HC Deb 28 February 1997 vol 291 cc575-90

As amended (in the Standing Committee), considered.

Order for Third Reading read.

1.15 pm
Mr. Don Foster (Bath)

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.

When I moved Second Reading, I explained that we had to consider many problems and introduce legislation to try to overcome them. I listed some of those problems, not least that of congestion on our roads, which is now estimated to cost British industry about £19 billion a year. Industry suffers further from the cost of days lost at work due to road accidents—one estimate puts the cost to industry at a further £6.5 billion.

There are also health problems: we know that about 15 million people suffer ill health as a result of pollution from traffic on our roads. Sadly, at least one estimate suggests that as many as 10,000 people a year are dying prematurely because of pollution from road traffic.

On the wider environmental front, road traffic causes other problems. It contributes significantly to global warming. Road traffic also significantly depletes our scarce resources. About one third of all our energy is consumed by road traffic and about 80 per cent. of that by cars on our roads.

There are significant problems, which we need to address. As many people and organisations wanted to address those problems, I was not too surprised to find that there was wide support for the Road Traffic Reduction Bill. Some 235 hon. Members from both sides of the House signed an early-day motion. Other supporters include the National Trust, the Countryside Commission, the National Play Council, the townswomen guilds, Friends of the Earth and the Green party—those last two organisations played a significant part in the early drafting of the Bill.

I should like to pay particular tribute to Mr. Ron Bailey from Friends of the Earth, who has played a significant role at all stages of the Bill's development. About 240 local authorities have supported the measures contained in the Bill. I do not know whether or not Mr. George Spink, whose name has cropped up so frequently during today's deliberations, is a supporter of the Bill but, given the wide support for the measure, it is likely that he is.

Although many organisations supported the Bill's broad principle and saw the need to overcome many of the problems that I have mentioned, a number of organisations and individuals had some concerns about the Bill as it was formulated and presented on Second Reading. I am therefore delighted to report that, in a productive sitting, the Committee was able to address many of concerns expressed by those organisations, and by the Minister for Railways and Roads on Second Reading. At this point, I should like to put on record my tribute to the Minister for the gracious, constructive and helpful way in which he entered into discussions with me and the other promoters of the Bill to make sure that we were able to find amendments that would satisfy the concerns that he and others had expressed and address those felt by some other organisations.

As a result, three main changes have been made to the Bill since Second Reading. First, in Committee we agreed that it would be inappropriate at this stage to have on the face of the Bill specific reference to national targets. There are many—I confess to being one—who believe that it is a good idea to have national targets for road traffic reduction, but nevertheless the Minister and others put forward convincing arguments as to why it was inappropriate to include them on the face of the Bill, and the Committee accepted that. Secondly, for reasons that are fairly clear, and because there are different arrangements in Northern Ireland, it was decided to exclude Northern Ireland from the scope of the Bill. Thirdly, we ensured that much of the material that had appeared on the face of the Bill would, in future, appear in guidance.

As a result of those changes, I am pleased to be able to say that many of the organisations that had expressed concerns about the Bill now say that they are far more satisfied and I shall quote two of them. The note prepared for hon. Members today by the Automobile Association says of the Bill: we hope its seemingly genuine intent can lead to sensible and popular local schemes being funded and implemented. We do not wish to stand in its way and hope the efforts of those that have carefully steered it through a difficult path are rewarded. The Confederation of British Industry has also accepted the broad thrust of the Bill as it now stands. Understandably, the CBI begins its notes by saying that it is deeply concerned about traffic problems such as congestion … However, the Bill as it now stands has been significantly improved, and many of the problems associated with the original draft have now been overcome. In particular the greater flexibility given to councils should allow them to take better account of local conditions. In passing, I point out that one of the other changes that we made in Committee was to restrict the requirements contained within the Bill to those principal councils that are themselves local authorities. However, we rightly made it clear—as did the Minister in his contributions in Committee—that those principal councils will be expected to consult widely with other local authorities in their area, and I hope that that will include, for example, parish councils. We also said that there must be consultation with other organisations; specific reference was made to the importance of consultation with businesses—something about which the CBI is understandably concerned and keen to ensure—and with organisations such as environmental groups in the highway authority's locality. The CBI concludes its note by saying: If the Bill now acts to focus attention on the need for action and investment to tackle transport problems then this would be welcomed. Indeed, many people will welcome the contents of the Bill.

It has been suggested by some that, because we were prepared to make several amendments in Committee, the contents and powers of the Bill have been significantly watered down. I want to disabuse the House of that idea. In my view, and that of very many members of the Committee, the main thrust of the Bill is retained in the revised version.

