HC Deb 09 December 1998 vol 322 cc233-56

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

9.33 am
Mr. Tom Brake (Carshalton and Wallington)

I am pleased to have secured this debate and to have the chance to question the Government closely on the aims of their transport policies. Everyone recognises the need to do something about congestion and traffic. The Government's recent White Paper, "A New Deal for Transport: Better for Everyone", and their consultation paper, "Breaking the Logjam", are welcome, and make constructive suggestions about how to improve public transport, increase cycling and achieve a modal switch. However, "Breaking the Logjam" has introduced an element of confusion about whether the proceeds from road user charging will be entirely given over to transport projects. To underline that point, I shall quote the document, which says that the Secretary of State will be given powers to require a proportion of the revenue to be paid to central government. That does not sound as though all proceeds will be spent on public transport schemes.

I hope that there will soon be an opportunity—perhaps by way of another Adjournment debate—to discuss the most practical ways of cutting car use. Indeed, hon. Members may refer to such measures during the debate. I am seeking to establish the degree of the Government's commitment to achieving road traffic reduction. I want to ask crucial questions and, to ensure that the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions, the hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich (Mr. Raynsford), is able to respond to them in detail, I faxed them to his office yesterday. I look forward to his comprehensive responses.

Labour fought the election promising that it would reduce traffic levels. Its promise—which appeared in its policy handbook, on the election website and in policy briefings—was that it would reduce and then reverse traffic growth. It was clearly a two-stage promise: first to reduce traffic growth, and then to reverse it. The second stage of that promise was crystal clear.

Labour's White Paper was also crystal clear, if somewhat unsatisfactory. It referred to setting the framework to reduce road traffic growth. That does not deliver on the second stage of Labour's election promise.

It is true that the Government have promised to reduce traffic in specific areas. Paragraph 1.35 of the White Paper says: We also want to see an absolute reduction in traffic in those places … where its environmental damage is worst. That is welcome, but it still forgets the earlier, clear promise to cut the total level of traffic.

Further impetus has been given to the need for traffic reduction by the findings of Sir Donald Acheson, the former chief medical officer, who has just completed his inquiry into inequalities in health. Sir Donald recommended further measures to reduce the use of motor cars so as to lessen health inequalities and social exclusion in three areas. He said that reducing traffic would decrease air pollution and probably also reduce road traffic accidents. The benefit of the decreases is likely to be gained most by people experiencing disadvantage. That is true, and those suffering most disadvantage are the poor and the socially excluded. Sir Donald went on to say that reducing road traffic would also reduce deaths in young men, and would improve the health of ethnic minorities. He found that areas

with high proportions of ethnic residents … are associated with a high rate of traffic accidents amongst children from some minority ethnic groups. Will Labour keep both parts of the promise that it made before the election and reverse traffic growth? Will it heed Sir Donald's advice and reduce traffic, and put health first and cars second? I should also like the Under-Secretary to clarify statements made by the Deputy Prime Minister, and to explain apparent contradictions between those statements and others released by his Department. The Deputy Prime Minister has been admirably clear about his intentions in his current job. Shortly after coming to power, he told The Guardian:

I will have failed if in five years time there are … not far fewer journeys by car. It's a tall order but I urge you to hold me to it. After the publication of the White Paper, in the House, I challenged the Deputy Prime Minister specifically on his words in The Guardian and on Labour's promise to reverse traffic growth. He said: I agree to keep to that commitment: judge my performance in five years."—[Official Report, 20 October 1998; Vol. 317, c. 1071.] I was pleased to hear him confirm his promises. However, since then, others in his Department have undermined that promise. Fourteen days later, the Minister for Transport in London in answer to a parliamentary question, said: in order to tackle the congestion and pollution that is caused by road traffic, we need to reduce the rate of road traffic growth."— [Official Report, 3 November 1998; Vol. 318, c. 458.] On 13 November, she wrote to me ostensibly to clarify what the Deputy Prime Minister had so clearly told me. However, the letter did not clarify it—it changed it completely, saying that Labour intended to reduce the rate of growth in traffic, although it stated that there would be an absolute reduction in traffic in those areas where the most environmental damage is done.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Mr. Nick Raynsford)

indicated assent.

Mr. Brake

The Minister is nodding his head, but the letter failed to restate the crucial second stage of Labour's election promise to reverse traffic growth so as to reduce the overall level of traffic. On 3 December, Lord Whitty, the Minister for Roads and Road Safety, publicised a speech that he was making at the Chartered Institute of Transport. His press release yet again failed to confirm Labour's pre-election promise to reverse traffic growth. It did promise traffic reduction in some areas—again—but, as I have said, that does not deliver Labour's promises.

At the end of his press release, Lord Whitty introduced a new phrase. He promised: The New Deal for Transport and the two Road Traffic Reduction Acts will help to provide the framework for the Government's commitment to deliver a real reduction in road traffic. The contradictions in his speech continued. In the third paragraph, he restated the formula that there would be a reduction in traffic growth, and an absolute reduction, but only in some areas; in the fourth paragraph, he confirmed that the Deputy Prime Minister's promise in regard to reducing car journeys had not changed.

Cynical people have suggested that that could be setting the stage for a ridiculous U-turn: that the Deputy Prime Minister aims to cut the number of journeys made, but will allow those that remain to become twice as long. If that is the case, the Deputy Prime Minister will not only look ridiculous, but still be breaking the promises that Labour made before the election, and the personal assurance that he gave me in the House on 20 October that he would keep both those promises.

Let me ask the Under-Secretary some more questions. Do the Government still intend to keep the promises given by the Deputy Prime Minister—in the House, and to The Guardian—to reduce traffic, or does the so-called clarification in the letter that I received from the Minister for Transport in London mean that those promises have been abandoned? Can the Under-Secretary confirm that—as the Deputy Prime Minister made clear in answering my question—the Government intend to reduce absolute traffic levels in the United Kingdom, and not just to cut the number of journeys without ensuring that that results in an absolute reduction in traffic? Can he confirm that real traffic reduction, as described in his Department's press release, means that there will be less traffic on our roads?

Let me list some pledges of support for traffic reduction given by other Ministers. I shall begin with the Under-Secretary himself. On 30 October 1996, he wrote to a constituent in order to just reiterate my support for traffic reduction, both locally and nationally. After the election, in August 1997, he wrote to his local newspaper—the Greenwich Mercury, of which I have a copy here— I have always made my views clear … our overriding priority must be to reduce the total volume of traffic". I stress the words "total volume of traffic." The Under-Secretary's position certainly was clear, but, as the White Paper has confused the issue somewhat, I ask him to confirm that that is still the case.

The Minister for Transport in London has also made her position clear, and, because of her particular responsibilities, has had far more opportunities to put her views on record. In Hampstead high street, during the run-up to the general election, she made it plain to her constituents that she supported traffic reduction; during the same period, she also signed early-day motion 289. Both declarations went further than what has been said by the Under-Secretary, as they expressed support for a target of a 10 per cent. traffic reduction by 2010.

