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Alan Simpson (Nottingham, South) (Lab): Can we just ensure that local authorities are not left with a funding gap that has to be covered by a reduction in non-statutory services? Some authorities, such as mine in Nottingham, are having to consider closing swimming pools, leisure centres and libraries to pay for a transport
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service—which, ironically, pensioners would end up using to go in search of pools that were not open, libraries that were closed and leisure centres that no longer existed.

Ms Winterton: I assure my hon. Friend that the settlement is generous. As I said, two years ago, we put £350 million extra through the revenue support grant to fund the current concession. On top of that, from April, a further £212 million will go to funding concessionary fares. That is the equivalent of 200 million extra journeys. The proportion of journeys made outside local county areas is about 4 per cent. whereas the average increase in funding is 30 per cent. I emphasise that the settlement is generous.

Mr. Roger Gale (North Thanet) (Con): The Minister says that few journeys are made outside county boundaries, but the Government news network release issued today advocates, for example, Broadstairs in Kent as an ideal destination for visitors from London. I am sure that Broadstairs would welcome those visitors, but my correspondence with Kent county council, Thanet district council and Canterbury city council shows genuine concern. Will the Minister make certain that resort destinations do not bear an unfair proportion of the burden of cost?

Ms Winterton: Yes, I can assure the hon. Gentleman on that count. The formula that we drew up for the specific grant—it is a specific grant, at the request of local authorities—was based on the number of tourist visits as well as eligible population data. For example, Thanet council will receive a 45 per cent. increase this year on top of what it spent in 2006-07 on concessionary fares. Again, that increase in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency is much greater than average. In Thanet, 35,000 people over 60 will be eligible for the scheme, and I encourage him to advertise its benefits to his constituents. In total, 11 million people around the country will benefit. Hon. Members should welcome that scheme for older and disabled people.

Ms Celia Barlow (Hove) (Lab): Is the Minister aware that the pleasure that pensioners and the disabled in Hove and Portslade take in their bus passes is tempered by being harried and bullied by accusations that the bus pass is responsible for the cuts in the local authority budget announced last week? What measures will my right hon. Friend take to ensure that local authority mismanagement will not stop the implementation of the free bus pass scheme?

Ms Winterton: My hon. Friend makes a good point. In her area the increase is some 33 per cent. It is quite wrong to scaremonger among older and disabled people about services being withdrawn, when the settlement is in fact incredibly generous. I hope that she will encourage her constituents to take up the pass and use the new freedoms that go with it.

Stephen Hammond (Wimbledon) (Con): “A budget disaster”, “Financial meltdown” and “Our local authority is receiving inadequate compensation” are but three of the reactions of Labour and Conservative councils up and down the country to the introduction of the national concessionary bus scheme. The Government’s reaction this afternoon has shown their complacency. They must
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accept that the funding that they are providing for their scheme is inadequate. That funding is leading to councils either cutting services or increasing council tax. The Government happily claim credit for the scheme, yet they are allowing the local council tax payer to pick up the bill. When are they going to stop being complacent and provide proper funding for the introduction of their scheme?

Ms Winterton: Again, the increase in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency will be 31 per cent. of what was being spent in 2006-07. Let me emphasise that we consulted widely with local authorities on the funding formula for the scheme. We agreed to make a specific grant and we gave four options for how that grant should be distributed. The way in which we are distributing the grant is the one that the local authorities asked for. The hon. Gentleman might want to ask the hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire (Mr. Lansley) whether he is proposing to cut concessionary fare funding in order to put forward his policies.

Swansea Station

5. Mrs. Siân C. James (Swansea, East) (Lab): How much she has allocated for capital spending at Swansea railway station over the next five years; and if she will make a statement. [190976]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. Tom Harris): Swansea was included in the industry’s initial list of candidate stations for the national stations improvement programme. An updated list of candidate stations will be published as part of the April 2008 refresh of Network Rail’s strategic business plan.

