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House of Commons

Tuesday 10 March 2009

The House met at half-past Two o’clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked—

Workplace Parking Levy (Nottingham)

1. Mr. Graham Allen (Nottingham, North) (Lab): What discussions he has had with Nottingham city council on its proposed workplace parking levy; and if he will make a statement. [261704]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Paul Clark): My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has had no such discussions. In accordance with the ministerial code of conduct, the decisions on the city council’s workplace parking order and tram extensions will be taken by Ministers on the Secretary of State’s behalf because they might have an impact on his constituency of Ashfield.

Mr. Allen: Is the Minister aware that Nottingham has one of the most innovative transport policies in the UK? Yesterday, we celebrated the fifth anniversary of the city’s new tram line. If we are to have an additional tram line and many other transport improvements, it is vital that we get the go-ahead for our workplace parking levy. Many businesses have written to me in support of the levy—far more than the tiny number that have not. Will he clear the way so that we can get on and be even more innovative in Nottingham?

Paul Clark: I send my congratulations on the fifth anniversary of NET Line One, which has proved extremely successful. I am well aware of the commitment shown by my hon. Friend, and by my hon. Friends the Members for Nottingham, East (Mr. Heppell) and for Nottingham, South (Alan Simpson), in their determination to secure transport improvements for the city.

Under the Transport Act 2000, we introduced a range of options for local authorities to address issues of traffic management. The workplace parking levy was one of those tools, and we are just completing consultation on the offences and enforcement procedure. Until we have done that, we are unable to consider the levy order, but we shall do so as soon as possible.

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Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury) (Con): The British Chambers of Commerce has condemned the workplace parking charge as a stealth tax on hard-pressed businesses. Is this really a sensible time to introduce yet more taxes on businesses struggling for survival? Why are Ministers continuing to use the transport innovation fund to bully local communities into taxing workplace parking or introducing congestion and other charges?

Paul Clark: We on this side of the House recognise that we cannot ignore the facts clearly set out in Eddington’s response on congestion. If we do not do something now, the cost to businesses across the length and breadth of this country will be some £22 billion by 2025. We need to be innovative in our approach, and allow local areas to introduce schemes that will maximise their attempts to deal with congestion. Indeed, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State met representatives of the local chamber of commerce only last night to discuss a number of issues. It is for those reasons that we have taken the opportunity to give local authorities and transport areas a range of tools to deal with the congestion problems that they face, both today and in the future.

Mr. John Heppell (Nottingham, East) (Lab): Does the Minister agree that, during a period of economic downturn, it is even more important that we reduce the congestion that costs business £160 million a year? We are asking the people of Nottingham and not the Government to make a decision about the workplace parking levy. Ninety four per cent. of people there have said that they have complete satisfaction with the tram system, and 80 per cent. say that they want it to be extended.

Paul Clark: Again, I recognise my hon. Friend’s commitment, and I congratulate him on the Adjournment debate on this matter that was held in this Chamber only recently. It was a shame that Opposition Members did not think it important to attend and listen to the issues and arguments. It is important that we take all possible steps to deal with congestion, and we will make a decision about Nottingham as soon as is practicable.

Alan Simpson (Nottingham, South) (Lab): Does the Minister understand that other sections of his Department could look like plonkers if we get the decision wrong? The Department has made workplace parking a necessary part of the funding for the tram extension, which itself is an integral part of the proposals to widen the A453 with a park-and-ride extension. So can we have joined-up government to allow for the joined-up transport planning that Nottingham is trying to put in place?

Paul Clark: Again, I recognise my hon. Friend’s commitment; over the past 10 years or so, he has been campaigning for the city of Nottingham. This Government introduced provisions to ensure wider understanding and improved governance on transport issues, allowing us to join those requirements together. However, we are talking about a matter for local authorities, as I indicated. The Transport Act 2000 introduced a number of provisions allowing local authorities to consider traffic management issues within their cities and given areas. It is for individual authorities to decide whether to go down the route of introducing a workplace parking levy—or, come to that, any of the other provisions available under the Transport Act.

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Rail Fares

2. Ann Winterton (Congleton) (Con): What recent assessment he has made of levels of rail fares. [261705]

The Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. Geoffrey Hoon): We continue to regulate rail fares to balance the protection for passengers and taxpayers while allowing significant investment in rail. We have made it clear that the average cap—usually the retail prices index plus 1 per cent.—will be applied next year even if RPI is negative, leading to lower regulated fares in January 2010. From January 2010, the cap will also apply generally to individual regulated fares.

