HC Deb 27 March 1990 vol 170 cc345-64 12.40 am
Mr. Nigel Spearing (Newham, South)

This is a notable day for London. This afternoon, the Secretary of State for Transport made what I believe will prove to be a turning-point statement in the history of transport and, indeed, strategic planning in our capital city. I hope that it will bring to an end nearly 25 years of controversy on the subject of major road building in London.

In 1973, the Greater London council elections were fought largely on the issue of the ringways—the then motorway box. A cartoon in The Guardian showed a large centipede-like creature—representing a motorway—crunching up houses and gardens but being killed by an insecticide spray with "Ballot Box" written on it. That was the issue at the election. This afternoon's statement was the result of the majority party of what remains of the GLC—in effect, London Members—persuading their Government that the public would not put up with the proposals, which ostensibly came from consultants but which really came from the Department of Transport. The Minister for Roads and Traffic shakes his head, but it is unlikely that a request for the consultants would otherwise have been made.

In the old days, the GLC professional transport planners would have been asked to provide green schemes for the GLC committees to discuss. That did not happen in this case. The expenditure of large sums of public money was involved and we now know the result. The tragedy is that, having now accepted a policy of bulk public transport in London, with necessary road engineering and supplementary travel by private car, the Government find that they have destroyed the only agency that was capable of putting such a balance into effect. We must start from scratch.

I hope to draw to the attention of the House some of the issues which the Government must examine—and which, alas, this House must examine because we have no other democratic London-wide assembly. There are more London Members than Scottish Members, and this is the only place where we can debate such matters.

The demise of the GLC meant the end of proper strategic planning in London. Although the road proposals have been defeated, there is no proper strategic planning. The Government must do something about that. For Canary wharf, there was no public inquiry and no statutory procedure other than a private railway Bill. It is the lack of strategic planning in London which has caused the crop of private Bills that has delayed the legitimate business of the House. The Redbridge London Borough Council Bill may not sound like a planning Bill, but it deals with the expansion of retail marketing. The GLC had a plan to integrate industry, retail outlets, places for people to live, and places for people to work. It was a coherent strategy. Without that, everything is up for grabs. Those who want office development or retail areas will try, by hook or by crook, to get them.

Officially, the strategic plan for London now consists of the strategic plans for all the boroughs shoved together like a lot of jigsaw pieces. That is no good for any city, let alone the capital of the United Kingdom, but it is what the Government have produced. It is little wonder that even developers are saying that the Government have got it wrong. The Guardian yesterday carried the headline: Private sector snub for rail cash hopes". The article quotes Stanhope Properties, a well-known development company, as having said: The Government seems to be waiting for the hidden hand of the market to solve its problems, instead of producing a framework by which the public sector and private sector can work together to provide the solution. Stanhope Properties say that this has to change, yet they are the sort of people whom the Government profess to represent. Even the developers are saying that there must be a proper structure to deal with these matters.

In the old days, when I was a co-opted member of the GLC planning and highways committee, my colleagues and I complained that planning permission was put in a drawer and used as currency. That was pretty bad, but at least there was some sort of coherent planning—coherent because it was based on a London-wide scheme. We must get back to that. The Government, having decided their transport strategy, have a responsibility to get on with the job.

I wish to deal quite rapidly with one or two issues in this context. I shall point out the Government's shortcomings and what must be done to rectify them. I assure the Minister that I should be saying the same things even if the Government were of my own party. Indeed, national Governments have not performed very well in respect of the matters that I want to draw to the attention of the House.

First, there is the perennial problem of traffic congestion in London. Year after year, for the past 50 or 60 years, people have been saying that London is grinding to a halt. In a leading article in The Times not long ago, Mr. Joynson-Hicks, a former Home Secretary, said that one of his most difficult tasks had been dealing with traffic congestion in London. The point is that any road space available will fill up. That is partly why a roads policy such as was suggested by the Government would not work and they have realised that.

We must make the best use of the road space that is available. On 13 January 1989, at column 795 of the Official Report, I was told in a written answer that no records were kept of the reasons for, or incidence of, traffic congestion in London. We all know that specific things cause abnormal hold-ups. On 12 March 1990, in reply to another question, I was told that the police were considering whether it would be worth noting down the major incidents of congestion in London and, where known, the reasons for them.

That is remarkable. Many millions of pounds are spent on the traffic department of the Metropolitan police, which is funded by the Home Office. A whole section of that traffic department deals with London roads, yet the people there do not think it worth while to note major incidents of congestion, which some of us know very well. That is a stupid and misleading policy because there will always be congestion. Most of them will be caused by readily apprehensible reasons—road repairs, accidents, vehicle breakdowns, water or gas main bursts or failures, traffic light failures, shed loads, official events or demonstrations. Many of the perceivable incidents of congestion in London are due to one or some or a combination of those causes.

We can build as many roads as we like and have as many skilful traffic schemes as we like, but those causes are bound to occur. They are part of the technique of roads and to some extent they cannot be avoided. But the Government do not even try to prevent any of them. The Department of Transport will insist on closing the southbound lane of the Blackwall tunnel at weekends rather than at night. There are no police, no proper precautions appear to be taken and jams occur, although I have written about the matter. The same happens in west London. My hon. Friend the Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks) knows Hammersmith Broadway very well and the same problem occurs there. Years ago a policeman on point duty would have specifically sought to ensure that such incidents did not occur. The Government have not got their act together in London at all well on such matters.

Then we come to the vexed question, so far undiscussed in the House in any depth, of company cars—or rather, assisted travel. On 13 January 1989 I asked when we would have some results of the research that the Government were supposed to be undertaking into that, and I was told that it would be in a few months' time, but I have had no reply. On 20 March 1990 we were told that the final report is due in a few months' time. That seems to be taking a long time. Yet we all know that a high proportion of car use in London is by people who are not paying for it themselves. I suppose that Members of Parliament come into that category, although hon. Members know that it is not often that I come into that category.

