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House of Commons

Thursday 18 March 2010

The House met at half-past Ten o'clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Business Before Questions

London Local Authorities Bill [ Lords] ( By Order)

Second Reading opposed and deferred until Thursday 25 March (Standing Order No. 20).

Oral Answers to Questions


The Minister of State was asked-

High Speed Rail

1. Mr. Jim Cunningham (Coventry, South) (Lab): What his most recent assessment is of the likely effects on residents in the west midlands of the construction works associated with the establishment of high-speed rail links. [322748]

The Minister of State, Department for Transport (Mr. Sadiq Khan): We would seek to minimise the effects of construction wherever possible. Initial decisions on whether to build a high-speed line and what route that line should take will be taken in the light of the autumn 2010 consultation. Thereafter, the full effects and any associated mitigation measures would be subject to an environmental impact assessment as part of the hybrid Bill process, which would itself be subject to further public scrutiny.

Mr. Cunningham: I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. While I would welcome a high-speed rail line through the midlands because of the benefits it would bring, there is a concern about the corridor between Coventry and Warwickshire, particularly in the Burton Green area. Can my right hon. Friend give an assurance that there will be both adequate public consultation as soon as possible so that residents' views are taken into consideration, and a realistic impact study undertaken of the possible effects in the area? Let me conclude, however, by repeating that I would welcome this scheme and the benefits it would bring, especially given that the west midlands unemployment rate is 10 per cent. and its manufacturing base has been eroded. That link would be a shot in the arm for the region.

Mr. Khan: My hon. Friend has been a keen advocate of High Speed 2, but he has also been keen to ensure that we are aware of some of the downsides of a high-speed line. Consultations with local residents have already begun in advance of the formal consultation in
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the autumn. In fact, there was a public meeting in the west midlands earlier this week. I will make sure that my hon. Friend is kept abreast of developments and that his views about the need to consult as many people as possible are taken on board before the autumn consultation begins.

Jeremy Wright (Rugby and Kenilworth) (Con): As the Minister knows, the proposed line would run right through my constituency, including Burton Green, which the hon. Member for Coventry, South (Mr. Cunningham) mentioned. In respect of the impact of the construction work, may I ask that information be made available on two specific matters? First, will there need to be any extra land-take in order to complete the construction work? As the Minister will appreciate, the proposed line passes very close to residential properties in Burton Green and elsewhere, and if people's gardens are to be affected, it would be helpful to know about that. Secondly, can he inform residents about any particular implications that may arise from the building of access shafts?

Mr. Khan: The hon. Gentleman has raised very important issues, as he did the other day. On any potential extra land-take, he will be aware that the broadest width of the area for the high speed rail will be about 25 metres, which is a lot, and the narrowest width will be 15 metres. We have asked High Speed 2 to go away and do further work to minimise the disruption caused and to mitigate the effects on the constituents of the hon. Gentleman and other Members, and I will make sure he is kept abreast of the progress we make. It is important that we keep Members involved before the formal consultation begins, and that we minimise any blight caused to their constituents. I give the hon. Gentleman an undertaking to do just that.

Mr. Ken Purchase (Wolverhampton, North-East) (Lab/Co-op): We who live in the region welcome this development. Although we are, of course, concerned about the environmental impact, the Minister should give priority to highlighting the economic development opportunities that will arise from the line. Will he also ensure that we develop the line in such a way that all those towns and cities just north of Birmingham do not miss out on what is an once-in-a-lifetime economic opportunity?

Mr. Khan: My hon. Friend will be pleased to know that the preferred route will lead to benefits not only for his neck of the woods, but for other parts of the country, as it will go to both Manchester and Leeds. In the construction phase, more than 10,000 jobs will be created, and there will be 2,000 permanent jobs. The economic benefits to our country will be enormous. That is, of course, why my hon. Friend has been one of the keenest advocates of High Speed 2.

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire) (Con): Will the Minister bear it in mind that during my time in the House the residents of South Staffordshire have had their lives disrupted by the building of three motorways? Will he take that carefully into account and try to ensure that there is the minimum possible disruption from this welcome development?

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Mr. Khan: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. We have been keen to try to learn the lessons from previous mass infrastructure projects-not only massive motorway projects, but High Speed 1. Fifty per cent. of the preferred route will be either along existing transport corridors next to motorways, or next to used or disused rail lines. That leaves 50 per cent. on virgin land. We need to make sure we learn the lessons and learn from previous mistakes, in order to minimise the disruption caused to the constituents of the hon. Gentleman and those of many more Members in other parts of the country.

