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22 Apr 2008 : Column 1169

House of Commons

Tuesday 22 April 2008

The House met at half-past Two o’clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked—

Roads (Permitted Vehicles)

1. Bill Wiggin (Leominster) (Con): Whether she plans to permit longer heavier vehicles on some roads; and if she will make a statement. [199755]

The Secretary of State for Transport (Ruth Kelly): With permission, Mr. Speaker, I would like to take this opportunity to pay tribute to Gwyneth Dunwoody, who died last week. It is on occasions such as these that her absence will be sorely felt. Gwyneth had a passion for social justice, was incredibly knowledgeable about transport issues, as was clear from her chairmanship of the Transport Committee, and always made pertinent, if sometimes mischievous, contributions to debates. I am sure that the House will agree that Gwyneth was a truly outstanding parliamentarian and a great servant of the people. She will be sadly missed in all parts of this House.

In respect of Question 1, I am yet to receive the research report on this subject, but I have no plans to allow so-called super-lorries on UK roads.

Bill Wiggin: I served on the Transport Committee under Gwyneth Dunwoody, and I think that she would appreciate the Secretary of State’s comments.

Rail freight groups estimate that every tonne of freight carried by rail saves about 80 per cent. of the carbon emissions that that freight would have generated if it had been transported by road. Why have the Government abandoned their target to increase rail freight by 80 per cent. by 2010?

Ruth Kelly: The hon. Gentleman completely misunderstands the facts of the case. In fact, last year, we invested £17 million in removing 1 million lorry journeys from UK roads. We are committed to building on that success and, in the past year, we announced the single biggest package of investment in rail freight infrastructure for decades—£150 million. Rail freight has already gone up by 50 per cent. We are committed to a review, leading to a Green Paper that examines the transport challenges for the UK economy. As part of
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that, we will perform a specific piece of work to review the contribution that freight can make to our economic success.

Mr. Stephen Hepburn (Jarrow) (Lab): Will the Minister explain to me where the fairness is in letting foreign hauliers use our roads free of charge when our hauliers go to the continent and have to pay £7 a day?

Ruth Kelly: My hon. Friend makes a valid point about whether there is fair, or indeed unfair, competition on British roads. I am completely committed to ensuring a level playing field for UK hauliers and foreign hauliers. It was absolutely right that we considered the so-called vignette scheme, which proposed a daily charge for non-British lorries that use UK roads, although even the haulage industry decided that that was probably too complex and costly to implement. However, I am stepping up significantly enforcement against hauliers on road safety grounds, and have just announced additional investment of £24 million to ensure that there are no infringements of road safety rules.

Mr. Malcolm Moss (North-East Cambridgeshire) (Con): May I make a plea to the Secretary of State not to allow any longer heavier vehicles on the A14 through Cambridgeshire, which has one of the worst accident records in the country, with 52 fatalities in the past 10 years alone? The latest, only three weeks ago, in which a heavy lorry killed a young single mother, was highlighted in a campaign by Cambridge News. Will the Minister undertake to prioritise all the Cambridgeshire A14 improvements so that heavier lorries can make safe passage through Cambridgeshire from the east coast ports to the midlands and the north?

Ruth Kelly: The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that safety should be a key consideration when deciding whether road improvement schemes should go ahead. That is one of the issues that we will consider in determining whether the A14 is a priority for additional investment. We are reviewing all our road schemes and intend shortly to make an announcement on which will be priorities.

Dr. Stephen Ladyman (South Thanet) (Lab): May I associate myself with my right hon. Friend’s comments about Gwyneth Dunwoody? She was a tough cookie, but she was our tough cookie. She will be very much missed.

The hon. Member for North-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Moss) does not seem to realise that it is Conservative party policy to allow longer heavier lorries on the roads of Great Britain. Will my right hon. Friend think very carefully before she allows that, because they will almost certainly be taken through our rural villages causing untold damage?

Ruth Kelly: My hon. Friend takes a huge interest in this subject, and I know that he has a track record of considering the case for longer heavier vehicles. He makes a pertinent point about the Conservatives’ policy, and I have a huge amount of sympathy with his points. We should be concerned about congestion and road safety and, on environmental grounds, we should think about the most effective way of moving freight around this country. That is why I have said that I would need a huge amount of persuasion to allow so-called super-lorries on British roads.

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Mr. John Leech (Manchester, Withington) (LD): What assessment has the Secretary of State made of the financial implications for road maintenance of allowing longer heavier lorries on to our roads?

