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House of Commons

Tuesday 3 June 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—

Dartford River Crossing

1. Mr. Adam Holloway (Gravesham) (Con): What estimate she has made of the average delay caused by congestion to commuters and commercial vehicles using the Dartford river crossing. [207971]

The Minister of State, Department for Transport (Ms Rosie Winterton): The estimated delay affecting vehicles travelling the five miles between the A13 north of the river and the A2 to the south using the Dartford river crossing is about three minutes northbound and two minutes southbound. That is the average for the period between 6am and 8pm; delays at peak times are longer.

Mr. Holloway: I think my constituents would agree with the Minister that delays at peak times are considerably longer. That marvellous, comfortable picture does not reflect what is a daily reality for thousands of them. I wonder when the Minister will do something to alleviate the daily misery and cost incurred by millions of people who spend, I would guess, hundreds of thousands of hours each year sitting in traffic jams because of the tolls.

Ms Winterton: Obviously, congestion at peak times is an issue, but all the evidence suggests that without the tolls it would be even worse. The Dartford crossing is a vital part of the national road network, and is used by about 150,000 vehicles every day. In the longer term the answer may be a new crossing, which is why we have commissioned a study.

Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock) (Lab): My constituents, and those living opposite us in Dartford, look forward to the long-promised concessions for our communities to which the Government have committed themselves in respect of the toll, but may I urge my right hon. Friend to act on the second crossing? United Kingdom Ltd demands—needs—an opportunity to gain access to the channel ports and the north of our country, not just via the Dartford crossing but via a crossing on the Thames estuary east of Dartford. The sooner the Government address that need, the better it will be for the commerce of the United Kingdom as well as the minimisation of congestion and pollution in Dartford and Thurrock.

Ms Winterton: I am probably more aware than most of the strength of my hon. Friend’s feeling about discounts for local residents. He has certainly pressed
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his case very effectively. As for the options for a new crossing, as I have said, a study is being conducted, and we expect a report at about the end of the year.

Mr. David Evennett (Bexleyheath and Crayford) (Con): I noted the Minister’s response to my hon. Friend the Member for Gravesham (Mr. Holloway), but does she consider that the proposed local discount scheme is fair to my constituents and the other residents of east Bexley who are not to be included in it, given that they live closer to the Dartford crossing than some Dartford and Thurrock residents? Or is this just another example of Bexley being let down by Labour?

Ms Winterton: We set out the reasons for our proposals in our consultation document. As the hon. Gentleman probably knows, we propose to base the scheme on the boundaries of the two local authority areas on either side of the crossing, as they include the most affected locations. Our aim is to adopt an approach that is proportionate and provides clarity on eligibility. I shall announce our conclusions shortly, following the consultation.

Mr. Michael Fallon (Sevenoaks) (Con): Is it not a strange coincidence that both councils nearest to the bridge where residents will travel free happen to be in marginal Labour constituencies? Other commuters in Kent who live just as close to the bridge will now have to pay higher tolls.

Ms Winterton: I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman should want to make a party-political point out of a very serious issue. I should also point out that the two councils involved are Conservative controlled.

Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury) (Con): The Minister is referring to county councils, whereas my hon. Friend was referring to marginal parliamentary constituencies. There is an obvious distinction.

The study that the Minister has announced is welcome, but will it include the Thames Gateway expansion plans and, more specifically, the slightly confusingly named Thames Gateway port expansion plans? When the port is redeveloped—as I assume it will be—it will generate a large amount of HGV traffic.

Ms Winterton: As I said, the study that is looking at the options will report by the end of the year, at which point we will be able to give more details about the way forward.

Roads (North-West)

2. Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield) (Con): What recent assessment she has made of the adequacy of the road infrastructure in the north-west of England, with particular reference to south Manchester and north-east Cheshire. [207972]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. Tom Harris): We are working closely with regional partners and local authorities to deliver improvements to the whole of the north-west transport network, including the road infrastructure.

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Sir Nicholas Winterton: Does the Minister, for whom I have a great deal of respect, accept that my constituency of Macclesfield in north-east Cheshire does not receive a fair allocation of resources for road infrastructure improvement? Does he agree that improved road infrastructure can lead to increased economic development and activity and can reduce carbon emissions in the community? Will he look at the situation in south Manchester and north-east Cheshire to see whether a fairer allocation of resources can be provided?

Mr. Harris: Obviously I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his kind words. I agree that good road infrastructure is essential to the health of the economy and of the environment, but, as he will probably know, road spending in the north-west has more than doubled since 2000. The south-east Manchester multimodal study, commissioned by my right hon. Friend the Member for Warley (Mr. Spellar), has come up with possible solutions for the south-east Manchester relief road. That is a very expensive project—costing possibly between £700 million and £1 billion—and it cannot go ahead as a single scheme. We are looking at progressing parts of that scheme in phases. He will know that a crucial part of that is the Poynton bypass in his constituency. We are working very hard with all representatives in the local area to come up with an affordable proposition. But to claim that the Government have not spent enough money on road infrastructure in his constituency, or anywhere else in the country, would be false.

