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1 July 2008 : Column 192WH—continued

11.21 am

Andrew Gwynne (Denton and Reddish) (Lab): It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mrs. Humble. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Worsley (Barbara Keeley) on securing the debate. I am pleased to make a brief contribution towards it.

This is an extremely timely debate, given the surprise announcement last week that the Association of Greater Manchester Authorities will press for a county-wide referendum on this important issue, and the politicking that took place last Friday when the Conservatives and
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Liberal Democrats formed a joined administration on the passenger transport authority, a matter to which I shall return.

Like my hon. Friend’s Worsley constituency, my Denton and Reddish constituency is sliced in two by the M60, the proposed outer charging zone. Consequently, many of my constituents have real concerns about the congestion charging proposals.

First, let me put on record my firm belief that Greater Manchester’s public transport needs improving. My constituents in both Stockport and Tameside are not well served by public transport. We currently have no Metrolink service, and although bus services along the main roads are fairly frequent, that has been at the expense of a number of services away from those main routes being cut dramatically or even axed, thus penalising pensioners and disabled residents in particular. They have certainly not been well served by the private bus companies operating in my part of Greater Manchester.

I lay claim to the most pathetic train service in the entire United Kingdom, which has just one train, once a week, in one direction between Stockport and Stalybridge via Reddish South and Denton stations on Saturday morning. Therefore, I appreciate that the nearly £3 billion package of funding that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State put on the table must be seriously considered. I doubt whether we shall ever again be offered such a sum to put right the many wrongs that collectively form the Greater Manchester transport network. That £3 billion is needed, and it is needed desperately.

The real controversy lies with the Greater Manchester congestion charge element of the proposal, and particularly in communities such as those that I represent which straddle the M60 charging zone. Whether people agree in principle with the notion of congestion charging, if the aim really is to tackle unnecessary traffic heading into and choking up the city centre, they can just about accept the logic of a system that identifies the traffic that causes the problem and consequently imposes a charge, but what Greater Manchester proposes is a two-ring system with a £2 charge for passing the M60 outer ring and £1 charge for passing the inner ring with a further £2 charge to return over the M60. Charges would apply only at peak times and in the direction of the congestion. That takes no account of local travel and of allowing communities to operate in a joined-up way, as they have always done.

I have absolutely no answer to the young mum who came to my advice bureau recently. She lives in Audenshaw, one of the towns sliced in two by the M60, works in Ashton-under-Lyne, and travels away from the peak traffic flow in the morning and evening, so ordinarily would not be charged, but she has to drop her daughter off at a local private day nursery, which is in her community of Audenshaw and less than quarter of a mile from where she lives. Because it is on the opposite side of the M60, she would be charged £2 a day under the proposals. When she told me that that will not tackle congestion because she is not causing it, and that it will merely add £10 a week to her child care bill, I had no answer, and the Greater Manchester scheme has no acceptable answer either.

The Dane Bank part of Denton is divided from the rest of the town by the M60, an industrial estate and the fringes of the Tame Valley country park. Every year,
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there is an issue for local parents because the two primary schools, Dane Bank and Denton West End, fill up, and a small number of children from that estate are not allocated places at them. Between one and five children are affected, so the numbers are not large, and they are then allocated whichever other primary school in Denton has surplus places. However, those schools are on the other side of the M60, through the industrial estate and past the open space. There is no public transport linking the two sides effectively, so the only option is for those children to be driven to school. Greater Manchester passenger transport executive’s yellow bus scheme will not help such a small number of children who are dispersed to different schools, so the parents will be charged to return home after dropping their children off at their local school. This is just plain wrong.

Finally, the M60 cuts through the most southern part of Denton and Reddish, and through the centre of Stockport town centre, so the charge zone will dissect the north and south of the borough through the economic heart of the town. It will not allow Stockport to function properly as a community. If the GMPTE and AGMA cannot devise a scheme to honour and respect local communities, they will never get a yes vote in the referendum.

Those are the issues that I am taking up on behalf of my constituents, and I have meetings planned with officials from the PTE to discuss those concerns. Let us face it, last week it seemed that the inner charging zone was not set in concrete, with public consultation proposed on the final boundaries, but no similar announcement was made about the outer zone. It seems that for us the scheme is set in stone, at least for the time being, but AGMA and the PTE will have to budge and respect local communities if they want the scheme to proceed.

