HC Deb 20 October 1998 vol 317 cc1070-2
1. Mrs. Ann Winterton (Congleton)

What representations he has received on his Department's proposals to reduce congestion on Britain's roads. [54357]

The Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Mr. John Prescott)

We received more than 7,000 responses to our integrated transport consultation, the great majority of which were concerned with the impacts of congestion. Since publishing the integrated transport White Paper, I have received many letters broadly welcoming our proposals.

Mrs. Winterton

Bearing in mind the fact that 80 per cent. of goods in the United Kingdom are transported by freight on the roads for the simple reason that there is no good alternative, is the right hon. Gentleman aware of the costs of congestion, for example, on the M6 around Birmingham and the M62 around Manchester? Furthermore, is he aware that a company based at Sandbach in my constituency has estimated that congestion on the M6 alone costs it £500,000 a year in vehicle and driver delays? That figure can be multiplied many times for business and industry in the north-west of England. What does the Secretary of State propose to do to assist business and industry in moving their goods?

Mr. Prescott

The hon. Lady has given a catalogue of the disasters that we inherited after 18 years of Tory non-transport policy. We have produced a paper on integrated transport—the first for 20 years—which demonstrates how we give a higher priority to rail transport. We have doubled the amount of freight grants, which has increased freight by 5 per cent. in one year—more than the figure has increased over the past decade.

On road congestion, we have considered the part of the M6 to which the hon. Lady referred as part of a transport corridor study to find out how we can use under-utilised rail more effectively and reduce congestion on the road. That is the intelligent approach to transport that is embodied in our White Paper.

Ms Hazel Blears (Salford)

As a keen motor cyclist, I am delighted that the White Paper recognises for the first time the role that motor cycles can play in reducing congestion, particularly in urban areas. Will my right hon. Friend encourage local councils to promote the role of motor cycling in tackling congestion in experiments such as those in Reading and Bristol, where motor cycles have been allowed to use bus lanes to great effect? Does he intend to experience the delights of motor cycling in the near future?

Mr. Prescott

No, but I have ridden motor bikes from time to time. They have a role, which must be encouraged, in reducing congestion and providing alternative choices. My hon. Friend referred to towns where motor cycles have been given priority in bus lanes, and I am pleased to say that Hull has done the same. That is in response to the ideas in our White Paper.

Mr. Tom Brake (Carshalton and Wallington)

Before the election, Labour promised to reduce traffic. The party's election internet site said that Labour would reduce and then reverse traffic growth". Since the election Ministers have repeated that pledge. In June last year the Deputy Prime Minister said: 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. The White Paper on integrated transport refers only to reducing traffic growth. Will the right hon. Gentleman reassure the House, business—which loses billions of pounds to congestion each year—and the one out of seven children who suffer from asthma triggered by pollution that the Government will keep their election promises and reduce traffic levels overall, not merely the growth in traffic?

Mr. Prescott

The hon. Gentleman quoted both the question and the answer and I agree to keep to that commitment: judge my performance in five years.

Mr. John Home Robertson (East Lothian)

I welcome my right hon. Friend's proposal to designate the A1 trunk road a core national route. Does he agree that the only way of relieving congestion on that single carriageway bottleneck in the national highway system is by dualling it? Will my right hon. Friend encourage his colleagues at the Scottish Office to follow his lead by designating the A1 in Scotland a core national route?

Mr. Prescott

Our position on the A1 was made clear in the roads paper and announced to the House. The proposal requires a great deal of co-operation between us and the Scottish authorities, and we are working to that end.

Mr. Bernard Jenkin (North Essex)

I thank the Secretary of State for the illuminating answers given by his Ministers. Despite his newly announced policy on integrated road transport, my question about reducing traffic growth forecasts over the next 20 years has received simply a holding reply. The Secretary of State repeated at the Labour party conference that the volume of traffic is expected to continue to grow, by 30 per cent. over the next 20 years. How will the Government curb congestion and pollution—that is the right hon. Gentleman's manifesto commitment—when even the slashed roads programme that he announced at the end of the summer does not contain a single start date or commitment to beginning a new roads scheme before the next general election?

Mr. Prescott

The 30 per cent. growth figure is based on historical trends. It is estimated that, if we do not change to a better public transport system, we will face that kind of growth.

Our policies in the integrated transport White Paper are about reducing that figure and getting people to change from using cars to public transport. Our policies, once implemented, will begin to have that effect. We face the current problem because the previous Government refused to put resources into either road or rail, and left us with a total mess and the cost of dealing with congestion.

Mr. Ian Pearson (Dudley, South)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the congestion problem in the west midlands involves not only the raised section of the M6 but all the roads beneath it? It is almost impossible to travel around the black country. Does my right hon. Friend accept that light rail systems are a viable way forward for the black country, where priority bus lanes are unfeasible because of general geographical problems? Will he look sympathetically at the three packages that have been submitted to him jointly by the west midlands local authorities, particularly the line 3 proposal, which involves a £20 million private sector contribution towards opening up rail transport between Walsall, Dudley and the Merry Hill shopping complex?

Mr. Prescott

I am prepared to consider any proposals that reduce congestion and help the public transport system. I do not readily accept that there cannot be priority bus lanes in the area that my hon. Friend mentioned. I think that hon. Members recognise that light rail systems are an extremely expensive way of dealing with congestion problems. We have several of them in this country, but I think that buses can play a greater role than light rail systems.

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