HC Deb 22 February 1995 vol 255 cc458-66

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

9.56 pm
Mr. Peter Viggers (Gosport)

My purpose this evening is to give parliamentary exposure to an innovative plan to develop a new transport system in south Hampshire, initially running from Fareham to Portsmouth by way of Gosport. In doing so, I hope to obtain a preliminary view of the Government's attitude at this stage, to canvass support for the scheme and generally to promote awareness of the issue.

There is no doubt that Gosport needs better road access. The constituency is a peninsula between Portsmouth and Southampton looking across to the Isle of Wight. It has an attractive seaside location, but shares with its Portsmouth neighbour a considerable density of population.

Unlike Portsmouth, which has motorway access direct to the centre of the city, Gosport has to rely on one A road, the notorious A32, and one B road for its access. Poor road access brings a range of problems. It deters industrial and commercial investment and it makes it less attractive for shoppers to visit the High street and Stoke road areas of Gosport which are traditionally the centre of the town. But my greatest sympathy is for those who are compelled to sit in traffic twice a day as they travel to and from work.

Much has been done to improve the road access. I formed the Gosport road group some years ago comprising county councillors, councillors of all parties and local business representatives, the object being to act as a ginger group to put pressure on all those involved, the county council, the Government and local authorities, to press for action on the road.

Action has been taken and much can be done by way of traffic smoothing, measures such as co-ordinated traffic lights, improved road junctions and so on. Traffic flow has improved, but any improvements are rapidly overtaken by increased car use. The fact remains that road access at off-peak periods is poor and at peak periods it is bad ranging through to appalling.

Since the area is a peninsula, it is difficult to plan a new and totally satisfactory road access, and the obvious route, across Fareham creek, is probably barred for environmental reasons. There is really no easy way to improve access by road, although much has been done.

Moreover, even a major new spinal road would not solve all of Gosport's travel problems because other internal roads, such as Brockhurst road and Bury road, have such a density of traffic that they are near to saturation level for several hours a day. There is a local joke in Gosport, which no one finds in any way amusing, that anyone who goes for the first time to Gosport for a meeting always arrives late, apologising that he had not realised how bad the traffic would be from Fareham to Gosport and his journey took him much longer than expected.

The Gosport road needs further improvement and the Gosport road group takes every opportunity to make that point to the relevant bodies. I now draw it to the attention of my hon. Friend the Minister. I hope that he will take it on board and take back to his Department the fact that road access to Gosport is unsatisfactory.

Not only are Gosport roads under pressure, but Hampshire county council studies show that 5 per cent. of the county's strategic road network is currently over capacity and that by the year 2011, 46 per cent. of Hampshire's strategic road network will be over capacity, partly because Hampshire's car ownership is slightly above the national average at 0.41 of a car per household compared with the national average of 0.38 of a car per household.

It being Ten o'clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.

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

Mr. Viggers

Should there be anyone in the Public Gallery this evening, I am sure that the 10 o'clock motion will have completely baffled them, as it always does.

I was about to make the point that, interestingly, Gosport's car ownership is reflected in the fact that 29 per cent. of households do not have motor cars compared with 24 per cent. in the rest of Hampshire. That poses the intriguing possibility that a means of transport that does not rely on cars might be attractive to local residents.

Against that background, Hampshire county council has been making its plans and is currently at the consultative stage of its review of the Hampshire county structure plan which takes the present planning period from the year 2001 through to the year 2011.

The consultative document quotes my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment as saying: We need to put urban structures into place today which face up to the environmental challenges of tomorrow. One challenge will be persuading people to make the right transport choice. We shall seek to influence those choices through various initiatives. The document continues: These initiatives will include reducing the length and number of motorised journeys which people need to make; encouraging alternative means of transport". That is exactly where this evening's Adjournment debate comes in, with the proposal of an alternative system.

Within the guidelines that I have just recited, Hampshire county council has formulated the south-east Hampshire transportation strategy to comply with the Government who wish to see bids for funding in a package deal. Hampshire has done that.

One proposal that has been put forward is for a regional metro, which is a much more ambitious rapid transit link than the one I am talking about. It would included transit links between Portsmouth and Southampton as well. but I should stress that, although the Gosport plan for a rapid transport system would be an integral part of that regional metro, the Gosport proposal stands alone. It does not stand or fall by being part of the regional metro system.

