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House of Lords

Wednesday, 18 October 2006.

The House met at three of the clock (Prayers having been read earlier at the Judicial Sitting by the Lord Bishop of Newcastle): the LORD SPEAKER on the Woolsack.

Roads: Congestion

Lord Cobbold asked Her Majesty’s Government:

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, we are delivering a range of measures to tackle congestion across the whole of the motorway network, including a significant programme of motorway widening, better management of the network through the introduction of Highways Agency traffic officers, and the use of national and regional control centres. We are trialling new measures to make best use of motorway capacity. We are also exploring the scope for developing a national system of road pricing.

Lord Cobbold: My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for his response. Does he agree that the vital role in our economy played by road freight transport and the extra carbon emissions from traffic congestion both argue for a higher priority to be given to road improvement and construction? Our existing road system is showing its age and there are numerous congestion black spots that are crying out for traffic-easing investment. As for new roads, have the Government given any consideration, for example, to the possible construction of an outer M25 ring road around London?

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, on the latter point, no, not at this juncture. On the noble Lord’s basic point, roads are of course essential to our economy and that is why we propose to spend£1.7 billion over the next two years on at least23 major schemes. But I want to give the House the assurance that we intend to lock in the benefits of motorway widening by effective traffic management so that we do not produce additional congestion in due course.

Lord Hanningfield: My Lords, when the Government came to power nearly 10 years ago, they inherited a very comprehensive road-building programme which they then abandoned because there was to be a 10-year transport plan from the Deputy Prime Minister. Does the Minister regret that he did not leave it in place because they reinstated most of those projects five years later? If they had left the programme in place, it is possible that the roads would have been built by now.

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Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, the House will recall that expenditure plans under this Government have increased significantly and often despite criticism from the Opposition. The answer to the noble Lord’s question is straightforward. We are giving priority to improvements to our roads but we need a comprehensive transport plan, particularly in the context of the problems of climate change. That is also why there is such heavy investment in the railways.

Lord Bradshaw: My Lords, does the Minister agree that spending huge sums on motorway widening is both inconvenient and exceedingly expensive? Will he therefore tell us more about the plans for introducing road pricing, which seem to have been long delayed?

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, I am not sure that the average road user in areas where motorway widening has taken place, such as the M25 near London airport, regards it as a waste of money; quite the opposite. More generally, we already have one illustration of effective road pricing with the congestion charge in London. We are looking at further development and are offering financial support to local authorities to introduce road pricing where they can establish that congestion can be tackled adequately, and in the longer run we will have to look at other areas of the road network in addition to city and town centres.

Lord Walton of Detchant: My Lords—

Lord Marsh: My Lords—

Lord Corbett of Castle Vale: My Lords, is my noble friend aware that the Highways Agency—

The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Lord Rooker): My Lords, let us hear from the Cross Benches first.

Lord Marsh: My Lords, does the Minister agree that there is a problem throughout the whole motorway system, in this country and in other countries, and they all eventually come to the same conclusion—that you cannot stop cars using motorways? You have to control the vehicles rather than spend lots more money building new roads.

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, there is a great deal in what the noble Lord says—we will need to manage traffic more effectively. We have in place, of course, traffic management officers, who ensure that when incidents occur on motorways they are dealt with more effectively. I agree with the noble Lord. As has been shown by the American experience and elsewhere, one has to look towards rewarding cars that are fully laden—that is, with more than just the driver and carrying additional passengers at certain times—and ensuring that we tackle the problem of peak periods. It is a staggering fact that a very high percentage of our cars are on the road at one particular hour in the day, called the school run.

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Lord Corbett of Castle Vale: My Lords, is my noble friend aware that the Highways Agency and those working with it deserve the highest praise and commendation for the way in which they are managing the road widening on the M1 between junctions 6 and 9? Can he encourage the Highways Agency to put up an electronic sign detailing the large numbers of drivers who are being fined for risking the lives of those who are working on the road widening by ignoring the speed limit?

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, we are careful to enforce speed limits where people working on the roads are at risk. My noble friend will recognise that there is a 50 miles per hour speed limit there.

A noble Lord: Forty miles per hour.

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, it is a 40 miles per hour speed limit on this particular stretch. I am grateful. It is a little while since I used that particularly effective part of the motorway. Of course, my noble friend will recognise that it was necessary to widen that stretch because it has been a notorious bottleneck in recent years.