Andrew Stunell (Hazel Grove) (LD): The hon. Member for Macclesfield (Sir Nicholas Winterton), my hon. Friend the Member for Cheadle (Mark Hunter) and I are the parliamentary shareholders in the road scheme to which the Minister refers, which would complete the road network in my constituency in particular. Is he now in a position to take up the offer that his predecessor made to visit the site and to see what is needed to relieve congestion and pollution in my constituency?

Mr. Harris: I am always happy to visit the constituency of any hon. Member. If he wishes to make a formal invitation to my private office, I shall be more than happy to consider it. I hope that, during such a visit, he will find that the resources invested in transport infrastructure in the north-west and other parts of the country have well exceeded those of all our predecessor Governments.

Mark Hunter (Cheadle) (LD): Does the Minister understand the very real frustration of residents in my constituency who are concerned about the apparent lack of progress on the completion of the A555 relief road? Does he further understand that the unique factor in the completion of the scheme is that the middle section was built many years ago and simply needs connecting at each end? Without that completion, it will be a permanent testimony to the folly of short-term transport planning.

Mr. Harris: Of course I understand the frustration felt by constituents and MPs on both sides of the House when a particularly important road scheme is not progressed according to the time scale that we
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originally expected. As the Government, we have to make sure that whenever a road scheme is progressed, it delivers best value for money. Regardless of the record amounts of money that the Government are investing in road infrastructure, we have to make sure that every pound is well spent. I notice that the transport plans issued by the hon. Gentleman’s party today do not offer much extra money on top of what we have already offered.

Integrated Transport Authorities

3. Mr. John Leech (Manchester, Withington) (LD): What assessment her Department has made of the effects on local government accountability of extending voting rights to all members of integrated transport authorities. [207973]

The Minister of State, Department for Transport (Ms Rosie Winterton): The Local Transport Bill allows local authorities to devise proposals on the membership of integrated transport authorities in their areas. However, a majority of each ITA’s members must be elected councillors. Authorities would also be able to propose whether non-elected ITA members have voting rights.

Mr. Leech: Does the Minister accept that the only way to ensure real democratic accountability and to avoid the possibility of the political gerrymandering of ITAs is to deprive non-elected members of any voting rights?

Ms Winterton: I do not think that that is the way forward. Under the Bill, ITAs determine locally whether they want to have people other than elected members on the authorities and, if so, whether they have voting rights. We believe that that is the right approach to enable, for example, passenger or other representation on ITAs. I have discussed that with passenger transport executives, and the hon. Gentleman should take a slightly broader approach.

Mr. John Grogan (Selby) (Lab): Will my right hon. Friend press on strongly with her plans for integrated transport authorities? They are exciting real enthusiasm in Selby with the prospect of MetroCards, which could enable travel across the whole of west Yorkshire.

Ms Winterton: I thank my hon. Friend for that encouragement. I know that he, unlike the Opposition, has been a great supporter of what we are trying to do in the Local Transport Bill, particularly to enable greater improvements to our bus services. I thank him for his support.

Climate Change

4. Mark Lazarowicz (Edinburgh, North and Leith) (Lab/Co-op): What account she takes of climate change in formulating transport policy; and if she will make a statement. [207974]

The Secretary of State for Transport (Ruth Kelly): We need to move from a fuel-intensive economy to one that is low carbon. That is why climate change is now one of
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the five overarching goals of transport policy. It is also why we take account of the cost of carbon when making policy decisions, and why we are looking at many further options for reducing transport emissions.

Mark Lazarowicz: I welcome what the Secretary of State has to say, but is that commitment not somewhat undermined by the Government’s commitment to airport expansion? Given that their own Sustainable Development Commission has recently called for a fundamental review of the air transport White Paper and for decisions on Stansted and Heathrow to be put on hold until that happens, would it not make sense for them to rethink their position? After all, the current trend in fuel prices may well do more to restrain air travel than anything that we do in our legislation. Should we not have a rethink along the lines called for by the commission?

Ruth Kelly: I know how committed my hon. Friend is to the idea that the UK should play a full role in combating climate change, and I agree. The question for the House is: is combating climate change and reducing carbon dioxide emissions overall, across all sectors of the economy, compatible with the growing aviation sector? I and the Government believe that it is, and we are championing in Europe a European emissions trading scheme whereby any increase in aviation emissions above the 2004-06 base level would have to be matched one for one by a reduction in carbon emissions elsewhere in the European economy, paid for by the aviation sector. In that way, not only do we help to push forward with our climate change objectives; we do so in a way that is compatible with future economic growth.