It is interesting to read some of the comments that were made in Committee; specifically, I shall quote those of the Minister. Referring to new clause 1, now clause 2—the kernel of the Bill—he said: I do not believe that the clause represents a significant weakening of the obligations that we place on highway authorities. After all, a highway authority must, at such time as the Secretary of State directs, prepare 'a report containing an assessment of … traffic … and a forecast of growth …. ' It must also specify targets for reducing traffic, or the rate of growth, except under subsection (5), where an authority might determine that it is not appropriate, in which case it must give its reasons. As I said earlier, it will not be sufficient for an authority to say that that is a load of rubbish and refuse to do it. In preparing its report, a highway authority is also required to have regard to the guidance that the Secretary of State will issue which will give a clear steer as to what is required. That quote and subsections (3) and (6) of clause 2 are very important indeed, because in both it is clear that all local authorities, in drawing up their reports and developing their targets, must have regard to the guidance that will be issued by the Minister.

The Minister kindly and generously prepared in advance of Committee, and circulated to all members of the Committee, a draft of the main headings, so we had a very clear idea what the guidance that he is proposing will cover. The Minister made it clear, in his contribution in Committee and in the headings in that guidance, that much of the content of the suggestions that appeared in the Bill on Second Reading will now appear in the guidance, so that local authorities may consider the measures that were suggested. Local authorities that have developed successful schemes, perhaps in consultation with local businesses and other organisations, will thereby be able to share what they have learned with a wider audience.

As the Minister said in Committee, and as has made clear in the guidance notes, there will be a clear link between the funding that local authorities receive and their proposals for road traffic reduction. It is important to remind the House of what he said in Committee. I shall attempt to make it clear in the guidance that I expect there to be a clear direct link between the bids for resources made through the TPP process and the authority's reasons for believing that that investment would help to achieve the targets. That is a fairly persuasive power. If I felt that an authority were dismissing the requirements in a cavalier way, it would not receive funding for its projects. Those who made a case for investment that was well reasoned, well thought out and closely related to their targets would be rewarded."—[Official Report, Standing Committee C, 19 February 1997; c. 29–30.] It is clear from the contributions of all hon. Members, but especially that of the Minister in Committee, that the main thrust of the Bill as originally proposed has been retained in the Bill as it stands on Third Reading, backed up by the guidance. If that is correct, I hope that the Bill receives a Third Reading and quickly passes through its remaining stages. It will be a major step forward in the fight, which we must all join, to reduce the traffic on our roads.

Only yesterday, I was out with a camera crew making a film about the Bill. For part of the film, I got into the cab of a lorry to interview the driver and to discuss some of the problems of road traffic. It was perhaps ironic that we were unable to do all the filming that we had planned because the lorry, its driver and I were stuck in a traffic jam for more than three quarters of an hour. While we were stuck, I talked to some of the drivers of the other business vehicles. One man was sitting with all his papers spread out, wisely using the time to get on with his paperwork.

I asked another man, who worked for a courier firm, how long he had been there and what impact the jam would have on him. He said he had been there more than three quarters of an hour and pointed out that courier firms like his have to work to tight deadlines—they have to deliver on time or they do not get paid. He said that he would lose business and income because of the congestion.

Other motorists talked about their problems because of the shortage of public transport in their area. One thing that I hope will happen because of the Bill and the measures contained in it is a further development of public transport in many parts of the country.

The Bill is a major step forward. It will begin to tackle the problem from the grass roots up, and will be developed by those who know their local areas best—the local authorities. It will develop measures that will make the quality of life much better for all our constituents. Therefore, I hope that the Bill will receive a Third Reading.

1.30 pm
Mr. Peter Luff (Worcester)

I find myself in something of a dilemma, as I was on Second Reading. Every hon. Member accepts that there is a problem with road traffic congestion but, just because there is a problem, it does not mean that the first solution that someone brings along is necessarily the right one. To raise a voice of doubt is not to say that the problem does not exist, but to ask whether the solution has been correctly identified.

Having said that, I should pay tribute to the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) for the way in which he has handled himself during the progress of the Bill. He has adopted a realistic approach and, as a result, looks likely to achieve Third Reading.

I should have liked the Bill to receive more scrutiny—that is not merely a plea because I was not a member of the Standing Committee, as I would have liked to be. We had a short Second Reading debate for such important legislation, and now we are now doomed to have a short Third Reading debate.

As I said on Second Reading, the Bill falls victim to the great delusion that legislation can of itself change the world. I do not believe that. Legislation has a role—to control or regulate where possible and sensible and to punish a misdemeanour. I am not convinced that the Bill does either. Nor am I convinced by the need for this legislation.