Ruth Kelly: We have taken a long detailed look at the issues, not just in government, but through our work with the road haulage industry, to see whether it would be possible to introduce a scheme that would take account of the infrastructure and maintenance costs for British roads. The study concluded that it would not make sense to introduce such a scheme within the current framework of EU legislation; it would be too complex and costly to introduce, and the benefits would not exceed the costs.

There are alternative ways of ensuring that British hauliers do not suffer from unfair competition. I am determined to ensure that they do not, and the key to that is considering the impact on road safety. We need to ensure that there are no incentives for non-UK hauliers to break the rules. That is why enforcement is so important and it is why we have stepped up significantly the level of enforcement against hauliers who break the rules—indeed, we have doubled it in the past year.

Chris Bryant (Rhondda) (Lab): One of the problems with the larger lorries already allowed on British roads is that they use not only the slow lane on motorways or dual carriageways, but often overtake, sometimes sandwiching smaller cars. Will the Secretary of State consider rolling out throughout the whole UK the pilot that has been introduced in one part of the country so that, as in other European countries, lorries may drive only in the slow lane?

Ruth Kelly: My hon. Friend makes an absolutely excellent point. I am determined to ensure that rather than automatically jumping to the conclusion that extra capacity is needed on British roads, we think first and foremost about the best use of our existing network. That might mean bringing the hard shoulder into use, and if we decide to do so, we should think about how that extra space is used. One possibility is that we reserve it for car-share lanes, but we could also think about whether crawler lanes might be appropriate for longer heavier vehicles. We will review, motorway by motorway, the use of extra capacity to ensure that it is used to best effect.

Mr. Robert Goodwill (Scarborough and Whitby) (Con): On 19 November, the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, the hon. Member for Poplar and Canning Town (Jim Fitzpatrick), told me that this already overdue report would be published in three months. It is now six months later, and people are starting to wonder whether someone is sitting on it. The Conservative party has not come to a view on longer heavier vehicles, but the evidence in the report might help us to do so. Will the Secretary of State at least publish the evidence, even if she cannot reach her own conclusions?

Ruth Kelly: I have already made it clear that this is a complex issue. The report should be published in a matter of months, if not weeks, but it certainly should be published before the summer recess, when everyone in the House will have the opportunity to determine their view on longer heavier vehicles. I have already said
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that I would need a huge amount of persuasion that super-lorries are the answer to congestion on our roads, but I look forward to hearing any policy pronouncement of any kind from the Conservatives on congestion.

Rail Services (Edinburgh to North-West England)

2. Mark Lazarowicz (Edinburgh, North and Leith) (Lab/Co-op): If she will take steps to encourage the train operating company to improve the journey times and frequency of rail services from Edinburgh to north-west England. [199756]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. Tom Harris): Journey times will be accelerated on most trains between Edinburgh and Manchester, Warrington and Preston from the start of the December 2008 timetable. From the same date, the train operator for the Edinburgh to Manchester airport route intends to increase the number of services that it provides.

Mark Lazarowicz: It takes almost as long to go by train from Edinburgh to Manchester as it does to go from Edinburgh to London, even though the latter journey is twice the distance. Some welcome improvements have been made, but there is a real opportunity, even with existing rolling stock—and certainly with the new rolling stock that is coming in—substantially to improve journey times between Edinburgh and north-west England, which would benefit business and leisure passengers and help to shift air and road passengers on to the railways. I urge my hon. Friend to meet the rail companies to ensure that such improvement continues, with further improvements in the timetable next year.

Mr. Harris: My hon. Friend has a long track record of campaigning on these issues. He will know that I meet all the train operating companies regularly to discuss levels of service, including the journey times between particular stations. As I have already said, the journey times that concern my hon. Friend will improve from the end of this year. We are always in the market to achieve improvements to journey times, but there is a trade-off between the number of stations that any service can serve and end-to-end journey time. Once we have struck the correct balance, I am sure that services serving my hon. Friend’s constituency will improve in the long and short term.

John Reid (Airdrie and Shotts) (Lab): May I associate myself with the tributes to Gwyneth Dunwoody? Those of us in the long line of former Transport Ministers who withered under her scrutiny will remember her fondly and miss her greatly.

I thank the Minister for the news of faster train journeys, but would he not agree that most passengers actually want a more regular pattern of service and trains that are punctual and reliable?

Mr. Harris: My right hon. Friend is absolutely correct. Under this Government, performance has improved by 10 per cent. over the past five years. We are committed also to improving rolling stock, with the introduction of 1,300 brand new carriages over the next five years. As he will be aware, today we have the youngest rolling stock of any European country.

