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25 Nov 2010 : Column 191WH—continued

Mrs Villiers: I will come on to road safety in a moment, but it remains an extremely high priority for the Government. However, the shadow Minister makes a key point about the importance of enforcement in relation to overseas-run HGVs. We will continue to put a priority on those enforcement mechanisms. I cannot give him the precise figures. Across the board, we will be looking to do things in a more efficient way, but if we
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can, we will prioritise resources to help us to deal with that very significant problem-I agree with him that it is a major problem.

The hon. Member for Liverpool, Riverside also asked whether there was a departure from road-widening and building towards more of a traffic management approach, including a managed motorway approach. I think that there is some truth in that. We want to make greater use of a managed motorway programme as a more cost-effective way to deliver more capacity. Regarding road improvements, our focus is on trying to target the worst traffic bottlenecks, because remedying those bottlenecks will deliver the greatest economic benefit. So we recognise that making better use of our existing road capacity should be a very important part of our strategy.

We also need to look, in a balanced way, at whether we can address a transport problem by using a public transport outcome. We need to look afresh at the way that we approach the national roads programme overall.

The Chairman of the Select Committee also expressed concern about cuts in the budget allocated to road maintenance. We are continuing to allocate very significant funds to road maintenance at both a national and local level. However, we recognise the need to deliver more for less. Safety is, of course, paramount. However, the road network is one of the nation's most valuable economic assets, so we must ensure that we spend appropriately to maintain it in a good condition. Nevertheless, we feel that better commercial management and better contracting can lead to considerable savings, and we feel the same is true of making the most of collective national buying power, encouraging local authorities to link up together so that they can build their buying power, and reviewing some of the technical standards to extend the life of assets. All those methods are ways to cut costs without compromising safety.

However, there is no doubt that we have had to take some difficult decisions about spending on both local and strategic roads. To help local authorities to deal with spending reductions, we will cut red tape to give them more freedom to make their own decisions. We are carrying out a radical simplification and reform of local transport funding. Our plan is to move from 26 grant streams to four, beginning in 2011-12. That will include £560 million for local sustainable transport projects, including Bikeability cycle training.

Several hon. Members discussed buses. The hon. Members for Cheltenham and for Liverpool, Riverside expressed concern about the reduction in the bus service operator grant commencing in 2012-13. I understand their concerns; that was probably one of the most difficult transport decisions in the CSR. I hope that they recognise that the reduction is far less severe than many predicted. We argued the case passionately with the Treasury. We recognise how crucial bus services are to people on a wide range of incomes and in a wide range of areas, which is why we put the case so strongly in the CSR in order to get a fair outcome on buses.

Martin Horwood: I acknowledged in my remarks how well the Department had done in defending the bus service operator grant relative to expectations, but the Minister will recall that the combined impact of the cut in BSOG, the funding arrangements for the concessionary fares scheme and the cuts in local government spending could have a high-risk effect on bus services, particularly rural ones.

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Mrs Villiers: I appreciate that the position on buses is affected by decisions made about Department for Communities and Local Government funding. We are happy to work with DCLG to minimise the ultimate impact on bus passengers. We have also committed to retain the concessionary fares statutory entitlement. In implementing administrative savings-a programme that we inherited from the previous Government, who also committed to reducing the cost of administering the scheme-we will, of course, seek to ensure a fair outcome for both local authorities and bus passengers.

The hon. Member for Cheltenham emphasised the importance of Oyster-style ticketing on bus services outside the capital. The Government agree fully, which is why we have committed to extend smarter ticketing technology across the country and accelerated the plans that we inherited from the previous Government.

I assure the Chairman of the Transport Committee that road safety is an extremely high priority for this Government. We welcome the progress made in recent years; it is a major achievement by the Government of which the shadow Minister was a member. We are determined that that progress will continue. Concern was expressed about the in-year savings to local authority funding. The revenue stream associated with road safety has been reduced, but it was selected because that was a way to give local authorities the greatest flexibility in how they make reductions. It was also a way to prevent the in-year savings from falling disproportionately on local authorities; that was one of the most even-handed ways to make the reductions. With the withdrawal of ring-fencing, it is up to local authorities how they implement those savings. We hope that they will continue to focus on road safety and make the savings that they need in other ways: for example, through efficiency savings.

Barbara Keeley: I do not know whether the Minister is aware that in the Chamber this morning, we discussed the fact that some local authorities are facing grant reductions next year of 29%, 30% or 35%. Does she really believe that those authorities-particularly urban metropolitan authorities in the north, some of which are represented here-will have any flexibility?

Mrs Villiers: It is our intention to give them flexibility so that they can make decisions in the local interest. Given the huge importance of road safety to local communities the length and breadth of the country, I am absolutely confident that local authorities will continue to put an extremely high priority on road safety spending.

We will continue to invest in our road and local transport infrastructure. The spending review confirmed that more than £400 million will be devoted to the uptake of ultra low-carbon vehicles in order to comply with our commitments on climate change and the pressing need to reduce emissions from driving. In his CSR statement to the House, the Chancellor confirmed various important road programmes, including the A11 dualling programme at Thetford, which will generate major economic benefits for the whole of East Anglia and provide the missing link of dual carriageway to connect Norwich to the rest of the country. That got the biggest cheer of the comprehensive spending review debate. On 26 October, the Secretary of State announced a further 16 large-scale road and public transport projects, as well as a fund of more than £600 million for other schemes to be selected from a pool through a bidding process.

