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House of Commons

Tuesday 21 October 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—


1. Mr. Brian Binley (Northampton, South) (Con): What recent discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government on the effects of recent changes to the rating system in ports on the operation of those ports. [228325]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Jim Fitzpatrick): Following representations that I have received on behalf of businesses in ports, I am in correspondence with the Minister for Local Government, and our officials at the Department for Transport have been discussing the matter with officials at the Department for Communities and Local Government.

Mr. Binley: In the light of damning remarks by the Treasury Committee, what comfort can the Minister offer to struggling companies working in 55 UK ports, which are faced with 200 per cent. business rate increases while wealthy port owners will have a windfall?

Jim Fitzpatrick: While researching for my response to the hon. Gentleman, I naturally looked at Northamptonshire to see what particular port was of special interest to him—

Mr. Binley: We are a seafaring nation.

Jim Fitzpatrick: I am not critical of the hon. Gentleman at all. As Minister with responsibility for shipping, I am grateful for any interest in the subject, as I know that shipping feels undervalued and that it is not give the credit that it is due. I can tell the hon. Gentleman that the Government are aware of the concerns of businesses within ports about the backdating of business rates, and are we are looking at the position. Other right hon. and hon. Members have also made representations.

Mrs. Louise Ellman (Liverpool, Riverside) (Lab/Co-op): Can my hon. Friend give the House an assurance that he is dealing with this matter as a matter of urgency? Does he accept that levying retrospective business rates in ports such as Liverpool and Hull has an effect on the economic regeneration that is so evident in our ports?

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Jim Fitzpatrick: As my hon. Friend, who is the Chairman of the Transport Committee, knows, during a debate on regional matters by our right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government she was given an assurance that the Government are aware of the concerns about backdating raised by business within our ports, and we are looking at the situation. Indeed, I had a telephone conversation with the Minister for Local Government earlier today; we are looking into this as a matter of urgency.

Robert Neill (Bromley and Chislehurst) (Con): In the course of his discussions with the Minister for Local Government, will the Minister seek to resolve a paradox? The Financial Secretary to the Treasury indicated to me in a written answer that retrospective taxation should be imposed only

How can that be reconciled with another written answer from the Financial Secretary saying that no impact assessment was made of this retrospective decision—or, indeed, with the written answer from the Minister for Local Government saying that no assessment has been made of the amount of revenue that might be raised, and, I assume, protected?

Jim Fitzpatrick: I am at a slight disadvantage in not having to hand the three replies that the hon. Gentleman refers to. I can say that assessments have been made of the financial impact on ports and the businesses within them in respect of the increase in revenue afforded as a result of the examination of business rates within ports by the Valuation Office Agency. As I said in response both to the hon. Member for Northampton, South (Mr. Binley) and to my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs. Ellman), the Chair of the Transport Committee, the Government are looking into these matters and we will respond as soon as we can.

Mrs. Claire Curtis-Thomas (Crosby) (Lab): My hon. Friend will no doubt be aware that I am the Member of Parliament representing the Mersey Docks and Harbour Company—a fantastically thriving port. It had been decimated by the Tories, so in 1997 unemployment was very high. I accept what the Minister has said about his intervention in this very important matter, but will he come to visit our port, and some of the very successful companies that are working there, in order to hear about their prospects for the future under this Government?

Jim Fitzpatrick: I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s generous offer of a visit to the city of Liverpool and the port in her constituency. I am visiting ports as a matter of routine, and I will certainly look to see how quickly I can fit this particular visit into the schedule, and write to my hon. Friend about it.

Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury) (Con): The Minister knows of the desperate plight faced by those all those who serve the shipping industry, with the collapse in shipping rates. Will he confirm not only that there was no impact assessment of any sort, but that while the ports that stand to do well out of this were all consulted, there was no consultation of any kind with any of the businesses that will be adversely affected?

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Jim Fitzpatrick: As I have explained over the last few minutes, this is very much a matter for the Department for Communities and Local Government, to which the Valuation Office Agency is responsible and reports in respect of its activities. I can reassure the hon. Gentleman once again that assessments have been carried out. I have to apologise to the House for not being in a position to confirm whether a full impact assessment was made, but I will ask my DCLG colleagues whether that was the case, and I will certainly let the hon. Gentleman know the position as a matter of urgency.