The Gosport scheme would run from Fareham station with a loop in Fareham. It would go through Gosport and to Portsmouth town station. I have, of course, discussed the issue with my colleagues. My right hon. Friend the member for Fareham (Sir P. Lloyd) and my hon. Friends the Members for Portsmouth, South (Mr. Martin) and for Portsmouth, North (Mr. Griffiths) are all extremely interested in the project and wish it well. I am delighted that they have supported the scheme by their presence here in the House. I appreciate that very much.

The present scheme would start from Fareham station. It would run for 5 km along a partially disused rail freight line that is used rarely by the Ministry of Defence and a further 4 km along a disused railway line running alongside a cycle way and a pedestrian footpath. It would then go to Gosport town centre, the High street area and under Portsmouth harbour in a new immersed tube tunnel, to emerge near Portsmouth harbour railway station before moving on to Portsmouth town.

That is a densely populated corridor, with 23,000 households within 600 m of the route of the proposed system. There is no doubt that the system, if implemented, would be of massive benefit locally. First, it would help all those who travel to work between the Fareham and Portsmouth axis, with many places of work being on the route or close to it. Secondly, it would help shoppers, providing access to shops in Fareham and Portsmouth—and, even more important from my constituency point of view, to shops in Gosport, which currently suffer from the lack of good road communications. Thirdly, it would be helpful to schools: the proposed route would be near to a number of large schools.

Finally, the system would be very beneficial to tourism. We in the Portsmouth-Gosport area are keen to promote tourism, and we have some major attractions—HMS Victory and the Mary Rose, to name but two. There are many other attractions, including in my constituency the submarine museum, Priddy's Hard museum and Fort Brockhurst. We do not want people to visit south Hampshire for one day, perhaps visiting HMS Victory before going home; we are keen to promote the idea of visiting the area for a long weekend, and taking full advantage of all the attractions. The presence of tourists for several days at a time would build up hotel and restaurant capacity, making the Portsmouth harbour area a natural holiday resort. Such a development would be considerably aided by a light rapid transit system.

The present scheme proposes 12 vehicles making some 15 stops on the 14 km of the route. It would take some 28 minutes to make the total journey, and maximum capacity would be about 3,600 passengers an hour. That would mean between 30,000 and 40,000 passengers a day—about 9 million a year, according to the current projection.

Schemes of this nature have been studied since the 1970s, but it was not until the 1980s that real progress was made. In 1989, a pre-feasibility study looked into demand, costings and engineering aspects; in 1990, a private sector consortium examined the project. In 1991, Hampshire county council sponsored a study of whether a light rapid transit system based on trams, a guided bus system or a partially guided bus system was preferable, and concluded that the present system of trams was best. That was followed by public consultation, and in 1993 merchant bankers and transport planning consultants were employed.

A total of £100,000 has been spent on trial borings under Portsmouth harbour to test the acceptability of the soil for the proposed tunnel. Hydrological studies have been conducted to ensure that Portsmouth harbour will not be unduly affected by the tunnel. An operational audit has been carried out by a French team, which is responsible for running comparable systems in Grenoble and Nantes. Gosport now has a team of six people, headed by Mr. Fraser Smith, who has relevant experience with the Hong Kong mass transit railway and with Ove Arup and Partners. A serious proposal is now seriously being studied.

The mission strategy is: To have received approval by the Secretary of State for Transport of an order through the Transport and Works Act 1992 procedure before 31st March 1997. The project team will also seek the best funding method. The latest cost estimate for the whole scheme is about £104 million, of which private capital might provide about 50 per cent. The team will of course consider the best manner of integrating private capital into such a scheme before asking for the Minister's assistance, and much detailed study and negotiation will be needed. The vehicles themselves, or even the tunnel, may well be franchised or leased. There is much work to be done.

Public sector support would be by way of a section 56 grant under the Transport Act 1968. An earlier study in 1992 led the Department of Transport to write on 16 June 1992: We consider that, although the analysis will require further refinement, at this stage of the appraisal the economics of the scheme look relatively robust. That was encouraging, and I hope that the Minister will be able to tell me that nothing has happened to make the Department feel less confident than it did in 1992.

