HC Deb 10 March 1971 vol 813 cc540-54

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr.Fortescue.]

9.1 p.m.

Mr. William Hamling (Woolwich, West)

I am glad to be able to raise at a reasonably early hour the problem of traffic in London, particularly South-East London, and the problem of commuting. I am grateful to the Under-Secretary of State not only for his attendance but for his courtesy in having a chat with me before the debate. I wish to begin by saying one or two words about the larger question of transport in our major cities, particularly London, and then particularise on the points that I raise.

For many years the centres of our large cities have been denuded of people. More people are going to live on the outskirts and rely on various forms of transport to get to the centres to work. Extreme examples of this sort of development are to be found in the cities of the United States and Canada, and especially in the centre of New York. Manhattan, which is the commercial centre of New York, is almost completely devoted to business and not to living. Many people go there perhaps to enjoy themselves, but an increasing number of people who are concerned in the business and commercial life of Manhattan do not live there. They live many miles away. Any visitor to Manhattan will see the development which is possible in this country in a very short time. I ask the Government to face this possibility and to deal with it in a realistic and forward-looking way.

Most people who work in the centre of London do not live there or anywhere near it. Thousands and thousands of them live outside the centre. Many of them live in my constituency—in Eltham, Mottingham, Sidcup and places like that. We are facing the breakdown of the public transport system. This has already happened in some of the major cities of the United States. In many parts of England it was far easier for people to travel around in 1870 than it is for non-motorists to do so in 1970: for example, people living in Merseyside who want to travel to the country areas of North Wales. It is a remarkable feature of modern life in Britain that it is almost impossible for a non-motorist to travel easily distances of more than 20 or 30 miles.

Our system of public transport is no longer financially viable, and I want to know what is the Government's policy on this. We have seen how public transport has gone in the United States. Are we to go the same way here Twenty years ago the railway authorities were inviting people to live in the suburbs because the air was cleaner and there was ample public transport to take them to work, and we know now the result of that.

During the last 20 years fares have trebled. With the recent increases some fares will go up by 20 per cent., and this is at a time when the Government have said that wages should not rise by more than 8 per cent. How will people be able to pay these increased fares when their incomes are being pegged by Government policy? I do not intend to indict the Southern Region of British Railways, which faces an almost impossible situation, but while the fares have gone up there has been no improvement in the services.

The recent fares increases arise almost entirely from the Government's decision to eliminate the social grant for London and South-East passenger services by 1973. I have received a letter from the Southern Region of British Railways on this matter which shows that although British Railways are doing their best, and have been doing their best for a long time, the major reason for the increase in fares is the policy of the Government. The region is gearing itself to carry out this Government policy, and the general manager says that the policy is capable of fulfilment without widespread discontent only if expenditure on investment can be continued. I am not sure that even that is possible. The general manager also says that if a proportion of the passengers now using the Southern Region commuter services reverted to the use of personal transport the impact on the road system would be intolerable and the cost of alleviating the position would be a tremendous burden on the community.

The Government take the view that progressively London and the South-East should be made independent of grant, and that by 1973 the railways in this area must pay their way. Will the Government tell us exactly where they stand on this and what the people of South-East London in particular and London in general must face?

We know that in South-East London there is a need for new services, not fewer services. Yet if the Government policy means anything it means that public transport is to take an even bigger blow. But as fares go up as a result of these decisions more and more people will leave the railways and decide to use their cars, or to use somebody else's car. This will only mean added congestion, added inconvenience and more danger to the public, and the system of public transport, particularly the railways, will fall into disuse. What we need in South-East London—and I personally have advocated this for a long time in the House—is new services, particularly tube trains, at reduced cost to keep people off the roads.

I will say something about cost, particularly social cost. The costs of providing transport in London or in any major city cannot be viewed in purely commercial terms. The general manager of Southern Region has estimated that a private motorist who travels some 10,000 miles a year pays 4p or more a mile, whereas if he travels by rail on a season ticket it costs him about two-thirds of a new penny per mile.

What is the Government's view about the soda' costs which are involved? What about the cost of more and more motor cars on the roads of London. What about the effects on the public at large, particularly pedestrians? What about the cost in terms of pollution, and so on? People have been forced more and more to use private transport. The toll of accidents is intolerably heavy. If we are to save life and injury we should be trying to persuade people to leave their cars at home and to travel by public transport. But what we have seen as a result of these latest steps is that people are not being encouraged to use public transport but to do the opposite.