Finally, I welcome the decision to have a referendum. It was always going to be difficult for AGMA when Bolton announced that it was having a local poll, with the three opposing councils, Stockport, Trafford and Bury, and perhaps Oldham, also suggesting one. We cannot have half of Greater Manchester—five of the 10 boroughs—having a say in a poll, but not the other half. Everyone in Greater Manchester should have their say on such an important issue, and AGMA is correct—although I believe that it has deferred a formal decision—to suggest a county-wide referendum. Let us have a good and proper debate about the county’s transport needs and of our individual parts of it alongside the pros and cons of the congestion charge proposal.

That leads me to the GMPTA. It is absolutely crazy that its new Conservative chair, deputy leader of Trafford council and well-known anti-transport innovation fund campaigner, has agreed to share power with the Lib Dem group on the PTA, as long as he remains neutral on TIF. That requirement was set down by the Lib Dems, who are all over the place on this issue. Stockport is firmly against, Rochdale is evangelically for, and Oldham—I am not sure whether this is true to form—is not sure.

I like and respect Councillor Colledge, the new chair. I have met him on a number of occasions, including last week when he was in Westminster with a GMPTA delegation to lobby MPs about light rail. I wish him well in his new post, but how can the chair of the PTA remain neutral on a scheme to which its own PTE is co-signatory, which PTE officers are helping to draw up
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and which will be subject to a referendum on which the PTA, with him as chair, will presumably ask for a yes vote, and Trafford council, with him as deputy leader, will call for a no vote?

Whatever happens in the referendum, I shall encourage my constituents to have their say and to make their voices heard. Until then, I will keep raising the issues of fairness and social cohesion with AGMA and the passenger transport executive, because the communities I represent—particularly those affected by the charge zone, such as Audenshaw, Denton and north and central Stockport—deserve answers and a resolution to their very real concerns.

11.30 am

Graham Stringer (Manchester, Blackley) (Lab): The congestion charge is a misnomer. It is a new tax specifically for Manchester that is related neither to the ability to pay nor to congestion. The charge will be paid by people who have no public transport alternative and it could last for 30 years—it has, in fact, been boasted that it will last for that long. Put like that, the charge is a pretty unattractive proposition. Why then are some of the authorities in Greater Manchester in favour of it, as was, until recently, the Greater Manchester passenger transport authority? The justification is that this is a once in a lifetime opportunity to put more than £3 billion of public money into improving the trams, trains and buses in Greater Manchester, while at the same time beating congestion.

It is assumed that there is no alternative to that analysis of what is going on. I have done my best to try to put together what is really happening by looking at the transport innovation fund bid, which is still a private document—the chief executive of Manchester city council has given it to me on a confidential basis—and by reading the reports that have gone to the passenger transport authority, the AGMA and the councils. It seems that something quite different is on offer than £3 billion of wonderful integrated transport.

For a start, the Government’s grant is £1.21 billion—it is not clear how many years that is over, but it is possibly five or 10 years—which is a relatively trivial amount of the transport allocation to the regions. The rest of the cost is to be met locally. When we compare that figure with what has been spent on London—for example, on Crossrail, on Thameslink and on writing off the disgrace of the Metronet contract, which was more than that in just one slug of £2 billion—it seems that such a scheme should be wholly funded by central Government. When one looks at the detail, one realises that there will not be trams everywhere—there will be trams to Ashton, to Manchester airport and to Didsbury—and that the scheme involves Altrincham bus station and yellow buses.

Trams to Oldham and Rochdale have been mentioned, but they are listed as a category D funding priority. Such funding is not guaranteed but, from the documents that are being put out, it is difficult to tell that the funding arrangements for Oldham and Rochdale have not been agreed. I might be wrong on this because I have had to work it out myself, but it seems that £1 in every £6 of the Government grant of £1.21 billion will be spent on kit for the congestion charge. That means that between one sixth and one fifth of the money will
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be spent just on kit and will not be spent to the benefit of public transport. That money could pay for trams to Oldham, Rochdale and possibly elsewhere.