Since taking her current job, the Minister for Transport in London has repeatedly stated her support for traffic reduction. During the passage of the Road Traffic Reduction (National Targets) Bill earlier this year, she restated that commitment no fewer than seven times. On Third Reading, she said: The country cannot continue as it is—there must be a reduction in road traffic."—[Official Report, 24 April 1998; Vol. 310, c. 1119.] Will the Under-Secretary confirm that his colleague will keep those promises, and will go further than she did in her letter to me, which states merely that the Government will reduce the rate of traffic growth?

The Minister for the Environment told the "Today" programme in December last year that Labour would deliver a major change in the use of transport and the reduced use of cars and vehicles on the road. He had previously told his constituents that he supported the same 10 per cent. targets as the Minister for Transport in London—and her early-day motion—although, unlike her, he had not signed the early-day motion, because of his position on the Front Bench.

Can the Under-Secretary confirm that the Government will deliver on those promises? As a Back Bencher in opposition, he was able to sign early-day motions, and did so—again, making his position very clear, and supporting a reduction in traffic.

The newest arrival at the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions, the hon. Member for Mansfield (Mr. Meale), also supports traffic reduction. Just two days before the general election, he wrote to a constituent who had asked for his views on a Bill to set 10 per cent. national traffic reduction targets: Many thanks for your letter … I would support such a Bill. I have the hon. Gentleman's letter here. As a Back Bencher, he stuck to that promise, and, in further letters written in July and September, he told constituents that he had signed early-day motion 18 and assured them that he would support the national targets Bill on Second Reading. I have those letters as well. In the event, there was no vote, but the hon. Gentleman's intentions are clearly set out in letters to constituents. Will Labour deliver on his promises, and all those of other Ministers in the Department?

In the Labour party overall, more than 40 Ministers have declared their support for 10 per cent. traffic reduction targets. Eighty per cent. of Labour Members have supported those targets, and even more have declared support for traffic reduction without specifying a figure. Will the Government keep the promises made by all those Members of Parliament, or will they be abandoned by a policy that, rather feebly, aims only to reduce traffic growth?

Those questions are crucial. According to the very first paragraph of Labour's White Paper: the way we travel is damaging our towns and cities and harming our countryside. That refers to current traffic volumes, not the even-greater volumes that we shall experience in future if the Government merely reduce traffic growth and ignore the damage that traffic is causing to our children, our industry, our health and our economy.

There is enormous support for traffic reduction. Support has been expressed by, among other organisations, the Townswomens Guild, the Womens Institute, the British Medical Association, the British Lung Foundation, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, the National Asthma Campaign and the Childrens Play Council. The list goes on and on. The Government know that, because they received 7,300 replies to their consultation document on transport policy. Page 12 of "The Government's Consultation on Developing an Integrated Transport Policy: A Report" states:

Almost everyone wanted to see a reduction in road traffic. We need traffic reduction. In the wealth of statements that the Government have issued since the White Paper, we have seen endless variations on phrases using the words "traffic" and "reduction", almost always spoilt by the addition of words such as "growth" and "in some areas". However, the Department's press release of 3 December introduced a new word: "real". It stated: The New Deal for Transport and the two Road Traffic Reduction Acts will help to provide the framework for the Government's commitment to deliver a real reduction in road traffic. My final question to the Under-Secretary is this. Does "real" traffic reduction mean an increase or a decrease in the amount of traffic on the roads in the United Kingdom? He ought to tell the people of Britain exactly what his Government are planning, and not hide behind even more ingenious and tortuous phrases that avoid making their plans clear. He should answer this question, yes or no: does the Government's "real reduction in road traffic" mean fewer cars on our roads?

9.48 am
Mr. David Chaytor (Bury, North)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Mr. Brake) on the eloquence with which he has put his case for traffic reduction, which is the crucial environmental issue of our time. However, his case was undermined by his all-pervasive cynicism about the motivation of every Minister, past and present. I am sure that the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions, my hon. Friend the Member for Greenwich and Woolwich (Mr. Raynsford) will put him right in regard to the Government's motivation.

I also think that the Liberal Democrats would help their case more if they were consistent across the country. One of the major planks of Government policy—a policy instigated by the last Government—to secure traffic reduction is the fuel price escalator. Liberal Democrats in certain parts of the country are always saying that that is fine for urban areas, but not acceptable for rural areas. I feel that, if the Liberal Democrats wish to present a consistent policy nationally, they should not only put the case for their own areas—as they do, quite legitimately—but start talking to their colleagues who represent rural areas, and who do not yet seem convinced of the argument for the fuel price escalator.

Mr. Bernard Jenkin (North Essex)

Can the hon. Gentleman produce any evidence at all showing that increasing fuel prices affects the way in which people use their cars?

Mr. Chaytor

If the hon. Gentleman looked at work by the transport studies unit at Oxford university, he would find considerable evidence.

The real issue in rural areas is rural poverty. Not applying the fuel price escalator to rural areas does little about the core problem of rural poverty, which is far better addressed by wider economic policies and by the adjustment of standard spending assessments in the local government settlement to give an advantage to low-income families in rural areas and to compensate for the effect of any fuel price increase.

I shall be brief because I know that other hon. Members want to speak. I want to reiterate the arguments for road traffic reduction, however we define the precise means by which road traffic is reduced. First, it is critical that we reduce road traffic for reasons of mitigating pollution. We have accepted stringent targets following the Kyoto protocol. As a Government, we have put forward even more stringent targets voluntarily to meet targets on reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Cutting the use of the private car is one of the crucial means of reaching those targets.

Secondly, we have to reduce congestion to improve the quality of life for people in urban areas. The most recent report about traffic speeds in London tells us that, in some parts, the average speed of the private car is 10 miles an hour. That is no different from the average speed of vehicles 100 years ago. What is the purpose of developing the technology and that vast industry if all we are doing is clogging up the roads and turning our motorways into moving car packs?

Thirdly, we have to reduce traffic for reasons of health. Everyone is now aware of the chronic rise in asthma cases, particularly in urban areas. There is a direct relationship between the rise in road traffic and the rise in asthma and other respiratory diseases. Fourthly, we have to reduce road traffic for reasons of efficiency. It is not economically efficient to move people around the country in the way that we do, with such domination of the private car and with the consequent traffic jams, delays, missed appointments and additional expense.

I congratulate the Government on their latest statement, yesterday's Green Paper, which fulfils their promise to introduce action specifically on business parking in town centres and city centres and which gives local authorities the power to introduce congestion charging. Those are two admirable policies that further progress the Government's action, although there is more to do. There are three points particularly that I should like the Government to take on board. I am sure that many hon. Members would agree with me on those.

First, it is regrettable that, as yet, we have not extended the principle of taxation on town and city centre car parking spaces to out-of-town supermarkets. One of the most disastrous social and economic developments of recent years has been the rapid growth of huge out-of-town hypermarkets, which destroy the lifeblood of many of our small town centres and shopping centres. The point is that we do not have a level playing field because, in most small town centres, there is a car parking charge, but there is no car parking charge in the huge out-ofcentre hypermarkets. The overwhelming majority of hon. Members would argue for a level playing field to give town centres a chance of survival, particularly small traders in town centres.