My final point concerns perceptions—how public transport is seen. Public transport had suffered for many years from under-investment and restrictive union practices. Much public transport has been dirty, cold and unreliable, and accordingly has a bad reputation; but the Government have invested a great deal to improve the position—and rightly so, because the capacity of roads to absorb further cars is not absolute. The light rail transport system would be a dramatic force for good in south Hampshire, and I ask my hon. Friend the Minister to extend his good wishes to the project.

10.10 pm
The Minister for Transport in London (Mr. Steve Norris)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Gosport (Mr. Viggers) on securing this debate on the proposed light rapid transit line, which would link Portsmouth, Gosport and Fareham. I acknowledge in their places my hon. Friends the Members for Portsmouth, North (Mr. Griffiths) and for Portsmouth, South (Mr. Martin) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Fareham (Sir P. Lloyd), who I know have an interest in the project.

I shall try to deal with the questions of my hon. Friend the Member for Gosport in the time that is available. In March 1988, my predecessor, my hon. Friend the Member for Hampshire, North-West (Sir D. Mitchell), wrote to my hon. Friend in reply to a proposal for a light rail scheme linking Fareham and Gosport. He gave my hon. Friend the same answer that I can give the new proposals today: it is for local commercial interests or local authorities to pursue local public transport projects. In that letter, my hon. Friend added: it cannot be denied that implementing light rail proposals takes time and is more complicated than may at first be realised. He was, as ever, a master of understatement.

In 1989, Hampshire county council commissioned its pre-feasibility study. One of the corridors that it examined was the subject of today's debate—the Portsmouth-Gosport-Fareham corridor. Discussions between the Department of Transport and Hampshire county council officials continued and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Gosport said, in November 1991 the council commissioned transportation planning consultants to investigate the scope for obtaining section 56 grant. The preliminary report showed that an outline economic case existed for a rapid transit system along the Portsmouth-Gosport-Fareham corridor.

Hampshire county council has continued to progress the scheme, including putting it out to public consultation. Its dialogue with my officials continues. It plans to confirm its 1992 case for grant in the next few months, to apply for powers under the Transport and Works Act 1992 in mid-1996, and to examine the scope for private sector involvement.

I understand that Hampshire county council is awaiting results from the south-east Hampshire transportation study, which is under way and scheduled to finish at the end of March this year. That will be an important study because its results will enable us to test the patronage forecasts on which the light rapid transit option is based, and the figures in the 1991–92 study. That could, ultimately, be an important part of the section 56 appraisal. The study should also allow us find out whether light rail is the best option in terms of an overall transport package for south Hampshire.

Let me discuss the process of introducing a light rail scheme. There are three elements: the appraisal of the scheme to see if it qualifies for Government grant, the need to obtain statutory powers under the Transport and Works Act and the application for funding if the scheme passes the appraisal test. In all this, the most important element is to establish in general terms whether a scheme is worth funding before spending large sums of public money in getting powers and in getting into the detailed appraisal of the case for grant.

If Hampshire county council wants to make progress, it needs first to establish that the scheme is "in principle" worth funding. It also needs to get on with involving the private sector, not only in the development of the scheme but in establishing the case for attracting developer contributions and for locating other sources of local finance.

I was interested in the figures that my hon. Friend the Member for Gosport quoted about the informal estimates for private sector involvement. Clearly, the lower the overall cost of the scheme to my Department, the more likely it is that we will, ultimately, be able to afford it. That is not just a truism; it points to the considerable need to ensure that every opportunity for involving the private sector is taken in terms both of operations and of commercial development. My hon. Friend referred to such opportunities.

I would like this to happen: before Hampshire embarks on obtaining powers under the Transport and Works Act and commissioning further work on a full economic case, it should collaborate with the private sector in developing the outline case for the scheme and exploring funding approaches which will reduce the call on the public purse.

Private finance brings many advantages to light rail innovation, improved management, the transfer of a considerable degree of risk and, not least, a reduction in the level of public sector support required. There is no set percentage of private finance over which the Government will support a scheme; each scheme will be different and each will need to be examined in detail on its merits.

We are expecting the private sector to play its part. Light rail can make a healthy operating profit; the current systems in operation in Britain amply demonstrate that. Where a transport scheme brings benefits which are primarily local in character, it is not unreasonable to suggest that central Government should not be expected to foot the whole bill.