What is Government policy in this matter? Do they want to see more people using motor cars in London? Do they wish to see more accidents on the roads? Do they wish to see fewer people using public transport? Do they want to see more money having to be spent on road alterations, road widening, and so on, and thus make the lives of people who live alongside our roads even more intolerable than they are at present?

Part and parcel of this question of the consideration of the future of public transport in London is the question of motorways. As the House knows, four motorways are planned for my constituency in an area of half a square mile. The mind boggles at the outrage to the lives of ordinary people in Eltham when viewed against that prospect. The decision of the Government that public transport should be made to stand on its own feet will mean that the coming of these motorways will be more certain than otherwise it might be. Yet, since I understand that something like £2,000 million will be spent on this network of motorways in London, when one considers the social and physical costs, it becomes apparent that if the same sum were devoted to improving and providing alternative means of public transport, the job could be done a lot quicker and more satisfactorily.

I hope that we shall hear from the Minister some coherent view of the Government's policy in respect of transport in London, private and public, and how the two will be married together, if a marriage between those two unlikely partners is possible. I hope that we shall hear the Government's view about the future of public transport in London and whether they really envisage the possibility of its ever being able to stand on its own feet. I hope that we shall hear their views about the social costs of transport, about fares policy, and about whether it is not perhaps desirable at some future date deliberately to encourage low fares in order to persuade people to leave their cars at home and travel by public transport. For example, why should not we have a standard fare throughout our Underground system? A moderate fare of perhaps 10p might encourage people to use public transport.

In any event, there should be more tubes in South-East London. As the Minister knows, at present there is no tube beyond the Elephant, and the only plan about which we hear is the one to extend the Fleet Line to Lewisham. Beyond Lewisham there are vast regions of South-East London. There is the whole of the London Borough of Greenwich, with some 280,000 people. There is the projected new town development at Thamesmead which is left entirely outside the plan. To what are the people of this part of London to look forward? They look at a map of London Transport and see themselves nowhere on it. As a result of this debate, I hope that we shall have a more satisfactory view of the whole future of London's transport.

9.18 p.m.

Mr. Tom Driberg (Barking)

Though it would have been extremely agreeable, for once, to be able to go home at 9 o'clock, I am glad that my hon. Friend has been able to raise this matter on the Adjournment at a time when a few more of us can intervene briefly. I say that because I shall not spend very long on this speech. I wish merely to make a few points, most of them related to my own constituency.

Over the years, the most intractable problem which has been brought to me again and again by constituents is that of commuters from further out who come to work in the City or the centre of London but park their cars all day in the suburbs. I am sure that other hon. Members representing suburban constituencies have had the same problem, thought it seems to be particularly acute in Barking.

I will wait for the Minister to finish his conversation because I want him to know about this.

The local council has provided ample free car-parking space, yet, every day, thousands of selfish commuters ignore the car parks, dump their cars in residential streets to the great inconvenience of the residents, and then take public transport to central London. The cars are parked there all day. It is not illegal, because they are not streets with meters, double yellow lines, or anything like that. It is not illegal, but it causes a great nuisance. I know that the council and many of my constituents who live in such streets are extremely indignant about it.

I do not expect an answer tonight, because I have not given notice, but I should be extremely grateful if the Minister could give us some advice on how to steer—obviously we cannot compel—these selfish commuters into the car parks so generously provided for them.

The District Line Underground service, at any rate, has worsened substantially in recent months. I do not know whether is it a consequence of the transfer to the G.L.C. of these transport services. Many of my constituents who use the District Line to go to and from work in London suffer greatly from delays which have been attributed—I have corresponded with London Transport about it—to shortage of recruits to the service. No doubt that is a continuous problem. But I wonder whether anything more is being done to improve recruitment to London Transport so that the delays are not quite so intolerable as they have been. Some months ago a somewhat egregious announcement was put out by London Transport, to the effect that it was now hoped to be able to make the service more regular and dependable by halving it, so that the trains would run every 20 minutes instead of every ten minutes, or whatever the period was. I did not think that that was an announcement of a great improvement.