Greenpeace has just issued a report saying that subsidies can be up to £2 a day for a Sierra and £7 a day for a Rolls-Royce, and people can do more or less what they like. It says that about one in three vehicles in London has some form of company ownership or support. But if we go further into the matter and ask how many of those are cases of assisted cost, some people say four out of five. Even the Government estimate that 2 million cars in Britain come into that category and there may be 3 million to 4 million in total. Therefore, the proportion of vehicle miles in London run by motor cars that are assisted in their movement is very high.

I hope that the Greenpeace report will be taken into account. It estimates that £1,000 million is lost to the Government in national insurance payments because, as we all know, many people have a car with their job which adds to their effective income. By coincidence, I tabled a question today about that very matter. In many cases a car is advertised as a perk of a job, but it is not subject to national insurance payments. Compared with our industrial rivals on the continent, car assistance in Britain adds to traffic congestion.

I am not one of those who advocate road pricing. That would only extend the vicious circle. Various firms and those who pay assisted travel costs would just pay the costs involved, and in any case I do not believe that it would be technically possible or socially desirable. If anyone is thinking of Hong Kong, I would say that the situation there is different from ours. They have buses, but they are often small minibuses. I do not object to those in the right places, but—

The Minister for Roads and Traffic (Mr. Robert Atkins)

British Leyland buses.

Mr. Spearing

They have both sorts. They have trunk routes, happily, with Leyland buses—I shall come to Leyland in a moment—but they have other sorts as well.

I hope that the Minister can assure us that there is no intention of extending minibus routes to the exclusion of the main trunk routes in London. They are increasing. In east London some do not even come under the aegis of London Regional Transport. In London we now have a bus service which is less comprehensive, gives less service to the public and lacks proper planning.

The Government have not yet said that they are not going ahead with privatisation and, worse still, with their planned deregulation. In view of their recent announcement about road plans, the proposals for privatisation and deregulation are even less appropriate than they were.

The public have won one victory—we have managed to retain buses with conductors in central London, and the Routemasters, which were supposed to be on the way out, are still with us.

I think that the Minister for Roads and Traffic comes from the Preston area, not far from the town of Leyland, where many buses originated. He should be discomfited to know that in London Regional Transport's official magazine not long ago LRT proudly said that it was going to re-engine the Routemasters, and was reported to be looking as far afield as Italy, Yugoslavia and even India. Unfortunately, they can no longer be built in London—the Southall works of AEC is an empty site, as is the Chiswick works, where they might have been re-engined. However, they could be built in Leyland, Lancashire. I see no reason why London should look abroad to re-engine its Routemaster buses. I hope that the Minister will consider that issue.

In the past few weeks we have heard, almost ad nauseam, that the Minister is considering either a Chelsea to Hackney tube line or the Liverpool Street to Paddington cross rail. Since none of the planned roads will now be built, the Minister has money to build both the tube and the rail link—and why not? The Government were going to spend a lot of money knocking down houses and building roads. Now that that option has been turned down, why can we not have both rail routes?

Some of the new rail routes that the Government boast about are not being put to good use. For example, in east London, the docklands light railway was originally meant to be used by the people of the area and to some extent that is still true, but people in east London cannot help noticing that the existing railway is not open at weekends and closes every night at 9 o'clock. Surely revamping cannot take two years. There is something wrong somewhere. The reliability of the railway has not earned a high reputation, although safety is probably all right. The London Arena, which is part of the famed docklands development in the West India docks, is not now served by the DLR because people leave after 9 o'clock—so much for transport co-ordination in new rail lines.

Today the Minister emphasised the needs of the people of south London, who have often wanted more underground services, and I understand why. South London has a good overground rail system but unfortunately the lines terminate at the London terminals. Many years ago the Greater London council had a plan for a cross rail scheme, not just from Paddington eastwards but joining Victoria and Euston. Another possible option for the Minister to consider is that as it is only a short distance from Victoria to Euston there could be a north-south cross rail so that many of the suburban lines of south London could go through central London and out the other side, just as the famed Thameslink does. That would be a relatively easy option and it would be good value for money.

A scheme which would be even better value for money, and which I advocated to the House some years ago when I was Member of Parliament for Acton, was the ring rail. There is only about a mile and a quarter gap between the electrified lines north and south of the river. If that gap were filled, we could create a complete fast rail ring around London which would join, among other places, Stratford, Willesden, Clapham Junction and New Cross. There could be variants of that route, but it would certainly relieve traffic congestion in central London as well as possibly giving some sort of alternative to the M25.

On Friday I had, if not the pleasure, at least the opportunity of pointing out what I regard as a major lacuna in safety on the Underground. I shall not repeat myself now, but I note that the managing director of London Underground, Mr. Tunnicliffe, says in today's Evening Standard: I have only one overriding priority: safety. I am afraid that I cannot agree. As I have said often enough, the extension of one-person operation on to London's older tube lines certainly increases hazard. I do not think that either Mr. Tunnicliffe or the Minister could disagree with that, although they may not agree with me that the increase is significant.

The Government have imposed economies on the transport authorities. Worst of all, they have imposed economies on staff numbers, and have damaged the staff morale that is so fundamental to any public service. They regard London's transport as a marketable commodity rather than an essential feature of city life.