I should like to make some general points on the policy context in which light rail schemes are set. There is no doubt about our commitment to the general principle of supporting light rail schemes. We know that they can play a role in relieving urban congestion in some of our major cities. Government funding has already supported schemes such as the docklands light railway, the Greater Manchester metrolink and the south Yorkshire supertram. On 13 December 1994, in the last settlement, we set aside funds for two new schemes—the Croydon tramlink and the midland metro line 1.

Other towns and cities are developing proposals for light rail projects, but one of the most important things to remember is that these schemes are expensive and are not the only answer to urban transport problems. Even in Manchester, where metrolink has been a great success, its overall contribution to reducing congestion is to remove just three cars in a thousand from Greater Manchester's roads. Manchester metrolink is an excellent system and is very effective at serving passengers on the Bury to Altrincham line, but it illustrates the fact that no single light rail line can be the whole solution to a city's congestion problem.

That said, this Government see light rail as well worth support where it can play a significant part—and every car removed is significant. The presence of such a scheme allows the local authority to think of sensible vehicle restraint measures allied with the light rail scheme, which can have a substantial effect on the levels of congestion to which my hon. Friend referred on the spine road from Fareham to Alverstoke.

If light rail is to receive Government support, it must contribute to the Government's overall policy aims for local transport. Those are, broadly, a policy for urban areas to make cities better places in which to live and to improve the quality of urban life. To underpin that, we need to reduce car use wherever that is possible. We are trying to do that not only by reducing traffic congestion but by encouraging the use of alternatives to the private car, while, at the same time, preserving access to traditional urban centres.

There is no doubt that to bring about a reduction in car use there needs to be a modal shift—a transfer from cars to public transport. If that does not happen, we are merely suppressing economic demand and social activity in a way that the community will not accept. There must be a balance. We also need to improve facilities for walking and cycling. In the longer term, we are looking to policies that put the places where people live, work, shop and enjoy their leisure time closer together, so obviating the need for travel.

In 1994–95, the then Secretary of State introduced what was called the package approach to local transport funding.

Mr. Michael Trend (Windsor and Maidenhead)

indicated assent.

Mr. Norris

That is something on which my hon. Friend the Member for Windsor and Maidenhead (Mr. Trend) is an acknowledged expert and master, and I am glad to see my hon. Friend in his place and taking such an interest in tonight's debate.

The package approach is an important development in the way in which the Government support spending on transport by local authorities. It says to local authorities that they should not bid simply on the basis of individual schemes that are specific to one local authority. Instead, recognising the fact that most of those transport issues are wider strategic issues, it tells local authorities to bid, as part of a package of authorities, for a package of schemes that allow us to develop strategic alternatives.

The approach has been very much welcomed by local authorities of all political persuasions, and it has produced some very effective and imaginative conclusions this year. It is essentially about the strategic approach that considers transport in the round and demonstrably gives us better results than those that continue to consider measures in isolation.

It is for local authorities to decide the detail of those transport strategies. They need to consider all forms of transport and they need to tailor their plans to the circumstances of the district. Sometimes, that will mean light rail, but often—I say that in the general context of considering such schemes—other policies and schemes will be more effective, and considerably cheaper, than light rail.

It is important therefore that one should consider the light rail scheme as growing out of a local authority's coherent overall transport strategy, not simply as a nice piece of froth superimposed on top of it. A problem must have been identified for which light rail is the best solution. It is not enough that local authorities think that it would be a nice idea to have some shiny new trams.

That being the context in which one regards those light rail schemes, I have to say to my hon. Friend the Member for Gosport that, as we have previously said, there is, at this stage at least, an outline case to be made for the Fareham-Gosport-Portsmouth line to which he refers. No event that has transpired since he received that earlier assurance would cause the Department to change its mind in that regard.

Let me say a word about the processes that it will be necessary to pursue from here on in. Since the passage of the Transport and Works Act 1992, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Gosport referred, the promoters have needed to seek an order under section 1 of that Act to obtain the necessary powers—that Act essentially replacing the private Bill process with which we were all previously familiar.

I understand that Hampshire officials have held discussions with my Department's processing unit about the Transport and Works Act procedures, and I can confirm that we shall be happy to provide any further help that Hampshire requires in that respect.