Mr. David Congdon (Croydon, North-East)

My hon. Friend has picked up the essence of the dilemma about the Bill, which I am happy to support—the danger of it being a wish list. We wish road traffic to be reduced but the biggest driver—if my hon. Friend will pardon the pun—of the increase in road traffic is the increase in gross domestic product and economic growth. Regardless of what plans councils put in place, that increase will have the greatest significant impact on traffic growth. The best way to reduce traffic—I hope that no one does it—would be to vote in a Labour Government, who would destroy the economy, so we would not get the growth or the traffic.

Mr. Luff

My hon. Friend has made a party political point, but he is right. It is inevitable that traffic levels will continue to grow, and those who pretend otherwise are flying in the face of economic forces that are beyond the power of this House to control—even, I suspect, in the unfortunate event of a Labour Government. People's demand for increased personal mobility would still lead to increased traffic growth.

I fully share the ambition of the hon. Member for Bath to reduce traffic congestion, particularly in towns. He and I come from historic cities, where traffic congestion is a problem—a greater problem in Bath than in Worcester, in my view. Any reduction in congestion is a good thing, as is any reduction in pollution and any improvement in air quality. Reduced congestion is likely, however, to lead to an increase rather than a decrease in accidents, as traffic starts moving faster and does more damage to pedestrians.

The Bill has a noble objective. I am a railway enthusiast; I am vice-president of the Severn Valley railway, a modest shareholder in Railtrack and an enthusiast for the rail privatisation process. I believe that improving public transport is a helpful way of reducing demand for road traffic. Brian Scott, managing director of Great Western Trains, said that his ambition was to empty the M4. I suspect that that ambition will do more than the Bill.

Roger Macdonald of Thames Trains, another private railway franchise that now serves my constituency, publishes bus connections in his timetable. The old British Rail never did that, but it is a powerful way to help people gain better access to public transport and thus reduce the use of cars. Incidentally, he has also introduced Sunday morning services, which British Rail said could not be done. Improved public transport through good privately run railways has much more impact on road traffic than the Bill.

I said on Second Reading that I feared that the Bill was anti-car. On balance, I am satisfied that it is not, although the House should send out the message that we are not anti-car. The car is profoundly important for the freedom of movement of our society—a fundamental right in a modern, sophisticated, industrial democracy. I come from the west midlands, so I must recognise the large dependence of my constituents and those around me on the manufacturing processes in many midlands motor vehicle factories that build cars and supply components.

I was delighted to see an article by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport in The Times in January, in which he said: I see the car as a vehicle for increasing choice, freedom and opportunity. He then made a particularly important point: Wider car ownership has meant a huge expansion in the availability of employment, particularly for disabled people, who would find it a real struggle to use public transport. The car brings huge benefits to our society, and the House should leave the world outside in no doubt that it shares that view.

The trouble is that we all want to reduce other people's car use while being allowed to use our own car freely. That is the hypocrisy of so many positions taken in this great debate. It is certainly the hypocrisy practised locally by Hereford and Worcester county council. The chairman of the transport committee lives in the north of the county and favours regional government. He has no great interest in the problems of the south of the county and certainly no interest in the city of Worcester, which was one reason for beginning the ill-thought-through experiment to reduce traffic. I discussed that plan previously in the House and at a meeting with my hon. Friend the Minister for Railways and Roads, when he took a most intelligent view of it. The plan was driven through with no effective consultation with local people. It took no account of major changes that are about to be implemented: the Worcester western bypass opens shortly, and there is a large quantity of Government money to build a much-needed relief road for the western side of Worcester.

I was proud to bring a delegation to the Minister and to face down the arrogance of the Lib-Lab pact in Worcestershire, which has been shocked by the outcome of the meeting, and has lost its package bid for this year. That is good. Not only has it stopped ill-thought-through schemes on which inadequate consultation has been conducted, not only has it delayed the destruction of a playing field for a park-and-ride scheme in a totally inappropriate part of the city, but, miracle of miracles, it has forced the county council to start to listen to local people. It now says that the views of Councillor Derek Prodger, leader of the Conservative group on Worcester city council and a county councilor—that the problems could be addressed in other ways and the schemes modified—could be the right approach after all.

Bizarrely, Worcester city council wants to frustrate the development of Worcester's new hospital because the hospital could generate increased traffic volumes. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will deal with that important point when he replies. Inevitably, developing areas will experience increases in traffic. A new factory or housing estate will inevitably cause increased traffic levels, as will Worcester's new hospital. All that is happening in Worcester without the incentive provided by the Bill.

The hon. Member for Bath read out the Minister's comments in Committee about how funding was likely to work in the future. It will increase the pressure on councils which, like Hereford and Worcester, I believe are anti-car, to behave irresponsibly and in a way that may damage the local economy.