Mrs. James: I thank my hon. Friend for his answer. He knows that I have been writing to him recently to make representations on the need for capital investment at Swansea railway station, which is, after all, the gateway to west Wales and an important mainline terminus. Can he assure me that he will do all he can to ensure that Swansea remains a candidate for those moneys, which, as the second city of Wales, it richly deserves?

Mr. Harris: My hon. Friend is right: she does indeed write to me frequently, on this issue and others—and correspondence from her is always welcome. She will be aware that one of the criteria for deciding which stations should be on the list of candidate stations is how successful Network Rail can expect to be in leveraging private sector money. I have no information about whether Swansea will remain on the list in April 2008, but she is doing exactly the right thing in making the case for Swansea, and I wish her every success in that.

Ian Lucas (Wrexham) (Lab) rose—

Mr. Speaker: I understand that the railway station concerned is some distance away from Wrexham—but perhaps the hon. Gentleman can try to ask his question.

Ian Lucas: Mr. Speaker, your knowledge of Wales is renowned across the land. I want to talk about capital investment in Welsh railway stations, if that is permissible.
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Capital investment in Welsh railway stations for disabled facilities has been made at Wrexham station, and I believe that Swansea railway station would also be eligible for such investment. Does my hon. Friend the Minister agree that sustaining such capital investment is essential to ensuring a functioning and improving railway service, and what position does he believe we would be in if we had a Government who no longer contributed to such investment?

Mr. Harris: I congratulate my hon. Friend on his ingenious question. Although Wrexham station has been allocated money under the Access for All programme, which has had a budget of £370 million over 10 years for improving accessibility at stations, my understanding—although I am prepared to be proved wrong on this—is that Swansea has so far not benefited from Access for All investment. However, my hon. Friend is absolutely right to say that unless we continued with a high level of investment in infrastructure, not only on the railways but at our stations, the record increase in patronage that we have seen over the past 10 years would, I fear, begin to take a downward turn.

Short Car Journeys

6. Tom Brake (Carshalton and Wallington) (LD): What steps her Department is taking to encourage people to make fewer short car journeys. [190977]

The Secretary of State for Transport (Ruth Kelly): The Government have taken several steps to encourage people to make fewer short car journeys. We are providing record spending on buses and other local transport, and bus patronage is increasing. I announced a sixfold increase in funding for Cycling England, and in our sustainable travel towns people are choosing to travel differently, reducing car trips by more than 10 per cent. and increasing bus use by 16 per cent.

Tom Brake: I thank the Secretary of State for her response—but in the past 10 years, according to figures provided by her Department, the number of journeys made on foot has fallen by 15 per cent. and the number of bike journeys has fallen by 14 per cent. How much further does she expect the number of such trips to fall as a result of the programme of 2,500 post office closures? Has she been able to assess how many extra short car journeys will need to be made as a result of that closure programme?

Ruth Kelly: The key here is to encourage the local leadership in local councils to think through how people get around their towns and cities. Places such as the London borough of Sutton are looking at our sustainable travel towns initiatives and seeing the dramatic effect that they can have on cycling and walking. They are introducing personalised travel and information for people, so that they can change the nature of their car journeys. The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to say that where the critical local infrastructure—the post office, the school, the local shops—is located matters enormously. That is why it is important for us to work with the Department for Communities and Local Government to look at the planning system, to ensure that people can get about easily on foot or by bike.

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Mr. David Clelland (Tyne Bridge) (Lab): Is my right hon. Friend aware that the Tyne and Wear Metro system saves some 15 million short car journeys every year? It is now more than 20 years old, however, and it is beginning to creak and groan a bit. The business plan for the improvement of the Metro system was submitted to her Department in June last year, and discussions have been ongoing. Can she confirm that she will soon be in a position to make a statement on the reinvigoration of the Metro system, so that it can continue to provide an alternative to short car journeys?

