gentleman’s constituents. I know that there have been reliability problems with the Arriva Trains Wales service and I urge him to take up those concerns with the Welsh Assembly Government, because ultimately the Aberystwyth line is their responsibility. He mentions capacity at Birmingham New Street station, and that is an issue with which I am familiar. Clearly, capacity will be one of the major priorities of the forthcoming rail White Paper and, given the central importance of Birmingham New Street to the rail network, it will clearly be one of the issues in my mind as I go forward.

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