We are in a desperate battle for survival in Worcester. We face the competition from Merry Hill, an out-of-town shopping centre built for the car. Parking there is easy. Cheltenham, down the road, represented by a colleague of the hon. Member for Bath, is a user-friendly city for the car, where parking is relatively easy. People will be driven out of Worcester if our county council, under the incentives of the Bill, undertakes ill-thought-through schemes which drive people into the arms of Merry Hill and Cheltenham.

I mentioned hypocrisy, and the fact that we want to reduce other people's use of the car, but not our own. Go to county hall car park any working day of the week and see the hundreds and hundreds cars there, belonging to county council employees and councillors. A council that was serious about reducing traffic would not rely on Bills such as the one under discussion, but would impose car parking charges on its employees, so that they were inhibited from using cars. It would introduce incentives to encourage its employees to cycle or walk to work, or to use the good bus service to county hall. The council car park is stuffed full of cars, while the council tries to stop my constituents getting about in their own city.

I have deep reservations about the Bill. I accept that it has been improved, but I worry about the impact on local bypasses, for example. My hon. Friend the Minister for Railways and Roads suggested in Committee that bypasses for villages—I think particularly of the Wyre Piddle bypass, which I discussed with him—would not be adversely affected by provisions in the Bill. Traffic reduction in a village like Wyre Piddle might lead to increased traffic levels elsewhere, but reducing traffic in that village is crucial to the well-being of people there.

Let me labour the consultation point. The people of Wyre Piddle have been listened to. Their parish council has been effective and, to be fair to the county council, their voice has been heard. I have other parish councils in the Worcester city area, in Wornden and St. Peter's, which are not looked upon particularly favourably by the Labour city council.

I am concerned that the guidance issued by the Department of Transport under the Bill should take full account of the views of parish councils, which are overlooked in too many local planning issues that affect those communities. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will reassure me that, in the consultation required under the Bill, there will be a special place for parish councils, as I hope there will be for businesses and schools.

Schools rely increasingly on the school run. My son goes to school by car, burdened down by an incredible volume of books, bags and so on. It is not possible for him to walk or take a bus to school. He relies on the car. Ill-thought-through traffic schemes in one part of Worcester could make my son's and daughter's schools inaccessible to people with cars.

I hope that there will be consultation with businesses, schools and parish councils. The consultation process could be the most important aspect. By forcing communities to examine the issues, it may produce intelligent debate about ways of reducing road traffic, which might be the healthiest outcome of the Bill. Building a consensus locally about what is needed, through good, effective—not grudging—consultation might be a positive outcome of the Bill.

I accept that the Confederation of British Industry has changed its position on the Bill to some extent since Second Reading. It states that the Bill has been significantly improved in Committee, but comments—fairly, I think—that the real need is to increase investment in the infrastructure and public transport of our country, not to use quick-fix legislative devices such as the Bill. That is happening in the railways through privatisation, and in the road building programme through the private finance initiative.

The British Road Federation, too, has modified its objections to the Bill. It states: The latest version is brief"— that in itself is a commendation for a Bill— and an improvement on its predecessor. It expresses concern, however, about whether the Bill sets the appropriate tests to establish whether our environment is improving. Should we be targeting congestion, or air quality, for which the Department already has targets? Are road traffic levels really the crucial test? I share that doubt.

I shall not weary the House any longer, as I know that other hon. Members want to speak on this important Bill. I still have reservations about it. It betrays a touching faith in the power of legislation to change the world. However, it is not as bad as it was on Second Reading, so I have no objection to its further progress.

1.44 pm
Mr. John Austin-Walker (Woolwich)

I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Ceredigion and Pembroke, North (Mr. Dafis) for persevering with this matter, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) on bringing the Bill to this stage. I join him in thanking Friends of the Earth and Transport 2000.

The hon. Gentleman raised some important issues, including congestion, pollution, and the cost of both to the economy and to personal health. While I share the view of the hon. Member for Croydon, North-East (Mr. Congdon) that benefits—such as increased personal mobility and social advantages—have accrued from wide accessibility to the motor car, we cannot continue to respond to road building in a totally unplanned and demand-led manner. We know that building more and more roads would lead to greater demand and increased car use, until eventually the M25 would cover the entire south of England.

We must tackle the problem by making it easier to use other means of transport. The Government and local authorities can achieve that aim through co-operative investment in public transport schemes and certain areas of planning. The hon. Member for Worcester (Mr. Luff) referred to bad planning policy, but we should look at examples of good planning. For example, I commend the recent decision by the Secretary of State for the Environment to refuse the car parking extension that was planned for the Queen Elizabeth hospital in my constituency, which would have encouraged people to travel to that hospital by private transport.

