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House of Lords

Wednesday, 12th December 2001.

The House met at half-past two of the clock: The LORD CHANCELLOR on the Woolsack.

Prayers—Read by the Lord Bishop of Southwark.

London Traffic: Congestion Charging

Lord Renton of Mount Harry asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Whether they consider that the plans of the Mayor for London to improve traffic flow in London are workable.

Lord Filkin: My Lords, the Government and the Mayor both recognise that traffic congestion is a problem in London. Indeed, the Government have a public service agreement target to reduce congestion in large urban areas below current levels by 2010. The Mayor's plans to tackle congestion are outlined in his transport strategy and his particular scheme of congestion charging is currently the subject of consultation in London. It is the responsibility of the Mayor to satisfy himself that his particular plans to improve traffic flow are workable. This morning the department received his plan for spending the net proceeds of the charging scheme.

Lord Renton of Mount Harry: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that Answer but does he not think that he has ducked my Question very successfully? I asked him whether or not the Government think that the Mayor's plans are workable. Of course, I know that the matter is the Mayor's responsibility, but surely the Government should also have some responsibility for it. If the scheme to charge people a fee for entering the central area of London in a car is introduced next year at much the same time as the whole of Trafalgar Square is closed and the streets around it are pedestrianised, are we not likely to see some of the largest traffic queues ever in London? Might it not be sensible, therefore, for the Government to move with the Mayor to bring in a much stricter veto on the holes which are constantly being dug in London's main streets by utility after utility?

Lord Filkin: My Lords, the noble Lord economically asked about seven questions in one, but I shall seek to focus on the central one. The 1999 Act placed the responsibility for transport in London clearly on the Mayor and on Transport for London. The Government's responsibilities in that respect are basically to approve the proposals he puts forward for using the net proceeds of the charging when and if it is imposed. Having said that, one would expect the Mayor to be alive to the importance of getting this right in the sense that he does not need me to remind him that he will face an election as Mayor shortly afterwards. I believe that it is one of the largest

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schemes of congestion charging that has ever been attempted in the world. Clearly, substantial technical, administrative and traffic management issues will have to be addressed by the Mayor before he makes his decision in February next year whether or not to proceed with his current timetable.

Baroness Scott of Needham Market: My Lords, can the Minister tell the House whether there is any substance in the press speculation that the Government are to drop their plans for a PPP for the Tube in exchange for the Mayor dropping his plans for a congestion charge?

Lord Filkin: My Lords, I know of no such plans or proposals. I believe that the Government are currently considering three proposals from the private sector for the three major contracts to modernise the Tube, which, as the House well knows, should bring in some #13 billion worth of investment over the next 15 years, equivalent to #4,000 expenditure for every family in London. Although these issues interconnect, I do not think for a second that they are tradable.

Lord Swinfen: My Lords, the Minister has still not said whether the Government consider that the Mayor for London's plans are workable. Do the Government consider them to be workable or do they consider them to be unworkable?

Lord Filkin: My Lords, the Government have not given a view on that because one does not devolve powers and then seek to second-guess authorities to which the powers are devolved. The Mayor is well aware of his obligations under the Act. The Government have set out in their guidance to local authorities elsewhere in the country what criteria need to be met before the Government will give approval to their schemes. However, in London, the Mayor makes that decision subject to the one caveat I mentioned to the noble Lord who asked the Question. Obviously, there are discussions at high level between the various bodies, but the responsibility rests fundamentally with the Mayor to judge whether he has a sound scheme and whether it is ready to be implemented. The Government broadly support congestion charging, but it has to be done well for it to be effective.

Lord Renton: My Lords, it may help to reach a decision in this matter if I mention that I live 70 miles north of London and that it is quicker and cheaper for me to drive myself from door to door rather than travel by train. On the previous occasion I did that I had to wait 40 minutes at King's Cross for a taxi.

Lord Filkin: My Lords, I am sure that the whole House will share the concern that any noble Lord, but particularly the noble Lord, Lord Renton, should be so delayed. He raises an important issue; namely, that it is not simply a matter of congestion charging. There is a range of measures to tackle the intractable problems of major congestion in London. I refer to the London bus initiative which I shall not discuss in

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detail. My next point is more relevant to the noble Lord's question. A high level group comprising my right honourable friend the Minister for Transport, the Mayor and the Strategic Rail Authority are considering how significant improvements can be made to rail links into London, both by making the existing franchises work significantly better by such obvious measures as having spare drivers, spare trains and more back-up capacity so that if something goes wrong it does not become critical, and by considering major new potential investment schemes such as the east London crossing, both north and south, CrossRail and Thameslink.

Lord Cobbold: My Lords, does the noble Lord agree that congestion charging would disadvantage those least able to pay?

Lord Filkin: No, my Lords, I do not agree with that. Those least able to pay are in practice those who are reliant on bus travel for getting around in London. Currently, the level of congestion in London and the lack of adequate priority for buses significantly disadvantages them. I believe that the range of measures to improve bus transport will be considerable. Noble Lords will be delighted to hear that some 800 buses will be fitted with cameras to photograph bus lane infringements. There will be priority improvement measures for 21 bus routes and a range of other measures will seek to raise our bus system to the level that is necessary. That will ensure that those who are most disadvantaged have better transport in London.

Lord Borrie: My Lords, does the Minister agree that in the London area, unless there is a combination in the next five to 10 years of successful plans for congestion charging and improved public transport, we shall have serious gridlock at all rush hours on the model of Tokyo?

Lord Filkin: My Lords, I agree with the point that my noble friend made in the first part of his question—that it is crucial to have an integrated approach to the various elements. If we do not have such an approach, I do not know whether we would experience gridlock, but I trust that that will not be the case.

Noble Lords will be aware that traffic speeds in London have reduced by some 3 miles an hour during the daytime off-peak period from what they were 30 or so years ago. Traffic volumes in central London will increase by at least 15 per cent over the next 15 years. Carrying on as we are is therefore not adequate. That is why the Government's 10-year strategy set out a range of measures to address the problem. For the record, there is substantial agreement between the Mayor, TfL and the 10-year strategy about what needs to be done to improve London's transport system in relation to most, if not all, of the issues. The challenge is to get the implementation right.

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Lord Montagu of Beaulieu: My Lords, I urge on the Mayor the wisdom of making some of the schemes experimental, so that when they go wrong, as they definitely will, there will be much better opportunities to alter them.

Lord Filkin: My Lords, there is sense in the advice that the noble Lord offers. To some extent, that is what is happening in other areas of traffic management and transport improvement. For example, the London Borough of Camden is currently piloting a system for lane rentals before such a scheme is extended more widely—if the Government feel that that is necessary. I should have thought, however, that it would be difficult to pilot congestion charging in relation to part of the system because, as we know, it is the central area in its totality that is the problem area. That puts even more emphasis on the importance of ensuring that planning and preparation are well founded and not rushed in any respect.

Earl Ferrers: My Lords, if there is congestion in London, why do the powers that be deliberately add to it? I give the example—I raised this with the Minister the other day—of all the side-roads around Westminster and Victoria, which are being dug up and frantic and uncomfortable humps are put in them. Wherever there is a straight piece of road, it is immediately made smaller because the pavement is extended into it. Is that the responsibility of the council or the Mayor? If it is not the Government's responsibility, will the Minister breathe down the necks of whoever is responsible and tell them to stop it?

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