Besides the commuters from further out, whom I have mentioned, there are tens of thousands, I suppose, who drive their cars into Central London. This is not a constituency problem of mine; it is a general problem of the whole of London—Central London in particular. It really is a scandal that, as people involved in public transport often say, every morning and every evening at the rush hours one can see literally thousands of cars, each one with just one person in it, the driver, clogging up the roads, blocking the traffic, and making traffic jams even worse.

I do not know what the Government or the Department can do about it, but I am fairly sure that ultimately there will have to be a ban on all private car transport coming into and leaving Central London at rush hour periods. It may be a difficult thing to operate. In a sense, it may be an infringement of the freedom of motorists, but private motorists coming into London at the rush hour are really infringing the freedom of thousands more people to get to work in time by public transport. Obviously there would have to be exceptions—doctors on their way to urgent cases, and so on. That in itself creates more problems—making exceptions to a general rule. But something will have to be done in the next few years to check the over-use of private car transport into and out of London—at peak hours, at any rate.

Public transport, of course, must be improved. I do not mean only the buses, but any public transport. I include taxicabs, which, on the whole, do an admirable job extremely efficiently. It is the taxi-cab drivers, who are excellent drivers, who are most impeded and inhibited by private car users, not all of whom are such good drivers as the taxi and bus drivers.

I do not know whether the Minister will be able to say anything about this general problem of Central London tonight. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will at least tell us that it is being "closely studied", to use one of the jargon clichés of Government Departments—under any Government, of course.

The other commuters of whom I spoke, those from further out who park their cars in residential streets in my constituency, often park bumper to bumper. I have been told that there is an old Act which prescribes that cars shall be parked with half a car length between them. Great inconvenience and sometimes damage is caused to my constituents by these selfish motorists, who sometimes even park across the front of private garages. This is most infuriating.

My final word is a general, but unfortunately not an urgent, reflection. It is that the whole concept of making public services such as transport "pay their way" is absolutely futile and mythical. This is not a party issue. The error was first made by the post-war Labour Government in their Transport Act, in which they provided that publicly-owned transport must pay its way, "taking one year with another"—a phrase which I never understood and which I do not suppose this Conservative Minister can help us with. It was an idiotic phrase and an idiotic concept.

Of course, the proper ultimate solution is that all public transport should be totally free at the time of use, just as the roads are and just as the National Health Service used to be and should be. That is a long-term prospect, of course, because there would have to be negotiations with the unions and other interested parties. It would be an economical prospect, in the end: it would save an enormous amount of money. But I mention that only as a final short reflection on the great misfortunes which are afflicting my constituents.

9.28 p.m.

Mr. Nigel Spearing (Acton)

I understand the circumstances of tonight's debate, and I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Woolwich, West (Mr. Hamling) for initiating it. The concern expressed in the House is in inverse proportion to the concern expressed in London as a whole. I understand that only one-eleventh of these fare rises is to contribute towards increased costs. I believe that the rest is due to Government policy. That is the distinctive nature of these fare rises compared with many other fare and price rises.

I know that we do not wish to play upon party differences on these occasions, so I should like to look at our problem of commuting in London and the problem of British Rail in and around London and South-East England rather more objectively, so that we may have the facts at our fingertips.

I understand from British Rail that the cost of the services in the South-East, which is roughly from Bournemouth to somewhere near Harwich, including the London commuter networks, is about £120 million a year. That is a global total. If we add approximately £50 million a year for the London Underground, we get a figure of about £170 million global annual running costs. This is relatively good value for money, because this is perhaps the most important rail network of its kind in the world.

As the G.L.C. has pointed out, rarely does one find in an urban set-up such a wide network feeding into such a small area as Central London. The figures for Southern Region show that of its total traffic 60 per cent. is handled in the peak, 25 per cent. at off-peak times during the week and only 15 per cent.—I assume including holiday traffic—on Saturdays and Sundays. This gives an indication of the degree to which the network is not dedendent on, but is largely taken up with, work trips to London and urban centres outside the metropolis.

One must bear in mind, however, that the network is there, that a lot of the overheads and all the equipment are there all the time. It is, therefore, available for people to use at times other than when they are part of the main work traffic. That is a factor of which the present commercial structure of fares has not taken full account.

An increase of £10 million placed on the fare-paying public using this network will, for Southern Region—this region may be rather more "peaked" than the rest—put about £6 million a year on the fares of work journeys. If my arithmetic is correct, that comes to about £500,000 a month, which is a considerable net increased cost per day. This is an extra charge on the functioning of London as an economic unit, and this is one of the most important points to bear in mind about the network.