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Several individual schemes have been referred to, including the Leeds trolley bus, on which work will continue, as I said. I hope that it will be possible to make progress on the scheme. The hon. Member for Worsley and Eccles South (Barbara Keeley) spoke with eloquence about her concerns for the M60 and its impact on her constituents. I emphasise that safety issues are, of course, taken into account in decisions on which schemes to fund, and both safety and the environmental impact on communities will be explored fully in the planning process, as is appropriate. That is how we ensure that such issues are addressed. I am concerned to hear about the problems that she believes have arisen with the consultation, and I urge her to take it up with the Highways Agency.

Barbara Keeley: I thank the Minister for giving way. The Roads Minister was going to meet me and local residents in my constituency to understand the issues that I have raised, and I have stated that the Highways Agency consultation was a mess. Given that and the fact that the scheme's start date is now later than originally proposed, although still before 2015, will the Minister take back a request to review the matter further? I do not think that the scheme is value for money, and it is competing with schemes that are much more wanted and more certain to deliver value for money.

Mrs Villiers: With all such schemes, the process of assessing value for money is ongoing. The scheme is conditional on the planning process, which is the proper opportunity for the hon. Lady's constituents to make their voices heard and express their concerns about what will happen. It is not for me to pre-empt the planning process in this debate.

Several hon. Members mentioned the Dartford crossing. The hon. Member for Cheltenham was concerned about the nature of the charges. They were converted by the previous Government to congestion charges; the charges originally imposed related to the construction costs of the bridge. My hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock expressed her concern about the increase in tolls. Again, that is unfortunately another melancholy consequence of the fiscal crisis that we face. Tolls could help us fund a new crossing, which, as the shadow Minister said, would generate significant benefits to the economy and relieve congestion. We continue to work to address the congestion problems and flow of traffic on the Dartford crossing, and that work includes a commitment to lifting the barriers in extreme cases where they are causing congestion.

My hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock also expressed concerns about junction 30 of the M25. As I emphasised, the project has not been cancelled but postponed. There is a good chance that it will go ahead, and the Highways Agency will continue to work on that. She has put on record her concerns about how important it is, not least because of the need to transport Hellmann's mayonnaise and Fairy liquid around the country. She is no doubt a strong campaigner for the interests of her constituent.

Jim Fitzpatrick: I intervene only because one group of constituents who have not been mentioned are long-suffering West Ham fans from south and west Essex, who must fight their way across the M25 to get to Upton Park every other Saturday.

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Mrs Villiers: The hon. Gentleman puts that representation well. I am sure it will be duly taken on board as the scheme progresses.

My hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Neil Carmichael) and the hon. Member for Cheltenham expressed anxiety about the fate of the Swindon-Kemble project. The hon. Member for Cheltenham said that it could end up with the dubious label of being the only rail project cancelled by this Government. In reality, the funding was never in place from the previous Government. It was never confirmed. I believe that the business case is good and that it would be great in terms of increasing the resilience of services to Wales. There are all sorts of good reasons to do the project, but at the moment it just does not look affordable. However, there is every chance that we could seek to take it forward in the next Network Rail spending control period.

Martin Horwood: Will the Minister give way?

Mrs Villiers: I shall carry on; otherwise the Committee Chairman will not have a chance to speak at the end.

The shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick), expressed concern about type 26 frigates. I will certainly take that back to my colleagues in the Department. I have noted his concern about the impact that that might have on piracy. That is obviously a crucial issue we need to address today. He also asked when a road safety strategy will be published. It will be published in due course at some point in the new year. I was somewhat surprised by his comments on air passenger duty because, as I pointed out to him, the increases about which he is concerned were set out in the Labour Chancellor's Budget and implemented through a Finance Bill that was enacted during the term of his Government. He has had something of a road to Damascus conversion on APD.

I have already dealt with the hon. Gentleman's points on TRANSEC and the personnel there. He also made the valid point that ports and shipping often do not get the attention they deserve, given their huge importance
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to the economy. I certainly agree. Whether or not we are in government, it is vital that we recognise the importance of our history as a maritime nation and the economic benefits generated by ports and the shipping industry.

In conclusion, faced with the scale of the deficit we inherited, the easy option would have been to slash capital spending on transport projects. We have chosen not to do that; we have chosen to look at the long-term interests of the economy. That is why, over the next four years, we will spend more than £30 billion on road, rail and local transport projects across Britain, despite the dire financial situation that we inherited from our predecessors. I thank everyone who has taken part in this very interesting debate.

5.21 pm

Mrs Ellman: Thank you, Mr Gray, for your chairmanship this afternoon. I also thank the many hon. Members who have demonstrated the significance of national decisions for local facilities and for their constituents. I thank the Minister for her very full replies, but such fullness cannot disguise the fact that a 15% cut in transport, an 11% cut in capital expenditure and a 21% cut in resource expenditure, are major cuts. Yes, it could have been worse, but those are major cuts.

I am pleased that my hon. Friend the Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick), the shadow Minister, has retained all his expertise and knowledge about transport and I am glad to see it being put to such good use this afternoon. Some promises and commitments have been given, but there are clearly still some gaps and major problems. I am sure that my Committee, in the months and perhaps years ahead, will monitor those promises and continue to raise issues of concern. I look forward to the Minister appearing before our Committee to follow up some of the very important matters raised this afternoon.

Question put and agreed to.

5.22 pm

Sitting adjourned.

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