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22 Apr 2008 : Column 1175

Ms Winterton: The regional transport board has responsibility for prioritising the regional funding allocation and it decides the priority for allocations to roads such as that mentioned by the hon. Lady. In the proposals on the sub-national review, transport comes under the auspices of the regional development agencies, and the agencies and the regional assemblies are responding to those proposals and determining how they would like such strategic transport issues to work. The consultation on that closes in June, and the hon. Lady will no doubt wish to respond to it herself.

Mrs. Sharon Hodgson (Gateshead, East and Washington, West) (Lab): Does the Minister agree that it is important that local authorities retain a role in planning local transport services to ensure that buses cannot be removed or rerouted because they are deemed to be unprofitable, regardless of their value to local residents?

Ms Winterton: My hon. Friend is quite right. That was why the Government introduced local transport plans—for which, incidentally, funding has doubled since 2001—which made local authorities responsible for taking an integrated approach on local transport. The Local Transport Bill, which is now going through Parliament, will give local authorities more powers to introduce quality partnership schemes and quality contracts, which have been widely welcomed by local authorities in all parts of the country, and, incidentally, by all political parties. During our discussions on the Bill, I hope that we will be able to persuade Conservative Front Benchers at last to support these proposals.

Mr. Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): Following the opening of the new railway line between Kettering and Corby later this year, there will be a danger that the bus service operating between the two towns will be lost. It provides an important service for local people, particularly to the local hospital. Will the Minister encourage, through her departmental guidance, the relevant local authorities to retain this important bus service when the rail link is established?

Ms Winterton: We ask local authorities, when framing their local transport plans, to look into how to integrate their transport services. The Local Transport Bill will give local authorities greater powers over bus services, so the hon. Gentleman might like to talk to his local authority—and, perhaps, his Conservative councillors—about what plans they might like to bring in under the Bill and then perhaps persuade Front Benchers to support them.

Mr. David Clelland (Tyne Bridge) (Lab): May I pay my tribute to Gwyneth Dunwoody, who will be sadly missed by all who knew her and who worked for her?

Does the Minister agree that the best way to achieve successful local transport plans is to ensure that transport authorities continue to be made up of democratically elected and accountable local representatives?

Ms Winterton: I know that my hon. Friend will be feeling very deeply the departing of Mrs. Dunwoody? I know from my most recent appearance before the Transport Committee that he was with her when she was conducting its inquiry into blue badges.

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On having elected people on passenger transport authorities and the future integrated transport authorities, it is true that we want to give local areas the right to co-opt other members—for example, representatives of passenger groups—on to those authorities, if it is felt that that would be helpful. However, we have said very firmly that the majority of voting members must be elected councillors. I hope that that reassures my hon. Friend.

Mrs. Louise Ellman (Liverpool, Riverside) (Lab/Co-op): I, too, would like to pay tribute to Gwyneth Dunwoody. Indeed, it seems very strange to be here at Transport questions without her watchful eye over proceedings.

Will the Minister tell us what guidance has been issued on light rail, with particular reference to light rail in Merseyside?

Ms Winterton: Recent guidance has been issued—I understand that it is available on the Department’s website—setting out the Department’s exact views on light rail schemes and how to take their construction forward.

Concessionary Bus Travel

5. Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West) (Con): What steps she is taking to promote concessionary bus travel across county boundaries. [199759]

The Minister of State, Department for Transport (Ms Rosie Winterton) rose—

Mr. Swayne: Chop, chop!

Ms Winterton: From 1 April—chop, chop—the Government implemented the new statutory minimum entitlement to concessionary travel so that up to 11 million older people and eligible disabled people could travel free at off-peak times on buses in any part of England, not just in the area where they live.

Mr. Swayne: Notwithstanding the millions of pounds that the Minister boasts of having distributed, is she aware of the disaster being visited on communities, particularly those on the western edges of counties, as county councils attempt to balance the interests of the council charge payer with the traveller and reduce the service in order to be able to afford concessionary fares? Does she realise that it is a fat lot of use having a free bus pass if there is no bus to travel on as a result? Does she know that although 11 million passes have been issued, there are hardly any buses that can process them?

Ms Winterton: The additional allocation in the hon. Gentleman’s area for 2008-09 was £493,000, which represents a 48 per cent. increase—48 per cent.—over the spending in 2006-07. I would hope that the hon. Gentleman welcomes a scheme introduced by a Labour Government to help older people in this country and to save them considerable amounts. I hope that he will encourage people in his local area to take it up.

As for the hon. Gentleman’s point about bus services, I urge him to ask local councillors what they feel about the Local Transport Bill. I shall be very surprised if they are not supporting our plans for quality partnership schemes and quality contracts.