However, if the Secretary of State is correct in curtailing the availability of parking at the hospital, it must also be correct for Government to ensure that there are adequate public transport facilities for people to travel to the hospital. Unfortunately, the privatisation of public transport has prevented adequate provision, and the health care trust must subsidise the cost of public transport to the hospital, which is crazy. [Interruption.]

Despite some muttering from Conservative Members, there is a great deal of constructive all-party consensus about the issue—particularly in Committee. We could not have had this debate four or five years ago. I pay tribute to organisations such as Friends of the Earth and Transport 2000 and to those people who have adopted less conventional methods of drawing our attention to the dangers of ever-increasing car usage. They have played a constructive role—although I do not expect all Conservative Members to agree with me.

A few years ago, the Government proposed to build a motorway in my constituency through a site of special scientific interest at Oxleas Wood. They have now withdrawn that proposal, but I do not share Conservative Members' confidence in the private finance initiative. Although the Government have dropped their plans to build a motorway across the Thames in east London—which would have doubled car traffic in my constituency and in Eltham—they support a private sector design, finance, build and operate initiative for a toll bridge in that area.

I agree with the comments the hon. Member for Worcester about the availability of car parking. It is a hidden subsidy on the car user and, if it were taken into account when assessing the relative costs of public and private transport, it would tilt the scales in favour of public transport. Local authorities should examine that matter in terms of the guidance that they must issue under the Bill. I do not agree that the Bill is anti-bypass. The Minister and I made that point in response to the hon. Member for Keighley (Mr. Waller). In some cases, a bypass may reduce congestion and pollution and increase quality of life.

The Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology has referred to transport sustainability and the growth in carbon dioxide emissions. It has said that, if road traffic is to do its pro rata share of reducing national emissions of carbon dioxide, vehicle mileage must be reduced by between 20 per cent. and 33 per cent. Local authorities can play an important part in producing plans that could lead to a reduction in car usage. We are not opposed to car ownership but we are trying to reduce reliance upon the private vehicle while improving public transport.

As the hon. Member for Worcester said, accessibility to schools should not be accompanied by bad planning. Local authorities can do a great deal to encourage shared car use and safe routes to school. There are many examples of good practice in many areas.

I welcome the decisions that the Secretary of State has taken more recently against out-of-town shopping centres. These centres have increased car usage and have reduced the quality of life of many people in city areas who do not have access to a private motor vehicle. In many instances they have lost shops, the local post office, the local chemist and the rest. Those people should have their interests taken into account.

I share the view expressed by the hon. Member for Nottingham, South (Mr. Simpson). I, too, am sorry that targets have not been set out in the Bill, as we would have liked. That, however, is not an argument for opposing the Bill. The measure is a good first step in the right direction. I hope that in the next Parliament we shall build upon it.

There are benefits to be obtained from sound planning policies, including encouragement to use public transport. My hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, South mentioned his twin town of Karlsruhe, where passengers can use a tram and arrange for the driver to telephone for a taxi, which will pick them up on leaving the tram. There are many imaginative proposals to enable local authorities to work with and develop public transport undertakings and cab operators.

I commend the Bill. It is the first step on the right road. I hope that it will receive support from hon. Members on both sides of the House.

1.51 pm
Mr. Hartley Booth (Finchley)

I am grateful to have the opportunity to contribute to the debate. I have a personal interest because I am chairman of the all-party urban affairs group. I have no financial interest. At the same time, I have been concerned for many years about the vital issue of reducing traffic in our cities as an agent of economic growth, as mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, North-East (Mr. Congdon).

I very much support the spirit that lies behind the Bill and I am glad that the measure has been introduced. It is clear that the Bill will stimulate debate. With great respect, I do not agree with the proposed solution as a whole. At the same time, however, I agree with part of it. If we only debate these great issues, having been stimulated by my friend, if I may so call him, the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster), he has done us a service. I have much respect for the hon. Gentleman, bearing in mind his interventions in Committee when we considered the Education Bill. I found the hon. Gentleman's contributions to be helpful and constructive. I was muzzled as a mere parliamentary private secretary, but I listened carefully to him.

Road traffic reduction is subject to about eight principles, which I shall go through quickly. There is a series of rights and wrongs that represent the way to go forward. I have many points to make because I have thought about the issues over many years. First is the guiding principle that we should have freedom to choose. The individual should be free to choose the best way of reducing road traffic and emissions, for example. We do not want to get into the French and/or socialist technique of dirigisme, of control from the centre—"You may not use your car or bus, whatever, on the streets."