New London Airport

2. Andrew Rosindell (Romford) (Con): What recent discussions he has had on the possibility of development of a new airport to the east of London. [228326]

The Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. Geoffrey Hoon): The Government consulted on an option for a new airport in north Kent in preparing the 2003 “Future of Air Transport” White Paper. As the White Paper makes clear, that option and other proposals for a new airport in the Thames estuary were rejected in favour of supporting development at existing airports in the south-east of England. That remains the Government’s position.

Andrew Rosindell: Has the Secretary of State considered the effects of airport expansion, or of the building of new airports, on wildlife, birds and the wider environment? What guarantees can he give that the country’s rich biodiversity will be protected? Will he undertake to consult the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds before conducting further airport expansion in our country?

Mr. Hoon: I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s question, because one of the main reasons why the Mayor of London’s proposals are not practical is that building an estuarial airport in places of ecological sensitivity, which have large seabird populations, is not practical, because of both the impact on the environment and the risk of bird strike—a phenomenon not unknown to those who operate aircraft. Perhaps surprisingly, I find myself agreeing with the hon. Gentleman, and I trust that he will communicate his views firmly to the Mayor of London.

Ruth Kelly (Bolton, West) (Lab): I congratulate my right hon. Friend on his recent appointment as Transport Secretary, and I look forward to him dealing effectively but resolutely with all issues, particularly the need to secure more aviation capacity in the south-east. Does he agree that the problem is not just the local environmental impact of a potential new airport in the Thames estuary, but the lack of a substantial work force locally? Is it not fantasy politics to suggest that a Thames estuary airport could ever obviate the need for a third runway at Heathrow?

Mr. Hoon: Let me take this opportunity to pay tribute to the excellent work completed by my right hon. Friend during her service in the Department for Transport. She was well respected within the Department and across the transport industry. I am grateful for her comments, not least because she displays a knowledge and
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understanding of the issues, which I hope in time to acquire, and which certainly far outstrips the rather feeble views set out so far by Opposition Front Benchers on such questions. Clearly they lack any consistent support from their Back Benchers, as we have seen recently. It is disappointing that they have not paid attention to the voice of British business on a question as vital as the future of the United Kingdom’s major airport. I hope that there is some principled reason for their position, but I suspect that there may not be.

Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate) (Con): The Secretary of State may be a little complacent in his duties if he says that it would be perfectly proper to consult the RSPB about an estuarial airport. The United Kingdom is likely to need a 24-hour airport in the future, and historically, demand for air travel has grown constantly. If the Government did not keep the options under review they would not be doing their duty, and they should not dismiss the suggestions of the Mayor of London so lightly.

Mr. Hoon: In preparation for the 2003 White Paper, some 400 different possible sites were examined. Other than the existing airports, one was examined in greater detail, and even that was rejected on grounds of feasibility, cost and practicality. It cannot therefore be said that the Government have not looked in detail at the options. The hon. Gentleman is right, however, to say that it is always necessary to keep such issues under review. Given that a major undertaking involving the consideration of 400 possible sites was carried out very recently, I hope that he accepts—fair man that he is—that there is not much point in reviewing the whole issue again so soon.

Mr. Brian H. Donohoe (Central Ayrshire) (Lab): But one thing is for certain: if we do not increase capacity in this country, the trade will end up in Europe, either at Schiphol or at Charles de Gaulle. Is that not one thing that the Opposition have not considered?

Mr. Hoon: If they have not considered it, they have not considered the matter carefully. I agree with my hon. Friend that it is important to consider the 100,000 jobs provided by Heathrow in the surrounding area, the impact on British business, and the impact on overseas investment: 70 per cent. of companies that invest for the first time in the United Kingdom do so in places less than an hour from Heathrow. All those are major considerations. If the Opposition’s position rests somehow on an environmental case, they need to face up to the fact that the great majority of people travelling into Heathrow, who catch long-distance flights, would transfer their journeys to continental airports such as Schiphol, Paris and Frankfurt. There would be no saving of carbon, but instead— [Interruption.] Opposition Front Benchers are laughing, but this is not a laughing matter as far as British jobs are concerned. British jobs would be exported to the continent, which is a remarkable result for a party that is supposed to be anti-European.

Waterloo International

3. Dr. Vincent Cable (Twickenham) (LD): What progress has been made on the conversion of Waterloo International for the use of London suburban rail services. [228327]

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The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Paul Clark): Works to convert one platform of Waterloo International for domestic use will be completed by December 2008. The Department continues to work with South West Trains with a view to some existing services operating into and out of platform 20 from next year.