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Stephen Hammond (Wimbledon) (Con): They are not.

Ms Winterton: I agree. Certainly everyone I have met supports our proposals. If the hon. Member for New Forest, West (Mr. Swayne) has that conversation with local councillors, I suggest that he then discuss with Conservative Front Benchers whether they will support them as well.

Dr. Gavin Strang (Edinburgh, East) (Lab): As a former Transport Minister, I, too, pay tribute to Gwyneth Dunwoody. She was a great parliamentarian.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend and her colleagues on the introduction this month of the English national concessionary travel scheme. In Scotland, we have had such a scheme for some years, and it has given a tremendous boost to elderly people in particular. However, some elderly people living close to the English border with Wales and Scotland do not enjoy as much free travel as we should like. Is it possible that in due course concessionary travel can be extended throughout Great Britain?

Ms Winterton: It is refreshing to hear my right hon. Friend welcome and celebrate the proposals for older people, rather than adopting the mealy-mouthed approach of the Conservative party. As he might know, we have had some discussions about the issue of cross-border travel, and many services can already cross county borders. We want to ensure that the English scheme settles down before looking further, but although that has been a priority, it does not rule out further discussions in the future.

Mr. Andrew Turner (Isle of Wight) (Con): There is no help for buses trying to provide services to and from the Isle of Wight. What are the Government doing to improve the position?

Ms Winterton: What the Government are doing to improve bus services is introducing the Local Transport Bill, which gives local authorities more powers to improve services and work with operators in their areas. I am glad that the hon. Gentleman supports that direction of travel, as it were. I urge him, too, to talk to local Conservative councillors about their views, and then talk to his party’s Front Benchers.

Jessica Morden (Newport, East) (Lab): I welcome the Minister’s remarks about cross-border travel. What discussions are taking place with the Welsh Assembly Government to enable my constituents to travel freely on buses between Wales and England, and within what time scale will we see that benefit?

Ms Winterton: As I explained earlier, if buses are simply to cross the border, agreements can be made between the local authorities concerned. We wanted to ensure that the system in England was implemented from 1 April and that all the passes were issued before proceeding to further discussions. There are, of course, enormous financial implications for the extension of the scheme to Wales and Scotland, and I am sure that my hon. Friend will understand that we must take them very seriously.

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David Simpson (Upper Bann) (DUP): May I add my voice to the tributes paid to Gwyneth Dunwoody? She was a great friend of my party and its leader, and a great friend to the people of Northern Ireland, where she was held in high esteem.

How does the Minister expect the concessionary travel schemes across the United Kingdom to interlock in the coming years, and what is her estimate of the increase in the number of people availing themselves of the schemes?

Ms Winterton: As I have explained, our first priority was to ensure that the English scheme was implemented and the cards sent out. The option remains for us to extend the scheme more widely, but we need to consider issues such as financial implications. The extension of the scheme has not been ruled out, but we must take those issues into account.

Mr. Andrew Love (Edmonton) (Lab/Co-op): Will my right hon. Friend congratulate London and its Mayor on the comprehensive bus pass and the very efficient bus service in the capital? There is currently a proposal before the capital to get rid of the modern single-decker buses that have been provided and to replace them with the old Routemaster. Has my right hon. Friend done a cost-benefit analysis of the use of the Routemaster, and is that bus appropriate in the 21st century for a capital city such as London?

Ms Winterton: My hon. Friend is right to congratulate the Mayor of London on the freedom pass; it has been immensely valuable to the residents of London. What they ought to be worried about to start with is the fact that the Conservative Front Bench has said that if— [Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker: Order. I must stop the Minister. We must not get on to the London elections.

Stephen Hammond (Wimbledon) (Con): Thank you, Mr. Speaker. Now we can hear the authentic voice of the Conservative Front Bench. National free bus travel was supposed to start on 1 April. Amidst all the contributions today, the Minister is forgetting that because of its botched introduction hundreds of thousands of pensioners were unable to travel as the smartcards and temporary passes the Government had promised them were not available. Why did the Government so badly botch the introduction of national concessionary travel, and how many hundreds of thousands of pensioners were prevented from travelling—and how many are still prevented from travelling?

Ms Winterton: Once again the Conservative Front Bench is attacking local authorities who actually have done quite a lot of— [Interruption.] Obviously, the hon. Gentleman does not understand how passes are distributed. That was done by local authorities. The Government purchased 4 million temporary passes in case local authorities got into difficulties, because distributing more than 11 million passes over the course of a year was a huge undertaking. The authorities should be congratulated on the work that they did, instead of once again being beaten over the head, which is what the Opposition Front Bench wants to do. About 99 per cent. of passes have been distributed. Some people who applied later—they might not have been aware of the
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introduction of the free pass—have experienced a delay. However, the Department for Transport bought 4 million temporary passes, which can be used with people’s existing passes up until September of this year. I congratulate the local authorities and others who worked very hard to get these passes distributed, and the Conservative Front Bench should join me in that.