After reading all the documents, it is unclear exactly what the result of the congestion charge will be and how much money will be brought forward by it. If one reads the documents carefully, the implication is that having a congestion charge on the two rings will not bring in enough income and that a charge will have to be put around Stockport, Bolton and the other district centres to make it work, or there will have to be higher charges. The scheme is unbelievably complicated. The administrative costs are unspecified, but the details show that single accounts for different motorists will have to be run, so it could be as complicated as the poll tax.

Mr. Graham Brady (Altrincham and Sale, West) (Con): The hon. Gentleman mentioned the possibility of a third ring around the city, which would obviously be of particular concern to my constituents. Is it not strange that in the initial consultation on the scheme a third ring was shown in the documentation, but mention of it now seems to have disappeared? Does he share my concern that that might be an attempt to try to slip the charge through with less opposition than there might otherwise have been?

Graham Stringer: I share the concerns of my constituents and hon. Members that the process is not transparent. That is really the point I want to get to, but before I do so, I want to say that although we have been told that the bus network will be much improved, when one looks at the documents, one finds that we will not have quality partnerships or quality contracts; we will have a voluntary agreement with the bus companies. Despite the investment on bus priority measures, those bus companies that have done a great disservice to Greater Manchester during the past 20 years will be able to run whatever schedules and charge whatever fares they want. My experience of bus companies in Greater Manchester has shown that as they get bus priority measures, they increase their profits on those routes and cut the feeder routes into radial routes. We need to know whether people will be closer or further away from bus routes if the scheme goes through because that is not in the consultation document. Having read the documents, my instinct is that people will be further away from buses unless they happen to live on a radial route.

The hon. Member for Cheadle (Mark Hunter) said that he could understand people in the inner city voting for the proposal, but some people will have to drive across the boundary both ways to drop children off at school. My experience of bus companies is that they fill the buses up as far out as possible, charge relatively high fares and then stop picking up. Therefore, in all probability and according to the fare model that is used, people will get limited fares, much higher fares per mile will be charged to inner-city residents and there will be limited stop buses. The documents do not deny that that will happen and therefore the implication is that it will happen.

The documents also claim that congestion will be reduced. The implication of having bus priority measures is that there will be fewer people travelling down a corridor than before and that there will be more
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congestion—although that has not happened in every case in Greater Manchester as sometimes it has been done well and sometimes badly. That is not a great prospect.

An information campaign is supposed to start on 7 July. Will we get any of the answers to the issues about which I am concerned? Something I recently heard on Rock Radio is that congestion has increased by a fifth. Well, we need to ask where, what road, whether it is over the whole of Greater Manchester, and what period of time we are talking about. Otherwise, that is a piece of information without any content. However, if we look at the Greater Manchester traffic unit’s figures, congestion has been decreasing and speeds have been increasing in 11 of the 14 district centres in Greater Manchester. During the past six or seven months, congestion has decreased precipitately. As the price of petrol passed £1 a litre, the roads have cleared. Trafficmaster, which records traffic movements every day, would say that congestion is clearing everywhere. A fundamental problem with the scheme is that it assumes that one will know what will happen to congestion over 30 years. However, we do not know what will happen to the price of oil next week, let alone over 30 years. That is a fundamental flaw and we could be left with £200 million of kit and no congestion to pay for it.

I have considered the council’s claim that it is following the Cabinet Office’s rules on consultation. Those rules imply that there should be a regulatory impact assessment, but there is not one; they imply that there should be openness, but one cannot get to the figures; and they imply that there should be a level of objectivity, but a scrutiny panel has been set up that consists of the promoters of the scheme—the chief executives of the local authorities are on the panel. How can anyone have any faith in the independent scrutiny panel, which will consider the questions and leaflets that will be distributed? The Cabinet Office document also states that questions should be specific. The consultation documents are open-ended, which means that anyone can interpret them in any way they wish. I hope that my right hon. Friend the Minister is as concerned as I am about that type of consultation, because it means that it is possible to interpret the responses in any way.

