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House of Commons

Thursday 14 May 2009

The House met at half-past Ten o’clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Business Before Questions

Leeds City Council Bill

Motion made, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

Hon. Members: Object.

Second Reading deferred until Wednesday 3 June at Four o’clock (Standing Order No. 20(2)).

Nottingham City Council Bill

Motion made, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

Hon. Members: Object.

Second Reading deferred until Wednesday 3 June at Four o’clock (Standing Order No. 20(2)) .

Reading Borough Council Bill

Motion made, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

Hon. Members: Object.

Second Reading deferred until Wednesday 3 June at Four o’clock (Standing Order No. 20(2)) .

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked—

Track Renewals

1. Hugh Bayley (City of York) (Lab): How much funding his Department contributed to track renewals in the last five years; and how much it plans to contribute for such purposes in the next five years. [275285]

The Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. Geoffrey Hoon): The Government have allocated some £15 billion to the railways over the next five years. This is part of a total of £26.7 billion that Network Rail has to manage and improve the network over that period. We do not allocate funding specifically for track renewals. It is for Network Rail to decide the level of expenditure on track renewals given its overall funding, which is determined by the Office of Rail Regulation.

Hugh Bayley: The Government are right to invest in transport infrastructure during the economic downturn, but despite having more money, Network Rail this year
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cut its spending on track renewals, and Jarvis plc, a York-based company that does such work, had to make 450 people redundant. Would it not be better for the Government’s money to be used to improve the railway, not to make redundancy payments? Will the Secretary of State press Network Rail to sign next year’s contracts as soon as possible, so that some of these men can go back to work?

Mr. Hoon: My hon. Friend has consistently and conscientiously raised the position of his constituents, and I well understand why he does so. I appreciate the arguments that he puts forward, and I was grateful to him for coming to see me and raising these matters directly. I emphasise that Network Rail’s total output will remain as previously planned. One reason for rephasing the work is to allow what is essentially new technology to be available in the form of modular sets of points and new equipment that will allow the work to be done more efficiently and effectively. I repeat that the total amount of work will be unchanged by the rephasing.

Mr. James Clappison (Hertsmere) (Con): Is the Secretary of State aware that the condition of the track, and particularly the points system, goes to the heart of the issues concerning the Potters Bar rail crash, which now took place more than seven years ago? I appreciate the personal interest that he has taken in this case, but does he agree that seven years is far too long to have to wait for an inquiry into these important issues?

Mr. Hoon: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising this issue, which I have taken seriously in the time that I have been in this position. I recognise the anxiety of those most directly affected by the terrible tragedy that took place, and it is important that we resolve that as soon as possible by an appropriate form of inquiry.

Mrs. Louise Ellman (Liverpool, Riverside) (Lab/Co-op): I welcome the investment in Network Rail, but is it not time that some urgency was shown in improving Network Rail’s efficiency, so that major parts of the network are not closed down on bank holidays, stopping people being able to travel around the country and forcing more cars on to the roads?

Mr. Hoon: I have regular meetings with Network Rail and I can assure my hon. Friend that that is something that we regularly discuss. Network Rail is in no doubt of the importance of achieving greater efficiency in the work that it does and it recognises the problems that the kinds of stoppages she describes cause to an increasing number of passengers at weekends, when our railway is increasingly busy, so I hope Network Rail will address the matter.

Mr. Brooks Newmark (Braintree) (Con): Braintree has seen tremendous growth in the past 10 years, yet there is only a single track between Witham and Braintree. Is the Minister aware of any progress that has been made on what is known locally as the Cressing loop, which is dualling the track between Witham and Braintree?

Mr. Hoon: I am not specifically aware of the particular piece of track, but I will write to the hon. Gentleman once an appropriate answer is available. What I can say
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to him is that I recognise that there are capacity questions right across our network, which is entirely the result of the remarkable success of our railways in recent years. We now carry more passengers than at any time since 1946, which necessarily means that there are capacity questions, and this Government are addressing them.

Kelvin Hopkins (Luton, North) (Lab): The fact is that track renewals under privatisation cost many times what they cost under British Rail, and the work is certainly done no better. Has my right hon. Friend investigated why that is the case, and does it not argue strongly in favour of public ownership as opposed to privatisation?

