HC Deb 27 March 1998 vol 309 cc853-60

'.—In considering how to comply with the requirements of section 2(1) and (2) of this Act the Secretary of State shall have regard to—

  1. (a) the mobility needs of the elderly and
  2. (b) the mobility needs of families with young children;
and any increase in the volume of traffic that may result from the fulfilment of those needs.'. — [Mr. Chope]

Brought up, and read the First time.


Mr. Christopher Chope (Christchurch)

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael Lord)

With this, it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments: No. 9, in clause 2, page 1, line 27, at end insert '() noise'.

No. 13, in page 1, line 27, at end insert '(3A) In considering how to comply with the requirements of subsections (1) and (2), the Secretary of State shall have regard to—

  1. (a) the mobility needs of persons with disabilities, and
  2. (b) the need for an adequate provision of taxi services in rural and non-rural areas.'.

Mr. Chope

First, I point out that amendment No. 13, which was tabled by the promoter, the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mr. Dafis), is the same as new clause 1, which I tabled, but which was not selected for debate.

It will not have escaped the notice of the House that clause 2 was substantially rewritten in Committee. Indeed, the whole Bill was changed, including its title, which used to refer to "United Kingdom targets". We may be able to say more about that when we discuss the next group of amendments.

I am delighted that the promoter tabled amendment No. 13 and that it is supported by the Minister. It arises from the concern, which I expressed in Committee, that the Bill differentiated between good and bad road traffic—it placed all cars and lorries in the bad category, and all public transport vehicles, however polluting, in the good category.

Clause 1 was amended in Committee so that the definition of road traffic excluded all vehicles with capacity for eight or more passengers. I said in Committee that road traffic comprising vehicles carrying or designed to carry people with disabilities were good, and that the Bill should specify those vehicles as well as public transport vehicles that could carry eight or more passengers.

I also said that the elderly and the disabled often found it more appropriate to travel by taxi. The Minister was reluctant to accept any of my arguments in Committee, but, when pressed by her hon. Friends the Members for Birmingham, Hall Green (Mr. McCabe) and for Lancaster and Wyre (Mr. Dawson), who took her to task for not defining taxis as good vehicles, she relented and put her name to amendment No. 13.

I shall concentrate on new clause 2, which builds on the argument that the hon. Member for Ceredigion and the Minister have now accepted on the mobility needs of people with disabilities. The new clause would require the Secretary of State to have regard not merely to the mobility needs of persons with disabilities and the need for adequate taxi services in rural and non-rural areas when considering how to comply with the requirements, of clause 2(1) and (2), but to the mobility needs of the elderly and … the mobility needs of families with young children; and any increase in the volume of traffic that may result from the fulfilment of those needs. That is obvious common sense. Many supermarkets and shopping centres make special parking provision for families with young children because they recognise the mobility needs of such families.

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst)

I hope that my hon. Friend will not think this a frivolous question—it is not intended as such—but what has he in mind when he says young children? Obviously, that is open to interpretation. In discussing the matter with some of my constituents, I found that one of the problems they find it most difficult to come to terms with is the large volume of traffic caused by parents taking children to school. Would the amendment cover that group, and how young are the children that he has in mind?

Mr. Chope

I was thinking of children up to the age of 10, perhaps, most of whom have to rely on parents, friends and relatives to transport them not merely to school but to places of recreation. I am the father of two children under 10, and I do not expect them to go on trips on their own. They are wholly dependent on their parents and others to transport them. I would certainly not allow my children to go out on their own on the roads on bicycles or to walk.

That is the group of people I had in mind and it is a topical subject today because the Government are crowing about the fact that they will provide extra nursery school places this autumn—60,000 extra, I think. Without doubt, more traffic will result. I am saying that it is a good thing even if more traffic is generated—I see the hon. Member for Hyndburn (Mr. Pope) nodding from the Government Front Bench—to enable people to take advantage of those extra places. However, the Government have not put anything on the record to show that they regard it as a good thing. Indeed, the whole tone of this debate has been how important it is to reduce road traffic, yet the Government are today promoting a policy that would increase it. I hope that the Minister will tell us why she thinks—if she does think it—that it is not reasonable that there should be an increase in road traffic as a result of that policy announcement.