We should reduce traffic not only for the eminent reasons that are stated in the excellent document from the Library, but because of my second principle, which has to do with the character of our neighbourhoods and cities. That is being destroyed by the practice of in-filling between houses, which has been the guiding rule of planners. As a consequence, more and more cars are on the street. The spaces by the side of our homes where cars could be parked have been used for more houses. Lateral thinking is required from the Department of the Environment and the Department of Transport, so that planning and transport decisions can be linked.

My third principle concerns the interchange of transport—intermodality is the modern phrase—which is desperately important. To my horror and shame, because it occurred under a Conservative Government, Liverpool Street station, the great cathedral to modern railways, was refurbished without provision for a car park. No thought was given to providing adequate interchange between different modes of transport. How many hon. Members know of a bus stop, apart from the out-of-city, park-and-ride facilities, that has a dedicated car park? People have not thought through the problem of intermodality: changing from a car to public transport. That applies right through the system.

No group of people in Imperial college in London or in the Department of Transport is dedicated to intermodality. There are dedicated groups to study transport, water, rail, road and air, but there is no dedicated group to consider ways of getting people from one means of transport to another. There should be, and we should have a debate about it.

My fourth principle is the provision of more comfortable transport. We should think about comfort in transport to magnetise people away from their cars—their metal capsules—and into public transport. I have thought for many years that the Thames could be an amazing facility for public transport. Boats could come up from Woolwich, on which breakfast could be served. They could be comfortable boats of the future, and could have car parks at the access points. There is scope for greater comfort in public transport to encourage people to use it.

My fifth principle is that councillors throughout the country should be given guidance on best practice. The hon. Member for Woolwich (Mr. Austin-Walker) referred to the practice in Germany.

My sixth principle is the better use of science: reference to that has already been made. The experiment with hopper buses is a fascinating example of the better use of public transport, and has led to much reduced emissions. They could be used by elderly folk or people who would otherwise be tempted to use their cars for lack of comfortable transport. We should be imaginative and use science better.

My seventh principle relates to what the hon. Member for Bath said, with which I partly agree. We should put this matter on the agenda of every council. Years ago, I was impressed by the fact that a number of key companies around the country improved their environmental standards merely by putting concern for the environment on the agenda of every meeting of directors. Traffic reduction must be put on the agenda of local authorities.

My eighth and last principle is that we must not go down the route suggested by the hon. Member for Bath, which would make more work for bureaucrats. They may report to local councils every year, but that is not the stimulus we need. It is not the science that we need, and this is not the right Bill—although the hon. Gentleman has stimulated me and others to debate the matter. I happen to believe that this is the wrong Bill, and I am afraid that I am one of those who oppose it, but for the thought-out reasons that I have explained.

1.59 pm
Mr. David Congdon (Croydon, North-East)

It was very interesting listening to the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster). I had the pleasure of serving on the Committee dealing with the Bill, and I listened to his thoughts on this important subject at that time. The most ironic part of his speech today was when he talked about going out with a television crew. I thought to myself, "I bet they didn't go on a bus or a train." Sure enough, they ended up in a traffic jam.

That sums up everything one needs to say about the Bill. No one can disagree with it, because who does not want to see traffic reduced? But I have to say that, despite all the support it has received—and I am one of those who support it—it has the whiff of gesture politics. It contains a wish list of things we would like to see but, as my hon. Friend the Member for Worcester (Mr. Luff) made clear, we want other people to get out of their cars and go by train or bus so we can make our journeys more quickly. That is the heart of the difficulty with a Bill of this nature.

A fundamental point which came out following some of the representations we received was that although it is laudable to try to reduce traffic levels, it is the wrong target. A far more important target is the level of congestion. It does not matter if an extra car is on a road where traffic is flowing freely. Some people disagree with that, but many journeys made by car are economic and efficient—and some are far more efficient than journeys by public transport. I can give an illustration of this. Most journeys made outside peak transport times—particularly journeys made during the evening—across country or across towns are made by car.

Mr. Booth

Does my hon. Friend want us to go down the route towards the system used in Paris and other continental cities, which requires delivery lorries to deliver during the hours of nightfall?

Mr. Congdon

My hon. Friend makes an important point. What causes the real problems in our cities and on our roads? Traffic volume causes problems, but the crucial thing is people parking in bad positions. Many of the problems are caused by delivery lorries and vans parking near junctions or traffic lights to deliver during the day. There are difficulties in taking that too far, because some people would not like heavy lorries in residential areas at night, but a balance must be struck.

That leads me to another important point. The emphasis should be more on improving the flow of traffic, hence reducing congestion, rather than on volume. I have lived in London all my life, and it is fair to say that London—particularly south London—has had little improvement to its road network. I am not arguing for massive new road building. I was opposed to the south London assessment studies, as the hon. Member for Woolwich (Mr. Austin-Walker) and other Members would have been. We have had little in terms of simple junction improvements to significantly reduce congestion.