The importance of this network for the economic purpose of work has not been overlooked by the G.L.C. It has made this plain in its present evidence to the Greater London Development Plan Inquiry, which is now proceeding across the river, and it is clear that this network must be maintained. The all-important question is: how should it be paid for?

The Secretary of State for the Environment, answering a Question of mine not long ago, made it clear that his Department has the whole question of grants to urban transport services under review. He also made it clear that he was concerned not just with capital grants for new track or routes but also with grants —perhaps I should qualify this by saying that he did not exclude the possibility—for new equipment and the renewal of rolling stock.

The Government have made it plain that it is their policy not to subsidise. The Question, therefore, which I put to the Government in this respect is an important one. If they are prepared to subsidise by providing grants—it is difficult to decide the point at which a subsidy ends and a grant begins—for the network as a whole, and are prepared to provide for capital work and the replacement of existing equipment—in other words, to contribute towards the total cost of the upkeep of the network—why are they not prepared, in the interim period, to maintain the grant or subsidy for the direct support of fares which the Labour Government initiated and maintained?

I appreciate that it would be easy for the Government to arrive at a new policy and say, "We do not believe in direct subsidies for fares, but we do believe in supporting this important network, which is largely taken up with the economic purposes of supporting central London, by grants—maintenance and capital grants—of various sorts". But we have not had such a policy from the Government. We are still waiting for it. Instead, they have produced a policy which the Chancellor outlined last November in "New Policies for Public Spending". I doubt whether the effects of that were worked out in terms of the increased fares that must be paid by the fare-paying passengers.

Some of the passengers from my constituency travelling from Ealing Broadway to Edgware Road will have their quarterly season tickets increased from £13 15s. to £17 15s. by the end of the month. This is an increase of over 30 per cent. Impositions of this sort, suddenly, without the Government having looked at the total picture are illogical. However, we are told that the Government are beginning to produce a policy of support. I hope that the Minister will give an indication of why this is so, and tell us when we can expect a Government statement about support for urban transport, to which we are told the Government are committed.

Finally, I hope that the Minister will give an undertaking that he will initiate an inquiry into the whole way in which we pay for this very important network. In view of its under-use at off-peak times and at weekends, will the Minister con- sider looking at the commercial structure of how we pay for it?

One hundred years ago we were worried about how we paid for our drains. Today public transport, rail and road, is all of a piece. With £2,000 million committed as a possibility by the Minister's friends across the river for new London roads, cannot we with logic ask the Government to look at the whole question of paying for this most important network? Unless this is done, the policy the Minister has put forward, and the fare rises which will affect the constituents of my hon. Friends and myself, will not be accepted. The policy is incoherent and illogical, and we hope for something better very soon.

9.36 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Michael Heseltine)

The hon. Member for Woolwich, West (Mr. Hamling) introduced the debate in a most moderate and responsible manner. We must get to grips with the problems which arise from the transfer of London commuter policy and which underlie the anxiety which was mentioned by the hon. Member for Acton (Mr. Spearing) and referred to by the hon. Members for Woolwich, West and for Barking (Mr. Driberg).

The policy that the commuting network should be brought to a break-even position is a policy of the last Government. It was clearly set out in the White Paper, "Transport in London", published in July, 1968. The hon. Member for Acton was not then in the House, but the Government, of which presumably lie would have been proud to be a supporter if they had won the last General Election, were committed in that White Paper to this policy: The London commuter area services will be treated as a network … The first overall objective will be to achieve viability for the network by the end of 1972 … Subject to the financial objectives, British Railways will themselves determine fares on the network. That is a total and absolute declaration of a policy by the Government which would presumably have continued to enjoy the support of hon. Members opposite.

In case anyone should for a moment have any anxieties or doubts whether the full implications of the Labour Government's policies were understood, I quote what the then Minister of Transport—the right hon. Member for Greenwich (Mr. Marsh)—said in 1968: … if the Railways Board is to fulfil its new financial remit market pricing must be the backbone of its pricing policy … There is no reason why the services should not he priced on the basis of what the market will bear … individual passenger fares … will doubtless be increased …"—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 30th May, 1968; Vol. 765, c. 2064.] That was the policy set out two years ago by the Labour Government.

The only effect that this Government have had on this policy is to phase out these subsidies, not by 1972, but by 1973; so the Conservative Government have helped commuters where the Labour Government did not do so.