Dr. Cable: I thank the Minister and his predecessor for their support for this project, but the rail operators are saying that they cannot improve services unless they have more rolling stock. Will the Government give priority to that additional investment, under their accelerated programme for railway investment?

Paul Clark: The hon. Gentleman will be aware that there are, in a sense, two stages—a short-term and a medium-term solution—in relation to, in this instance, Waterloo station. In the short term, we need to establish a service by next year through South West Trains. The longer-term solution will involve HLOS—the high-level output specification—and the reconfiguration of all routes into Waterloo, with longer trains to meet capacity requirements. That is part of the £10 billion package in which the Government are investing until 2014.

Mr. Denis MacShane (Rotherham) (Lab): The Minister may be aware that Waterloo International, designed by that great British architect Nick Grimshaw, is one of the finest steel and glass constructions—if not the world’s best—since the Crystal Palace was built for the great exhibition in 1851. Alas, at present we can only see it from the top of the London Eye. As the Minister contemplates what will happen to Waterloo International, will he arrange for one or two buildings around it to be demolished, so that we can actually see one of the finest bits of glass and steel architecture built in recent years?

Paul Clark: I thank my right hon. Friend for his comments. I am currently dealing with issues related to transport, but he is right to point out that redeveloping and proceeding with plans in an optimal way invariably involves many other players. We will certainly take his comments on board, and I am sure that the relevant authorities will imagine seeing Waterloo in the same splendid way as we now see the Barlow shed at St Pancras.

Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire) (Con): As well as finding out whether Waterloo International might be used for London suburban rail services, will the Minister find out whether it might be used for services from further afield—from Hampshire and the south-west, where there is enormous pressure on the train service?

Paul Clark: The right hon. Gentleman has raised a wider issue, relating to capacity and ways of making the best possible use of our existing facilities and infrastructure. The current HLOS plan is to build on capacity and the available options through that £10 billion package. My right hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, West (Ruth Kelly) has asked Network Rail formally to consider a number of options for the period beyond 2014, and we await further work which will undoubtedly start to feed ideas into the work stream in 2009.

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Stephen Hammond (Wimbledon) (Con): I welcome the Minister to his new role, and hope that he is as successful in it as his predecessor.

Every morning commuters from all over south-west London, and indeed from further afield, are reminded that they travel on one of the most overcrowded parts of our railway network, yet they continue to see four platforms not being used. The Government knew in 2004 that Eurostar services would go to St Pancras, yet only one platform will be in operation before 2014, as the Minister has just confirmed. According to estimates provided by industry, it would cost only £10 million to bring the other four platforms into use, and it is costing half a million pounds to mothball them. Is this any way to treat commuters?

Paul Clark: One thing of which I am certain is that we must invest constructively in infrastructure fit for the 21st century. I am well aware of the vast increase in passenger journeys over the last ten years, causing substantial demand on our safe, secure and relatively efficient network. That is important. Reliability has improved tremendously and South West Trains’ latest figures show that its reliability is up to 92.5 per cent from August to September. That is what people want: reliable services at a reasonable cost.

On investing, there will be many demands on the £10 billion to which I have referred to increase capacity. I am sure that other hon. Members from all regions have demands in their neck of the woods. We are dealing with the short-term requirements to 2009; the longer term will involve changing capacity at Waterloo and other stations.


4. Paddy Tipping (Sherwood) (Lab): What highway improvements are planned on the A46 between Newark and Widmerpool. [228328]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Paul Clark): Plans for substantial highway improvements on the A46 between Newark and Widmerpool are well developed and being reviewed by the east midlands region in its assessment of funding priorities. The Department for Transport expects to receive the region’s advice early in 2009.

Paddy Tipping: Let me welcome my hon. Friend to his new position, and immediately ask for his help in resolving a problem that applies to the whole of the east midlands. He recognises the problem; it is simply one of funding. The road scheme costs £370 million, and it is simply unreasonable to ask the regional pot to fund it. It is like keeping a whale in a bucket. Will he look again at this matter?

Paul Clark: I thank my hon. Friend for his words of welcome. I am well aware that this has been a long saga. He will be well aware that the costs for the scheme have increased tremendously. He mentions £370 million, but he will find that the figure is between £370 million and £500 million, at some £437 million. We are looking at the possibilities. The Highways Agency is working closely with the region and the local authorities in the east midlands to see whether there is a possibility of phasing, and we are expecting that work to be completed shortly.

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