HC Deb 09 February 1999 vol 325 cc108-11
6. Mr. Tim Collins (Westmorland and Lonsdale)

What plans he has to ensure that road users have access to high-quality public transport alternatives. [68269]

The Minister of Transport (Dr. John Reid)

Delivery of high-quality public transport, to give real choice to the travelling public, is the key to our integrated transport agenda. We shall deliver it through the £1.1 billion that we are providing over the next three years for local and public transport, through additional funds and through the Strategic Rail Authority and local transport plans.

Mr. Collins

I thank the Minister for that reply and for the small sums of money being made available for rural public transport in general and the Lake district in particular, but he will know that those sums are chickenfeed compared with the amount being taken out of the pockets of rural motorists by ever-increasing petrol prices. May I urge him to urge his colleagues in the Government to stop penalising rural motorists in south lakeland and elsewhere for travelling in the only way they can?

Dr. Reid

I do not think that the sums can fairly be described as chickenfeed—but, if they are, I wonder how the hon. Gentleman would describe the £1.9 billion less that was to be provided by the Conservative Government. We are developing local transport plans with the help of an additional £700 million and giving £150 million extra for rural buses in areas such as his. In addition, we have brought in quality partnerships on buses, and centres of excellence such as Manchester, with real integrated transport. There has been an increase in freight on rail for the first time in decades: there was a 12 per cent. increase last year and another 16 per cent. increase in the first six months of this year. We are making advances in all those areas.

We do not pretend that we can wave a magic wand and solve the problems overnight, but in 18 months we have done a great deal more and made far greater advances than the Conservative Administration did in 18 years.

Mr. Bill Rammell (Harlow)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the alternatives to road travel need to be attractive and comfortable? Current operating standards for rail operators allow excess loading of 30 per cent. That means that for 30 per cent. of the passengers in my constituency who travel from Harlow to London, paying more than £2,500 a year for the service, the trains are not an attractive alternative. That was the system bequeathed to us by the previous Government. It beggars belief to hear Conservative Members criticising current rail standards, which have been caused by that system. Meanwhile, the Strategic Rail Authority needs to tackle excess loading.

Dr. Reid

Yes, indeed. The worst and most profoundly anti-car policy would be to do nothing. That would increase congestion on our roads, increase pollution and increase discomfort, as has happened over the past two decades. I had hoped that, in view of the massive public disquiet about the railways, the Opposition would agree to put punctuality and reliability on trains above party politics.

We should all back the efforts of my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister to bring the railway companies and Railtrack to account and call for year-on-year improvements for the rail passengers of this country. We have been prepared to accept the increase in investment and passenger numbers that resulted from rail privatisation, but only a foolhardy Conservative Member would try to deny the daily experience of millions of rail travellers on reliability and punctuality. I hope that the Conservatives will have the good sense politically not to oppose what we are trying to do, but will throw their weight behind the Government's attempts to improve our railway services.

Mr. Matthew Taylor (Truro and St. Austell)

I am sure that the Minister is sincere in wanting more people to use public transport instead of private cars. What representations has he made to his colleagues at the Treasury, who currently give tax breaks to those who drive gas-guzzling company cars but tax penalties to those who use public transport provided by the employer? Is he aware that the latest Treasury wheeze is to tax employees who are provided with company buses for the full subsidy that the company offers them, even if the public are also invited to use the buses for public transport?

Dr. Reid

The hon. Gentleman knows that the Treasury never has wheezes; it has rational thought patterns and discussions. Without going into detail, I can confirm that the tax breaks that encourage people to drive more business miles, and the disincentive of taxation of benefits in kind for employers or employees who benefit from buses laid on to bring them to work, have been the subject of discussions between Departments.

I expect that, in light of the enlightened and rational view that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer has taken on those matters in the past—in terms of protecting the environment, reducing congestion and encouraging public transport—the requests will not have fallen on stony ground. I am afraid that the hon. Gentleman will have to await the decision of Her Majesty's Treasury on the matter.

Mr. David Lepper (Brighton, Pavilion)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that a coherent, local and integrated transport policy, including good-quality public transport, is needed in Sussex and Kent if those parts of the south-east are to benefit properly from the economic potential made possible by the channel tunnel? Will he join me in welcoming the initiative taken by Brighton and Hove council, East Sussex county council, West Sussex county council, BAA Gatwick, Sussex Enterprise and—I have to say—Connex South Central in producing the document "Transport: A New Horizon", which sets out the ways in which such an integrated transport policy could help to release the economic potential of the south coast?

Dr. Reid

Yes. Local transport plans must be the vehicle for the implementation of any strategic framework that we set at the centre. That is why local councils, local planning authorities and local transport executives are so important. There is no doubt that part of the integration is the physical integration of the various modes of transport, but that another part is the partnership between central and local government. I congratulate my hon. Friend, and those on the long list of those who have contributed to his local plan. We want to develop centres of excellence in this country, so that we can show—as we are in Manchester, and as we are beginning to do in South Yorkshire and Edinburgh—that, at long last, we can create a real and practical integrated transport system locally.

Mr. Richard Ottaway (Croydon, South)

Will the Minister confirm that road users hoping to use London Underground in the last few days will have been disappointed by recent developments? Will he concede that, with his partial privatisation, Railtrack is no longer interested in the deep tubes and the trade unions are not interested in the partial privatisation? Is the Minister not falling between two stools? All that he wants from the private sector is its money, while he gives nothing in exchange. All that the trade unions want from him is his money, for which he is getting nothing in exchange. The loser is London. Why will he not reconsider the whole project?

Dr. Reid

If, in the course of his busy week, the hon. Gentleman has a chance to base his transport analysis on something other than hearsay evidence reported in newspapers, he will fare much better. No public-private partnership proposal has been received from Railtrack at any stage, although discussions have taken place. There has been no abandonment of Railtrack's commitment to the deep-line tubes, since it never expressed a particular interest in those in any case.

So far as I could ascertain from the hon. Gentleman's question, he was asking about the public-private partnership. What we are trying to do with public-private partnerships, whether it is the channel tunnel rail link—which my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister negotiated and which won a recent award as the major piece of financial dealing this year—National Air Traffic Services or London Underground, is quite simple. We are trying to get the best of the public sector's strategic thinking and regulation on behalf of taxpayers, and the best of the private sector, while avoiding the worst of unfettered competition and bureaucracy from the centre. That is a sensible way. Some call it the third way, but it is effective.