Ruth Kelly: I congratulate my hon. Friend on his tenacity in raising the issue of the Metro. He is absolutely right to say that it matters enormously to people in Tyne and Wear and the surrounding areas, and it is important that we take any investment case seriously. The business case is with the Department, and I hope to be able to make an announcement shortly.

Mr. Angus MacNeil (Na h-Eileanan an Iar) (SNP): Of course, where possible, people should be encouraged to take as few car journeys as possible. However, in many places, including my island constituency, that is almost impossible because of the rural nature of the area. Would the Minister consider supporting a proposal similar to one that this Government have supported for rural France involving the reduction of rural fuel duty by 3 per cent.? Last week the Scottish Government reduced ferry fares for the island constituencies. I wonder whether we might now have some good news from Westminster about taking positive steps to reduce fuel tax in rural areas, as the Government have agreed should happen in France.

Ruth Kelly: To be honest, I found the hon. Gentleman’s argument slightly hard to follow, but if he is talking about taxation, that is clearly an issue for the Treasury. He is absolutely right, however, to say that access from rural communities to neighbouring towns and cities—and, indeed, to London and beyond this country—is hugely important. That is one of the reasons why it is not possible to say that all journeys will be able to be made by high-speed train or by road, for example; we need flights, too. I hope that the hon. Gentleman supports our proposal—which will, of course, be subject to strict local environmental conditions being met—to expand capacity at Heathrow, so that we will be able to serve rural communities.

Ms Karen Buck (Regent's Park and Kensington, North) (Lab): Does my right hon. Friend agree that one of the best ways to discourage short car journeys is to improve the bus service? Will she join me in celebrating the achievements of the Mayor of London in recent years in improving London’s bus service, including through extensions to the freedom pass and discounts for low-income families? Does my right hon. Friend agree that a serious threat to that would be the 15 per cent. fare hike that would result from the Conservatives’ underfunded commitment to— [ Interruption. ]

Mr. Speaker: Order.

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Ruth Kelly: I do; my hon. Friend is absolutely right. Every Londoner should know that the hon. Member for Henley (Mr. Johnson) is pledging a minimum 15 per cent. increase in bus fares. I must say to my hon. Friend and her colleagues that this is a very important election, which will have a real impact on millions of Londoners. The Mayor of London has a role on the world stage, whereas the hon. Member for Henley is, I think, more suited to a role in the circus.

Mr. Speaker: Order. We had best be careful about the language we use, as it is unfair to attack an hon. Member of the House in that way.

Mr. Gregory Campbell (East Londonderry) (DUP): In her answer, the Secretary of State touched on a very important topic. Will she make a start on short journeys by requesting her right hon. Friend the Prime Minister to make the short journey between Downing street and this House each Wednesday on foot?

Ruth Kelly: The hon. Gentleman makes a cheap political point. I am sure that he travels on foot to all his meetings and that he would encourage every Member to do the same.

Ms Dari Taylor (Stockton, South) (Lab): Does my right hon. Friend accept that cutting short car journeys requires an effective bus service? Will she explain just what powers her Department has given local authorities to ensure that services delivered on paper are actual and that Arriva and Stagecoach cannot cut services at the drop of a hat, and deny them to my constituents?

Ruth Kelly: My hon. Friend has been assiduous in pushing the case of her constituents. Indeed, I believe that a Department for Transport official recently visited Stockton council and members of neighbouring councils to talk about how they can ensure a good quality bus service in their local areas. The Local Transport Bill, which is currently proceeding through the House of Lords and will shortly come to this place, sets in place a framework that will allow councils either to negotiate a voluntary partnership with bus operators, to implement a statutory partnership or—if they think they will have greater control and be able better to deliver on fares, punctuality and the type of routes they want served—a quality contract, so that they can commission the bus services that they think their communities need.


