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House of Commons

Tuesday 25 November 2008

The House met at half-past Two o’clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Private Business

Manchester City Council Bill [ L ords]

Motion made, and Question proposed,

Hon. Members: Object.

Debate to be resumed tomorrow.

Bournemouth Borough Council Bill [ L ords]

Motion made, and Question proposed,

Hon. Members: Object.

Debate to be resumed tomorrow.

Canterbury City Council Bill

Motion made, and Question proposed,

Hon. Members: Object.

Debate to be resumed tomorrow.

Leeds City Council Bill

Motion made, and Question proposed,

Hon. Members: Object.

Debate to be resumed tomorrow.

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Nottingham City Council Bill

Motion made, and Question proposed,

Hon. Members: Object.

Debate to be resumed tomorrow.

Reading Borough Council Bill

Motion made, and Question proposed,

Hon. Members: Object.

Debate to be resumed tomorrow .

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked—


1. John Barrett (Edinburgh, West) (LD): What recent representations he has received on the proposal for a third runway at Heathrow. [238592]

The Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. Geoffrey Hoon): The Department for Transport received almost 70,000 responses to the “Adding Capacity at Heathrow Airport” consultation, which closed on 27 February this year. An equalities impact assessment consultation has since been undertaken to consider how development at Heathrow might affect equality priority groups. Responses showed a wide range of views on the proposals, and we are still considering the position. We have made it clear that the expansion will go ahead only if air quality, noise and public transport commitments are satisfied.

John Barrett: I thank the Secretary of State for that answer. He will know that the Liberal Democrats were the first party to oppose the third runway and to support a high-speed rail link. Does he accept that many of the hundreds of daily short-haul flights that go to Heathrow from constituencies such as mine could be replaced by a north-south high-speed rail link, which would be good for the environment, good for the economy and would remove any need for a third runway?

Mr. Hoon: As I have made clear, this is not an alternative—we are not posing expansion at Heathrow as an alternative to high-speed links. It may well be that, on economic grounds, both are required. That is why I
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have taken forward urgently work in the Department for Transport to look precisely at how we can develop new capacity, new rail links and, if necessary, high-speed rail links. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will have regard to the views of the chief executive of the Scottish Council for Development and Industry, who clearly represents the views of Scottish businesses. He said:

Martin Salter (Reading, West) (Lab): How does the Secretary of State answer the representations made by Lord Smith, chairman of the Environment Agency, this week that the construction of a third runway at Heathrow would make it impossible to meet legally binding targets on air pollution?

Mr. Hoon: The Environment Agency made a submission to the consultation. That, of course, will be taken fully into account alongside the other submissions that were made during the relevant period.

Mr. John Randall (Uxbridge) (Con): Will the Secretary of State be able to give us a definite idea that the decision will be announced before Christmas? Once that decision is made, will we be able to vote on it in the House?

Mr. Hoon: It is certainly my intention that the decision should be announced before the Christmas recess.

Mr. John Grogan (Selby) (Lab): Does my right hon. Friend agree that the Cabinet Minister best qualified to judge whether the third runway will reach air quality and noise standards is the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, and will he take his opinions particularly into account?

Mr. Hoon: My hon. Friend will be well aware that the Government in this country operate on the basis of collective Cabinet responsibility, and I am sure that all my colleagues will express their views in their usual fashion.

Justine Greening (Putney) (Con): The Secretary of State will be aware of the controversy surrounding the so-called fantasy plane that has been used in the modelling essentially to force-fit the environmental tests and make them met? From which aircraft manufacturers and jet engine turbine manufacturers has he had confirmation that that plane will ever be in existence?

Mr. Hoon: Of course, I am aware of the controversy. I know that the hon. Lady has researched these matters assiduously, so she will be aware that the assumptions made about that particular aircraft were not helpful in relation to any argument about noise or air quality. It was not a particularly noisy aircraft.

Hugh Bayley (City of York) (Lab): Every single plane that flies from London to north America flies directly over the north of England. Does my right hon. Friend recognise that if they landed, say, at Manchester, they would save half an hour of flying time, 400 miles of fuel on a round-trip and, if a north-south fast railway were built, passengers could be in London as quickly as if
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they had landed at Heathrow and had to fight their way in from the suburbs of London? Is it not time to think about that seriously as an alternative to a third runway at Heathrow?

Mr. Hoon: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his suggestion. The last time I looked, I was the Secretary of State for Transport in the Government, not the chief executive of British Airways.

Mrs. Theresa Villiers (Chipping Barnet) (Con): How many children will have their education affected by a deteriorating noise environment if the Government press ahead with their plans for a third runway and mixed mode at Heathrow?

Mr. Hoon: The hon. Lady knows full well that a number of schools are in the immediate vicinity of Heathrow. Action has been taken to provide noise insulation at those schools. Clearly, in the event of there being any decision to expand Heathrow, further action would have to be taken to ensure that those schoolchildren were able to attend and participate in lessons in the way that they do already.

Mrs. Villiers: According to the local authorities affected, 114 schools and around 100,000 children will suffer from serious noise problems if a third runway goes ahead. Meanwhile, around the world, air traffic is falling, Stelios is telling the easyJet board that the days of exponential passenger growth have gone, and yesterday’s pre-Budget report predicted a fall in demand for aviation. Is it not time that the Secretary of State revised down his aviation growth forecasts and scrapped his plans for a third runway and mixed mode at Heathrow?