Secondly, I urge the Government to look again at the company car tax regime. Everyone knows that the way in which the system operates provides incentives for company car owners to do more mileage. The system has to be changed. The thresholds have to be adjusted to provide an incentive to do less mileage.

Thirdly, I ask the Government to look again at the fuel tax escalator. It was brought in at 5 per cent. a year by the previous Government. It was increased to 6 per cent. a year by the present Government. Since then, oil prices have fallen to their lowest level since 1970. Is the 6 per cent. a year rise having sufficient effect, given the fall in oil prices, and the increased fuel efficiency that enables motorists to get more miles per gallon out of modern vehicles? The level of the fuel tax escalator needs to be kept under constant review.

An additional point relating to the fuel tax escalator is that it is a progressive tax, the reason being that 30 per cent. of the population are not affected by it. Thirty per cent. of the population do not own vehicles. By and large—there are some non-car owning families among the professional and managerial classes, but not many—it is the poorest third of the population who do not own vehicles. Therefore, they are not affected by the rise in petrol prices.

Wealth can be defined by not only the ownership and usage of vehicles, but the miles travelled by the vehicle. The richer a person is, the more likely it is that that person will own one or more cars and travel large distances in those cars. Therefore, the application of the fuel price escalator is a progressive measure in taxation terms. I appreciate that progressive taxation is not attractive to all hon. Members, but it should be to Labour Members.

For 100 years, we have defined the growing wealth of society in terms largely of the growth in material possessions and the motor car is the central material possession. We have defined our gross domestic product according to the number of motor cars produced. Our GDP increases the more cars we produce. It also increases the more car alarms and anti-theft devices we produce.

Is the dominance of, and reliance on, the motor car as a central economic indicator a sensible way in which to define the wealth and prosperity of society? That is not an issue for this debate, but it should be taken up in another debate. The time has come to review the way in which we define GDP. It is time that we considered other things in measuring the wealth and prosperity of a nation, the level of crime and the quality of the environment being two prime indicators that should be included.

I welcome the debate. The hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington has raised important points and asked important questions. I congratulate the Government on their achievements to date, but there is much more work to do.

9.58 am
Mr. Alan Clark (Kensington and Chelsea)

I had some sympathy with the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions, the hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich (Mr. Raynsford), as he listened to the past two speeches, as the Government are in a tangle because of manifesto commitments somewhat recklessly dispersed. I can understand the Minister for Transport in London, on the pavement, according to the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Mr. Brake), saying those things. As someone who went to that constituency in the last general election, I know that Hampstead high street is completely jammed seven hours a day. As people came up to her, complained and said, "What are you going to do about it?" she would say, "Oh yes. We are committed to traffic reduction," just as Labour was committed to reducing animal experiments in laboratories. It is having a bit of a problem on that commitment, too.

I will tell hon. Members how to reduce traffic: engineer a recession. That will reduce it fast enough. The first indicator of economic recovery is always a rise in traffic volumes. Traffic can be reduced in the same way as cash flow into supermarkets or holiday bookings with tour operators can be reduced: ensure that less money is circulating.

Of course, hon. Members do not really mean that they want to reduce traffic. They do not want to stop people moving about; certainly the Government could not possibly want to stop people moving about. What they mean is that they want to reduce use of cars because, for various atavistic reasons, socialists and interventionist liberals do not like the motor car. They want public transport, and what is public transport? It is assembling a group of total strangers, putting them in a metal container, making them start from a starting point that was not their choice and conveying them to a destination that is inconvenient.

There was something to be said for trying to improve public transport and raise standards while it was genuinely public but, thanks to measures taken by the Conservative party—but not when I was in this place—there is no longer any such thing as genuine public transport anywhere. It is simply a monopoly that is determined to extract as much profit as possible from those who use it. As a result, quality has not improved. If anything, it has fallen because, instead of a monopoly dominated by the trade union movement, so one could not complain, and run for its convenience, there is now a monopoly run to enhance the profit of shareholders—those who own so-called public transport, by which I mean the metal containers that convey total strangers from destination to destination. Therefore, public transport is as dirty, squalid, inefficient and unreliable as it was in the old days. Public transport is a complete chimera.

I have read with great anxiety that some of the taxes that are to be levied on cars will be hypothecated to local authorities, which will be directed to use the money for public transport. In other words, it will be used to enhance the profits of Stagecoach, Branson and so forth, at the expense of imposing great inconvenience on the car owner and private individuals who like to get about under their own power, according to their choice and at their convenience by making the best use of technology.

The hon. Member for Bury, North (Mr. Chaytor) mentioned pollution, and his argument was valid. The pollution generated by old cars is probably high. The Morris Minor, which is the most favoured transport of the sandal-wearing brigade, generates far more pollution than a modern Audi and is also extremely difficult to drive while wearing sandals—I have tried it and it is dangerous.

I shall listen with care to the Under-Secretary's reply, as he has quite a juggling act to perform. Everyone wants to reduce traffic in their immediate vicinity, naturally. All our constituents want to "reduce traffic" in particular locations within the constituency boundaries. However, people do not face up to the principal element of the argument, which is that traffic volumes are an indicator of economic prosperity. The argument is used as a cover for getting at the car.

The fact is that car use emphasises everything that is congenial and acceptable in today's political climate. It has elements of freedom, choice, mobility, convenience, technology and, I admit, elements of a certain competitive consumerism, which is highly economically generative, as the hon. Member for Bury, North said.

Naturally, hon. Members have every interest in ensuring that car use is responsible. We are here to legislate for that. However, we cannot legislate it out of existence, or even attempt to do so. If the Government do, they will not only add enormously to the economic burdens felt by practically every citizen, but—as the Under-Secretary and his colleague the Whip are probably aware—in the long run, they will make themselves electorally extremely unpopular.

10.4 am

Mrs. Teresa Gorman (Billericay)

Far be it from me to try to elaborate on the description that my right hon. Friend the Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Mr. Clark) gave of public transport, but another inconvenience of travelling by that means is the chance that one has in winter of catching a nasty cold or some other disease. That always happens to me when I use public transport.

I am amazed at the sanctimonious humbug talked on these occasions and I think of the old adage, "Make me pure, O God, but not just yet." If we ask people who speak against the motor car how many their family owns, they usually um and ah, but admit finally that they have one for themselves, of course they use it only occasionally, one for the wife, who only goes shopping in it, and one for the other grown-up members of the family, who use it only in the evening.

It is true that this country has a large number of private cars, but when I have discussed the subject with, for example, Ford and have asked, "How can you possibly sell all those new cars?" I am told that people buy them not merely to drive but as status symbols. The car sits on the front drive, the neighbours admire it and everyone knows that one is going up in the world. That is part of the joy of owning a car.

Although there are, apparently, 20 million cars on our roads, they are not all on the road at the same time—far from it, some hardly leave the garage except once a year for a visit to relatives at Christmas, for example. The number of cars owned is irrelevant to the amount of use to which they are put. Everyone knows that one can buy a good used car, which someone has owned for a year but which has only 90 miles on the clock—a bargain, I believe.