Briefly, those procedures require the application to be made to the Secretary of State. It must be accompanied by several supporting documents, including full plans, and an environmental statement, which is obviously important in any scheme of that type these days, and the notices must be published in the London Gazette and in one or more local newspapers.

Objectors have their rights. They have six weeks in which to lodge objections and, if there is a sufficient number of objections, a local public inquiry would be held by an independent inspector. The Secretary of State would then have to decide whether the scheme should be approved, having taken into account the conclusions and recommendations of the inspector.

It is difficult, in all honesty, to predict how long in practice that process takes, unless one has any idea of what type of objections may be circulating. My hon. Friend will appreciate that, in the case of a scheme such as the one that we are discussing, which generally is likely to be extremely well received locally, objections can, in effect, still be petitions from those with property interests in the area or with other commercial interests that they feel will be affected by the scheme.

Until one is aware of the totality of the objections, it is difficult to give a more concrete guidance on how long the procedure will take. Given that the inquiry might last about a month, it should be possible for a decision to be announced in about 18 months from the date of the application.

In view of the quasi-judicial nature of the Secretary of State's role in the process, I hope that my hon. Friend will understand why I cannot comment specifically on the detailed merits of the council's scheme at this stage. That is why I have taken the time available to outline the process and show our general interest in allowing that process to continue.

The promoters have to establish whether the LRT scheme is worth building. An outline financial and economic case leading to a bid for Government support needs to be prepared. Because light rail systems are so expensive, detailed assessments of individual schemes must be completed before a decision is made on whether assistance from public funds is appropriate. Given the prohibitive level of capital costs, it is highly unlikely that anyone would be able to build and operate an LRT scheme profitably without grant.

My hon. Friend was right to refer to section 56 of the Transport Act 1968 which permits the Secretary of State to give a grant for certain large new public transport infrastructure projects where there are exceptional reasons for using specific grants to spread the cost beyond users and local charge payers. The grant is used to fund these light rail schemes and the other schemes to which I referred.

It is for the promoters to establish whether the light rail system is the best possible option. They have to look at patronage, potential local benefits and at the reduction in congestion. Underpinning all that is the question whether the benefit to the economy will be greater than the cost. Light rail schemes are appraised on the basis of commercial viability and are supported by a full cost-benefit analysis covering benefits to users as well as to non-users. The non-user benefits are particularly important.

I have already said that light rail is expensive. It has high costs compared with roads, new railway stations, public transport interchanges, bus-based park and ride, and so on. However, expensive though that may be, Manchester has shown that, in many cases, it can be worth it.

As I have said, the funds which we have will depend on competition from all other local transport projects. It stands to reason that, if we can increase the level of private and local finance for the schemes, we should be able to support more light rail schemes over a shorter time scale.

When a local authority is promoting a scheme, the Government will expect it to examine the scope for private sector involvement in construction and in the operation of the scheme. The Department will also expect local authorities sponsoring projects to use the competitive tendering process wherever possible. In some cases, it might be appropriate to have a single contract for the design, build, operation and maintenance—the DBOM concept—and for the whole of that single contract to be put out to tender.

In those cases, the amount of grant will be based on the amount required by the successful tenderer. Normally, that tenderer will be the bidder requiring the least public sector subsidy. In other cases, it may be appropriate for different elements of the scheme—design and build and operation and maintenance—to be treated as separate projects. There is sufficient flexibility in the section 56 arrangements for that to be taken into account.

The advice that my hon. Friend was given in 1988 was and still is correct. It is because light rail systems are so expensive that that sort of long and detailed assessment of individual schemes has to be performed before a decision is made on whether assistance from public funds is applicable.

My hon. Friend has put his case with great clarity. He has made it clear that he does not expect me to produce a signed cheque from my pocket this evening—I am grateful for that, because I fear that I do not have it with me. I hope that he will have gathered that we recognise that the concept of light rail has real value in solving some of the more deep-seated problems of urban congestion and that we recognise that the Hampshire study has revealed a case that can realistically be taken forward. I hope that that is the assurance that my hon. Friend sought.

I am sure that Hampshire will want to examine the record of tonight's proceedings and I must say that it is important to try to do as much of the work as possible to establish the—

The motion having been made at Ten o'clock, and the debate having continued for half an hour, MR. DEPUTY SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned accordingly at half-past Ten o'clock.