HC Deb 08 February 2000 vol 344 cc114-6
15. Mr. Stephen O'Brien (Eddisbury)

If he will make a statement on the levels of traffic congestion in Great Britain (a) today, (b) a year ago and (c) two years ago. [107321]

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

It will be of interest for the House to learn that no Government of any political hue have ever published a measure of congestion. The answer to the hon. Gentleman's question, therefore, is that no estimates of congestion currently available would allow an assessment to be made of changes year on year. However, since the general election, this Government have begun work on measures of congestion, which could be used to monitor these changes in the future. Although we may not yet be able to measure congestion, we clearly know that it exists. Our report, "Tackling Congestion and Pollution", published last month, showed that, with widespread support from local authorities, businesses and the general public for the measures in our integrated transport White Paper and Transport Bill, currently before the House, we can reduce congestion over the next decade.

Mr. O'Brien

With the glaring evidence before you, Madam Speaker, and indeed all hon. Members, of the most appalling traffic congestion daily in Parliament square, it is no comfort to hear from the Minister's answer that the present Government accept that they have failed to deliver yet another pre-election pledge, to reduce and then reverse traffic growth". Will the Minister confirm that the Government's failure is because they have slashed the roads programme while cutting spending on public transport? Does he now realise that most people in this country use their car out of necessity? Is not the Government's failure yet another example of the great Labour lie?

Mr. Hill

At least the hon. Gentleman had one good point, about traffic congestion in Parliament square. The House may be interested to learn that we have been informed that the work in Parliament square is scheduled to take two weeks, but I can assure the House that the Government are bearing down heavily on the companies undertaking that work.

The hon. Gentleman said that there was no evidence of a reduction in traffic growth. That is simply not true. The evidence is that we are beginning to turn the corner on traffic growth. Last year in London, for example, the number of people entering the central area by car in the morning peak decreased by 2 per cent. Moreover, for the country as a whole, provisional traffic statistics suggest that since 1997 the volume of traffic has grown by about half the rate it did during the 18 years of Tory rule. That is a remarkable achievement in a period of strong economic growth. The trends are moving in the right direction, and will be reinforced by the Government's policies for reducing congestion and increasing public transport use.

Fiona Mactaggart (Slough)

Is the Minister aware that the busiest road junction in Europe—the junction between the M4 and the M25—is on the edge of my constituency? Is he aware of the application for the building of a so-called rail freight transport station there, and is he aware that 80 per cent. of movements will be by road? When the proposal is submitted to him, will he consider it carefully with a view to saying no, in the light of the impact that such a development would have on the M3, the M4, the M25 and the M40, which are already congested?

Mr. Hill

My hon. Friend is, as ever, an outstanding advocate for her constituency, but I am afraid that quasi-judiciality prevents me from making any comment about that specific proposal.

Mr. Don Foster (Bath)

Does the Minister agree that one way of reducing traffic congestion would be to take robust action in respect of tour buses? Especially at the height of winter, such buses travel around historic cities such as Oxford, Chester, York and, indeed, Bath, clogging the roads, when almost or completely empty. The only purpose of the drivers is to make themselves eligible for the fuel duty rebate. Will the Minister conduct a review of the rebate as it applies to such vehicles?

Mr. Hill

I am tempted to ask whether the hon. Gentleman is talking about the Liberal battle bus, empty as usual; but I appreciate his concern. As he will know, the traffic commissioners have certain powers in this respect, which are strengthened by the current transport legislation. Moreover, the fuel duty rebate is paid only on the basis of compliance with a number of conditions. The Department carries out checks from time to time to ensure that those conditions are met, and, in fact, may well be doing so at around this time.

The Commission for Integrated Transport is currently conducting an inquiry into bus subsidies, and we await with interest the report that it will produce later in the year.

Mr. Alan Simpson (Nottingham, South)

I am sure that the Minister realises that far more people are stuck up in traffic each day than are stuck up in chewing gum. Will he consider, in particular, the number of vehicles carrying goods in transit, often travelling through cities two or three times before the goods end up back in the shops? Will he and his ministerial colleagues give thought to specific measures that might encourage a reduction in food miles? Perhaps local partnerships could be established between urban consumption centres and rural producers, both to shorten food miles and to strengthen and shorten lines of food accountability.

Mr. Hill

I assure my hon. Friend that the Department is doing a great deal of work on precisely those issues. I shall ensure that his observations form part of its considerations.