Mr. Hamling

I hope that the hon. Gentleman recognises that I have spoken on this subject several times in the House and on every occasion expressed the sentiments which I expressed in my speech tonight.

Mr. Heseltine

It is now an immense luxury for hon. Members opposite to say that they did not support the policies of the last Government. That was the policy that the last Government spelled out. London commuters understood what the Labour Government intended to do and what their announced policies were. The Conservative Government have modified those policies by phasing out the increases over an extra year.

It was also the policy of the last Government to hand over responsibility for transport policies in London very largely to the G.L.C. This was widely recognised as being a sensible way of coordinating all the decisions in the hands of one responsible authority.

The hon. Member for Barking talked about commuters, but I know and he must know that the local authority responsible has all the powers it needs to deal with people who park their cars on its streets. If parking areas are empty, it is up to the local authority to do something about it, and if the G.L.C. wants to do something about it, Section 33 of the Transport (London) Act, 1969, gives it power to deal with parking problems on or off the streets. The powers are there and it is for the local authorities to use them, and it is not up to me to explain the Government's policy. It is for the local authorities to get on with it, and they have the power to do so.

Mr. Driberg

I did not realise that the hon. Gentleman would treat this as a sort of party debate and make such aggressive partisan remarks, or my own remarks would have been somewhat different. He may remember, if he was listening at the time—I know that he did not listen much, because of his conversations—that I said that the initial error on paying the way for transport lay with the post-war Labour Government. I was not treating it as a party matter.

Mr. Heseltine

I have no doubt that the post-war Labour Government made their mistakes, too. But what I am not prepared to do is to listen to the bland assumption of the hon. Member for Acton and the hon. Member for Woolwich, West that it was the present Government which decided to impose the hardship on commuters.

Mr. Driberg

I did not make that assumption.

Mr. Heseltine

I deliberately excluded the hon. Member when I pointed to his two hon. Friends. It is intolerable that I should be asked to listen to Labour Members assuming that this was something that my Government did; it was not; it was done by a preceding Government, and let us be clear about that.

Mr. Spearing rose

Mr. Heseltine

I will not give way now; I have already given way several times.

Whether the London Transport Executive should pay its way, whether the District Line is more or less efficient or is producing a service which people want, and whether parking in the boroughs is right or wrong, are all matters for the G.L.C. or the local boroughs concerned. They are not the responsibility of the Government in Whitehall. This is part of our determination that devolution, which the Government have widely advocated, should be put into prac1ice. It is for the local authorities to exercise their powers, and I wish them all good fortune.

However, I do not want to leave the position simply by saying that it is a matter for the local authorities, and I should like to mention the global position of the nation's transport problems in the cities. The hon. Member for Acton and the hon. Member for Woolwich, West know that we are taking a wide look at the whole problem of how to match investment in various forms of transport in the cities with one demand competing against another. It is a highly complicated situation.

The hon. Member for Barking spoke of transport being free, but that is to make the assumption that we know how to make judgments in the absence of a pricing mechanism. No one knows how to measure what the return should be and how to measure one return from one investment against the return from another. There is a whole range of complicated mathematical models which one can study, but no one can say that he knows what sort of investment in roads, for instance, would he better than an investment in buses, if both were serving complementary or even competing demands. The Government are considering whether there is a step forward which can be taken to help local authorities, a way in which to assist people to move easily in and out of the cities to and from work or whatever it may be.

There are two answers to what has been said tonight. The first is that the vast majority of the questions which have been raised are matters in which the Government have no responsibility, matters which are for the local authority. Secondly, we are interested in seeing what can be done in the totality of the problem, and studies and consultations are going on to see whether any adjustment may be made in national policies. However, it would not be appropriate for me to add anything beyond that at the moment. It is a complicated and substantial problem. As soon as we have anything, if we have anything, to say, the hon. Member for Woolwich, West may be sure that we shall publish it.

Mr. Driberg

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. As the hon. Member, although he has plenty of time, has refused to give way to my hon. Friend the Member for Acton (Mr. Spearing) and has repudiated responsibility for all except about 1 per cent. of the matters raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Woolwich, West (Mr. Hamling), is it not rather a pity that this Adjournment debate was deemed to be in order at all?

Mr. Speaker

I am not sure of the relevance of that now.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at a quarter to Ten o'clock.