Lord Walton of Detchant: My Lords, can the Minister explain why the dangerous A1 road north of Newcastle has now been downgraded from a route of national importance to one of regional importance, with the result that two long-awaited dualling schemes that were due to start, according to previous plans, in 2008-09 have now been postponed to 2019?

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, the noble Lord questioned me on this issue three months ago and I have not got a great deal to add to the response I gave then. I recognise his point about the significance of the road, but he will recognise that we have concentrated on the southern stretches of the A1—if I can call them “southern”—south of Newcastle to London. Most of that road, of course, is dual carriageway and in very many places is now of motorway standard.

Earl Ferrers: My Lords—

Lord Rooker: My Lords, I am sorry but we are into the eighth minute now.

Post Offices

3.08 pm

Lord Hoyle asked Her Majesty’s Government:

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Trade and Industry (Lord Sainsbury of Turville): My Lords, the Government have made an unprecedented investment of more than £2 billion since 1999 to help the post office network adapt to the changing needs of customers. But there are further

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challenges facing the network and the Government are working closely with Post Office Ltd and sub-postmasters to meet them and to provide a long-term, sustainable basis for a national post office network.

Lord Hoyle: My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that reply. Is he aware that today more than 3,000 sub-postmasters have held a rally, are lobbying Parliament and have presented the largest petition in history, containing more than 4 million signatures, at 10 Downing Street? They have done so because they are very concerned about the future of the Post Office card, about the subsidy to the Post Office coming to an end in 2008, and about the loss of TV licence and vehicle excise licence business. Can my noble friend assure these hard-working men and women that they have a future? Can he tell us what the Government have in mind to preserve rural post offices?

Lord Sainsbury of Turville: My Lords, we are indeed aware of the rally. It is important to realise that the sub-postmasters themselves have said that in its present form the network is unsustainable. We are working with them and with Post Office Ltd to produce a network which is sustainable in the future, and we will make an announcement before Christmas.

Lord Razzall: My Lords, will the Minister take this opportunity to confirm in one of the Houses of Parliament the comment by the Secretary of State this morning on “Today” that it is accepted by Her Majesty's Government that a subsidy will be required to the post ofice network after 2008? Will he also indicate that when the Government make their Statement to both Houses with regard to the future of the post office network, postponing or abandoning the cancellation of the Post Office card account in 2010 will be on the agenda? Bearing in mind that there are more than 13,000 post offices but Royal Mail’s view is that only 4,000 are required to deliver a proper Royal Mail service, will the Government consider allowing altering the terms of post office licences so that they can deal with mail other than that of the Royal Mail?

Lord Sainsbury of Turville: My Lords, the Government recognise the social and economic role that the post office plays, particularly in urban deprived areas and rural areas. We also recognise that there will be post offices that will never be commercially viable but which play an important social and economic role and will require public subsidy in the future. I confirm that no decision has yet been taken about POCA or the replacement after 2010.

Baroness Knight of Collingtree: My Lords, will the Minister bear it in mind that it is not just a question of the livelihood of the sub-postmasters and postmistresses? So many thousands of elderly people, particularly in villages, have had their own post office closed a year or two back and now the one in the next village might be closed, and it will be so difficult for

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them to manage. The fact that post offices cannot now do so many things has surely contributed to their financial difficulties.

Lord Sainsbury of Turville: My Lords, as I said, we are very well aware of the social and economic role played by post offices. This is particularly important for elderly people, and we will bear that in mind when looking at this question.

Lord Dearing: My Lords, I declare an interest as a member of the Post Office Superannuation Fund. Does the Minister agree—I will tell him if he does not—that in my time as chairman of the Post Office, the Government provided 60 per of its business and that if they go ahead with all their plans, they will be providing 10 per cent? Does he agree with the chairman of the Postal Services Commission that the voice of the public should be heard and that as part of the Government’s belated attempt to introduce some joined-up thinking, there will be consultation with users of post offices to find out what they want, rather than decisions being taken for them without consultation?

Lord Sainsbury of Turville: My Lords, the issue of government services gained through the Post Office is key. It is not about one government department trying to get a slightly better service and putting a burden on another one. There are very striking differences in cost between the services provided by the Post Office and other means. For example, it costs nearly £1 to make a payment into a Post Office card account, compared with 1p into a bank account. We have to decide whether this is the best and most effective way of meeting our social obligations. We are of course consulting users throughout the process.

The Lord Bishop of Newcastle: My Lords, does the Minister agree that the further closure of post offices in rural areas will hit low-income families, pensioners and the unemployed the hardest? What action will the Government take to ensure that the Post Office enters into partnerships with village halls, pubs and churches so that a local service is provided in those areas where it is most needed?