How often does one find when one drives that the traffic grinds to a halt either because a delivery lorry is parked on a junction, or because someone is wanting to turn right, thus preventing traffic from flowing? A lot more could be done to improve the capacity of the road system in a city such as London, without major new road building.

Some of the approaches of traffic plans and traffic managers in town halls slow up traffic and cause congestion. This is a delicate issue. In residential roads, it is right to want to slow up cars. On roads that are used by more traffic, the balance is too far the other way. Certainly, in my area of Croydon, there seems to be a fascination and obsession with putting "Keep Left" signs at every point down a road, which effectively create a barrier. It is dangerous, because buses have to weave in and out. Although it slows down the traffic, which one could say is a good objective, and aids safety, it affects the flow and increases congestion.

Let me turn again to the objective of the Bill: reducing the volume of road traffic. What I am not clear about, and it did not come out clearly in Committee, is how many of the people who support the Bill are thinking in terms of simply reducing the rate of growth in traffic, which is a laudable objective, and how many are unrealistically thinking that, somehow, we can reduce the absolute level of traffic.

That crucial point needs to be addressed because, as I said in my intervention, the big driver behind the growth in traffic is increased wealth. In that sense, it does not matter what local authorities put in these plans. If our economy achieves good levels of economic growth—2.5 per cent., 3 per cent., or let us say 3.5 per cent. even; I would love to see that, although some people might not—as sure as night follows day, there would be big increases in traffic volumes. Conversely, we may want an absolute reduction in the level of traffic.

Let us return to the economic climate of the 1960s and 1970s, when we did not achieve good economic performance. If we went back to the standard of living then, we would have much lower levels of traffic, as fewer people would have cars. I am sure that that cannot be the objective. People aspire to own cars and want to use them. The challenge is to ensure that we can somehow contain the negative sides of their impact.

Pollution is an important issue and is linked to that of volume. I support the Government's determination to reduce the level of pollution from transport, but again I find it ironic that, when I drive to the House, most of the time at such odd hours—it is not quite so bad on a Friday—the worst pollution seems to come from lorries and buses. I am repeatedly told that public transport is marvellous and clean. It would be a brave person who would say that buses are clean. They seem to spew out filth from their diesel engines. I have a real concern about that.

Pollution is a problem and it is a legitimising factor behind the Bill. I readily concede that, because, as I have said, anything that can be done to help to restrain the rate of growth in traffic is useful, but I suspect that far more significant changes in reducing pollution will come when we get an alternative to the internal combustion engine, which surely as a society we are going to have to have. I do not want to turn the clock back, with all of us going around on horses and carts and never being able to visit people. We travel around because we want to do things.

Mr. Booth

I am grateful to be allowed to intervene a second time on my hon. Friend. Does he agree that, in Victorian times, people bemoaned the fact that the congestion of the horse and cart and of carriage transport was terrible? Apparently, the stench from the manure from the horses was so noxious that a number of legal actions took place over that at the time

Mr. Congdon

My hon. Friend makes a timely intervention to remind us that, back in those times, there was severe congestion from the horse-drawn transport, but, perhaps even more significantly, there was a somewhat different and perhaps more devastating pollution problem. At that time, forecasts were made, presumably by the predecessors of the Department of Transport—I do not know what it called itself in those days; perhaps the Department of the horse or something like that—that manure would be piled high to first-floor level. That never happened.

It is interesting to note that although congestion is bad, it will find its own level, in that it has to end when people cannot travel anywhere. The transport challenge is to have alternatives to the car so that people can move about their cities when they need to. I am happy to support the Bill, but with the reservation that it may not achieve its objective.

2.9 pm

The Minister for Railways and Roads (Mr. John Watts)

The hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) has given my views on the Bill's principles and outlined the important changes that were made in Committee. That relieves me of the task of repeating them. I shall deal briefly with some of the issues that hon. Members have raised.

My hon. Friend the Member for Worcester (Mr. Luff) spoke about the fallacy into which the House often falls of believing that legislation can change the world, and always for the better. My hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, North-East (Mr. Congdon) spoke about the danger of creating a wish list or of indulging in gesture politics. I had such fears about the notion of starting with the imposition of national targets. That would be gesture politics, because we do not have the policy levers to deliver such targets nationally.

Focusing on local targets and on practical local measures to achieve them makes the legislation practical. The Bill does not engage in gesture politics, but suggests practical ways to resolve problems at local level. My hon. Friend the Member for Worcester cited some practical measures that have already been taken by public transport operators to increase the use of public transport by making it more convenient and accessible. Local authorities that follow the Bill and the guidance that will be issued under it will support such measures in co-operation with public transport operators, whether they are train or bus companies or both working together.

