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House of Lords

Thursday, 21st January 1999.

The House met at three of the clock: The LORD CHANCELLOR on the Woolsack.

Prayers--Read by the Lord Bishop of Chichester.

Road Building: Implications of Cutback

Lord Islwyn asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Whether any assessment has been made of the implications of the cutback in new road building on traffic congestion throughout the United Kingdom.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Lord Whitty): My Lords, the Government take seriously the implications for traffic congestion. As we have explained in our White Paper, A New Deal for Transport--Better For Everyone, the way forward is not simply through building more roads but through an integrated transport policy. In pursuit of that, in December we issued Breaking the Logjam, our consultation paper on fighting traffic congestion and pollution through road user and workplace parking charges.

Lord Islwyn: My Lords, does the Minister accept the Highways Agency's definition of congestion on a motorway as when the average speed of traffic falls to below 30 miles per hour? Will he consider performance measures for the road network so that users can judge whether performance is rising or falling? Finally, does the Minister believe that the inter-urban road network provides the reliability and quality of service that the economy requires?

Lord Whitty: My Lords, there are clearly serious problems on parts of the inter-urban network which we are addressing in the targeted programme of improvements which we announced in July and by looking at movement in a multi-modal sense in many of the more seriously congested and other problem areas of the network.

As far as the speed is concerned, that is a Highways Agency rule of thumb. Although it is possible to assess the speed in terms of particular parts of motorways, the overall picture is not easy to assess with the present technology. Technology coming on stream will allow a better measure of performance. It will also allow us to control the traffic flow more effectively and give information down the line to drivers.

Baroness Ludford: My Lords, will the Government give a guarantee that the mayor of London will have available the proceeds of all congestion charging in London in order to invest in improving public transport in London?

Lord Whitty: My Lords, as I believe my right honourable friend the Deputy Prime Minister has

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forcefully made clear on a number of occasions, the money from road user charges and workplace parking in London will, for the first 10 years, accrue to the mayor to develop further public transport and other infrastructure.

Lord Brabazon of Tara: My Lords, does the Minister recognise that, however successful the integrated transport policy is, whether or not the amount of traffic falls from 95 per cent. to 85 per cent., or whatever the figure, the vast majority of traffic will still be on the roads and therefore some road building, particularly of bypasses, will be necessary if our economy is still to thrive?

Lord Whitty: My Lords, the first statement that I made in this capacity, following on the work of my noble friend Lady Hayman, on the roads review in July indicated a substantial, well-funded and clearly timetabled programme of road improvements. However, we also wish to shift some of the commercial traffic and, more particularly, individual cars off the roads. We wish to develop more options. In the medium term, we want to see a substantial shift in mode of transport in this country.

Lord Mowbray and Stourton: My Lords, is not the noble Lord aware that the industrial traffic travelling on the roads cannot be put on the railways? I was in the DoE long enough to learn that many clever brains have been devoted to this worthy object. Does he really believe that it is possible to make a significant cut in the amount of traffic on the motorways and going off the motorways? Is it reasonable to expect that that could be achieved?

Lord Whitty: My Lords, I do believe that it is possible over time to achieve a significant shift. Nevertheless, there are limits to that, as the noble Lord indicates. Even if we doubled the amount of commercial traffic going by rail freight, as is the aim of the rail freight companies, 70 per cent. of our commercial traffic would still be on the roads.

Lord Marlesford: My Lords, while there may be limits to how much traffic can be moved off the roads, a huge opportunity exists here. Britain's largest container port, Felixstowe, still has no proper rail link with the rest of Britain's rail system. That is why so many containers use the A.14 and clutter up the roads in the Midlands. If the Government would ensure that there was a good network of railway links between Felixstowe and the rest of England, as I have frequently asked them to do, that would be a big step in the right direction.

Lord Whitty: My Lords, I take the general point that more capacity for freight traffic is needed on our railway system. We discussed this matter briefly yesterday. The Government intend to ensure that that is provided. Unfortunately, the powers left to government by the

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previous regime are not sufficient to enable Railtrack or the operators to make a major change. We are intending to introduce legislation to that end.

Lord Berkeley: My Lords, road user charges are intended to limit and control the use of the motorways and perhaps bring a bit of discipline to those who expect to pay a large fee at the beginning of the year and then pay no more for their motoring. In other words, there would be payment at the point of use, as there is on the railways. Is that not part of the integrated transport approach?

Lord Whitty: My Lords, it is precisely the aim, on the one hand, to discourage some use of the road network and, on the other, to provide resources to develop alternatives. To precisely which roads those aims will apply depends on subsequent decisions by both central and local government.

Baroness Hamwee: My Lords, does the Minister agree that, perhaps conversely to the implication of the Question, there is no evidence to cause a reassessment of the view that road building increases congestion and road movements in the corridor of a new road? Does the Minister accept on behalf of these Benches and the many victims of a number of rail companies who have been delayed unconscionably in their journeys that they very much look forward to a strategic rail authority which means that they can comfortably and with reliability use the railways and not be subject to road congestion?

Lord Whitty: My Lords, I very much welcome the support of the noble Baroness in her latter point. As to road building, the Government contend that although some road improvement and road building are required, simply to build more roads is not the solution to congestion; rather the reverse.

Baroness Knight of Collingtree: My Lords, can the Minister inform the House when the Government intend to start building the bypasses and making the changes that have been promised but so far have not transpired?

Lord Whitty: My Lords, a programme of works was announced in July, and in December I gave the start date of the majority of the schemes. A number are still subject to public consultation and possibly public inquiry. However, the start date for the majority is now available and I shall write to the noble Baroness.

Heathrow Airport: Fifth Terminal

3.15 p.m.

The Earl of Kinnoull asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Whether a planning inquiry procedure that has so far taken four years is a satisfactory way of examining in public the Terminal 5 project at Heathrow Airport.

Lord Whitty: My Lords, the inquiry into the proposed Fifth Terminal at Heathrow, which is

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considering 37 planning applications and orders, is one of several inquiries held into major infrastructure proposals in the past decade or so. I appreciate the frustration felt by many at the length of such inquiries. The Modernising Planning policy statement made in July 1998 reiterated the Governments's manifesto commitment to simplify and speed up the planning process for major infrastructure projects of vital national interest. We are considering a variety of options and will publish our proposals in a consultation paper in the near future.

The Earl of Kinnoull: My Lords, while thanking the Minister for that reply, I am sure he agrees that four years for any public inquiry and a further two years for the inspector to write his report is an exceptional period of time. It will be six years before the Minister has even an opportunity to decide what to do. Does he agree that since airport inquiries are very contentious it would be of tremendous value if the Government introduced a national airports policy for guidance? Can he say what the inquiry has cost the public purse, both central government and local government, to date?

Lord Whitty: My Lords, on the last point the cost to central government is approximately £9 million to date. I understand that a more or less equivalent amount has been expended by local government. I agree with the noble Earl that this inquiry has taken an incredibly long time. That is why we are looking at streamlining and simplifying the procedures. As to a general airports policy, we need to take into account the outcome of this inquiry but then intend to develop an overall airports policy for public discussion. Noble Lords will have an opportunity to debate aspects of that policy in about 10 days' time.

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