HC Deb 10 December 2002 vol 396 cc155-72 3.31 pm
The Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. Alistair Darling)

With permission, I should like to make a statement about the next steps in implementing our investment strategy to improve Britain's transport infrastructure.

Our roads and railways are facing increased demands. We are one of the largest economies in the world, and in the past five years we have got more than 1.5 million more people into work. People are better off and travel more often. As we meet the challenges that come from economic success, we are at the same time dealing with the problems resulting from decades of under-investment in our transport infrastructure.

If we look at other countries' successes in transport and ask what they have done, we see that the common factor is sustained investment year on year and over decades. Over this decade, more than £180 billion in both public and private money will be spent on transport, and because we have built a strong economy we can sustain that investment even in the face of today's uncertain and difficult times.

In the past few months, I have announced additional spending on our railway infrastructure, as well as measures to tackle congestion on the roads. Thirty-seven major road schemes have been completed in the past five years, and even before today's announcement we expect to complete about 30 new schemes in the next five years. Work includes major construction on the Al and the M25, which will start next year.

Today, I am announcing the next stage of our investment programme—measures costing £5.5 billion, including the local transport plan settlement for 2003–04, together with my decisions in relation to five studies set up to examine pressures on the strategic road network. I announced the transport settlement for London last week. Our objective is to improve Britain's rail and road network as well as to make use of existing infrastructure, in a measured and balanced approach between road and rail and public and private transport. That includes improvements to tackle congestion, improve reliability and make journeys safer, together with measures to improve the environment and quality of life. The majority of journeys are local trips of less than five miles. Our plans allow for sustained expenditure and a doubling in real terms of local spending. That addresses the consequences of decades of under-investment and stop-go funding.

I can today announce the details of the local transport plan settlement for 2003–04. In December 2000, we announced that we would invest £8.4 billion to implement local transport plans over five years. Today's announcement is the third instalment. It builds on the £1.36 billion and £1.58 billion announced in the past two years. In total, the settlement gives local authorities a further £1.6 billion to improve local transport.

First, let us consider light rail schemes. In Greater Manchester, Metrolink has proved safe and reliable. Last year, it carried more than 18 million passengers, many of whom would previously have travelled by car. Its success means that I can confirm today funding approval for three new lines, which should more than double the number of passengers carried. Construction is planned to start next year.

Subject to statutory procedures, a major light rail line will be built in Liverpool. Merseytram will create better access to the city from Kirkby, contribute significantly to regenerating Liverpool city centre, and boost jobs. In Nottingham, the first phase of the express transit system is under construction and is due to open next year. I accept the east midlands study's recommendation that plans for a second phase should be developed.

Buses remain central to the local public transport system, with nearly 4 billion passenger journeys a year. The local transport settlement will enable local authorities to make important improvements to the bus infrastructure, including providing new bus stations with better links to railway stations and other facilities as well as improving access for people with disabilities. The settlement will fund bus priority measures, thousands of road safety improvements and another 900 safe routes to schools schemes.

Next let us consider road maintenance. Improving the quality of local roads is vital not only for the three quarters of adults in this country who drive, but because most public transport depends on them. Tackling the investment backlog on local roads is therefore essential. We are making available more than £600 million of capital to add to local authorities' resource spending on road maintenance next year. In total, local authorities will be able to spend £2.6 billion on road maintenance. That is more than at any time in the past decade.

I am also approving 12 major local road schemes. Those improvements to local roads will tackle congestion, improve road safety and provide much needed bypasses to remove traffic from towns and villages.

Details of the local transport plan allocations will be placed in the Library, and details of my decisions on all the schemes, including light rail, will also be made available to hon. Members.

We are committed to investing in our strategic road network and making better use of the existing infrastructure. The strategic road network carries one third of all traffic and two thirds of freight traffic. In recent months, we have considered five strategic routes in the light of recommendations from studies of the M6 corridor from the midlands to the north-west, the M1 corridor in the east midlands, the A453 between Nottingham and the M1, the A1 north of Newcastle, and routes from London to the south-west and south Wales.

Most of those motorways were built 30 or 40 years ago. Since then, traffic on them has increased to levels that were never anticipated. However, the strategic routes, both road and rail, are critical to our economic prosperity. As the economy grows, pressure on the roads continues to grow.

We are currently spending on rail, and more passengers and freight are being carried by rail since 1997—but we must also spend more on improving the strategic road network. It is inevitable that large-scale developments take time to plan, design and deliver. We therefore need to make decisions in principle now.

The M6 is a vital link between the midlands and the north-west. When it was built in the 1960s, approximately 75,000 vehicles a day were anticipated. However, today, some stretches carry as many as 150,000 vehicles a day. We have already announced a major £10 billion upgrade for the west coast main line. That is an essential part of our strategy to relieve congestion on that critical transport corridor, allowing for faster trains and increasing capacity for passengers and freight.