Mr. Hoon: On every occasion that I do Transport questions, I need to say that I come from a railway family. Since both my parents and my grandfather worked for the railway and were involved in British Rail, I have a natural predisposition to what my hon. Friend suggests. Unfortunately, however, the evidence is against him, and I suspect that if he examined the costs of British Rail he would not find much support for his contention.

Norman Baker (Lewes) (LD): Perhaps I should declare an interest as a former employee of British Rail. Network Rail promised a year ago to move towards a seven-day railway, yet we have seen no progress. For example, in Lewes, between 1 January and the end of March, on 11 weekends there were rail replacement buses instead of a proper train service, which is simply unacceptable. Is it not time to give Network Rail an incentive to move towards a seven-day railway, and would it not be a good idea to reduce ticket prices by, say, a third, when there are rail replacement buses?

Mr. Hoon: I am sure that British Rail regretted the loss of the hon. Gentleman’s service, and I hope that he can make a contribution to the future of the railways in his current position. I accept that it is important that we move towards a seven-day railway, and that, as I said in answering the previous question, we find ways to co-operate with Network Rail on weekend journeys, because so many more passengers are using the railway at weekends. That means looking at innovative ways of attracting passengers on to the railway. Weekend and off-peak prices are very competitive these days, but I am confident that his suggestions will be looked at seriously by the train operating companies.

Cyclist Safety

2. Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby) (Con): What recent assessment he has made of the adequacy of measures to ensure the safety of cyclists. [275289]

The Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. Geoffrey Hoon): While local highway authorities are directly responsible for assessing the effectiveness of cycle safety measures, the Department for Transport is strongly involved in promoting the safety of cyclists. The Department has commissioned a cycle safety research project that will assess the effectiveness of various measures, including road user safety and cycling data, cycling infrastructure, attitudes and behaviour, and cycle helmets.

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Mr. Robathan: I am sure that the Secretary of State knows that I used to be the chairman of the all-party cycling group—until I was deposed in a very new Labour putsch in 1997, which installed the right hon. Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Clarke), as an excellent chairman. I think I am still the vice-chairman, but I am not sure.

The Secretary of State may know of the Cyclists’ Touring Club “Safety in numbers” campaign, which makes the valid prognosis that cycling becomes safer when more people do it, not only because motorists have to slow down, but because cyclists like me know when driving a car how dangerous cycling is. In his project, will he ensure that local authorities realise that the more cyclists there are, the safer cycling becomes, and that they should not simply try to get cyclists out of the way?

Mr. Hoon: I am sorry that 12 years on, the hon. Gentleman still feels such personal resentment about the operation of democracy in the House, but it is a clear testament to his commitment to cycling. I hope that every day when he thinks about that terrible injustice, he will nevertheless reflect on the great success of the all-party cycling group in promoting cycling. No doubt, he will continue to play a part in that.

More seriously, as the hon. Gentleman said, it is important that we continue to encourage cycling and, indeed, walking, and that they should be done safely and securely. I strongly support his suggestion and I take a keen interest in this area of Government activity. We want to promote cycling and we want more people to take advantage of it—safely.

Mr. David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op): As a fellow cyclist, I commend the CTC campaign. At the same time, last week an important National Audit Office report drew attention to the threat to cyclists and pedestrians. I have always worked on the basis that one out of 10 motorists does not behave safely with regard to cyclists, and that one in 10 of those is a homicidal maniac. Is it time, particularly in rural areas, that we trained motorists to be far more responsible in their treatment of cyclists? Surely the Department could take that up.

Mr. Hoon: My hon. Friend makes some important points. We welcome the findings of the NAO report and will carefully consider its contents. Concern has been expressed about the apparent recent increase in the number of cyclists killed or seriously injured, but over the trend period, the reduction is clear: cycling is becoming safer. The reasons for the very recent increase are not entirely clear to us, but we are looking into it.

It is important that we continue to promote safe cycling. We invest significant sums of public money in cycling training, which we are expanding across schools. We need to continue to support that work, so that we have safe cyclists in future.

Peter Bottomley (Worthing, West) (Con): The Secretary of State will understand that an increase in cycling can lead to a lower risk for each cyclist but a greater number of casualties among cyclists—that is one of the consequences of modal shift.

Will the Secretary of State ensure that his study, when it is published, shows both that crashes are a consequence of conflict, and that secondary protection makes a difference?

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Will the Secretary of State ensure that a comparison is made between the Netherlands, where cyclists tend not to wear energy-absorbing helmets, and this country, where cyclists do tend to wear them, even though the CTC has not got around to recommending it?