I have sketched out several of the gaps in current policy, but the biggest gap is financial. We all know that the cost of travel in London has risen by markedly more than the cost-of-living index. As Secretary of State for Transport, the right hon. Member for Cirencester and Tewkesbury (Mr. Ridley) directed that the increase should be roughly in line with inflation. It is ironic that the right hon. Gentleman, who does not really believe in intervention, should intervene in a reasonable way in that regard. Since he left the Department of Transport, however, successive Secretaries of State have almost boasted that the cost of London's public transport—on both British Rail and London Regional Transport—will rise by more than the cost of living. That is a deliberately inflationary policy, notwithstanding the oft-repeated phrase of the Prime Minister and others at the Dispatch Box, "Above all, we must fight inflation." It will have such a major effect on the people of London that the Government will not be able to get away with it.

We often hear that London Transport in the 1930s set an example to the world, and indeed it did. One reason why that was possible was the co-operation between parties which produced the London Passenger Transport Board; another was the relatively low car ownership of those days, which allowed a rough balance to be struck between public and private transport.

We believe—the Government must surely come to the same conclusion—that that balance has been achieved in many capital cities throughout the world, particularly on the mainland of Europe, but it can be achieved only with adequate public finance, both capital and revenue. Without that finance, the result will be either an imbalance or the public paying more than they should.

The cost today of travelling between two London underground stations—a facility that is particularly important to people living in east London, who do not necessarily own cars—is either 50p or 70p. That is both illogical and anti-social. It is a policy of regression, which helps neither public transport nor the people involved—it merely reduces the taxpayer's subsidy, which is not particularly appropriate.

The Government have at last understood that building roads does not in itself solve transport problems, but they have dispersed the professional teams at County Hall—the only people capable of putting Humpty together again. I do not know whether it can be done just like that. There is a variety of organisations, including the roads unit in the Department of Transport. I presume that there is also a London and south-east railways unit, though it is not particularly visible. London Regional Transport is supposed to be the statutory authority for the co-ordination of transport, but it is in competition with British Rail, which has its own regions and Network SouthEast, which lies very uneasily with it. They, together with the 32 London boroughs and the City of London, provide the transport policy for London. There is no coherent and logical system for transport planning, although we need one urgently.

I put it to the Secretary of State, through the Minister for Roads and Traffic, that the Government must produce a coherent, understandable and, above all, democratically oriented organisation which at the very least is accountable to this House, for at last it appears that both sides agree about the strategy and the direction in which we wish to move.

Such an organisation needs a place in which to live. I can think of a vacant building not too far from here in which space should be reserved. In the not-too-distant future, the people of London—not to mention the people of Mid-Staffordshire—will show that they have rumbled the absence of policy and the negative policies of the Government as regards public services, not just transport but almost any other public service that one cares to name. The people of London will want the new Government to provide a democratically elected and accountable organisation to look after the strategic planning of London's transport. If the present Government do not recreate a body such as the Greater London council to administer transport in London—it is the only capital city in the world with no central planning strategy for transport—I know that the next Government will.

1.7 am

Mr. Tony Banks (Newham, North-West)

It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing). We represent a hard-pressed London borough, but we enjoy the great advantage that it is a Tory-free zone. It will remain that way after the 3 May elections, and the next Labour Government will give us the transport and social investment that east London so desperately needs.

The Secretary of State for Transport sounded a little miffed because we were not wholly grateful to him for his announcement yesterday. If one looks for gratitude in politics, one will look for ever. When he does the obvious, he can hardly expect us to fawn. He has spent £10 million of taxpayers' money on road assessment studies that I could have carried out for nothing, reaching exactly the same conclusion.

The consultants' recommendations were not the Government's recommendations. The consultants were given a working brief. If the Government had said that they were not in favour of larger roads and more roads around London, and if they had asked the consultants to consider the public transport aspects, the consultants would not have made the recommendations that they did. So they took their lead from the policy direction given by the Government, from the working brief that I am sure they were given by the Department of Transport, and came up with their proposals. But the Government have now wisely rejected them, and there are three reasons why the Government have done so.

First, there was massive public resistance to the roads proposals. We fought those proposals on many occasions, and that, among other things, cost the Tories the 1973 GLC elections. In particular, the public were opposed to the motorway box proposals. Londoners were never in favour of them. They are no more in favour of them in 1990 than they were in 1973.

Secondly, environmental issues in London, as elsewhere, are more to the fore now, and that must have influenced Government thinking when considering the assessment proposals.

Thirdly—and probably the most important—the Government realised the disastrous political consequences of proceeding with road schemes and making an announcement at about the time of the 3 May elections. There was some cynicism in that. I do not blame them. After all, only a stupid politician—there are plenty of them on the Government Benches, not necessarily present tonight—would be prepared to court political catastrophe. Conservatives are doing that now over poll tax.

I do not see the Secretary of State for Transport in that category. If I were giving credit tonight, I would give him credit for not wishing to fall on his own sword. The Government have enough problems with poll tax, mortgage levels and the whispering campaign against the Prime Minister without adding the problems associated with mass defections from the Tory party at the time of the local elections in London. Those three reasons caused the Goverment to have a change of heart.

We appreciate what the Secretary of State does not want. But we do not have a transport strategy for London. That is still missing after yesterday afternoon's announcement. We have transport decisions being driven by purblind political dogma. They believe in deregulation; and in the deregulation of buses, for example, we have chaos developing with commuter coaches coming into London. There are many feeder lines, causing coaches to go down side roads in an effort to avoid the jams on the main roads. That is causing chaos to parts of east London.

Opposition to bus lanes and lorry bans is all part of the ideological defects with which we are presented by the Government. We also have the short-term political considerations to which I referred, coupled with the question, "How many votes will be lost by various proposals, and how can we keep the really nasty bits of what we are doing in Labour boroughs?"

Another motivation for Government decisions in transport in London just now is how much they can get out of the private sector. A classic example of that is the Jubilee line extension proposal. Anybody who understands the transport requirements of London knows that the Jubilee extension is not, if looked at objectively, the highest priority for new investmemt. But because it is required by Olympia and York for Canary wharf, and because they are prepared to put up some money for it, the Government have been prepared to go along with them.