The M6 toll road around Birmingham is already under construction and due to open in 2004. The link north of Carlisle to the M74 is being upgraded. With continued economic growth, and given the route's strategic importance, I have accepted the study's recommendation to widen to four lanes the M6 between Manchester and Birmingham, together with junction improvements and safety measures.

The study also considered replacing the A556 in Cheshire by linking the M6 and M56 with a new dual carriageway. I am worried about the environmental consequences of such a new road, and I have therefore asked the Highways Agency to examine the alternative of widening the existing motorways and improving the junction between them.

The M1 corridor links the south-east with the midlands, Yorkshire and the north-east. The Strategic Rail Authority has already announced improved frequency and faster trains on the Midland Mainline from 2004 as well as other measures to improve rail links. This is a strategic route, and vital to our economy. I have, therefore, decided that the M1 should be widened to four lanes through the east midlands, with climbing lanes for lorries and improvements to junctions. I am asking the Highways Agency to work up proposals for both the M1 and M6, including associated environmental measures, as quickly as possible. We are on course to deliver the objectives for road widening set out in the 10-year plan.

The A453 study looked at problems between Nottingham and the M1. Large-scale widening of this road in suburban areas would have had serious consequences for the local community and environment, so I accept the recommendation to dual from the M1 to Clifton, with a smaller-scale widening through Clifton itself.

The study on the A1 north of Newcastle rejected the case for dualling the A1 to the border, and the Scottish Executive do not intend to dual all the road north of Berwick. The safety record at a number points causes major concern, however, so I am asking the Highways Agency to develop proposals for significant safety improvements. These include completing the widening of the A1 between Morpeth and Alnwick, rather than widening it to Berwick as the north-east regional assembly proposed. Also in Northumberland, the Highways Agency will add to the roads programme the Haydon Bridge bypass on the A69.

I also have to announce decisions on the routes to the south-west and south Wales. First, I have accepted recommendations to add climbing lanes and to improve junctions on the M4 and M5 around Bristol, which will tackle one of the most congested parts of the motorway network. Secondly, much of the A303 is already a dual carriageway, and I am accepting recommendations to dual the remaining single-carriageway sections east of Ilminster. As well as relieving congestion, these improvements will make journeys safer and more reliable.

It is essential that proposals to tackle congestion and improve reliability are consistent with our wider environmental obligations. I have had to consider whether I could accept the south-west regional assembly's recommendation to build a dual carriageway on the A303 and A30 through the Blackdown hills, which are designated as an area of outstanding natural beauty. I believe that there must be a strong presumption against building new roads in such areas, so I am asking the Highways Agency to consider the feasibility of an alternative proposal to widen the A358 from Ilminster to the M5 at Taunton.

As the House will know, an extremely busy section of the A303 runs through the world heritage site at Stonehenge. The original cheaper cut-and-cover solution had substantial environmental drawbacks, so my right hon. Friend, the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport and I have decided that a 2 km tunnel should be bored beneath the site at an additional cost of £31 million—a sum that I believe is justified by the environmental gain. This will allow major improvements at this world-famous site. We have a clear duty to protect our heritage and environment.

The five studies made a number of other recommendations, and my full response is being placed in the Library. Some recommendations are for local authorities to develop, and my response makes it clear that far more work needs to be done on a number of other proposals, to establish their feasibility and affordability. I also make it clear that not all of them will go ahead. For example, some proposals, such as the one to widen the M6 to five lanes, will not be taken forward. Further studies will look at the following strategic corridors: from London to the south midlands; along the south coast; from London to Ipswich; on the M60 around north-west Manchester; on the M25; through Yorkshire; through the west midlands; around Hull; and on Tyneside. I expect to report on my decisions on these in the spring. I shall also announce further investment in transport infrastructure at other locations during the course of next year.

The Government are spending more on rail and road to tackle congestion, to improve reliability and to make journeys safer. Under this Government, that investment will be sustained year on year, because it is an essential part of building our economic prosperity and improving our quality of life. I commend this statement to the House.

Mr. Tim Collins (Westmorland and Lonsdale)

I thank the Secretary of State for his customary courtesy in providing an advance copy of his statement. His announcement of the widening of some roads will be widely welcomed. Businesses, motorists and communities in the midlands, the north and the north-west will undoubtedly welcome the widening of the M1 and the M6, and the south-west has desperately needed the full dualling of the A303 for a long time. His words about light rail, buses and trams will also be welcomed by many.

Does the Secretary of State accept, however, that given the warnings last week from the Strategic Rail Authority that the 10-year transport plan is now effectively in tatters, few will believe that such projects are certain to happen? Does he accept that even after this announcement, his Government plan to spend less on roads in each year of the 10-year transport plan than the average level of spending under the last Conservative Government?

Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that his Government have travelled a long way from where they started on the issue? In 1998, his right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister said: Everyone now acknowledges that we cannot build our way out of congestion; the days of predict and provide are over."—[Official Report, 20 July 1998; Vol. 316, c. 786.] Does the Secretary of State remember that? Will he admit that today's statement is a U-turn from that position? Does he remember that the Deputy Prime Minister said: I will have failed if in five years time there are not…far fewer journeys by car."? Will the Secretary of State acknowledge that there has been a failure and that that approach has been scrapped?

Four times on this morning's "Today" programme, the Secretary of State refused to say that reducing traffic is still Government policy, so will he state clearly that Ministers have definitively abandoned that target? Does he also realise that other parts of his statement provoke a strong sense of déjà vu? He boasts of the amount to be spent. In 1998, the Deputy Prime Minister told the House: Let no one say that we are not putting our money where our mouth is. We have made a £1.7 billion increase in public investment for transport over the next three years". All that time and money, but nothing achieved.

The Secretary of State said today that he would work with local government to improve transport. In 1998, the Deputy Prime Minister said of local government: This major new initiative will be backed by £700 million, which will enable the development of 150 local transport strategies over the next three years. Does the Secretary of State remember that? All that time and money, but nothing achieved. He rightly noted that business is worried about congestion. In 1998, the Deputy Prime Minister said that he would take action and told the House: The Confederation of British Industry complains of the £15 billion cost of congestion."—[Official Report, 20 July 1998; Vol. 316, c. 784–88.] Does the Secretary of State remember that? I have news for the Government: today, the CBI complains of the £20 billion cost of congestion. All that time and money, but nothing achieved.

Does the Secretary of State accept that we have had five and a half shamefully wasted years in which motorists have been lectured, penalised and massively taxed; the highest fuel duties in the western world have paid for the smallest road building programme since the second world war; and the average motorist has endured a 16 per cent. rise in journey times and a 50 per cent. rise in motorway congestion while Ministers and their chauffeurs sail past in the bus lanes that other people are penalised for using?

Does the Secretary of State really expect motorists to be grateful for his decision to put back in the road programme schemes that Labour should never have axed in the first place, many of which might have been finished by now if the Government had not got it so badly wrong? Last year, they added not a single inch of tarmac to the national road network—a shocking failure. Is he ashamed of that?

Does the Secretary of State expect the public to believe that he will build the roads that he has promised today when last week the Government had to admit that they could not deliver the rail improvements that he promised only a few months ago? Has he not proven today that, with Labour, all we ever get is the promise of jam tomorrow and the reality of jams today?

Mr. Darling

I do feel sorry for the hon. Gentleman. Clearly, one of his biggest problems is that he does not have a transport policy. He said at the Tory party conference that he would announce that policy before the end of the year, but I note that there are only 10 more announcing days till Christmas, so time is running out.

The hon. Gentleman has another problem. The general thrust of his rant is, I think, that we ought to be spending more, yet I note that the leader of the Conservative party—I know that the hon. Gentleman has difficulties with him, or at least did in the past—said as recently as 8 December: We've already said we are not matching the Government's spending plans. So, whatever else the hon. Gentleman says, he cannot get away from the fact that he would not have the money to spend on any such measures, let alone those that I have announced today.

The hon. Gentleman raised two points that are worthy of reply. First, he complained that there were more people travelling around than there were five years ago. In many ways that is a good thing, is it not? There are 1.5 million fewer unemployed people now. People are moving around: they are better off because of the strong economy. Our job must be to ensure that the transport system enables people and goods to move around. Ours must be a measured and balanced approach. That is why we are investing in both road and rail.

Secondly, the hon. Gentleman mentioned the Strategic Rail Authority and rail expenditure. Richard Bowker, the SRA's chairman, made the obvious point that the industry needs to get a grip on its projects and costs. It never did that under Railtrack. It did not do it under privatisation, when the whole system virtually fell to pieces. Richard Bowker was absolutely right: we must keep a tight control on expenditure to ensure that money is spent properly.

As for the rest of the hon. Gentleman's remarks, I think that, rather like his policies, they are best forgotten.

Mr. Don Foster (Bath)

I, too, thank the Secretary of State for giving notice of his statement. Although it has already been announced, may I begin by welcoming the money provided for local transport plans? My local authority will be delighted.

Does the Secretary of State acknowledge that local plans often provide the most balanced and measured solutions to the scourge of congestion and pollution on our roads, not least by focusing on improving public transport? If so, why has he not applied the same measured and balanced approach to major national projects? Why, within days of the announcement that many of the major rail improvement projects were to be shelved and that no money was available for the rail items in the multi-modal studies, are the Government returning to the old failed predict-and-provide approach on our roads? Did the multi-modal studies not show that without matched road pricing and equal action to improve public transport, major road building simply generates more traffic, increases congestion and harms business and the economy?