Ann Winterton: The Secretary of State will be aware of the horror expressed by commuters and passengers about the huge hike of more than 6 per cent.—the figure is much higher in some areas—in rail fares this year. I welcome his reaffirmation on behalf of the Government that fares next year will be pegged to the standard formula, but will he also assure us that rail companies will not cut services?

Mr. Hoon: The hon. Lady refers to regulated fares. To deal with her last point first, the services are governed by the franchise agreement entered into by the train operating companies. Of course, we will not allow those agreements to be changed without a clear, good reason.

To deal with the generality of her observation, support for railways comes from two sources: fare-paying passengers and taxpayers. If we are to maintain the level of investment in our railways that I think we should have, we have a clear choice. We can either allow fares to be increased according to the consistent arrangements that have operated for many years, or we can increase the subsidy from the taxpayer. If she is unhappy about the balance that we have struck, she needs to say so, as does her party. Instead of simply making generalised complaints, I want to hear what specific proposals the Conservative party would make about fares and the level of taxpayers’ subsidy.

Mrs. Louise Ellman (Liverpool, Riverside) (Lab/Co-op): Does the Secretary of State share my concern that high fares might price people off the railways, and will he look again at the financing of the railways, so that we can avoid the situation that is planned, whereby in 2013 the fare payer will be paying three times as much as the taxpayer?

Mr. Hoon: I do recognise that concern, and it is right that my hon. Friend should raise it, but I repeat the answer that I gave a moment ago: there are only two sources of finance for our railways. We have to strike a balance between the interests of fare-paying passengers and the interests of taxpayers. I believe that we have the right balance to maintain the necessary level of investment in our rail network.

Norman Baker (Lewes) (LD): Over the next five years to 2014, the money raised towards fares by passengers will increase from £23 billion to £39 billion, according to the Transport Committee, while the Government’s contribution will be significantly cut. Given that our rail fares are already the highest in Europe, and given the swingeing increases this year, how can the Secretary of State possibly justify that massive increase in the take from passengers, and why did he not freeze rail fares this year, as the Liberal Democrats advocated? We indicated how we would pay for that, too.

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Mr. Hoon: I have been doing a little research into what the Liberal Democrats advocate, and it is interesting that despite the hon. Gentleman’s clear personal commitment to transport, he is unable to persuade any of his colleagues to support him. The Liberal Democrats would cut £1 billion from the transport budget, in the highly unlikely event of their being elected to take responsibility for anything. We need to put anything that the hon. Gentleman says about transport in context: he has not even been able to persuade his own colleagues that transport is a good thing.

Rob Marris (Wolverhampton, South-West) (Lab): One of the things that rail passengers expect for their rail fares is a decent, modernised railway station. Will my right hon. Friend give me some indication of what encouragement he and his Department could give on the rebuilding of Wolverhampton railway station?

Mr. Hoon: I had the considerable privilege of visiting Wolverhampton railway station only last week. [Interruption.] No, I make it clear to the House that not only did I visit it, but I got out at the station, too. Thanks to the assiduous efforts of my hon. Friend, I was able to see for myself the exciting plans for the redevelopment of Wolverhampton station and the nearby bus station, to provide a real transport hub for the people of Wolverhampton. I congratulate him on his efforts to bring real investment to Wolverhampton and to his constituents.

Stephen Hammond (Wimbledon) (Con): The facts show that the Passenger Focus report published in February this year highlighted value for money as the most serious concern for passengers. The facts also show that the most packed trains are running at more than 170 per cent. capacity and that, since 2003, regulated and unregulated fares have risen by a third. Do not the facts show that after a decade of Labour control, the story is one of overcrowded trains, value for money falling, and the taxpayer having to pick up the tab?

Mr. Hoon: The Passenger Focus report is interesting. I look forward to meeting Passenger Focus and the Association of Train Operating Companies to discuss its contents.

I would not want the Conservative party to feel that I was letting it off the hook after the comments that I made about the Liberal Democrats. If the hon. Gentleman gets his way and eventually ends up on the Government Benches taking the decisions, he will have £840 million less to spend on the railways and on transport in general than has been spent by this Government. He and his party have to explain how they will manage to continue with investment in much-needed projects such as Crossrail at the same time as cutting the railway budget.

Railway Stations

3. Anne Snelgrove (South Swindon) (Lab): What plans he has to improve levels of safety and accessibility at railway stations; and if he will make a statement. [261706]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Paul Clark): The Department for Transport takes safety and accessibility at stations very seriously. More than 1,100 stations have already been earmarked for access improvements through our £370 million Access for All
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programme. Meanwhile, crime levels continue to fall while the railways build on their already good safety record.