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M6 (New Junctions)

3. Mr. Ben Wallace (Lancaster and Wyre) (Con): What her policy is on the construction of new junctions on the M6. [199757]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. Tom Harris): The Government’s policy on the construction of new junctions on the motorway network, including the M6, is set out in “Circular 2/07: Planning and the Strategic Road Network”, which the Department published in March 2007. The policy states that there is a general presumption against additional access to motorways and other routes of strategic national importance.

Mr. Wallace: Because of the urban spread in my constituency around Preston and Blackpool, my local A roads are under tremendous traffic pressure. Lancashire county council’s solutions for relieving that involve two options—a new junction on the M6 or a new one on the M55—so will the Minister consider reviewing that guidance?

Mr. Harris: Guidance is exactly that: guidance. Ministers have some discretion to go beyond that guidance when that seems necessary. For example, if it is necessary to create a new junction on a strategic road to accommodate a growth area or an attraction, that option is open to us. I would have expected the local authorities in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency to work with the Highways Agency to come up with alternative solutions so that we did not need to create any extra junctions on any motorway. However, we analyse all situations case by case. If there is a case for creating an extra junction, I will be happy to consider it, but I would be reluctant to move from the stated policy as it is designed to ensure the free flow of traffic and maintain our high levels of road safety.

Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston) (Lab): May I associate myself with the remarks about my fellow Cheshire Member, Gwyneth Dunwoody? She was a formidable lady, although, sadly, at the end of her life here I was in disagreement with her.

Will my hon. Friend the Minister think particularly about junctions at the northern end of the M6? However, before he gives that any priority, will he ensure that he cross-references his studies with his work on railways? I am convinced that significant gains could be made to the flow of freight by getting more freight on the railway on the southern side of the River Mersey. If we do that, there will be less need to change the structure of the M6.

Mr. Harris: My hon. Friend makes the particularly valid point that road and rail planning should go hand in hand. I want to get as much freight on to the railways as possible. We have to assume that roads will continue to carry the vast majority of freight in the long term. However, with that in mind, it is incumbent on local authorities and the Highways Agency to ensure that our infrastructure is fit for purpose.

Mark Pritchard (The Wrekin) (Con): The Minister will know that many of my constituents travelling south from Shropshire use either the M6 or the M6 toll road. Will he give my constituents an update on the extension
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of the M6 toll road connected to the M54 and, most importantly, give a commitment to them and me today that no toll will be introduced on the M54?

Mr. Harris: I can confirm that there are no plans to impose a toll on the M56. [Official Report, 29 April 2008, Vol. 475, c. 4MC.] I can also tell the hon. Gentleman that the plans to extend the toll road northwards are no longer going to be progressed. However, the whole policy on the strategic road network, and the question of how we make the most effective use of its capacity, are the subject of a study being undertaken by the Department. That study will consider not only road pricing, but active traffic management, which has been such a success on the M42.

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire) (Con): Can the hon. Member for Stafford (Mr. Kidney) and I both now take it that the ridiculous idea of building a motorway parallel to the M6 through Staffordshire has been abandoned once and for all?

Mr. Harris: We have no plans at the moment to build parallel motorways to the M6 or any other motorways.

Local Transport Plans

4. Mr. David Anderson (Blaydon) (Lab): What guidance her Department has issued to local authorities on the development of local transport services through local transport plans. [199758]

The Minister of State, Department for Transport (Ms Rosie Winterton): The Department for Transport issued guidance to local authorities about local transport plans in December 2004. It also issued advice in 2007 about reviewing progress on delivery of transport plans.

Mr. Anderson: I thank the Minister for her response. May I say, on behalf of the people I represent, that they are very glad that, at long last, they are going to get back some local control over public transport services? Does my right hon. Friend agree that the Conservatives oppose these plans simply because they would still rather put private profit before public services?

Ms Winterton: My hon. Friend is quite right to express amazement at the fact that the Conservatives decided to vote against the Local Transport Bill on Second Reading. All Labour Members appreciate the need to improve our bus services, to increase the integration of public transport and to improve community transport. It is beyond belief that the Conservatives do not support those principles. I also believe that they are completely out of step with Conservative local councillors whom I meet around the country, who say that this is exactly—

Mr. Speaker: Order. Perhaps we can have ministerial answers now. We can talk about ministerial responsibility.

Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York) (Con): May I join the Secretary of State in paying tribute to Gwyneth Dunwoody? A corner of this Chamber will be for ever Gwyneth’s.

I invite the Minister to explain the role of regional development agencies in strategic transport planning, in particular for roads such as the A64 between York and Scarborough that have a strategic role but are inherently unsafe. Between us, we need to find the money to improve that road.

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