An awful lot of nonsense is talked on the subject and there are a lot of myths. First, on the pollution myth, particulates—the little bits of stuff that come out of the exhaust—emitted by modern motor cars have been reduced by about 90 per cent. Modern technology is such that motor cars will soon not pump much out of their rear ends apart from fresh air. Of course, there will be some products of combustion but, as I have said so many times in the House that I feel I am almost becoming boring, carbon dioxide in the atmosphere amounts to such a tiny quantity that it is not a great threat to our atmosphere and environment.

Mr. Chaytor

If the hon. Lady really believes that carbon dioxide levels in the environment are no threat, can she explain why all nations are conscious of the need to act against greenhouse gas emissions? Why did they meet 12 months ago in Kyoto to negotiate a difficult programme of action and two months ago in Buenos Aires to negotiate the further details of means by which they can reduce emissions? Does she completely reject the argument that greenhouse gas emissions cause an unacceptable build-up of carbon dioxide and impact on global warming and climate change? Who else in the world shares her view?

Mrs. Gorman

A great many scientists share that view. There are about 300 parts of carbon dioxide to 1 million in the atmosphere, which is the equivalent of throwing a sugar cube in Loch Lomond. Carbon dioxide has been targeted because it is a product of certain industrial activities that people dislike, so it is an easy substance to blame. Water vapour is far more important as a so-called greenhouse gas, but no one complains about that as it is obviously foolish to try to do anything about it because water covers three quarters of the globe. Perhaps we should have the science lesson on another day.

We talk about our streets being congested, but everyone knows that it is easy to get around at certain times of day. It is not congestion but congestion of use that is the problem. During the school holidays, we can all drive much more freely because mothers are not taking their children to school. We must devise ways to spread traffic and one way is road pricing—an idea that never seems to be taken up because it is deemed to be difficult to implement. I know people who will not cross the Dartford bridge because they have to pay £1. They would rather go all the way round to save £1, which tells us that drivers are price sensitive. If they were required to pay for the amount of road used on a journey, it would make them decide whether that journey was necessary.

I shall briefly describe the experience in other parts of the world, as I have lived in the United States, Canada, Mexico and Australia and I often travel to the continent, for example to Germany, and have taken an interest in traffic problems for years. For example, New York did away with parking meters in the heart of the city, which meant that traffic could flow freely. Anybody travelling through Soho or Mayfair or the centre of any city in the day will see narrow roads with parking meters on both sides, reducing access to a narrow central lane. They must think that we are crazy because we are blocking our arteries for the sake of a few measly pounds. I know that Westminster city council regards the revenue from parking meters as a nice little extra, but it is not necessary or sensible to allow parking on our streets.

Most people who live in New York do not own cars. They use public transport during the week—mostly taxis—and hire cars at the weekends. That is the way of life of the well-to-do in some big cities.

Many cities in Germany do not allow lorries to stop between 7 am and 7 pm. There is no parking, no long-term deliveries and no stopping for five hours while builders put up scaffolding. All that has to take place during times when roads are less busy. Staggering the use of the roads reduces the problem. That is another sensible example. Instead of using the roads on an ad hoc basis, we should spread their use over different times of the day.

The lorry industry is having a bad time at the moment because of the fuel tax here. Fuel is very much cheaper on the continent and we are pricing our lorry drivers out of business. There are something like 250,000 lorries in British ownership, but far more come from the continent every day bringing large quantities of consumer goods, food and so on.

I use the M2, which runs from Dover to London and is crowded with lorries travelling nose to tail, all going into central London in the middle of the day. Although lorries are relatively few compared with cars, they are huge. I made some inquiries of the lorry owners and the big companies that use them. They told me that, because the great new lorries that are part of the EU requirements are so enormous, it is now cheaper to keep the goods on the lorries and keep them moving around our roadways 24 hours a day. In the old days, they took the stuff to a warehouse where it was unloaded on to smaller vehicles and taken to delivery points. We have created a position where lorries are moving around our main highways 24 hours a day because it is cheaper than stopping and unloading the cargo for distribution in small vans, perhaps at more convenient times.

We are not using our roads sensibly, so we can reasonably complain that congestion is difficult to manage at certain times of the day. I congratulate the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions, the hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich (Mr. Raynsford), on the number of red routes in his constituency. I have written to him to congratulate him on the one from Blackheath to New Cross. I hope that it is extended. Many of the main arteries into the centre of London become congested during the day because they have only single yellow lines. Taxi hire firms keep all their vehicles waiting along the road, half a dozen people are loading and unloading, somebody is putting up scaffolding and somebody else has popped down to the corner shop for a packet of tea. All that traffic is allowed to congest and disturb our roads, so it is not surprising that we have these debates from time to time.

Finally, our country is not covered with roads. If all the towns and streets were whacked together, they would represent only 15 per cent of the land mass of the United Kingdom. Therefore, we are a country that is largely rural and there is still plenty of space. The hysteria that we hear whenever anybody wants to improve the roads in Britain should be dealt with sensibly by setting out the facts.

We should have more and better roads. The lunatics in some Labour boroughs who widen the pavements for no good reason, and just reduce the space for motorists, ought to be curbed. We should come to terms with the fact that, these days, people prize their freedom and independence which, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Kensington and Chelsea said, is represented by their ability to jump in the car and take the family out for a nice day in the sun, or, for women, by the convenience of not having to drag bags of shopping from the local high street home on the bus. I remember doing that as a young woman and I would not want to go back to it. I use the out-of-town hypermarket precisely because it is so convenient and I hope to goodness that none of these curmudgeons are ever allowed to stop those developments. I hope that the Under-Secretary, who has the powers to make good and sensible use of our roads, will apply common sense and not the hysteria and humbug that we hear in attacks on the motorist.

10.16 am
Mr. Matthew Taylor (Truro and St. Austell)

We have heard some interesting speeches being made with genuine feeling, although I disagree with some of them. The hon. Member for Bury, North (Mr. Chaytor) said that the Liberal Democrats had not consistently supported the fuel price escalator. We have always taken the position that as the fuel price escalator produces more income, it will provide the opportunity to cut other taxes. I have always used that equation. We have argued that vehicle excise duty should be abolished for two thirds of vehicles—all small-engined vehicles. The Government decided to increase the fuel price escalator, although they could well have argued that they did not have sufficient room to manoeuvre as the existing fuel price escalator plans had been budgeted in for forward spending. In increasing the fuel price escalator, they could have applied a joint equation, but they did not. I consider that to be a failure because of my wider concern about environmental taxation becoming unpopular if it is used simply as a way to increase taxes.

I agree with the hon. Member for Bury, North about charging for parking at out-of-town shopping centres. I regret that that proposal was removed from the White Paper at a very late stage. I represent some rural market towns that suffer considerably as a result of out-of-town developments that were allowed by the previous Government, on appeal, against the wishes of the local community. They have had an enormous impact on town centres, particularly St. Austell which is now very run down.