Mr. Greg Knight (East Yorkshire) (Con): When the Secretary of State formulates transport policy, will she also take into account the report by Professor David Newbury of Cambridge university, which said that if motorists were obliged to pay the true cost of the effect that vehicles have on the environment, they would be paying taxes at less than half the rate they are currently paying? In the light of this information, will the Secretary of State therefore now abandon her unpopular and misguided plan to introduce local charging schemes in the interest not only of fairness, but—because we care about her—of saving her own seat?

Ruth Kelly: I am delighted that the right hon. Gentleman cares so much about my electoral prospects in Bolton, West. I have to think about how we combat climate change in a way that, yes, is compatible with economic growth but that also helps us to cut congestion. He points to the rate of fuel tax and puts that in the context of the carbon cost, but we also have to think about the impact of traffic on the roads, which undermines economic growth, too. All our growing cities across the country have grown very strongly in the past 10 years, and they have to ask themselves how they can continue to support that economic growth over the next 10. To do that, they will have to think of innovative ways of dealing with congestion. We have said to cities and towns across the country that if they come forward with innovative plans, we are prepared to back that with hard cash.

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Dr. Gavin Strang (Edinburgh, East) (Lab): We should certainly take our share of the credit for the Kyoto treaty, but does my right hon. Friend not agree that we must address the fact that greenhouse gas emissions from international aviation remain unregulated? I note what she said about a European carbon emissions trading scheme. Can she indicate what other steps the Government are taking to change this state of affairs?

Ruth Kelly: Yes, it is right that not only do we push ahead with the European trading scheme—it will set an absolute cap on aviation emissions across Europe, counting not only emissions created within the eurozone, but all planes leaving from Europe and arriving in Europe, and will make a substantive contribution to climate change—but, importantly, that, within that, we think about how to create efficiency in aviation. That means encouraging future investment in technology and creating incentives to use airspace better, which is why we are working towards a single European sky and working with traffic control services to ensure the most efficient air traffic control in each country.

Adam Price (Carmarthen, East and Dinefwr) (PC): Some 70 per cent. of the Scottish Government’s transport budget is spent on sustainable public transport, and the Welsh Assembly’s Sustainability Committee has urged the adoption of a similar target for Wales. How well is the Secretary of State’s Department doing on the breakdown of expenditure between public transport and roads?

Ruth Kelly: Rail usage has increased by almost 50 per cent. since 1997, whereas traffic has increased by 12 per cent, and those figures speak for themselves. We are making unprecedented levels of investment in rail, and we intend to continue that with up to £15 billion of investment over the next five-year period. As a result, we have the fastest growing railway in Europe. Looking beyond that, we can see very exciting opportunities for reopening or making more use of lines and for encouraging more people to abandon their cars and think about alternative ways of moving around.

Stephen Hammond (Wimbledon) (Con): The Secretary of State will know that rail freight accounts for only 2 per cent. of all freight transport emissions and that every tonne of freight carried by rail is estimated to produce at least 80 per cent. less carbon dioxide emissions than if road were used. Why then was there no high-level output specification—HLOS—for rail freight? Why have the Government failed to announce any funding for their strategic freight network?

Ruth Kelly: The hon. Gentleman has simply not read the rail White Paper, which allocated £200 million towards a strategic rail freight network across this country. He has also not noticed that I announced plans this morning to reject larger, so-called super-lorries on British roads. I did that—I know that his party has supported that policy in the past—not only because of the impact on the environment, but because such lorries might attract traffic from railways on to roads. We need to examine these things in the round and make sensible investment decisions, judging the impact on safety, but also considering the impact on carbon emissions and congestion.

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Clive Efford (Eltham) (Lab): My right hon. Friend will be aware of the contribution that traffic congestion makes to emissions and climate change. May I draw her attention to the fact that we face a problem in south-east London at the Blackwall tunnel every day, and that a three-bridge scheme proposes to deal with it? I understand that the Mayor of London is not going to build the Thames Gateway bridge. Some of us have been saying that the Silvertown link should be prioritised, and this situation gives the opportunity for that to take place. Will she examine the matter and discuss it with the Mayor of London? Will she also take the opportunity to bring the Docklands Light Railway to North Greenwich, as it could then be moved on to Eltham, thus reducing the traffic congestion on this major arterial route?

Ruth Kelly: My hon. Friend makes a very important point; we need to think about how we can encourage mobility from the south of the river to the north of the river and vice versa. We need to make it easier for people to be able to work on one side of the river and live on the other. I know that the Mayor of London has suggested innovative proposals, such as swinging cable cars across the river, and it is right that we examine all proposals on their merits. I shall take up my hon. Friend’s suggestion to discuss this matter in greater detail with the Mayor of London in due course.

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