Anne Snelgrove: Swindon station’s disabled access has been improved considerably through the Access for All programme. Does my hon. Friend recognise that First Great Western, which is based in my constituency, has an excellent safety record and has been working innovatively with police community support officers and with train managers, leading to an eight out of 10 customer satisfaction rating? Will he congratulate First Great Western?

Paul Clark: The short answer is yes. I am delighted that First Great Western has used the £20,000 from the small schemes funding to provide a safer and more secure station and I congratulate it. The latest national passenger survey indicates that personal security at First Great Western stations has increased over the past year.

Robert Key (Salisbury) (Con): But in the south of the county of Wiltshire, South West Trains has been sacking hundreds of its staff, it has closed the travel centre and, at Tisbury, it has virtually unmanned the station. What does that do for accessibility or safety? What will happen when disabled people want to use ramps on to trains and there are no staff at the station?

Paul Clark: We have taken a number of steps in our Access for All programme at 145 stations, and the small scheme programme is helping to make 1,000-odd stations accessible and secure. There is also the assisted passengers reservation system, which is about helping people who have disabilities, and of course we work closely with the disabled persons transport advisory committee.

Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North) (Lab): The Minister will be aware that the previous Mayor of London had an admirable programme for converting many stations to step-free access to improve facilities so that everyone could use the trains. Is the Minister not concerned that the current Mayor seems to be cancelling many of those programmes? At stations such as Finsbury Park that serve both Network Rail and London Underground, he has cancelled the scheme altogether, which is disastrous for those who have difficulties in accessing the station because of the lack of lifts or any other way of getting in. Will my hon. Friend please meet the Mayor of London and tell him that the people of this country want to see real accessibility to our whole transport network?

Paul Clark: I am obviously concerned about any proposed cuts that would make accessibility for all difficult. I am delighted that in London, for example, all buses are fully accessible. With reference to London Underground, some 20 per cent. of stations have step-free access, and we are working to ensure that 25 per cent. are step-free by 2010. However, that needs commitment from all concerned—Transport for London and the Mayor of London—as well as our commitment to funding through the streams that I have outlined.

Sir Alan Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed) (LD): Will the Minister visit Alnmouth station in Northumberland, which has been turned down for the Department’s scheme? It has no disabled access from the northbound platform; disabled people who want to return to the station in the evening are told that they have to ask for a taxi from Newcastle, 30 miles away.

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Paul Clark: I am happy to look into the circumstances of that station. The requirement is to look at the programme that we are putting in. Many of the stations were built at times when accessibility was not a key factor, although obviously new requirements for stations and rolling stock all demand modern standards of accessibility. However, I am willing to look at the individual case. We are having to plan; in respect of the £370 million Access for All programme, we need to work on the stations used by most people, weighted by the incidence of people with disabilities using them. The small scheme programme, with its £25 million of Government money, has levered in third-party contributions, bringing in about £95 million worth of improvements. However, I will look at the individual case.

Geraldine Smith (Morecambe and Lunesdale) (Lab): Can the Minister tell me whether Silverdale station is on his list of stations for safety and accessibility improvements? If he cannot, will he look at the issue to see what can be done? Schoolchildren use the station in the mornings, and they have to cross the track to reach the relevant platform. That is a safety issue. Furthermore, Silverdale is in an area of outstanding natural beauty. We get a lot of tourists, and it is dangerous for them to cross live rail lines.

Paul Clark: It might surprise my hon. Friend to hear that I do not actually have at my fingertips a list with Silverdale on it. However, I am more than happy to look at the request.

High-Speed Rail Services

4. Mr. Douglas Carswell (Harwich) (Con): What plans he is making for high-speed rail connections between London and the north of England. [261707]

The Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. Geoffrey Hoon): As I announced to the House on 15 January, a new company, High Speed 2, has been formed to develop the case for high-speed services between London and Scotland. Yesterday, my noble Friend the Minister responsible for rail wrote to Sir David Rowlands at HS2, setting out what the Government expect of the new company. As a first stage, it will report by the end of the year with a proposed route from London to the west midlands, setting out any necessary options, including for stations. It will also consider the potential for new lines to serve the north of England and Scotland.

Mr. Carswell: Does the Secretary of State not agree that

to quote the new US President, Barack Obama?

Mr. Hoon: Not only are we thinking about high-speed rail, but we have put our plans into action. We have formed a new company, whose job is to advise the Government on how—not whether—high-speed rail will be done. I have asked it to produce by the end of the year practical proposals for bringing forward high-speed rail lines in the United Kingdom.

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