I also agree with the hon. Gentleman that we need to keep the fuel price escalator under review. Although the Conservatives now kick up a lot of fuss about it—despite the fact that they introduced it in the first place—it has not had a measurably large impact at the pump, simply because the raw material price has been falling. If the price of the raw material rises and there are sharp increases at the pump, there will be strong public opposition to that and to the tax. Perhaps we should consider an escalator system that ties into the fuel prices at the pump rather than a simple percentage. It may be easier for the Treasury and the Government in terms of forward planning, but it may not produce the outcome that they seek in either direction. It may not lever up fuel prices gradually as intended; they may go up too fast or not at all, depending on the raw material costs.

The right hon. Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Mr. Clark) suggested that socialists and interventionist Liberals were anti-car. I am not. I like cars and I like driving, but I do not like traffic jams, congestion and pollution. If we are honest, we all know that we sometimes use the car when we do not need to, but perhaps more often we are forced to do so when we do not want to. Out-of-town shopping is a good example, as is the lack of public transport in some areas for getting to work.

The hon. Member for Billericay (Mrs. Gorman) referred to the number of cars which is a real problem in urban areas. In towns such as Truro, traditional terraced streets do not have the capacity for people to park outside their homes. The problem will get worse and will change the way in which people use cars. Quite irrespective of Government policy, the convenience of the car is considerably diminished if people cannot park outside their homes, and that is already causing fights. People put bollards outside their homes to stop people parking and neighbourhood disputes break out, yet the current level of car ownership is relatively low compared with the number of adults who could potentially own cars and say that they would like to in future. However, for the most part this is a debate about car ownership, not about car use. The hon. Member for Billericay acknowledged that.

Mrs. Gorman

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Taylor

I will not, because the hon. Lady spoke a moment ago. I have not said anything with which she would disagree and I am conscious of the time. She mentioned road pricing, which I will come to.

I want to anticipate an attack that we have heard previously from the Conservative Front Bench, although we have not heard it, interestingly enough, from the Back Benches today. The Conservative Front-Bench team has swung around entirely on its previous course and now puts itself up as the great opponent of the road fuel price escalator. When challenged on that, spokesmen say that it is the 1 per cent. that Labour has added that makes the difference, but in all their propaganda, they talk about the fuel price escalator as a whole. For the record, over 18 years, the Conservatives increased excise duty on fuel by 600 per cent. Between 1992 and 1996 alone, they raised £58 billion from fuel tax, of which £25 billion directly resulted from the imposition of the escalator.

In addition, the Conservatives sold off public transport services, took no action to stop the loss of rural bus routes and cut the money for transport packages for local authorities. They introduced deregulation of bus services, which has been an abject failure in improving rural bus services, which continue to decline. Privatisation of the railways has brought increased fares, massive increases in the number of complaints, massively increased overcrowding and, as the regulators themselves say, deteriorating services in many areas. The fuel price increases were not used to improve public transport services. Rail fares increased by 50 per cent. and bus fares increased by 40 per cent.

Mr. Jenkin

Will the hon. Gentleman acknowledge that during most of the period when we were increasing fuel excise duties, road fuels in this country were cheaper than on the continent, whereas now they are significantly more expensive, which is beginning to create market distortions? I should have thought that the hon. Gentleman's party was in favour of harmonisation of this sort of thing, being a pro-federalist party. When does the hon. Gentleman think that the fuel escalator ought to come to an end? No other country in the EU has a fuel escalator and if we keep it indefinitely, it will create more and more of a distortion.

Mr. Taylor

The previous Government did not give a timetable for ending the road fuel price escalator. It was budgeted in for the whole of the current period under Conservative plans. If it is now the policy of the Conservatives to stop it, perhaps they should say why it was not their policy before the general election and how they would make up the huge budget deficit that would result. I presume that they would do so by cutting the health and education improvements that have been made, which is, of course, what they have said they would do. However, they have said that they would do it to meet an existing tax deficit, not a new one.

The fundamental answer is that all countries, especially European countries, are now committed through the Kyoto agreement substantially to reduce carbon dioxide emission increases in Europe. Countries will have to follow paths that lead to reductions in fuel use. I congratulate the Conservatives on pioneering the road fuel price escalator. It is rather pathetic that they have reversed their position to court popularity now that they are out of office. I believe that they will find that the policy will be adopted by other countries.

Road traffic reduction has overwhelming support in this place, as has already been said. It has overwhelming support among Labour Members, let alone support from the Labour Front-Bench team in the past. I trust that if a road traffic reduction Bill with national targets was introduced, the Minister would not use his offices or the offices of the Labour Whips to prevent its being passed. No doubt there would be negotiations about the detail. There might even be negotiation about the target, but there should be no negotiation about the principle of road traffic reduction because it was a specific commitment in Labour's manifesto.

The arguments in the House have moved on a long way from when road traffic reduction was first proposed by the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mr. Dafis) in 1994. We then saw local targets introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Bath (Mr. Foster). The House is now far more in agreement on such issues, but the remaining areas of concern—economic damage, unrealistic targets and the possible regressive nature of traffic reduction—are still spoken about. It is our job to present the counter-arguments.

We have to remember that almost one third of households in Britain do not own a car. The majority of those people are poor, sick, disabled or elderly. The process of cutting unnecessary traffic growth and investing in public transport directly benefits those very poor people. In rural areas, we see some of the highest levels of dependency on cars and some of the highest levels of inability to afford them and of people without a car. The policies that have promoted the car have a direct and materially devastating impact on people in rural areas. If we introduce measures to make it less necessary to travel, such as more support for local schools and shops, and better planning so that road use is not built in as estates and shops are developed, we make it easier for people in both rural and urban areas to drive less. However, the main target of road traffic reduction will be urban areas.

I welcome the fact that the Government have built road traffic reduction into the London government Bill. It is crucial that that works; it will be a pioneering effort. If it is done right, it will show that more can be done across the rest of the country, so we give that measure support and we look for more. We hope to see a Bill for the rest of the country soon, but above all, we hope that the Government will stand by their manifesto pledge and back national road traffic reduction, not simply a reduction in the growth of road traffic.

10.26 am
Mr. Peter Bottomley (Worthing, West)

I apologise to the House for not being here at the beginning of the debate. I declare an interest in the Register of Members' Interests. I am chairman of a small Irish medium-tech company that counts cars going in and out of car parks. That is not relevant to the debate, but it is worth putting on the record. The hon. Member for Truro and St. Austell (Mr. Taylor) spoke about the railways. One of my brothers-in-law runs a railway company.

It is worth noting that the increase in the use of the railways has not come from the provision of extra railway lines. We are going to have more railway lines. We have had many more stations opened in the past 10 years than probably at any time in the past 80 years, but it is worth noting that it is possible to achieve greater transport use without creating more infrastructure. The people who have looked on the roads debate as one that suggests that the increase in the number of roads has led to an increase in the amount of traffic have got it completely wrong. Growth in traffic and in movement comes in the main from prosperity and from emancipation.

In the 1930s, the people who had cars were white, middle-aged men in full-time occupations. As soon as pensioners, students, ethnic minorities and women start to have their own car, people start to say, "Let us bring in a system of road pricing." Such a system would cut out the pensioners, the students, the poor, women and ethnic minorities. We are left with white, middle-class men in full-time occupations with a fistful of fivers in their back pocket who can continue driving. That is one of the reasons why direct charging in a conventional sense is wrong.