The merits of the new clause speak for themselves. Once the House, the Government and the promoter had accepted the principle lying behind their amendment No. 13, it logically followed that my new clause should also be accepted.

Amendment No. 9 would add noise to the items listed as adverse impacts of road traffic. It is conspicuous in its absence in the Bill and we know from our constituents that it is a significant concern. Many of my constituents are affected by road traffic noise.

New clause 2 refers to the special needs of elderly people, who form a high proportion of my constituents. I know the extent to which they depend on motor vehicles to fulfil their transport needs.

Mr. Forth

I welcome the new clause, because it opens up debate on the Bill's undifferentiated approach to road traffic, which is a weakness. As hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr. Chope) said, it is dangerous to regard all things with wheels as undesirable and to press for reduced traffic in some undifferentiated way. Such an approach is unproductive. The new clause teases out legitimate mobility needs which it might, in some cases, be desirable to meet. He mentioned the issue of meeting such needs in the context of this morning's announcement on nursery provision.

Even those who dislike motor vehicles and believe that traffic should be reduced must accept that there has to be a degree of differentiation between vehicles. In my view, several elements of traffic are essential components of modern living. Many people regret the increase in the number of out-of-town supermarkets, but it is a reality. An enormous development involving millions of square feet of retail and recreation space is being completed near my constituency. Many people and families from my constituency and elsewhere will want to visit it in all weathers in the security of their own vehicles.

We must be clearer about traffic of which we disapprove and therefore want to reduce, and about traffic that must be accepted as inevitable or even desirable. My hon. Friend mentioned elderly people, whose views should be listened to carefully. Many elderly people feel much more secure and comfortable in their own cars; indeed, it would be difficult for frail or disabled elderly people to use public transport, even if it were superb, modern, low-cost and secure.

At the other end of the spectrum are people with young children. It is legitimate or even highly desirable to take children to and from leisure, family and social activities in a car. I deliberately did not mention taking children to and from school. Many people in many areas experience traffic difficulties caused by people taking children, especially primary school children, to and from school by car, which is a recent development.

There is much less traffic on our roads during school holidays, but we are still faced with traffic problems. How should they be solved? If one argues for a dramatic reduction, perhaps to zero, of parents taking young children to school by car, one has to suggest an alternative. It is arguable whether it is feasible, logistically or in terms of cost, to envisage a school bus system that could fully replace all the journeys that now take place.

The onus is on those who support the Bill, and talk about the desirability of traffic reduction, to suggest which categories of traffic they believe can and should be reduced and how that could be achieved. What does one say to elderly people, who may be frail or unsteady on their feet? How can we tell them that we do not want their cars on the roads any more? How can we demand that they use public transport? What do we say to the parents of young children in urban areas, where they might feel threatened occasionally, or in rural areas, with longer distances to travel? Can we tell them that we will provide a satisfactory alternative means of transport for their children to reduce traffic?

I mentioned out-of-town supermarkets, those much criticised but much used facilities. It is odd how many people rush to criticise the out-of-town supermarket but use them happily. I myself happily use both an in-town and an out-of-town supermarket. With many parents both working, the weekly shop in a supermarket with adequate parking facilities has become part of the modern way of life and necessarily involves the use of a car. When I go shopping, as I do every week with my wife, our weekly shopping just for the two of us is more than I can envisage carrying on public transport. There is too much to carry other than in a car. I surmise that those with families must have to deal with much larger volumes of shopping. Is such traffic to be reduced? If so, what is the reasonable alternative?

If we are make sense of the Bill-if it is not to be merely declaratory or wishful thinking or comforting-it is essential that we take a much more detailed approach to it, as suggested in the new clause, and face up to the realities of modern life and the relationship that modern communities have with their motor cars. We must examine which categories of traffic can be criticised and expected to be reduced, and what the alternatives might be. When we reach that stage, we might begin to make some progress.