Mr. Brian Jenkins (Tamworth) (Lab): My constituents will be affected by this track. They have just had to go through the four-tracking of the west coast line. That caused disruption with no benefit to the people in my part of the world. What can the Minister say to two of my constituents who have now found out via the media that their property will be knocked down as it is on the permanent way for the building of this new line, when they were, in fact, actively seeking to downsize for health reasons? What can the Minister offer them apart from a consultation for the next six months? Can we afford to buy these people out, who need get off the permanent way?

Mr. Khan: I am grateful for my hon. Friend's question. First, I am happy to meet him and his constituents to discuss their concerns. Secondly, we have begun consultation on an exceptional hardship scheme, over and above the statutory blight provisions for constituents such as those he mentioned. Although I am confident that those two measures will deal with some of the concerns and they will mitigate the problems, I am afraid that they will not solve them altogether. I look forward to meeting him and his constituents to try to address the genuine problems that he has raised.

Light Pollution

2. Mr. David Heathcoat-Amory (Wells) (Con): If he will review the guidance notes for the reduction of obtrusive light with a view to reducing light pollution from highway lighting. [322749]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Chris Mole): This is not strictly a matter for the Department for Transport. The guidance notes for the reduction of obtrusive light are produced by the Institution of Lighting Engineers. The institution is responsible for any future review of its guidance.

Mr. Heathcoat-Amory: Why does the Minister not take some responsibility for once, as this is an important issue? Is he aware that badly designed street and road lighting is the commonest form of reported light pollution, and it also wastes a lot of energy? The Government claim that they are interested in energy efficiency, so why does he not get a grip of this and do something for a change? This would be good for the environment and it would save money, so what is holding him back?

Chris Mole: If the right hon. Gentleman looks at the role of the Highways Agency, for which the Department is directly responsible, he will find that it already has programmes designed to turn off unnecessary road
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lighting on the motorways. Local authorities will want to consider, in the light of their local circumstances, developing policies that can address light pollution and its impact on the night sky, as well as parallel policies, such as those aimed at carbon reduction, that might drive them to turn off or dim their highway lighting.

New Rolling Stock

3. John Howell (Henley) (Con): What plans he has for the procurement of new rolling stock in the next five years; and if he will make a statement. [322750]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Chris Mole): The Department for Transport's plans focus on the steps that need to be taken to deliver additional capacity specified in the high-level output specification for the period 2009 to 2014 and the requirements to achieve its longer-term aspirations.

John Howell: The Association of Train Operating Companies has complained about the level of micro-management and of overregulation by the Department for Transport in relation to the rolling stock. How is the Minister taking those complaints into account? Will we see some scaling back of the Government's role, for which we have long argued?

Chris Mole: It is the Department's responsibility to ensure that we get rolling stock that is usable on the long-term network. We develop proposals for additional rolling stock in full consultation with the train operating companies, which have, in the first instance, the immediate use for it.

Mr. Clive Betts (Sheffield, Attercliffe) (Lab): I am sure my hon. Friend is aware that proposals to improve the Sheffield to Manchester line are very welcome for the future. Of immediate concern, however, is the East Midlands Trains service between Norwich and Liverpool, because at peak periods the service between Sheffield and Manchester regularly runs at double its proper capacity, with passengers crammed in like sardines. Can he offer any hope that we will get newer and larger trains on that service in the relatively near future?

Chris Mole: I can assure my hon. Friend that we will be making an announcement on just that, if not today, very shortly.

Mr. Charles Kennedy (Ross, Skye and Lochaber) (LD): Has the Department engaged in any discussions with either of the sleeper franchise operators? Has the Department, via the Scottish Government, discussed with ScotRail the pressing need for new investment in sleeper capacity, because the rolling stock is more than 30 years old? This is a good, green, environmentally friendly way to travel, but the disability access and internet connection are woeful, as are such basics as the heating.

Chris Mole: The accessibility of the rolling stock will be covered by the rail vehicle accessibility regulations, which will require all vehicles to be compliant by 1 January 2020. In the short term, the right hon. Gentleman has reasonably raised wider questions that I shall look into for him.

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Tom Levitt (High Peak) (Lab): I greatly welcome what my hon. Friend has just said about the Sheffield to Manchester line, most of which is in my constituency. On the procurement of rolling stock generally, will he bear in mind the importance of that industry to the east midlands, not just for the major producers, but for the supply chain, which includes the production of brake linings in my constituency? Will he talk to people such as representatives of the East Midlands Development Agency to ensure that we maximise the benefits to east midlands employment and industry arising from such procurement?