The debate today is not about road pricing; it is about road traffic reduction. I am one of those who has supported road traffic reduction Bills from the beginning, in part because it is the kind of thing that I supported when I was a Minister at the Department of Transport 13 years ago. This Government go around sloganising and saying that the previous Government went in for predict and provide. We did not. We built only some of the roads, which were essential. We did not go around building roads that were merely convenient.

For example, anyone who claimed that the Okehampton bypass was just a desirable thing did not understand what the problems were there. In some of the London boroughs, town centre bypass schemes, often strongly desired by local authorities, help to provide civilisation for people who otherwise have to compete, when they are shopping, going to school, going to church and living, with through traffic. Traffic, whether on railways or roads, should be, in effect, in traffic canals. That helps to reduce risk and improve the environment.

How can we sensibly reduce road traffic? Let us assume that Britain continues to grow at 2 per cent. a year for the next 100 years. That implies a material standard of living seven and a half times greater than now. Keynes told us that in his piece "Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren", published in "Essays in Persuasion". We ought always to remember that, even at 2 per cent. growth, which I argue is slightly below trend, many more people will be provided with the opportunity to own many more things. They will be able to own more homes and more cars, go on more holidays and do all sorts of things that are denied to many of them now. But I am talking about them not about us. We have a five-storey car park in the House of Commons. I am talking about the people whom we represent, who are among those who make 60 per cent. of their journeys on foot. My hon. Friend the Member for Billericay (Mrs. Gorman) asks why we widen the pavements; it is probably to make it more convenient for those who use them.

When people start talking about benefits from congestion charging, they should remember the example of the City of London. What level of road pricing would have been needed to achieve what sensible traffic planning achieved in the City with the so-called plastic bollard approach, which would have been implemented even without the IRA bomb? What level of charging would have excluded private traffic from Oxford street where, even now that there are only taxis and buses, pedestrians can move faster than traffic? The answer is not simply to charge.

One of the biggest changes since I became a Member of Parliament in 1975 is that most teachers then did not drive to school, whereas now most teachers do; then, most pupils were not driven to school, whereas now most are. Instead of telling pupils that they should not be driven to school, we should ask how we can identify the proportion of teachers, governors and pupils who come to school in ways other than by car and so have the figures, year by year. Then, we can start thinking about incentives: for example, if we go on improving schools, more people will go to the school that is nearer to them, instead of to one that is further away.

Perhaps we should do as the all-party cycling group suggested last evening and, instead of making pupils who go home by bike wait for 10 minutes until all the cars have gone, let pupils on bikes go 10 minutes early and hold back the pupils who will be collected by car. We can use small market signals such as that. It would certainly be worth putting on the national news the impact of the cycling provision in Oxford, which has led to almost a 40 per cent. reduction in cyclist casualties even before the extra benefits of having cycling helmets and reasonably well-maintained bikes are taken into account. In all those ways, we can begin to make a difference.

I have proposed before that the gates of the House of Commons car park should be locked, at least for one day a year and preferably for a week a year.

Mr. Chaytor

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Bottomley

I think that the hon. Gentleman must have his car parked here.

Mr. Chaytor

To pick up on the hon. Gentleman's point about the House of Commons car park, does he agree with me and a small number of other Members of Parliament that it would be entirely consistent with Government policy if a charge were imposed on car parking spaces in the House of Commons car park?

Mr. Bottomley

Perhaps, but I suspect that hon. Members would find some way of including the charge in their office cost expenses.

We have done one good thing in getting rid of the crazy system, which I opposed when it was first introduced, under which the bigger a Member of Parliament's car, the greater the mileage allowance given. We must remember that, if we point a finger at someone else, three fingers will point back at us, so we should first try the measures ourselves. For example, rather than ask the Fees Office to disclose the exact mileage claimed by each Member of Parliament, it might be a good idea to publicise the number of miles that Members of Parliament as a group claim each year, and then try to ensure that that figure decreases. It would be marvellous if the Deputy Prime Minister, instead of getting publicity for stopping to help elderly couples who break down on the motorway, got publicity for helping pensioners with suitcases to get down from a train. There are all sorts of individual measures we could take, but we should try them out ourselves first. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Mr. Clark) said, people like cars. I have nothing against cars—indeed, our household has two.

Unless we recognise the need for mobility of those who do not have access to a car, we shall not achieve our underlying goal of increasing people's well-being, which is a mixture of wealth and welfare, and helping them to have choices. In the City of London are some of the better-paid people in this country, yet 80 per cent. of them come to work by public transport, not because they cannot afford to drive—indeed, they are more likely than other people to own a car—but because it is not in their interests to drive. The option they take is a better option than driving. We must fix on that, for if our aim is to aid the mobility of those to whom choice is currently denied, we are far more likely to develop an attractive alternative for individuals who currently have a choice, but who too often choose to use their car.

I would caution the House against swallowing measures that are merely a passing fashion. An example of that is the Greater London lorry ban, which was introduced in the mid-1980s. As my hon. Friend the Member for Billericay said, in a rather perverse way people were told that they could not use the roads 24 hours a day and make their deliveries at suitable times. To be exempt from the lorry ban, a firm had to fill in a 10-page document; 20,000 firms did so, so 200,000 pages were filled in. Those documents had to be read by the checking authority and, if approved, the firm got an exemption. Two thousand signs were put up; the scheme cost £250,000 to begin with and, by its end, was costing £750,000.

The number of lorries that were denied an exemption was four. The Greater London council did not even bother to discover that until I got someone to ask the question. In the last month of the life of the GLC, it gave out the information that the number of lorries that did not get an exemption was four. I would not accuse the Government of putting on such a gloss, because they have not been in office for long enough, but if they start doing that sort of thing, they will be subjected to the same sort of inquisition. They must find better ways to make progress.

In my view, we can make progress in reducing the growth in traffic and, in many cases, we can reduce the amount of traffic. However, we shall achieve that only by introducing sensible measures that work, not by doing things to get a short-term round of applause.

10.36 am
Mr. Bernard Jenkin (North Essex)

I hope that I do not start my speech by embarrassing my hon. Friend the Member for Worthing, West (Mr. Bottomley) with a piece of one-upmanship, but my family is only a one-car family and I have taken to cycling around London. Doing so saves quite a lot in taxi fares and allows me to feel that I am doing my bit to improve conditions in central London.

The hon. Member for Truro and St. Austell (Mr. Taylor) balanced the ticket for the Liberal Democrats in the usual way, by saying that he was pro-car when their policy is obviously anti-car. I do not recommend that he sends his speech to A-level students in his constituency, because they might spot some of the inconsistencies in his answer to my question.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Mr. Brake) on obtaining the debate. I thank him for sending his questions in advance to the Minister, if only because it will be interesting to see how the Minister starts the process of getting out of some of the more ridiculous commitments that the Labour party made in opposition. It underlines the cynicism of new Labour that its leaders were prepared to make manifesto commitments to achieve utterly ludicrous objectives, when any sensible person would have known that it is unrealistic to aim for overall reductions in traffic volumes nationally.