I welcome the new clause, and I hope that it will be accepted so that we can make more sense of the Bill than has hitherto been the case. I hope that we will have some encouraging news on that point from either the Minister or the promoter of the Bill.

Mr. Gerald Howarth (Aldershot)

I rise briefly to support the new clause. I am a car user, but, as a cyclist, I am also a supporter of the bicycle. When I first encountered Hyde park corner, I removed my bike from the road, took to the pavement and thought, "There's no way I can go round this." I then decided that I had as much right to use Hyde park corner as any motorist and embarked on the journey round it. I found that if one declared one's intentions sufficiently determinedly to motor transport, one tended to be given as much right to the highway as others enjoyed.

I wish to add to the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr. Chope) about the elderly. It is important that when Ministers draw up the reports required by the Bill, they take particular account of the needs of the elderly, for whom the car is an important factor. As people approach old age, they realise that limitations are inevitably imposed on their independence. The motor car confers on them a continuing independence that would otherwise go the way of other forms of independence that they enjoy. It is not only a question of being able to use the car whenever they want but of feeling that, like the telephone, it is there for family emergencies and other circumstances.

I urge the Minister to consider seriously the needs of the elderly, along the lines suggested in respect of families with young children by my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch and my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth).

1.45 pm

Amendment No. 9 would add noise to the list of adverse impacts of road traffic to be taken into consideration in drawing up the report. That is an important factor and a noticeable omission from the list. When we were considering the original scheme for the Birmingham northern relief road, which would have gone through part of my then constituency, traffic noise was important to my constituents. We considered the relative impacts of different road surfaces. We noted that concrete surfaces tend to give off much more noise than do tarmac surfaces, despite what the Department of Transport said at the time about the scientific evidence showing that there was little difference. The truth is that the public perception is that tarmac road surfaces are less intrusive than concrete ones.

The Blackwater valley relief road in Aldershot uses a tarmac surface which has produced noticeably less noise than the surfaces of surrounding motorways. I hope that the noise factor will be added to the Bill. I say to the promoter of the Bill, as much as to the Minister, that I hope that that will be taken on board. With those two observations, I support the new clause.

Mr. Cynog Dafis (Ceredigion)

On new clause 2, it is worth pointing out that mobility does not necessarily mean mobility in a motorised vehicle. Mobility can be enhanced by a reduction in the number of motorised vehicles. Some hon. Members know about the safe routes to school initiative, which enables children to get to school at peak travelling times through various methods facilitated locally. We need to consider the matters mentioned in the new clause.

On the comments of the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth), the Bill is based on the assumption that it is possible to get a net reduction in road traffic, even recognising that in certain circumstances and in certain categories, there may well be increases. He should examine the work of various people on the subject, especially that of John Whitelegg, who shows clearly in what categories reduction can be brought about.

We do not think that new clause 2 should be included in the Bill, although we recognise that the considerations that it mentions must be borne in mind in drawing up the strategy. We do not need to put a strategy in a Bill. More appropriate for a Bill is the principle of targets, as is recognised increasingly in Government policy and legislation.

Finally, I am glad that we were able to table amendment No. 13 in response to concerns raised in Committee by the hon. Member for Christchurch (Mr. Chope).

The Minister for Transport in London (Ms Glenda Jackson)

I support amendment No. 13, standing in my name and that of the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mr. Dafis), and I oppose new clause 2 and amendment No. 9, standing in the name of the hon. Member for Christchurch (Mr. Chope).

The hon. Members who spoke in support of new clause 2 and amendment No. 9 were espousing a policy of despair. They seemed to believe that it was virtually impossible to reduce an over-dependence on the private car. They had no belief in a strategy to create an integrated transport system.

Mr. Chope

Does the Minister agree that today's announcement on the extension of nursery education places by some 60,000 is bound to lead to an overall increase in the amount of road traffic?