Chris Mole: The rail industry is obviously an important one for manufacturing industry in key regions of the UK. The Government are keen to see that industry respond to our requirements for additional rolling stock by bidding, for example, to meet the Thameslink key output 2 train requirements, which are currently under consideration. Such opportunities allow the industry to come forward with good bids.

Mrs. Theresa Villiers (Chipping Barnet) (Con): Will the Minister tell the House how many of the 1,300 high-level output specification carriages are in operation on the Northern Rail franchise?

Chris Mole: We have made announcements for an additional, I think, 18 vehicles on the Northern franchise as part of the commitment to delivering the high-level output specification, which of course has a delivery end-date in 2014.

Mrs. Villiers: Why cannot the Minister just admit that, after four successive Secretaries of State have promised 1,300 extra carriages, only 10 are in use on a line that is pivotal to commuters across the north of England? Will he admit that the Government have effectively junked the intercity express programme contract, because they dithered for so long over electrification, and that Thameslink has slipped again? Will he further admit that Government policy is in disarray and that commuters are paying the price for Labour incompetence?

Chris Mole: In the first year of a five-year control period, we have delivered a contract for more than 40 per cent. of the 1,300 target additional vehicles that we committed to. I have already launched some of the additional vehicles-120 vehicles-that will be used on the Greater Anglia franchise to relieve commuter congestion into Liverpool Street.

Norman Baker (Lewes) (LD): Since privatisation, there has been a 58 per cent. increase in passenger vehicle miles, but only a 4 per cent. increase in carriages. While the Government have many successes on railways that they can, allegedly, point to, the rolling stock policy has been a fiasco from start to finish, with stop-go policies. For example, Diesel Trains was set up and then abandoned without a single diesel train being ordered. Given that the network will be largely diesel driven for the foreseeable future, notwithstanding the Government's electrification policies, what steps are they taking to ensure that new diesel trains will be ordered for the network, because none have been ordered so far?

Chris Mole: We have record £15 billion investment in our railways over the coming years, and it is disingenuous to suggest that we are not investing in our railways. The hon. Gentleman must understand that the commitment
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to electrification has changed the nature of our commitment to rolling stock, going forward. Indeed, that will deliver an additional 300 to 400 carriages that can be used elsewhere on the network when we sign the contract with Thameslink. He would expect us to do that responsibly and in a way that gets best value for the taxpayer.

Vehicle Cloning

4. Angela Watkinson (Upminster) (Con): If he will bring forward proposals to assist those whose vehicles have been illegally cloned. [322751]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Paul Clark): We already assist victims of cloning and will give their vehicle a new registration, if appropriate. Number plate supply is tightly regulated to counter the availability of false number plates and prevent cloning. The Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency has sponsored the development of a standard for theft-resistant number plates, which are now commercially available.

Angela Watkinson: I thank the Minister for that response. An elderly couple in my constituency are among the estimated 20,000 innocent motorists who are victims of cloning-in this example, by a minicab driver who was regularly collecting parking tickets at Heathrow airport. That was extremely distressing for them and took a long time to resolve. Will he look more urgently at how the processing of such cases might be speeded up so that the distress to the victims of those crimes may be reduced?

Paul Clark: First, I extend my sympathy to the elderly couple in the hon. Lady's constituency who face this difficulty. We recognise the issue, which is why we put out clear guidance. Someone who is, for example, receiving parking tickets that they have not incurred should take the matter up, first and foremost, with those who have issued the tickets, and then with the DVLA. Extensive guidance is available through a number of sources-information is sent out directly to those of us who are road users, but is also on the directgov website. We have taken several other steps to ensure that the number of such cases is reduced still further.

Mr. Robert Goodwill (Scarborough and Whitby) (Con): The Government have failed miserably to tackle the problem of vehicle cloning. Many motorists face the misery and distress of receiving dozens of tickets for offences that have nothing to do with them. Why is it still so easy to buy so-called show plates over the internet? It is so easy that, rather embarrassingly for the Minister, I was recently able to purchase plates identical to those on the Prime Minister's official Jaguar in that way.

Paul Clark: The answer is very simple. The Opposition spokesperson will know that the DVLA has introduced a standard for anti-theft number plates. It has worked with the industry so that people can buy what I call "self-destruct" number plates, which break into many pieces if removed. Other developments include the use of clutch-head screws, which can be tightened but not unscrewed. We are taking those steps to deal with the issue rightly raised by the hon. Member for Upminster (Angela Watkinson).

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