The flexibility of the United Kingdom labour market has a great deal to do with people's being able to travel longer distances to work. The lifeblood of the economy is the ability to transport goods: whatever one's prejudices about the high street versus the out-of-town shopping centre, there is nothing one can buy in either a high street shop or a hypermarket that has not arrived by truck. It is ludicrous to suggest that we can return to buying local produce in local markets, because that would significantly reduce the quality of what was available. No Government will choke off economic growth by simply legislating for a reduction in traffic, and it is difficult to imagine how that aim would be achieved even if they did so.

The Government are having a go at gesticulating in front of their original objectives, but the fuel duty escalator, which they have increased, will not deliver. Research produced by the Centre for Economic and Business Research suggests that it would be necessary to increase the cost of petrol to £17 per gallon before it started to have any significant impact on traffic volumes. In the meantime, it would be the most vulnerable road users who were driven off the road, such as women in second cars and pensioners, who are one of the fastest-growing road user groups. The last thing pensioner couples in particular want to give up is their car. Low-paid people—particularly those in rural areas—who need to use their cars will be driven off the roads. They will lose their jobs and end up on benefit. Other groups, such as the disabled, who have no alternative but to use their cars will have to pay the excess fuel duties that the Government have levied.

The previous Government had to introduce the fuel escalator, but this Government have imposed substantial new taxes elsewhere—such as the £5 billion a year pensions tax. The Government's first two Budgets have imposed the largest peacetime taxation increases seen in this country. It is ludicrous to plead that those increases were necessary: the Government have simply lost control of public expenditure.

In their manifesto, the Government spell out the legitimate and beneficial objective—which we support—of cutting congestion and pollution. That should be achievable, but the problem requires proper analysis. There has been virtually no growth in inner-urban traffic. The hon. Member for Bury, North (Mr. Chaytor) has pointed out that road traffic speeds in central London are virtually the same as 100 years ago, and the same probably applies to the volume of traffic in inner London. The growth of inner-urban traffic in London is not the problem. By aiming at relatively small market segments in their transport policy—such as the school run and the journey to work—the Government are not tackling the real problem of traffic growth.

The document published yesterday by the Government, entitled "Breaking the Log Jam", starts from the completely wrong premise. It is introduced with a totally dishonest prospectus. Let us analyse the sequence of events properly. The first document produced as part of the Government's great transport policy was the comprehensive spending review. The Secretary of State was prevented from issuing his White Paper until the Chancellor had had his say and got his way in the spending review, which cut transport investment. The previous Conservative Government spent an average of £1 billion a year over five years on motorway and trunk road infrastructure improvements. This Government have cut that sum by two thirds, to only £300,000 a year. Only one bypass will be started in this financial year when there are all sorts of very good environmental reasons for building bypasses all over the country.

Mr. Alan Clark

That is a very interesting—and absolutely disgraceful—statistic. As a consequence of the Government's policy, more people will be killed on the roads. It has been established by every relevant statistic that one could encounter that motorway journeys are the safest mode of travel. By restricting the growth of motorways, the Government will ultimately and indirectly raise the number of road deaths.

Mr. Jenkin

My right hon. Friend makes an extremely valid point. The Government are also benefiting from reduced rail subsidies—one of the dividends of privatisation. In addition, they are phasing out Treasury support for the tube.

Those measures were announced in the spending review. The Government then released the White Paper and recently published the Greater London Authority Bill, which contains skeleton provisions regarding congestion charging. They have also delivered a consultation paper—yet another one—on that issue. Even though the Government assume in the comprehensive spending review that they will collect revenue of £1 billion a year by 2005, that consultation paper asks who will pay congestion charges and how they will be collected. It is no surprise that Friends of the Earth has described the Government's transport policy as a case of "carry on consulting".

The Secretary of State has clearly been rolled over by the Treasury. The congestion and car parking charges will not mean extra money for transport. [Interruption.] I have clearly excited the Minister—I must have touched a raw nerve. That extra revenue will not mean extra money for transport; it will merely make up for the cuts. The tube cannot survive without a degree of subsidy. The Conservatives subsidised the tube to the tune of £400 million a year. The extra charges will simply transfer the tax burden for subsidising the tube from the Treasury to the motorist.

There will come a point when motorists—who already contribute more than £30 billion a year in taxation through fuel duties, value added tax and so on when less than one fifth of that money goes to transport—will begin to question whether the Government have produced a fair and proper transport policy. The Government are using the urban congestion argument as an excuse for collecting more taxes—the revenue will not go to transport—because they have lost control of the social security bill and have no welfare reform programme. That was evidenced last night with the introduction of the Road Traffic (NHS Charges) Bill.

As if finally to give the lie to the assurance that the extra money from the new charges and taxes will go to transport, paragraph 6.30 of the paper to which the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington referred says: the legislation will not restrict expenditure entirely to transport related matters". The objective should be not so much reducing traffic overall, but cutting congestion and pollution, which was Labour's manifesto commitment. That makes sense, and we will seek to hold the Government to that commitment. We do not have excessive traffic overall, but too much of the wrong traffic in the wrong place. There is unsuitable traffic on unsuitable roads. While traffic growth in inner-urban areas is virtually nil and the volume of traffic is growing in suburban areas by 2 or 3 per cent. a year, there is real growth in inter-urban traffic. Yet the Government have not produced a single policy item to deal with or reduce that growth in traffic.

Where is the long-awaited consultation paper on land use planning that was promised in the White Paper and foreshadowed originally before the election? Labour has been in office for 20 months and we still have no guidance as to how to improve land use planning. I put it to the Minister that that is the hardest nut to crack. We will look positively at any proposals that he might produce—but, as yet, there are none.

How is improved land use planning consistent with the Government's strategy to build 2 million new homes on green-field sites by 2016—each one a pretty little box with a double garage? It is ridiculous to suggest that so much green-field development is consistent with reducing traffic growth. We need to divert traffic to more suitable places. I recently drove down the A3 to Winchester.

Mr. Peter Bottomley


Mr. Jenkin

I beg your pardon—I did reach the correct destination. There is a dual carriageway virtually all the way to Hindhead, a single carriageway through Hindhead and then a dual carriageway again. It is not rational to have no bypass around Hindhead, but the Government do not have the money to build one. They are presenting their transport policy as rational when it has clearly been screwed by the Treasury.

Privatisation presented huge opportunities to develop alternatives to the car, such as rail transport. For example, English, Welsh and Scottish Railway Ltd. plans to treble the number of rail freight movements in the next 10 years. There is huge investment in Railtrack. However, we need new investment in roads as well, and the roads system must be managed better.

The environment must be a prime concern when formulating transport policy. If we are to protect the environment, we must also protect economic growth. The White Paper raised great hopes, which have now been dashed. Those involved in commenting on and formulating transport policy—that is a great many people—are extremely disappointed by the dithering, delay and endless consultation that is the Government's excuse for inaction.

The Government have no authority. There is no transport legislation in the Queen's Speech. All we have had are cuts in the roads programme which will increase congestion and pollution, and at the next general election, voters will judge the Government's transport policy on whether it achieves cuts in pollution and congestion.