Ms Jackson

I had intended to touch on the particularly bizarre interpretation that the hon. Gentleman puts on an announcement by the Government which has been generally welcomed. The only person in the country who regards the provision of nursery places as leading automatically to an increase in traffic on our roads is the hon. Gentleman. Many of my constituents welcome the Government's provision of additional nursery places, in the knowledge that it will be possible for them to walk their children to such nursery places. It is not only education that parents value for their children, but the social skills inherent in such places.

Mr. Chope

In that case, will the Minister make it a condition of the new nursery places that nobody can take them up if they use a car to transport their children to the nurseries?

Ms Jackson

I question whether that contribution warrants any kind of response. The hon. Gentleman has moved from the bizarre to the overly fantastical.

The majority of parents wish their children to take the provision because of the undoubted educational and social advantages inherent in the additional places provided by the Government. They prefer the knowledge that such establishments are within their local areas. A matter of parental, and grandparental, concern is the danger of an ever-increasing number of cars on the roads and the inability for children to play in their own street.

New clause 2 refers to the needs of the elderly to get about, to see their families and to have social contact—all exclusively provided by the private car. Regrettably, this is the case in many instances because, for 18 long years, the previous Administration did little or nothing to create a properly integrated transport strategy. They actively introduced legislation which destroyed public transport as far as buses and the railways were concerned.

This Government have been actively engaged in putting that right since we took office. I do not share the philosophy of despair emanating from the Opposition that it will be impossible to reduce an over-dependence on the private car. Public transport, allied with other policies, will reduce traffic on roads.

The hon. Member for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth) talked about cycles and, if he does not already know of it, I am sure that he will be delighted by the news that, despite tight spending limits, the Government have managed to find an additional £1 million for the London cycle network. We have asked that the money should be used strategically, especially to facilitate safe passage for cyclists around roundabouts.

The hon. Member also raised the issue of elderly people's dependence on their cars, for example, in emergencies. There is nothing in this or any other Bill that will impact on the use of the private car in such circumstances. The general thrust of the Bill is to reduce the seemingly unstoppable growth of traffic on our roads, which impacts particularly on the elderly and on children by creating environments that are highly dangerous.

The hon. Gentleman supports amendment No. 9 and does not believe that the issue of noise pollution is sufficiently addressed in the Bill. I would argue that that is not the case: noise is covered by more than one of the sub-headings that the Secretary of State must consider in devising the targets he wishes to set, not least those issues connected with health and biodiversity.

Mr. Gerald Howarth

I can see how noise comes under matters of health, although I think that it is not entirely a matter of health, but rather one of irritation as well as health; however, I cannot understand how biodiversity comes into it. Can the Minister give me some guidance?

Ms Jackson

Certainly. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman is aware that the Government are actively engaged in protecting sites of special scientific interest or sites where wildlife needs to be protected. The incursion of extreme noise in such areas can affect, for example, the breeding habits of birds. Therefore, if we regard our wildlife as part of a biodiverse structure, as I do, we see that noise can clearly inflict harm.

On amendment No. 13, provision will undoubtedly need to be made for people with disabilities, especially orange badge holders. Every local authority gives consideration to the needs of such people, and I see no reason why the Bill should work against that.

In addition, given the huge damage inflicted by the previous Administration on public transport in rural areas and because the current Government regard taxis as part of our public transport system, we believe that the amendment would enhance the Bill by covering two areas that require special notice in the legislation.

The other two amendments are essentially based on the list principle and, as I said in Committee, the trouble with lists is that someone is always left out. In the light of my remarks, I hope that the hon. Member for Christchurch will not press new clause 2 and amendment No. 9.

Mr. Chope

I disagree with almost everything the Minister has said. It will be noteworthy outside this place that she denies that 60,000 extra nursery school places will generate an increase in road traffic. That defies belief and shows that the Minister takes an unrealistic approach to the subject.

Ms Glenda Jackson

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Chope

No, because I want to make progress on the Bill and move on to the next group of amendments. I shall not press the new clause and the amendment, in the hope that the other place will be able to return to the issue and develop the list that the Minister has started in amendment No. 13. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Motion and clause, by leave, withdrawn.

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