Lord Sainsbury of Turville: My Lords, we are very aware that this is not simply a question of bricks and mortar, but one about service to people. That is why we have been pushing the Post Office to look at other ways in which to deliver the same services, such as mobile post vans, delivering more post office services directly to people’s houses and hosting post offices at other businesses, such as pubs, community centres and town halls. As I say, this is not just bricks and mortar but a question of delivering a social service to people, and we are very aware of that point.

Lord Harrison: My Lords, will my noble friend consider the “hub and spoke” system that is being thought about, which would answer the problem to

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which the noble Baroness, Lady Knight, alludes, by ensuring that services in rural areas are provided, albeit on a weekly rather than a daily basis?

Lord Sainsbury of Turville: My Lords, the methods that I referred to were, in fact, all on a hub and spoke basis. We have to look very seriously at those kinds of operations, because it is a startling fact that on average fewer than 16 people a week use the 800 smallest rural offices, at a loss of £17 per visit to the taxpayer. We have to consider whether that is a sustainable position and whether there might be more creative ways in which to deal with this social obligation.

Lord Cameron of Dillington: My Lords—

Lord Rooker: My Lords, I am sorry but we are well into the 16th minute.

Housing: Affordable Homes

3.16 pm

Lord Whitty asked Her Majesty’s Government:

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Communities and Local Government (Baroness Andrews): My Lords, any proposals for the development of the site will be subject to Westminster City Council’s unitary development plan, which reflects the policies in the London Plan. The city council’s strategic planning brief, which providesa detailed planning policy framework for the assessment of planning applications relating tothe site, confirms that the city council expects the maximum amount of residential accommodation, including up to 50 per cent affordable housing.

Lord Whitty: My Lords, I am very grateful to my noble friend for that reply and the indication that affordable housing will be part of this plan. But is this not an extreme example of a situation in the Westminster area where we have recently been disposing of public assets in areas with a chronic absence of affordable housing of all forms of tenure? In this case, that was admirably chronicled in a report by the noble Lord, Lord Best, who I am glad to see in his place. Should not the first call on land disposed of by public authorities in areas of high housing stress be to provide affordable homes for people in that area after consulting the local authority?

Baroness Andrews: My Lords, we certainly recognise the enormous housing stresses in London and the contribution that this site will make. What is instructive about it is to see how closely the MoD has worked with Westminster City Council and other partners in developing the planning brief, which will

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lead to the 50 per cent of affordable housing. That is not atypical. Indeed, the MoD has six sites around London through its project MoD Estates London—MoDEL—which will release a great deal of housing for development. It is working with English Partnerships in close association. That is a very good and positive example of how the disposal of public land can make a real contribution to meeting our housing needs.

Lord Marlesford: My Lords, does the Minister really think that at a time when the Treasury is very short of money and the Chancellor is having to make major cuts in public spending it is sensible to reduce probably quite significantly the proceeds from selling this absolutely top-value site for subsidised housing? The reduction in what the Treasury gets from the sale will inevitably come out of other very desirable government spending programmes.

Baroness Andrews: My Lords, clearly the MoD has to follow the Treasury guidelines, but clearly too it has to balance that with the Government’s housing objectives which seek more sustainable housing in London to meet the great housing needs in London. I am impressed by how the MoD is achieving that balance by close partnership. It is a very instructive demonstration of the way forward.

Baroness Scott of Needham Market: My Lords, does the Minister accept that in areas such as Westminster the chronic shortage of affordable housing means that there is chronic shortage of key workers and that there are times when narrow Treasury objectives should be weighed up and put second to wider community considerations?

Baroness Andrews: My Lords, the noble Baroness is right about the need for key worker housing, and I am pleased to say that the policy is a success: we have housed 22,000 people through the key worker living scheme. Interestingly, servicemen are classified as key workers. It is important because they aspire to home ownership just as everyone else does and the scheme helps them prepare for a return to civilian life.

Lord Best: My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, for his references to the Westminster Housing Commission, which I had the honour to chair. Might the Minister be able to use her good offices at the Department for Communities and Local Government to bring together the key people from the Treasury, the Housing Corporation and English Partnerships to look not just at the Ministry of Defence’s disposal policy, but at those of all government departments and all other statutory bodies, so that we have some protocols for when it is a good idea for land to be sold for affordable housing and when it is not, instead of the rather more anarchic situation we have at the moment?

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