HC Deb 11 January 2000 vol 342 cc134-9
7. Miss Julie Kirkbride (Bromsgrove)

By how much he estimates road traffic growth will fall as a result of the Government's decision to reduce expenditure on improving the roads network. [103257]

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

This year, the Government are spending £765 million on road maintenance—40 per cent. more than in the last year of Tory rule. Meanwhile, provisional figures show a growth in total road traffic of 3 per cent. between the third quarter of 1997 and 1999. That is a far slower rate of growth than in previous periods of sustained economic expansion: in the mid and late 1980s, annual traffic growth peaked at 5 per cent. and 8 per cent. respectively.

Miss Kirkbride

The Minister's waffling and inaccurate answer clearly demonstrates—[Interruption.] The previous Conservative Government spent a great deal more money on roads than this Government would ever dream of spending. However, the Minister's answer shows that yet another Labour promise has been broken. The Government said that they would reduce the rate of traffic growth simply by not building any more roads. I am pleased that the Minister is telling us that the Government are now prepared to build more roads and bypasses in those parts of the country where they are needed to improve the quality of life and safety of local people. Will he therefore say when the Bordesley bypass in my constituency will be built?

Mr. Hill

I think that the hon. Lady is taking advantage of me. I believe that I heard her accuse the Government of cutting road spending. She has some nerve: in their final four years of power, the previous Conservative Government cut road maintenance by 9 per cent. That left Britain's motorway and trunk road network in the worst condition since records began.

Trunk road maintenance has increased by more than one third in the past three years. This year we are spending £400 million more than in the last year of Tory rule, and next year it will be £530 million more. We are firmly on track to achieving our objective of reversing the decline in motorway and trunk road conditions by 2002. Meanwhile, we are encouraged by the present indications of a slowdown in road traffic growth despite the success of the economy, which is good news for our environment and our communities.

Mr. David Lepper (Brighton, Pavilion)

Has my hon. Friend noted the repeated comments made in the letter from the Government office of the south-east to my local authority, Brighton and Hove council, about that council's success in holding car traffic growth in central Brighton? The letter states that this has no doubt contributed to an improved environment for business, shoppers and visitors to Brighton". Will he join me in congratulating my local authority and its partners—particularly the bus company—on their achievement? Does he agree that sensible strategies to encourage bus use and on parking, agreed through local consultation, are essential to good local transport plans?

Mr. Hill

I am delighted to congratulate Brighton and Hove on its outstanding record in terms of new bus schemes, which have led to a significant increase in bus patronage in recent years—roughly 20 per cent. in the past 12 months alone. Brighton, like many Labour authorities, is leading the way in terms of the development of bus quality partnerships. I had the great pleasure and privilege yesterday of turning the first sod at the excellent new bus quality partnership in the town of South Shields. I congratulate South Shields, Brighton and many other Labour authorities.

Mr. Robert Syms (Poole)

Not only has the long-suffering motorist suffered from the cuts in the Government's roads programme—we now have bad news on the local transport settlement. Last year, 74.5 per cent. of the settlement was in supplementary credit approval and 25.5 per cent. was in transport supplementary grant. This year, we have had the announcement of a higher figure, and we have of course had the hype. However, when we look at the figures in detail, we see that 98.2 per cent. is in supplementary credit approval and only 1.8 per cent. is in transport supplementary grant. That is called moving the burden from Whitehall to the town hall, and it is bad news for local authorities and motorists. Will the Minister explain why we have had the worst transport supplementary grant settlement in history?

Mr. Hill

Well, it is the season of goodwill, and the hon. Gentleman is something of a novice on the Front Bench. Nevertheless, I find his observations on local transport settlements outrageous. In December, we announced the Government's decisions on local transport, which represented an increase across the board of 27 per cent. in terms of road maintenance provision and an increase in terms of public transport provision of 24 per cent. That was an outstanding settlement, and it was the beginning of an additional £700 million that will go to local authorities and local transport plans over the next three years.

Mr. Hilton Dawson (Lancaster and Wyre)

Is it not just excellent that Labour-controlled Lancashire council embarked yesterday on another phase of the reconstruction of the rural moss roads network in my constituency? Is it not just marvellous that local communities and councils coming together will be able to use their new designation of objective 2—hopefully, some will use their designation under single regeneration budget 6 and 7—to reconstruct entirely that network, which was so grievously neglected by the previous Conservative Government? Will my hon. Friend join me in the hope that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State's statement at 3.30 pm will give some funding to the excellent Garstang super-8 minibus project to revitalise public transport in that rural area?

Mr. Hill

I find myself in considerable agreement with my hon. Friend.

8. Mr. Mark Oaten (Winchester)

What immediate plans he has to reduce congestion levels on roads. [103258]

12. Mr. Edward Leigh (Gainsborough)

If he will make a statement on the level of traffic congestion in (a) 1997 and (b) 1999. [103263]

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

As I have already said in a previous answer, provisional traffic data suggest that total road traffic in Great Britain grew by nearly 3 per cent. between the third quarters of 1997 and 1999—a slower rate of growth than in previous peaks of the economic cycle.

Our strategy and measures for reducing congestion are set out in our integrated transport White Paper "A New Deal for Transport: Better for Everyone", published in 1998. These are already delivering results, and the proposals in the Transport Bill currently before the House are designed to strengthen the powers available to local authorities to tackle congestion.

Mr. Oaten

Is it Government policy to achieve a decrease in the number of cars using the roads, or have they now accepted that there will be an increase, and is their policy to try and slow it down?

Mr. Hill

The real issue is tackling congestion. Various studies have shown that there is no necessary or direct correlation between congestion and road traffic growth, and also that a more targeted approach may be more effective in dealing with congestion and its effects in specific locations.