10.50 am
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Mr. Nick Raynsford)

The debate initiated by the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Mr. Brake) has addressed an issue that is at the heart of the Government's policies to tackle traffic congestion and pollution. His concerns that the Government are backtracking on our commitments are completely unfounded. I wish that he would spend more time considering all the actions that the Government are taking rather than resorting to extraordinarily detailed textual analysis designed to try to prove that there might be some possibility of backtracking. I assure him that there is not. Our objectives are unchanged.

The Government's recent White Paper, "A New Deal for Transport", makes it clear that we need to do more than just reduce the rate of traffic growth. Where the problems of pollution and congestion are greatest, we need to achieve an absolute reduction in traffic levels. More importantly, we are making good progress in implementing the policies necessary to deliver on our promises.

Mr. Brake

I want to be absolutely clear on this point. I want the Minister to put on record whether the Government's policy is to achieve an overall, absolute reduction in traffic. Yes or no?

Mr. Raynsford

The hon. Gentleman ought to contain himself. I am trying to answer several questions that he gave me notice of and asked in his speech. I have just said clearly that we do not regard a reduction in the growth of traffic as sufficient. I have stressed that in areas that have serious congestion and pollution problems, we must achieve traffic reduction.

I put it to the hon. Gentleman that in other areas of the country—some of them are represented by his hon. Friends—there is no need to achieve traffic reduction because vehicles are not causing serious pollution. There are rural areas where that is the case, where the motor car is a lifeline and where there is no great environmental or other reason for pursuing traffic reduction. There is a need to tackle the serious congestion and pollution problems in cities, and that will be at the forefront of the Government's policy.

It is right to have regional and local strategies rather than blanket policies at a national level which are not sensitive to local considerations. I should have thought that the hon. Gentleman would be the first to recognise the importance of well-developed local transport plans, worked out by local authorities and local communities in response to the specific needs of their area. That is precisely what we are seeking to encourage.

In our first 18 months in office, we have published and taken significant steps to implement the first comprehensive White Paper on transport policy for more than 20 years. It is the first White Paper to integrate transport policies with other key related policies on the environment, land use planning and health. The hon. Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin) complained, on the one hand, about us producing too many consultation papers and, on the other, that we have not yet published a consultation paper on the changes to PPG3. I have to tell him that changes to PPG3 will be announced shortly. The Government take that matter seriously and recognise the need for integration of land use, transport and environmental policies. We created the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions to achieve that integration.

We have also secured in the comprehensive spending review the means to deliver our integrated transport strategy with an extra £1.8 billion over three years for public transport, traffic management and road maintenance.

The Deputy Prime Minister has made it clear that doing nothing is not an option. Congestion is costing our country billions of pounds a year. The Department's 1997 road traffic forecasts made clear the scale of the future challenges that we would face without the Government's policy changes. Traffic was forecast to increase by more than a third over the next 20 years. That would seriously undermine our ability to achieve our legally binding Kyoto targets on CO, reduction. It would also set back action to tackle local air quality and the adverse impacts on people's health of the way in which we travel. It would lead to significant worsening in congestion.

We must not forget the three in 10 households that have no access to a car. They are totally reliant on other forms of transport such as public transport, cycling and walking.

Our policies aim to encourage more responsible car use and to extend the choices available to all groups in society. The White Paper sets out how we will achieve that.

The Deputy Prime Minister said last year that we want to be held to account for our achievements in reducing car journeys. That position has not changed. The White Paper promises that we will report on the success of the new deal. The two recent road traffic reduction Acts provide a specific framework for reporting progress in tackling road traffic and its impacts at local and national level.

Our policies will encourage people to drive less and to walk, cycle and use public transport more. They fully address all the recommendations of Sir Donald Acheson on mobility, transport and pollution, to which the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington referred. Our approach is based on integrated policies with action at national, regional, local and individual level to deliver the reductions in traffic that we need.

I want briefly to highlight some of the key policies that we are implementing which will make a difference. The first is local transport plans. Delivery of our objectives depends, to a large extent, on action at a local level to tackle local needs. That is why the new five-year local authority local transport plans are at the heart of the new deal. They will be comprehensive, integrated transport strategies. They will contain measures to co-ordinate and improve local transport provision to tackle congestion and pollution, and support economic development in urban and rural areas.

London boroughs will have to produce local implementation plans giving effect to the mayor's integrated transport strategy for London. Production of the strategy will be a key priority for the mayor in his or her first few months in office.

We are providing authorities with the additional resources to do the job. We have secured an additional £700 million over the next three years for the implementation of local transport plans. We are removing unnecessary constraints on how local authorities can spend the money allocated to them.

We published draft guidance on local transport plans on 12 November. We are encouraging authorities to set targets so that we and they can judge performance. Clearly, if targets for road traffic reduction are to have any meaning, they need to be considered in the context of local transport strategies setting out how traffic growth can be tackled. We are, therefore, implementing the Road Traffic Reduction Act 1997 in step with implementation of local transport plans.

We have listened to the concerns of local authorities about the time scale for the preparation of robust plans. We have asked for provisional plans by the end of next July and full five-year plans in 2000. Authorities will submit their statutory traffic reduction reports as part of the first full local transport plans in 2000 and produce non-statutory interim reports as part of their provisional plans. That phased implementation will enable a greater degree of standardisation to be achieved in the local measurement of existing traffic levels and forecasts so that the national implications can be assessed. As I am sure the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington will recognise, it is critical that there is a standard approach so that we do not have varying figures for different areas which are difficult to co-ordinate.

We shall give local authorities important new powers to allow them to charge road users or to introduce new charges on workplace parking as part of the package of measures in their local transport plan. In London, it will be for the mayor to consider the role of such measures as part of the integrated transport strategy. We propose to give powers to the boroughs as well as the mayor, but borough powers would need to be exercised in line with the mayor's strategy.

The Greater London Authority Bill, published last week, includes the necessary powers to enable such charges to be introduced in London. We are committed to the introduction of those powers nationwide. Yesterday, we published a consultation document seeking views on the details of how such schemes might operate.

Revenues raised will be used locally to benefit transport serving the area where charges apply. Investment in improving the alternatives will be critical to the success of schemes in reducing traffic.

To tackle road traffic growth, we need to widen the choices available for those who have a car and those who do not, so we are improving the alternatives to the car. Public transport is crucial but so, too, is the need to encourage walking and cycling, and that is on the Government's agenda.

I want to address the question of national road traffic targets. The Road Traffic Reduction (National Targets) Act 1998, which became law in July, requires the Government to report on the case for national targets for road traffic. The Government must also publish further reports on progress in reducing the impact of road traffic and towards any targets set. We have said repeatedly that we will produce our first report on the case for targets by the end of next year. That is an entirely reasonable time scale given the analysis that we need to undertake. I referred to the preparation and co-ordination of local plans. We need that analysis to assess the impact of the new deal's measures on traffic.

We have also set challenging targets on, for example, CO, emissions, air quality, cycling and road safety—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst)


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