7. Mr. Simon Burns (West Chelmsford) (Con): What plans she has to upgrade the A12 from the M25 to Chelmsford. [190978]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. Tom Harris): A scheme to improve the A12 interchange with the M25 is under construction and is expected to be completed in spring 2008. Future improvements to the A12 are dependent on these being prioritised for funding by the east of England from its regional funding allocation for major transport schemes, or from other sources.

Mr. Burns: I am grateful to the Minister for that response. Given that the Highways Agency has identified the need to widen the A12 to Chelmsford to a three-lane road in order to reduce congestion and accident rates, and given that the Minister for the East of England has
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said that the upgrading of this stretch of the A12 is “totally vital”, is it not incumbent on the Government, because this is a trunk road, to expedite this work by providing the funding?

Mr. Harris: The hon. Gentleman is absolutely correct that this is a trunk road, but it is also a road of regional importance. Although the Minister for the East of England and the highways authority—and perhaps even myself, Mr. Speaker—are convinced of the need for a major upgrade, it is up to the hon. Gentleman to try to persuade the regional transport board for the east of England that it should prioritise that work. To date, unfortunately, it has not done so. Of course, during the refresh of the regional funding allocation throughout the country, including in the east of England, for the transport board to look again at its priorities and make its recommendations to the Government.

Mr. Douglas Carswell (Harwich) (Con): Is the Minister aware of the spate of serious accidents on the A12 and will he ensure that action is taken to reduce fatalities at some of the worst fatality blackspots?

Mr. Harris: Yes, I am aware of the less than satisfactory accident rate on the stretch of the A12 that the hon. Gentleman mentions. I have spoken to the Highways Agency about the issue and asked it to carry out a review of the mechanisms and plans for that stretch to see what it can do within its own budget to try to improve the road’s safety record. He is absolutely correct to draw this unsatisfactory situation to the attention of the House.

Cycling Safety

8. Jeff Ennis (Barnsley, East and Mexborough) (Lab): What funding her Department provides for cycling safety training. [190979]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Jim Fitzpatrick): Since 2005-06, the Department for Transport has invested around £3.1 million on the development and delivery of cycle training. So far, funding has been provided to enable around 46,000 children to be trained to the Bikeability standard. In January, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State announced a sixfold increase in the cycling budget to £140 million for Cycling England to invest in initiatives to encourage cycling, including enabling an extra 500,000 children to have Bikeability training by 2012.

Jeff Ennis: Is the Minister aware that the mayor of Doncaster, Mayor Martin Winter, is formulating a bid for cycling demonstration town status? What impact would that have on cycling safety in Doncaster? Does the Minister agree that if the Conservative party had its way, cycling safety would be one of the first things to be cut under a Conservative Administration?

Jim Fitzpatrick: I advise my hon. Friend that in February Cycling England commenced a bidding process for 10 new cycle demonstration towns and a new cycle city, and has published the assessment criteria and application form, which are available on its website. Cycling England’s local authority advisory team is available
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to give help to any local authority of whatever political persuasion. The contact details are also available on the Cycling England website. The deadline for applications is 31 March, and I wish my hon. Friend’s friends the best of luck in their bidding.

Mr. Robert Goodwill (Scarborough and Whitby) (Con): One way to make cycling safer is to provide new cycle routes away from traffic. I recently saw a great example at Yeadon, near Leeds, that utilises an old railway track. Can the Minister act to protect those old rail corridors from developers, so that they can be made available for cyclists and, for that matter, pedestrians?

Jim Fitzpatrick: I have just advised the House of the sixfold increase—I am sure hon. Members were aware of it—in funding for Cycling England, which I am sure will be considering imaginative schemes to promote cycling more effectively. My right hon. Friend the Minister of State has just advised me that there are other pots for which bids can be made. We will look to use all available routes to ensure that cycling is a safe activity, because it reduces congestion, is good for health and builds confidence. The Government want to ensure that we promote cycling as effectively as we can.

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