But, remember, Olympia and York is putting up only some money, and that amount is changing all the time. My figures show that originally the Government announced that Olympia and York would contribute £400 million to the Jubilee line extension, which had an estimated cost of £900 million. All that has changed. The cost of the Jubilee line extension is now put at £1 billion at 1988 prices, and by completion it will have risen to nearly £2 billion in outturn prices. Olympia and York will contribute only £100 million cash during the course of construction, with up to £300 million cash after completion in 1997.

It seems that its contribution has come down to about 15 per cent. of the total cost of the project. In other words, for that 15 per cent. we can have something put into London which would be good for us in Newham, but would we, for London as a whole, have gone for that investment?

Mr. Spearing


Mr. Banks

As my hon. Friend says, we would not: have chosen that. More pressing demands are being made on transport investment decisions in London. That is no way to run a capital city's transport system, and it is little wonder that people in this city are becoming angry and impatient with the Government.

It is no wonder that the Confederation of British Industry, in its recent report "The Capital at Risk", described transport in London as being in a "deplorable state". I shall carry on saying that, but that was also said by the CBI, a body to which the Government have paid some heed. The CBI estimated in that report that the cost to the nation of our inadequate transport system was about £15 billion per annum, of which £10 billion accrued in the south-east and no less than £7.5 billion in London alone. That is the scale of the problem in the capital city.

Everyone can see what the Government either cannot or will not see in terms of transport planning in London. We desperately need strategic planning for all modes of transport in London and the south-east. My hon. Friend the Member for Newham, South mentioned the past expertise at County Hall. We used to produce the transport in London plan which was a once-a-decade proposal. I have here the 1981 Greater London transport survey, and there were others in 1962 and 1971, which were carried out under Tory as well as Labour administrations at County Hall. We considered all modes of transport, which was our contribution to coherent transport planning in London.

That has all been thrown out of the window. Expertise has disappeared and transport is now left in the hands of private sector companies such as Olympia and York, which has become the transport planner for London because the Secretary of State and the Department of Transport have washed their hands of the responsibility. We know that coherent strategic planning in transport is necessary. That is the efficient way of doing things and that is what is done in other capital cities. That is precisely what is being rejected by the Government. My hon. Friend the Member for Newham, South quoted from a report which was described in The Guardian. I have the report itself, which was prepared by Stanhope Properties plc for the CBI. I shall continue my hon. Friend's quotation. The report, when talking about the present transport system in London, says: The Government will not be able to rely on securing private sector funds from developers and contractors to assist in financing an"— I suggest that the Minister listens to this because these comments are coming from the private sector and he is relying very much, as is the Secretary of State, on the private sector coming in to contribute heavy funding for transport investment decisions. The private sector is simply not prepared to be used in that way. I shall read the quotation again: The Government will not be able to rely on securing private sector funds from developers and contractors to assist in financing an uncoordinated transport programme; although better value may be achievable through private sector participation enhancing public spending. What is needed is an integrated planned transport system for London, encompassing roads, rail, ferries and air, encompassing the needs of passengers, goods and freight. That is what one of the largest developers in the capital city is saying to the Government. I hope that the Government listen. They do not listen to us, but at least they should listen to one of the largest developers in the capital city.

If one travels around Europe, as I am fortunate to be able to do as a member of the Council of Europe at the moment, one is able to contrast the transport systems in places such as Paris, Brussels, Rome and Strasbourg with that in London. I accept that we have one of the longest established and most extensive transport systems in the world, but that is no excuse for it to be so lousy. It should be a reason for us having now, after all those years, just about got it right. However, the comparisons are invidious and we always come out on the wrong side. We have a tacky, rundown, inefficient, unreliable, overcrowded and expensive transport system in London. Anyone who travels in London regularly on public transport or who uses the roads of London knows that to be a fact.

In many ways, customers on the public transport system in London are treated as though they were getting in the way of running an efficient system. I am sick of waiting for trains at Stratford or Forest Gate stations with the new game that British Rail has just invented on Network SouthEast. It is called "guess the length of the train". It is quite dangerous when one suddently realises that the train is one or two carriages shorter than one expected; all the people on the platform start running towards the shortened train. There is no indication. In the age of advanced computer technology, we still do not know whether the train will turn up or how long it will be. We are still not given the sort of announcements that allow one to make one's own decisions. It is an ineffective way of communicating. It is so appalling that at times it defies belief.

Roads in the capital city have deteriorated alarmingly in recent years. There are many reasons for this. One is that local authorities have broken away from the planned maintenance that they used to carry out, perhaps in many cases because they have been hit by expenditure cutbacks initiated by the Government. Then, of course, with deregulation, privatisation and various development schemes, one sees that the roads in our capital city are reaching an appalling state of dereliction.

I have put this to the Minister on a number of occasions through parliamentary questions and I have talked to his colleagues in the Department of the Environment about it. Because of privatisation, there are so many more bodies now that have a statutory right to dig up the roads. I wanted to know just how many there were, but unfortunately no one seemed to be able to tell me. One sees a lot of decent road—I have seen it in the east end, round the Romford road, at Forest Gate—just dug up, probably by the gas board. Then they put in that soft tarmacadam, which immediately sinks, the road deteriorates, it is right by a bus stop, puddles collect and people get splashed.

These are small points, but when they are taken together one realises that there is a lack of consideration, concern and co-ordination. People should not be allowed to dig up the road and then walk away, leaving it in a terrible state, until someone else comes along and digs up the same patch.

Where is the sense in all this? Surely someone must have some sort of computer model somewhere in London that could co-ordinate matters, but no one seems to care and no one seems to know. That is an indictment of this Government, since they have pooh-poohed the idea of strategic planning in London.