My hon. Friend the Member for Worcester emphasised the importance of wide consultation. That is vital. If practical results are to be delivered, there must be local consensus on what is needed, what the targets should be and what is needed to achieve them. I have no difficulty whatever in joining the hon. Member for Bath in agreeing with my hon. Friend that parish councils should be included in such consultations. They should also include the business community, schools, hospitals, substantial organisations and groups of residents. They all need to be on board if the right solution to local problems is to be identified.

The Bill, as amended, recognises that some developments will generate traffic and that the effects will not automatically be deleterious. That is why the Bill requires authorities to identify the need to set targets and, in reply to a point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, North-East, introduce practical measures that can deliver them. Hon. Members have spoken about the British Road Federation and the Confederation of British Industry. Coincidentally, I am shortly to meet representatives of both bodies.

I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Worcester that the Bill is not a quick fix but a well-thought-out, longer-term strategy for striking a balance between our desire to protect the environment in which we live and which we enjoy, while ensuring that our mobility needs, personally or in the course of our economic activities, are met. We must not fall victim to stifling congestion. The Bill is not anti-car. As I said on Second Reading, if we fail to tackle the problems of congestion, that will not benefit those who need to use cars or business vehicles. Nor is this an anti-bypass measure. If traffic can be taken away from a town or village where it is inflicting a poor-quality environment and routed elsewhere without generating more traffic, that would not be contrary to the objectives of reducing traffic or traffic growth, and would be an environmental.

The hon Member for Woolwich (Mr. Austin-Walker) referred to the importance of sustainability and to the safer routes to school initiative which many local authorities are promoting. We need to consider safer cycle routes. When I was in Plymouth recently, I saw new cycle routes alongside major roads, and a new type of crossing called a toucan, which is not just for pedestrians but for cyclists.

Yesterday, I was in Taunton and travelled on a gas-powered bus to Bristol. The use of alternative fuels with lower emissions, particularly for public transport vehicles, is one way in which we can achieve some of our environmental objectives. At Bristol Temple Meads station, I presented a special ticket to the 10,000th Great Western passenger who had made use of its new facility to buy a bus ticket while on the train. Virgin Rail is another company introducing advance taxi bookings from the train. It is trying to make a public transport journey as seamless as a car journey where somebody walks out of the front door and stays in the car until he or she reaches the office or another destination.

My hon. Friend the Member for Finchley (Mr. Booth), in a thoughtful but brief speech, set out certain principles that he thought important. I did not note all eight of them, but I certainly agree that freedom of choice is very important. By improving the quality of public transport provision, we will extend the real choice that people have. I do not believe that many people make a conscious choice to get into a car and sit in a traffic jam. Many of them choose the car because they see no alternative.

My hon. Friend also stressed the importance of improving interchanges between different transport modes. We are seeing many good examples from private rail and bus operators, often in co-operation with enlightened local authorities that provide such facilities. My hon. Friend also made the point about the need to spread knowledge of best practice. Where there are good initiatives in some areas, that knowledge needs to be spread widely so that the same solutions can be applied elsewhere.

I endorse entirely my hon. Friend's suggestion that we need to make better use of science, and apply technology more imaginatively. He said that he believed that it was sensible to put environmental issues on the agenda. That is what the Bill will do. It will require every traffic authority to consider the level of traffic in its area, its future trends and what needs to be done about it. He also made the point that we should not just generate more work for bureaucrats. Amending the Bill so that in England we can set targets in guidance that would be part of the annual transport policies and programme round is one way in which we can ensure that we achieve those beneficial objectives without imposing new and unnecessary burdens on local authorities.

My hon. Friend the Member for Croydon North-East referred to the impact of ill-thought-out and inconsiderate parking, and the need for smaller measures to improve traffic flow on our urban roads. I agree that, in implementing traffic management and calming measures, the devil is often in the detail. One cannot simply take a particular engineering feature out of a design patent book and stick it down anywhere and expect it to work. It is often in the detail that the problems arise. That is why local consultation is vital if such measures are to be effective.

The Bill suggests targets to reduce not just the absolute level of traffic—that may be possible in some circumstances—but to reduce traffic growth. My hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, North-East also said that there is, apparently, an inexorable link between growth of traffic and gross domestic product. We do not know which way round that relationship works, but he will be interested to know that our expert advisory committee, the Standing Advisory Committee on Trunk Road Assessments, has been given the remit to study that relationship. We await its findings with great interest.

I have given a brief response, but necessarily so. I commend the Bill to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill read the Third time, and passed.