Mr. Hoon: The hon. Gentleman makes some good points and I will certainly take them into account when the report is published. I would like to spend a little more time studying the success of cycling in the Netherlands. Safety is clearly important, and I believe that we should campaign to encourage people to wear cycle helmets, which can help in especially serious conflicts between cyclists and motor vehicles.

Mr. Robert Goodwill (Scarborough and Whitby) (Con): As a heavy-goods driver and a cyclist, I understand all too well the hazard caused to cyclists from the rear wheels of large vehicles, particularly at junctions. Does the Secretary of State think that the proposal from our brilliant Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, to allow cyclists to turn left on red and thus get out of the way before the lights change might improve matters?

Mr. Hoon: I am grateful for that suggestion from the multi-talented Front Bencher. I shall certainly carefully consider the proposal, although there are some concerns about the safety implications of such a relaxation. As one who has lived and worked in the United States, where turning on red lights is routine for motor vehicles, I know that the idea has been considered for motor vehicles generally in the UK. What is important is that we put the safety criteria first—we have to assess whether it can be done safely. If it can, I would certainly take a positive view of it.

Unadopted Roads (Former Coalfield Areas)

3. Natascha Engel (North-East Derbyshire) (Lab): If he will assess the merits of providing funding to bring unadopted roads in former coalfield areas up to adoptable standards. [275290]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Paul Clark): Local Authorities have available to them a number of funding sources that they could use to bring unadopted roads up to the standards for adoption. They include revenue support grant, prudential borrowing, capital receipts, local transport plan funding and the neighbourhood renewal fund. It is a matter for local authorities to prioritise how their funds are allocated.

Natascha Engel: I thank my hon. Friend for that answer, but as he knows, unadopted roads are a legacy of mining, and it is both unfair and unaffordable for many local authorities to bring such roads up to adoptable standards. Many of those roads are in such a state of disrepair that they are becoming quite dangerous. Will he look into providing some national ring-fenced money for local authorities covering ex-mining areas to deal with the problem?

Paul Clark: I recognise that there is a problem in coalfield communities. The matter has been considered by the coalfields forum, which is led by my colleagues in the Department for Communities and Local Government, and by the coalfield alliance. A number of regeneration
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programmes have worked in former coalfield communities to look at the possibilities. Essentially, the matter is one for local authorities, but I am always ready to engage in dialogue and to listen, and I will be happy to meet my hon. Friend to discuss the subject.

Ann Clwyd (Cynon Valley) (Lab): Given the demands on local authorities to prioritise, has the Department made any estimate of: first, the number of unadopted roads, and secondly, how much it would cost to make them adoptable? I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Derbyshire (Natascha Engel) that they are a great problem in coalmining communities such as mine in Cynon Valley, where, right now, we are probably all out canvassing for the local authority or European elections. In my 25 years as a Member, the issue has been the one constant about which people who live in areas with unadopted roads have been really aggrieved. I hope that we will have some answers for them on this occasion.

Paul Clark: The assessment that was undertaken back in the 1980s found some 40,000 unadopted roads throughout the country. The estimate is that, at today’s prices, it would cost £3 billion to bring them all up to adopted standards. However, I must point out to right hon. and hon. Members that, excluding London funding, £2.1 billion has been allocated up to 2010-11 for capital expenditure programmes. We must recognise the demands in a given area, and that is why it is best left to local authorities to make the decision about which roads should be adopted and considered.

Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle) (Lab): This is an issue not just in mining areas, however. There are thousands of miles of unadopted roads in Lancashire. They are often damaged by heavy vehicles such as council rubbish trucks, and the responsibility for repairing the road falls not on the council but on the people who have the misfortune to live in houses alongside the road. What more can be done? It is not good enough for the Minister to say that local authorities must prioritise. Surely we need ring-fenced funds, along the lines that my friend from Derbyshire suggested.

Paul Clark: My hon. Friend will be aware that our general thrust has been to ensure that local authorities have substantial funds in several areas, but that they should be able to prioritise, meeting and consulting the people whom they represent and on whose behalf they work. I reiterate that we have provided generous funds over the three years to 2011, with more than £2 billion, excluding London funding, for capital provision. The matter must be dealt with in respect of all priorities and an assessment of all needs in local authority areas.

Variable Speed Limits

4. Mr. Greg Knight (East Yorkshire) (Con): What recent assessment he has made of the effects on road safety of variable speed limits. [275291]

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