Developers do not pay the full cost of the developments that they undertake. It is all very well to say that this is part of the burgeoning economy, but when developers cause massive hold-ups round a site, morning after morning and evening after evening in the rush hour, they should be told that part of the development cost is the cost of disturbance to others in the locality and in London as a whole because of the traffic problems that are created. I am all for people paying costs, but I want to make sure that they pay all the costs and that there are no hidden subsidies.

The Government are drifting along, as ever, in terms of transport in London. As many of my hon. Friends have said, there is no coherence in transport planning in the capital city. Planning has become a dirty word in the political lexicon of the Tory party. Major decisions are left to pot luck and the market, with no proper evaluation of the schemes. We have myriad schemes at the moment and it is very bewildering and difficult to follow them all. They emerge one at a time, with no relevance to each other and with no coherent overall planning.

What is happening over the Channel tunnel and the decisions about the links to the tunnel is making us the laughing stock of Europe. The French do not behave like us in making major financial decisions. They cut across political boundaries in France. Why the hell cannot we cut through the obduracy of the Tory party? The Government are completely hidebound by their political antagonism to any form of public expenditure or coherent planning. What really annoys me is the petty-mindedness of the Tory party, led by the half-mad old bag lady in No. 10.

I cannot understand why the Government continue to sit this one out and hope that somehow, in the end, everything will work out all right. It is not working out all right. It is getting worse and worse. Anyone who knows anything about transport or who travels around London realises that that is the truth.

The Secretary of State said yesterday afternoon that he is considering the east-west cross-rail link and the Hackney-Chelsea link, but that he is not sure that London could stand both of them. Of course, London could stand both. When we consider what we are standing at the moment, we could certainly stand two major transportation developments which would be to the massive benefit of all Londoners. We can take it if the Government are prepared to authorise the finance.

In the absence of coherent strategic planning and thinking, we shall have to wait for a Labour Government. That we all understand and appreciate. Fortunately, the cavalry is not far away; it will take two years or perhaps less to arrive. The Government could get us away from having to go through the peculiar system of private Bills to bring major transportation proposals before Parliament. The Secretary of State again talked about London Regional Transport lodging a Bill in November either for the east-west cross route or for the Hackney-Chelsea line. Those should not be left, like the Channel tunnel or the fast link, to the private Bill procedure. He knows that there are recommendations for reforming private Bill procedure. If the Government will not do anything about strategic planning of transportation in London, they have the opportunity to reform the private Bill procedure. If they did that, it would at least be some contribution.

In the meantime, we will have to hobble along in London with the belt-and-braces approach to strategic planning which is a disgrace to London and to Europe. It defies all accurate description and belief, but unfortunately we seem to be stuck with it for a few more years. Fortunately, the Government will soon be on their way and we will get back to a strategic plan for London which Londoners can look forward to and benefit from.

1.26 am
Ms. Joan Ruddock (Lewisham, Deptford)

I want to echo much of what has been said by my hon. Friends the Members for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing) and for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks). I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Newham, South on securing this important debate. It may be of interest to note that there seem to be no Members other than the Minister on the Government side seeking to speak. I wonder why, since they were all so keen to hear this afternoon that their marginal seats in London had been protected by the victory that we have all had in getting the road proposals turned down. That is what they think, but in practice it will not save the day for them. That is why they were here; that was their interest this afternoon. When it comes to debating how we should solve the problems of transport in London, they are absent.

It is a historic day. We are all delighted to see the end of the process of assessment studies, initiated by the Secretary of State for Transport in 1984.

Mr. Tony Banks

As long ago as that?

Ms. Ruddock

Yes, as long ago as that.

Mr. Banks

Which one was it?

Ms. Ruddock

I am afraid that there have been too many for such a junior Member of the House as myself to remember.

The studies were intended to solve the problems of traffic congestion in four corridors in London. As such, they were always fatally flawed and, as my hon. Friends have pointed out, there has never been any way in which the problems of the capital city could be solved in isolated pockets.

Today the Secretary of State attempted to distance himself, as well he might, from those studies, saying that they were the ideas of consultants. But the brief was drawn by his own Department of Transport. It is clear that the major elements in that brief were consistent with the Government's own philosophy. I believe that they were as follows. The first aim was to increase, where possible, the road capacity around the central area and to increase the radial capacity in selected areas. The second element was to support public transport schemes, but with the proviso that they should not depend on Government grant and should be paid for primarily by the users of the service. The third was to resist the pressure for traffic restraint which has come from so many people in London; I quote the west London study which said of restraint that it is not a practical or acceptable basis for planning. The fourth element was to support traffic management measures, such as red routes and traffic calming.

Bearing those elements of the so-called "strategy" in mind, and after today's announcement, I wonder how the Government will now plan for the future. We have been told that all the road-building proposals have been scrapped. I suggest, therefore, that the Secretary of State's policy for London lies in tatters. After six wasted years, he now gives us a whole series of public transport measures for which the studies were wholly unnecessary, and proposals for traffic-calming measures that the London boroughs could happily have produced for themselves.

Even so, we could perhaps forgive the delay and the waste, if only we were certain that the public transport options were likely to become reality. The Secretary of State today scorned my suggestion that the £3 billion that would have been spent on roads should be committed immediately to the support of public transport in London. He suggested that the money had not been committed to road building, but, as he knows only too well, the difference is that money for roads is readily made available from the public purse, whereas British Rail has to find an 8 per cent. return on investment, while operating subsidies are being removed from Network SouthEast and have already been removed from London Regional Transport. Thus, the fare-paying passenger will have to bear the brunt of the cost of any new public transport infrastructure that Ministers propose. As we have seen from recent experiences on Network SouthEast, constant price rises deter passengers.