I have never been a great supporter of referendums unless they are referred to in our manifestos, but if there is to be a referendum on this matter, I want to know who will determine the question. That must be done independently, by the Electoral Reform Society or another independent body. Will both sides of the campaign be funded equally as they were for the referendum in the north-east and for the referendum on Europe in 1975, or will it just be the current literature, which is campaigning, promotional literature, not information literature, that is used in a referendum? A referendum will have no credibility unless the question is set independently and both sides of the argument are put, with public money on both sides. It must not be a case of just one side hogging the information and putting forward all the information, so that the rest of us have to search around in detail for what we can find.

With either a referendum or the consultation, there is what we should refer to in Greater Manchester or the north-west as the Chorley question, just as there is the
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West Lothian question. My hon. Friend the Member for Chorley (Mr. Hoyle) said, “What about Chorley?” People from Chorley and other towns round Greater Manchester will drive into Manchester and will have to pay the tax. Will they be consulted? Will they have a say in any referendum? I do not know the answer to that question, but it should not be the case that people who have to pay the tax are not consulted whereas people who do not have to pay the tax are consulted. There are many flaws in this process. I hope that the Minister is listening to all the contributions that are made today and will vigorously ensure that any consultation and any referendum that take place are conducted fairly.

11.42 am

David Heyes (Ashton-under-Lyne) (Lab): Today’s debate is welcome and timely. Equally welcome is the prospect of what would be an unprecedented level of investment in Greater Manchester’s public transport. Particularly in the case of my part of the conurbation, completion of the Metrolink to Ashton-under-Lyne is essential to the future economic well-being of Ashton. There is the prospect of a better heavy rail service through Ashton-under-Lyne, where there have been years of commuter misery because of overcrowding and the complete inability of potential passengers to get on to trains when they arrive. There is also the prospect of local bus improvements, which are much needed, but only if they can be linked with re-regulation.

I am a supporter of the TIF proposal, but we need to get the details right. Today’s debate is about consultation on the plans, so in the few minutes available to me, I shall, like my hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish (Andrew Gwynne), concentrate on some of the complexities and contradictions of the congestion charge as it will affect my constituents. Many of my points will be similar to the points that he rehearsed. It is essential that the consultation process deals with those issues if it is to be credible.

Ashton-under-Lyne is dissected by the M60. Four of the wards in my constituency are on the inner side of the motorway, ringing Failsworth and Droylsden, and five wards are outside the ring, in Ashton-under-Lyne and Hollinwood. Many of my constituents have told me of their worries about the impact of the congestion charge as they move about their immediate localities. Those worries have been made worse because during the recent local election, there was some pretty unscrupulous scaremongering by Tory and Lib Dem candidates, who peddled a campaign of misinformation and showed why, although they might want power, they are just not fit to exercise it in Greater Manchester. Some of the shenanigans relating to the running of the passenger transport authority in the past week have shown that very clearly.

Despite that, many of my constituents’ concerns are well founded, and I shall give a few examples. Ashton-under-Lyne is due east of the regional centre and is entirely outside the M60 ring road—Ashton-under-Lyne town centre, that is. If people want to travel east from Ashton-under-Lyne towards Yorkshire, or south towards the midlands, the main route out of the town centre directs them westward in the first place, over the M60 and therefore into the congestion charging zone, and, after about a quarter of a mile, east again, on to the M60 and into the area where the congestion charge
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would not apply. The question, therefore, is this: will a peak-hour congestion charge be payable by people whose journey is essentially out of the congestion charging zone but peripherally into it?

In Hollinwood, which by any measure is one of the most economically disadvantaged wards in the country, Kaskenmoor secondary school was severed from the community that it serves when the M60 was built. It sits virtually on the motorway embankment, just inside the M60 ring. The school catchment area draws pupils and many of the staff from outside the zone, and they will cross the zone boundary for just a few yards in order to go to the school. They are asking whether they will face a congestion charge.

Also in Hollinwood, we are to have a new Metrolink station, coupled with a park-and-ride facility, whereby travellers from outside the M60 ring can park and transfer to the tram to complete their journey into Manchester city centre. However, because the station sits just inside the M60 ring, will such travellers face a congestion charge? If they did, that would be bizarre, because those people would be trying to avoid causing congestion in the city centre by using public transport.

Just this week, a constituent from Failsworth, Mr. Boswell, wrote to me. He says:


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