Mr. Hoon: Unfortunately, the statistics that the hon. Lady quotes are not additional to any decision to build an extra runway. She simply gives the number of children currently affected. I anticipated that in the answer that I gave a few moments ago. She needs to ensure, when she is putting forward this case, that she has her statistics right and that she deploys them accurately as far as the House is concerned, so that we can have a proper debate about these matters. As I made clear at the outset, no decision has been taken on the matter. Any decision that is taken, will be taken in the light of air quality, noise and public transport arrangements.

Public Bus Services

2. Mary Creagh (Wakefield) (Lab): What estimate he has made of the number of people using public bus services in 2006-07; and if he will make a statement. [238593]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Paul Clark): Just under 4.5 billion bus journeys were made across England in 2006-07. There was a further increase of 600,000 journeys in 2007-08. Overall, local bus use has increased by over 17 per cent. since 1997. This achievement is due in part to the success of the London bus network, the hard work of operators and local authorities, and the introduction, of course, of increasingly generous concessionary travel by this Government.

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Mary Creagh: I thank my hon. Friend for that reply. The number of people using buses in Wakefield went up in one year by 30 per cent. following the introduction of the free pensioners pass, which made some dodgy routes in and out of Denby Dale and Kirkburton much more viable, and I thank him for that. Will he now look at introducing concessionary fares nationwide for young people—the 16 to 18-year-olds—whom we want to be able to benefit from free transport, particularly in the Wakefield district, where specialist schools are sometimes located 10 or 15 miles away from where a young person might live?

Paul Clark: I thank my hon. Friend for her comments about the concessionary fares that were introduced from April of this year. She is absolutely right: more than 11 million benefit from that concession for the over-60s and for those with disabilities. I know that my hon. Friend and the work of the Youth Parliament very much push for young people to have access to free transport. I recognise the arguments, which are about them being socially excluded, but I do not believe that they fall within the same remit as the concessions that we have already introduced. Our assessment is that concessionary fares for all five to 19-year-olds would cost approximately £1.4 billion.

Mr. Michael Jack (Fylde) (Con): Bus ridership in the borough of Fylde has increased very substantially as a result of the concessionary fares scheme, but the local authority, over and above the additional funding provided by the Government, will this year lose some £360,000, whereas the borough of Pendle will gain £385,000. Can I seek an assurance from the Minister that he will re-examine the formula used to allocate the national budget for the scheme, to make certain that boroughs such as Fylde do not lose out?

Paul Clark: I am delighted that the right hon. Gentleman welcomes the Government’s decision to introduce nationwide concessionary free travel for 11 million people. I recognise the issues that he raises. However, we spend approximately £1 billion on concessionary fares, mainly through the rate support grant mechanism, provided through local authorities. When we introduced the new nationwide scheme in April, we added an extra £212 million, which will rise to £223 million over the next two years, to compensate local authorities for that delivery. Invariably, all local authorities received on average a 30 per cent. increase in the allocation of moneys for the concessionary schemes. However, we always keep these matters under review.

Mr. Paul Truswell (Pudsey) (Lab): Is not the problem that the figure for bus patronage is skewed by an enormous increase of use in London, whereas in most parts of the country, such as my constituency, the picture is one of services being reduced to the most profitable routes and to routes that are subsidised with ever-increasing and hefty subsidies from the taxpayer? Is my hon. Friend aware of the recent report by the Centre for Cites, which demonstrates what a huge problem deregulation has been in cities? How confident is he that the measures contained in the new Local Transport Bill will address that?

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Paul Clark: My hon. Friend raises some important points. Although the increase is principally due to success in London and the concessionary fare scheme, there have been other clear increases. Indeed, hon. Members have already referred to some in their constituencies: in Brighton, Nottingham, Oxford and York, for example, bus patronage has increased. I sincerely believe that the Local Transport Bill, which recently completed its parliamentary stages, will allow local authorities to decide what best suits their areas, and it is up to local leaders to use the Bill’s toolkit to make a difference for their local people.

Mr. David Curry (Skipton and Ripon) (Con): Will the Minister recognise that the review that he has just promised needs to be carried out with the greatest possible urgency? The scheme whereby elderly people and disabled people will have three bus passes threatens to shoot a huge hole in the budget of dozens of local authorities throughout England. Harrogate’s local authority, which serves my constituency, faces a deficit, over and above the grant, of between £1.3 million and £1.6 million, depending on the volume of traffic this winter, and York has a multiple of that already. Will the Minister recognise that the distribution of funds bears no relationship whatever—

Mr. Speaker: Order. The right hon. Gentleman should not make a speech.

Paul Clark: Let me make it clear that the additional funding that was made available as of April was distributed on the basis of the discussions that were held with, and the representations that were received from, more than 200 local authorities. Destinations, major shopping areas and areas with a high number of retired people were taken into account in the allocations. Indeed, we looked at the budgets that local authorities had allowed for 2006-07, and that is why I am confident that, on average, there has been a 30 per cent. increase in funding, out of the extra £212 million. We keep the matter under review, but we do not necessarily intend to revisit the whole operation, other than the administrative side.

Mr. Mark Todd (South Derbyshire) (Lab): Those with enduring mental health problems are not entitled to participation in the concessionary fare scheme, but they would undoubtedly use buses more if they were. Will the Minister reconsider the current classification of those entitlements?

Paul Clark: My hon. Friend will know that the current scheme covers all those people over 60 years old, and approximately eight groups of people with disabilities. I recently attended a lobby by Sense on the issues of mental health and companions for people with disabilities. There are no current plans to extend those concessions, but, like all these things, we keep the matter under review.

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