Does the Minister still agree with the consultants who, for the purpose of the assessment studies, assumed that there would be a 46 per cent. increase in real terms in public transport fares between now and the end of the decade? Does he still agree with the Department's estimate of between 1 and 2 per cent. growth in road traffic per annum in London? If so, how does he intend to solve the congestion problems on the roads, the overcrowding on the tubes and the huge inefficiencies of our bus and train services? If road building was deemed necessary. what is he now proposing to put in its place?

When Opposition Members asserted that only public transport could meet the needs of millions of Londoners on the move, Ministers constantly denied it. Indeed, when the hon. Member for South Ribble (Mr. Atkins) briefed hon. Members representing London constituencies, he said that only a mix of new road building and public transport could solve the problems of congestion—

(Mr. Atkins)

That is right.

Ms. Ruddock

The Minister says, "That is right." Where is his faith in new road building tonight? His right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has rejected all the road proposals for London which, at that meeting, he said were absolutely essential to solve the problems of this capital city—[Interruption.] I assure Conservative Members that I do, indeed, understand.

I shall go further into my recollection of that meeting with the Minister. At that very same briefing, the Minister's advisers told us of the computer models on which the Department itself had tested the consultants' proposals. I remember specifically asking the Minister whether he could give me the results of the proposals of the tests on road building alone. His advisers said that they could not, but they could tell me that, in their model tests, the public transport proposals alone could not solve the problems. Both the Minister and I were present—

Mr. Atkins


Ms. Ruddock

The Minister says, "Absolutely." Opposition Members must therefore ask, if that is his view and if there are now to be no road-building proposals, how is he to solve the very problems that were identified in the four assessment studies?

Just a matter of weeks ago, the Minister put that view on the record, so I challenge him tonight to make absolutely clear how the Government propose to deal with the problems outlined in those studies when they no longer propose to build the roads that they previously said were so essential to the solutions.

Does the Minister intend to introduce measures of car restraint, or does he accept that in 10 years the amount of traffic could be 20 per cent. greater than it is today? If he accepts that, in an essential area, does he honestly believe that any vehicles will be moving on our roads?

How exactly do the Minister and his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport intend to accelerate the development of public transport proposals that have been listed and reiterated today? Will the Minister answer my hon. Friend the Member for Newham, South and tell him why he cannot do as the central London rail study recommended and immediately put in train the building of both the north-south Chelsea to Hackney link and the cross-rail link? Is it not true that it is not that London cannot stand work of that nature, but rather that the private Bill procedure is so onerous that London Regional Transport feels that it cannot cope with its pressures if it has to put two Bills through the House simultaneously? Surely it is incumbent on the Minister, as my hon. Friend said, to find a way through that procedure so that we can put into practice the public transport options that are so agreeable to people in this city.

I hope that the Minister will not give us another tiresome list of all the measures that are in hand.

Mr. Atkins

Does not the hon. Lady like them?

Ms. Ruddock

On the contrary, we are delighted that measures are in hand, but we see that they are not producing any solutions. We want the Minister to explain whether his Department has a new approach to the transport problems of London. We believe that this is a time for a reassessment of London's transport needs—not, I hasten to add, another series of studies, but a pulling together of the many analyses and reports that have already been done and are available.

There is a consensus across the political spectrum, in local government and among the people of London about what the problems are and what the solutions should be. The Minister must explain to the House what the Government's attitude to future funding of public transport will be. We have had no explanation of why the extension of the docklands light railway into south London, into Lewisham and my constituency in particular, could not have gone forward last autumn. All the details had been worked up by LRT and the docklands light railway. There had been proper public consultation, the conclusion of which was wholly in favour of the proposals. The proposals were environmentally sound. It had all been costed.

We believe that, quite simply, the Secretary of State was not satisfied that enough private money had been sought to support the proposal. That kind of strategy is no strategy. It means that, if a developer happens to be prepared to put up the money, the scheme will go ahead, but if a developer cannot be found, there will be no public transport option. That is completely unacceptable to everyone in London. If the Government are to have a change of heart— which we would welcome—in favour of public transport, they must be clear where the money is coming from and when it is coming. They must be absolutely clear that, although partnerships with and contributions from, developers are welcome, developers must not determine the public transport policy of the city.

How satisfied are the Government with the quality of our public transport?

Mr. Tony Banks

They do not use it.

Ms. Ruddock

As my hon. Friend reminds me, they probably do not use it. The vast majority of Londoners who do use public transport are clearly dissatisfied. If we are to encourage people to use public transport or continue to use it, not to use their cars, or to use their cars less, we must aim for the highest possible standards. Will the Minister help in that regard by reviewing the Government's attitude to staffing levels on all our public transport systems? Reductions in staffing have prevented people from getting the help that they require to make public transport more acceptable and usable.

Many women are already determined not to use public transport after dark because they feel unsafe. Will the Minister end the cost-cutting regime so that public transport can be cleaned up and people can be confident about its safety?

What does the Minister intend to do about the state of public transport, which my hon. Friends and I have repeatedly drawn to his attention and that of his right hon. and hon. Friends? I remind the House, yet again, of the situation that prevailed in January. In an average week, there were 26 station closures on the underground due to staff shortages. On average, 12 underground stations were closed every morning for a time because of overcrowding. On average, one in six escalators were out of order on any given day. The average wait for a high-frequency bus service is one and a half times what it should be, and only two thirds of timetabled bus services depart on time or within five minutes of their schedule.

We applaud any change of heart by the Government that is positively in favour of public transport. That change of heart will be useless if it is but a public relations exercise, if real public money is not behind it, and if standards are not improved so that people in London positively want to use public transport and enjoy using it.