The Government believe that congestion is best tackled by a package of measures, including new and additional investment in public transport as well as road improvements, many of which we have already implemented. We also believe that congestion charging is likely to prove among the most effective of those measures. I am pleased that the hon. Gentleman's own city of Winchester is actively considering a workplace parking levy. I am also pleased that Hampshire has joined the Government's charging development partnership, which is the right way to tackle congestion in our urban areas.

Mr. Leigh

Will the Minister now do me the courtesy of answering my Question 12, which he grouped with Question 8, because he does not want to answer it? I remind him that it asks: If he will make a statement on the level of traffic congestion in (a) 1997 and (b) 1999. I asked about congestion; I did not ask for vague words about growth. The truth is that the Government are not prepared to own up, so they want to make us motorists pay up.

Mr. Hill

It was the previous Government who invented road congestion. They started out with 70 cars per mile, spent £70 billion on new roads, and ended up with 100 cars per mile. The Tories are the last people from whom this Government need lessons on tackling road congestion. We have set out clear plans in our integrated transport White Paper for dealing with congestion and we are pursuing them with vigour and determination. In the mean time, we are putting an extra £1.8 billion into improving local and public transport over the next three years and are increasing expenditure on road maintenance by 10 per cent. this year. Instead of the Tory wish list of road schemes, we have a targeted programme of 37 trunk road improvements, 19 of them bypasses which will relieve the pressure on local communities. In addition, we are spending an extra £170 million on rural bus services. That has resulted in an extra 1,800 new and enhanced bus services so far—a commitment to rural transport that the hon. Gentleman's Government never contemplated making.

Mr. Stephen Hepburn (Jarrow)

Will the Minister tell me what efforts he is making in bringing forward the construction of the new Tyne crossing in Jarrow? It will have a significant impact on traffic congestion as well as enhancing employment prospects.

Mr. Hill

I understand the problems to which my hon. Friend alludes—indeed, I was in his constituency only yesterday. We are considering the matter with the utmost urgency and seriousness.

Ms Margaret Moran (Luton, South)

May I congratulate my hon. Friend on the efforts that he and his colleagues are making to reduce traffic congestion, in sharp contrast to the legacy of 100 cars per mile that we inherited from the previous Tory Government? Will he look further at ways of reducing traffic congestion, particularly on our residential roads, by, for example, increasing funding to schemes such as home zones? We in Luton believe that we have the first one in the United Kingdom. Will my hon. Friend consider increasing funding so that we may reduce congestion in residential areas and increase safety?

Mr. Hill

I am delighted to learn that Luton is in the vanguard of the home zone strategy. The Government are very committed to proposals for home zones; we have already provided for eight pilot schemes, one of which is in my hon. Friend's constituency. We have great confidence that they are an important development in the creation of a safe environment for pedestrians in urban areas. We anticipate the success of the current pilot projects, and hope to see the development of many more in due course.

Mr. John Redwood (Wokingham)

What lessons have the Government learned on tackling congestion from the ban on cars to the dome and the ban on cars in central London on new year's eve? Is not it a great Labour lie that their public transport can handle all the travellers that such bans and Labour's general anti-car policies produce? Does the Minister realise that more stations need to be open, more train services need to be running and more ticket offices need to be open so that travellers are able to buy tickets—as Mrs. Blair found out? Does he agree that difficulty in getting to the dome is one of the main reasons that the big top is being written off as the big flop?

Mr. Hill

More, more.

I know how authoritative the right hon. Gentleman is on these public transport matters. Indeed, shortly before Christmas, I had the great pleasure of reading an article that he had written in Sunday Business, entitled "How I would make the trains run on time". It was a fascinating piece of work from our own home-grown Mussolini—the II Duce of the home counties. The article contained 14 proposals, all of which involved additional Government expenditure—from a member of the Conservative party, which is committed to reducing Government expenditure. It included a proposal for a car park at the right hon. Gentleman's station of Wokingham, but I noticed that, subsequently, the station-master wrote back to say that a car park already existed.

As for the arrangements in central London and around the dome, there had to be a traffic limitation zone, simply to accommodate the vast number of people who were coming into central London that day. The central London event—like the dome—was a fabulous success. Three million Londoners thoroughly enjoyed themselves. If the right hon. Gentleman had any capacity for enjoyment, which I seriously doubt, and had been there, I think that he would have enjoyed it as well.

Mr. Redwood


Hon. Members

More. More.

Mr. Redwood

Perhaps the Minister would like to explain to all those people who spent three, four or five hours stumbling home in the dark, trying to avoid the crush, how one could possibly say that that was a triumph. If that is new Labour's idea of a triumph, they will not be in government for long. The Deputy Prime Minister himself said that if the Government could not run a successful millennium show at the dome, they deserved to be cast into darkness. That is exactly what they deserve. People had a dreadful time trying to get home on new year's eve and on new year's night. I hope that Ministers will hold a proper inquiry, and that they will apologise to all those people whose trains broke down, who were thrust against crush barriers at closed stations and who had to walk miles to try to find an open station, while Ministers were nowhere to be seen to explain to them how they could get home.

Mr. Hill

Frankly, that is the height of opportunism and irresponsibility. The truth is that an enormous number of people were in the centre of London—nearly half the population of the city. Simply for safety reasons, some tube station closures were necessary. If the right hon. Gentleman is advocating that those stations should have stayed open, he would have endangered the lives of many people who were there to enjoy themselves. I repeat that, if the right hon. Gentleman had attended the events and had spoken seriously to many of the people who were there, he would have known that they all had a fabulous night out. London can be proud of itself for the wonderful, world-class show that it mounted on millennium eve.

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