Road Congestion

7. Mr. Robert Flello (Stoke-on-Trent, South) (Lab): What steps she is taking to encourage local authorities to tackle road congestion. [199761]

The Secretary of State for Transport (Ruth Kelly): We have given local authorities new powers and resources to tackle congestion. Additional resources are available through the transport innovation fund and the congestion performance fund.

Mr. Flello: Will my right hon. Friend ensure that her Department urgently holds talks with Stoke-on-Trent city council about the damaging impacts on road congestion and the worrying increased risks to pedestrians and other road users if the city council’s misguided and misinformed decision to close Trentham high school and Longton high school goes ahead?

Ruth Kelly: I am afraid that I am not familiar with the school closures proposed in my hon. Friend’s constituency, although I know he has been a great champion for his constituents. Local councils should think seriously about congestion across their boroughs and make sensible local decisions that support tackling that. I would be happy to look into the case my hon. Friend raises, and to meet him to talk about it.

Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield) (Con): May I, as a Cheshire MP, pay my tribute to Gwyneth Dunwoody? She was a robustly independent socialist, and she did great credit to this House over many years.

Macclesfield in east Cheshire looks to Stoke-on-Trent, part of which is represented by the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South (Mr. Flello), with great envy. Huge sums of money—multi-millions of pounds—have been spent on the A50 and the A500. Will the Secretary of State ensure that there is a fairer distribution of funds to other areas that need the sort of road improvement that has taken place in Stoke-on-Trent? Macclesfield deserves a better deal.

Ruth Kelly: I certainly believe in devolution; all my political life I have argued that local authorities and regions should have more funds at their disposal and more authority about how they use those resources. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will be pleased to learn that we have introduced the regional funding allocation, which gives local regions the power to determine what their own priorities are. I suggest that he makes the case to them that they should be spending the money in Macclesfield.

Sir Nicholas Winterton: I have.

Mr. Ken Purchase (Wolverhampton, North-East) (Lab/Co-op): Does the Secretary of State agree that this approach should involve more park and ride schemes?
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If she does, does she also agree about the importance of discussion and agreement between her Department and the Department for Communities and Local Government, which often makes decisions on planning applications, to ensure that park and ride schemes, particularly those that can make a major contribution to reducing congestion, such as schemes on the A449 in my constituency, go ahead with all the normal safeguards as quickly as possible?

Ruth Kelly: I agree with the point that my hon. Friend is making. Park and ride schemes can make a tremendous contribution to tackling congestion. In fact, local authorities should be free to determine how they tackle congestion in their local areas, and how they get people out of their cars and on to buses. I know that the local authorities are welcoming the powers that we are giving them to have more say over how buses are regulated. I hope that the hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Mrs. Villiers) will take that into account when she explains to local authorities up and down the country why the Conservatives voted against the Local Transport Bill just last month.

Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury) (Con): The highly successful and expanding port of Dover is putting 100 miles of lorries a day on to Kent’s road network. What steps is the Secretary of State taking to discuss with Kent county council measures to tackle the problems of Operation Stack and its knock-on effect on the wider road system?

Ruth Kelly: I know that the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, South (Mr. Harris), who deals with these issues, is having lots of discussions, including some with Kent county council, about how to take container lorries off British roads and encourage freight on to the rail network. It is right that we examine these matters on a scheme-by-scheme basis across the country, and that we consider how we can move freight around in the most efficient way possible and how we can do that with the minimum impact on the environment. That is why last year we invested the single biggest sum for a generation—£150 million—in encouraging rail freight infrastructure and why, in the rail White Paper, we committed ourselves to investing another £200 million in the strategic freight network. Those investments will provide real benefits to the freight industry, and I hope that they will keep the lid on road container traffic and encourage more vehicles off the roads and on to rail.

Speed Cameras/Vehicle-activated Signs

8. Angela Watkinson (Upminster) (Con): What assessment she has made of the comparative cost-effectiveness, in terms of improving road safety, of speed cameras and vehicle-activated signs. [199762]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Jim Fitzpatrick): No comparative assessment has been made. Safety cameras and vehicle-activated signs are used to tackle different road safety problems. Safety cameras are effective in tackling excessive speed—speeds over the posted speed limit. Vehicle-activated signs are generally used to tackle inappropriate speed, and have proven particularly effective when used to warn drivers of approaching hazards on rural roads.

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