My hon. Friends have made an extremely good case tonight, for bringing back a strategic transport authority for the city. There is no other way in which we can find a coherent and comprehensive response to the traffic problems of the city other than through one elected authority with an overview, a strategy, and the necessary mechanism and access to public money to make that possible.

Tonight we urge the Minister to go beyond this afternoon's exercise, which was an attempt to save the skins of Tories in marginal seats. He should show us that there has been a change of heart and that we can look forward to a real and comprehensive strategy for transport in London.

1.42 am
The Minister for Roads and Traffic (Mr. Robert Atkins)

First, I must congratulate the hon. Member for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing) on his ingenuity and stamina in raising this subject at this time, particularly after the exhaustive statement and discussion about these matters in the earlier part of the afternoon.

On Friday there was a major debate on public transport, when the Minister of State, who deals with such matters daily, spent a lot of time discussing the issues, as did many hon. Members on both sides of the House. There was also an earlier debate today on light railways, when my hon. Friend discussed that matter with hon. Members. If the House will forgive me, I shall not dwell at enormous length on the details of the railways and the tube, which Opposition Members have already raised with the Minister. He is aware of their concerns, but I shall ensure that they are once again drawn to his attention. I suspect that his reply will be his normal robust one—that the problems are being addressed with substantial investment and commitment.

Given my particular responsibilities, I should like to discuss roads in London. I am delighted to record that it appears that we have shot the Opposition's fox. They thought that the Government would be hogtied over this issue and find themselves in difficulties, and are now making a U-turn. That is absolute palpable balderdash.

Everyone who heard this afternoon's statement will know not only that Conservative Members reacted very favourably to the consultation exercise that we carried out, but that not one Opposition Member was able even to wing my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State because they knew full well that what we did was sensible and logical and the sort of thing that they could have expected from my right hon. Friend and me.

I make no apologies for the course of action that we took. When my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I took office in this Department last July, we came in at the tail end of the assessment study procedure, which had been going on, as the hon. Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks) said, for some time. My right hon. Friend and I were determined to ensure that we brought the study to fruition as quickly as possible for the simple reason that as a Londoner born and bred, and one who served on a London local authority for 10 years—although I represent a Lancashire constituency —I know full well the problems and realities in London.

I recognise that there has been concern. When I started on Haringey council, Archway road was a problem, when I came off the council in 1976 it was still a problem, and when I came to this Department I discovered that it was still a fundamental problem. My hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Sir H. Rossi) has reminded me that it was a problem as far back as 1947. Many things do not change. I think that the hon. Member for Newham, South referred to a former Home Secretary who recognised that there was a problem at Archway road. Were it to have been recorded, I expect that many other hon. Members have, over the years, protested about congestion in London and other major cities.

The consultants came up with a number of proposals. The Department of Transport was involved in asking questions, as it had in years gone by. It invited consultants in the four areas to look at the possibilities as the technical experts saw them. Hon. Members will know better than I, because it affected their constituents before I came o this job, that a considerable amount of controversy was stirred up because the consultants considered the most extreme options and the much smaller ones. On average, there were a dozen options, sometimes more, sometimes less, in each of the assessment study areas. Those included road and public transport options, and were the consultants' ideas.

Shortly after my right hon. Friend and I took office in this Department, we were presented with the consultants' final reports. The matter had gone on for some time, and Members from both sides of the House had indicated that they did not think that it could continue for much longer. Therefore, we determined to complete the process as quickly as we could, which we did.

Some hon. Members attacked my right hon. Friend when he said in November that the consultation process would be over by the end of February. They said that the period was too short. We wanted to curtail people's worry and concern, and forestall the possibility of blight. The right hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, East (Mr. Prescott) waved around a figure of 10,000 this afternoon. Many people—about that number or less—were concerned about the threats as they saw them, although they were largely fictitious. However, there was much concern. We all know, as Members of Parliament, that our constituents can become worried by any sort of proposal. One only has to have a chat with the surveyors, draw a line outside a house and everyone starts worrying. I recognised the concern, and the Department wanted to do something about it.

At the same time, we underwent a processs of consultation in the Department which was as wide as I have seen since being in public office. We listened to everyone and received representations in all sorts of odd forms from various opponents of the schemes. A good number of them were doubtless Labour party supporters, or even further to the left. Equally, there were a substantial number of opponents who represented Conservative and other views, and it became—

Ms. Ruddock

At this stage of the consultation, did the Minister or the Department learn anything different from all that had been set out in the many documents, reports and statements made by those who had been involved over the years, including the public response that came to the Department before stage 2 was commissioned in 1987, which was to the effect that additional road capacity would attract more traffic and the congestion problems would not be solved?

Mr. Atkins

That is a school of thought of many people, not least my predecessor, my hon. Friend the Member for Eltham (Mr. Bottomley), but we cannot disinvent cars, lorries, trucks or buses. They are there, and we must deal with that problem.

I think that the hon. Lady and I would find agreement if I were to remind the House of the remarks of the Liberal spokesman on these matters. She has said that there are not many Labour Members in their places or many of my hon. Friends, but no Liberal Member is present. The House may recall that the Liberal party has said that it is not in favour of any restriction on the use of private cars but it would not be prepared to build roads on which those cars could travel. That would be the ultimate recipe for congestion. That is typical of those who sit on the fence with an ear to the ground on both sides of it.

The hon. Lady has talked about the consultation procedure. I cannot give her chapter and verse of what went on before I became involved, but I could inquire for her. If she would like me to do so, I shall write to her. I can explain only what I have done since I have been Under-Secretary of State for Transport. The Department has gone through the consultation process with no fixed view of what should or should not happen. Opposition Members may not believe that, but I assure them that what I say is true. I recognise the concerns that have been expressed.

The hon. Lady says that we have done away with all our road programmes and that our road policy in London is in tatters. I invite my right hon. and hon. Friends to agree with me that a road policy that will cost £250 million for new roads and road improvements in London is not much evidence of a policy in tatters. It is not much evidence of a complete removal of road improvements.

It is a substantial policy, and we are talking only of proposals. I remind the House that we are already committed to a £1.9 billion programme for London's trunk roads and a further £1 billion to be spent by the London Docklands development corporation and the boroughs on other road schemes. That is not much evidence that we are reducing the roads programme and other road schemes. We have the largest roads programme that we have ever had outside London. Incidentally, that investment is being exceeded by the spending on public transport.

Ms. Ruddock

I wish to correct the Minister. This afternoon, the Secretary of State for Transport said clearly, "I have decided not to proceed with the major road schemes recommended by the studies." I merely reiterated that statement tonight. I have not questioned the so-called improvements and the moneys for the traffic-calming measures, of which we wholly approve.

Mr. Atkins

Many adjustments will be made to existing roads, but what about the commitment that we made to build the Hooley bypass, for example? That is a new road for which people have asked. It forms part of the £250 million programme to which I have referred.

Ms. Ruddock

We must be clear what we are talking about. The cost of all the road building proposals was to be about £3 billion. There is a considerable difference between £3 billion and the millions of which the Minister speaks.

Mr. Atkins

We cannot continue like this. The hon. Lady and her hon. Friends say that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I made much play with the proposed roads being unpopular. Having listened to what the London public requested across the political, industrial and municipal spectrum and decided that the proposals did not make a lot of sense in some areas, we are now accused of making a U-turn and dropping programmes. Where exactly does the Labour party stand on these issues?

Ms. Ruddock

Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Atkins

The hon. Lady has had a fair crack of the whip, and doubtless will have the same opportunity again.

I make no apology for the statement that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State made this afternoon. The comments about London borough elections are well taken. Our currency and the way in which we operate in the House across the political spectrum has to do with votes and public opinion, because votes represent the views of ordinary people. I do not deny that, for the simple reason that, if Opposition Members are fair, those of them who have been in government or who have served on local authorities—I know that the hon. Member for Newham North-West (Mr. Banks) is one—will agree that some decisions that may be cross-party in conception or in practice are not always discussed properly in the heat of a general or local election.

To that extent, it is wise to remove some matters from an immediate election programme discussion. We have the opportunity to discuss these matters; we have taken it until now and will doubtless do so again. But I make no apology for recognising and hearing what London has said about its concerns. I am proud of the fact. As my right hon. Friend said this afternoon, the decision is not to be regarded in any way as a climb-down, because we never climbed up in the first place. Let us get that clear and on the record.

I do not wish to delay the House unnecessarily but I must answer one or two of the questions that have arisen. I was interested in what the hon. Member for Deptford said about traffic restraint and road pricing—

Ms. Ruddock

Not me.

Mr. Atkins

Road pricing was mentioned.

Mr. Spearing

It was me.

Mr. Atkins

The hon. Member for Newham, South mentioned road pricing and said that he did not favour it. I am interested in that view, because I was under the impression that the Labour party had adopted a measure of road pricing. On at least one occasion, the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, East has made it clear that he is in favour of it; presumably he has had to change his mind as a result of pressure from his hon. Friends. Road pricing is an area of philosophical concern which I suspect will not go away and will have to be examined over a period of time.

The hon. Member for Newham, North-West also referred to problems arising from street works —a subject on which I have considerable sympathy with him. He will know of the existence of the Public Utilities Street Works Act 1950—PUSWA for short—which is long overdue for reform.

Ms. Ruddock

Hear, hear.

Mr. Atkins

At this stage I can do no more than express the hope that street works will form part of legislative proposals based on the Home report and related matters towards the end of the year. I deduce from Opposition Members' reaction that such proposals will find favour across the political spectrum. I cannot make a commitment, but I hope that, when my right hon. and learned Friend the Lord President of the Council considers these matters, he will take into account the express view of hon. Members on both sides of the House.

The final concern that was expressed was in relation to company cars. Company cars are an emotive issue. I know that many of my constituents who have achieved some status in their lives look upon company cars as perks or as the tools of their trade, whether they are salesmen on the road, people who regularly travel or even company directors. The taxation of company cars is, of course, a matter for my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer.

We have a unique capacity in this country to provide cars for a substantial number of people and I look upon that as an opportunity for environmental change and improvement. We can persuade companies that buy a substantial number of cars to realise that they can influence a decision on the sort of cars that their employees use. Cars should be environmentally more friendly, smaller and safer, and they should be capable automatically of using lead-free petrol—

Mr. Spearing

And be British.

Mr. Atkins

Yes, and be British. Even if they are Japanese in origin, the fact that they have been built in this country is another attraction. If that opportunity were taken, it would go a long way to coping with the environmental problems about which hon. Members on both sides of the House are concerned.

I have ranged over a wide variety of concerns that have been raised. I emphasise that the proposals that my right hon. Friend announced today are an indication of a plan for London that is balanced in terms of public transport and improvements on the roads and in terms of the finance which in part we shall provide. I have no doubt that we shall persuade the Treasury, as we have in the past, to increase our budget to provide the resources, and we shall endeavour to ensure that the schemes are completed.

In terms of transport proposals for London, we now know exactly where we stand. I reject utterly the suggestion of Opposition Members that, as one of my right hon. predecessors may well have said, the Government are adamant for drift. In fact, we are committed to a London public transport policy covering a wide variety of options. It is up to the public to choose. Through the recent consultation procedure, they have indicated their views. I welcome that, as do my hon. Friends. In due course, the proof of the pudding will be in the eating, and it will be a Conservative Secretary of State for Transport in a Conservative Government who will be implementing the plans in the year 2000.