Why, when we are about to hear more news of train delays and cancellations, has the Secretary of State not reconsidered the balance of Government funding between road building and public transport? What exactly did he mean when he said back in June: Britain isn't big enough for us to be pouring more and more concrete over its green and pleasant land"? Has he not simply given up? Surely all we can look forward to now is worsening public transport and longer and wider traffic jams.

Mr. Darling

I welcome the hon. Gentleman's welcome for our proposals, but he says that we should be spending more on rail. Indeed, I saw him on television earlier saying exactly the same. Perhaps he should have a word with the Liberal Democrats' finance spokesman, who has given a warning about Liberal Democrat spending plans. He said that his colleagues could no longer assume that spending pledges could be funded unless they satisfied five tests. Where have we heard that before? The tests include the following: the pledges must be value for money, they must be funded within current budgets, they must be a priority for scarce resources, and—wait for it—the Liberal Democrats must decide whether the pledges could not be better delivered by the private sector. My word! I look forward to that being debated at next year's Liberal Democrat conference.

The hon. Gentleman made a fair point in saying that investment must be balanced and must be measured. That is why we are spending far more on the railways. As I told the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Mr. Collins) a moment ago, Richard Bowker's point last week was not that there was a lack of substantial sums. The point is that we cannot return to the situation that was arising with Railtrack, which simply thought of a number and doubled it, which had no control over its costs and which did not get a grip on its projects. Of course we must ensure that money is spent properly, whether it has come from the private or the public sector; but a substantial amount is being invested. The west coast main line is a case in point.

The hon. Gentleman went on to say, basically, that he was opposed to everything I announced today about road improvements. Is he really saying to his colleagues with constituencies in south-west England that the A303 should not be dualled, or to the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) that he should not argue for upgrading the A1, as he did at a recent Question Time? Does he not want the M4-M5 around Bristol to be improved? He knows in his heart of hearts that Liberal policy on transport can be a trifle muddled at times.

Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich)

The Secretary of State will be aware that his decision to put a lot of money into light rail will be most warmly welcomed. The decision to improve roads, where bypasses are needed or where safety demands that the quality of a road be upgraded, will also be welcomed. However, he will, I think, accept that we cannot build our way out of congestion and that without some commitment towards inter-urban charging or some suitable change in Government policies, this road building programme will not provide the improvement that we expect. Will he please tackle the fact that, over the next 10 years, public transport will become more expensive and motoring cheaper?

Mr. Darling

I agree that transport policy has to be balanced. We have to invest in sensible road improvements—although nobody is suggesting that we should return to the widespread motorway programmes of the 1960s—but we also need to invest in public transport. I am glad that my hon. Friend acknowledged that.

I have said on many occasions since I started doing this job that road pricing needs to be debated—it is a subject that people tend to shy away from. There are two problems. The first is whether it is a feasible proposition, as we are talking about nearly 25 million cars, and nowhere in the world has such a proposition been tackled. The second is whether it would be technically possible. I have enough experience as a Minister with large IT projects to be very wary of people who come along and say, "Don't worry, it'll be all right on the night." It does not quite work that way.

I agree that a transport policy should be measured and balanced, and that is the policy that I have been pursuing over the past six months and that I intend to pursue in future.

Mr. Robert Key (Salisbury)

My former pupil, the Secretary of State, has scored good marks on this test. Although I regret that he has not seen fit to build a Salisbury bypass, he has taken the right decision on Stonehenge. The fact that there is to be a deep-bore tunnel will put at rest the minds of many archaeologists, for a start. I hope that we can now speed up the process. Is he confident, however, that the unseemly row between English Heritage and the National Trust over the tunnel can be resolved? I will be happy to oblige if I can help. Can I take it at face value when he says that the A303 east of Ilminster will be dualled—and that that will include bypasses not only for Winterbourne Stoke but for Chicklade?

Mr. Darling

I remember that the hon. Gentleman tried to teach me geography for a short time, but I cannot remember whether Stonehenge was included in the syllabus. I am grateful to him for his welcome. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport had a meeting with the National Trust this morning and explained that the Government, having discussed the matter with all the interested parties for some time, have come to the concluded view that a 2.1 km bored tunnel is the right way forward. I very much hope that the National Trust, and everybody else involved, can now accept that and get on with it. Any one who has been to Stonehenge will be amazed that, in this day and age, we still have a busy road running right through a world heritage site. If the hon. Gentleman can encourage people to get on with it, so much the better.

I want to ensure that the rest of the A303 is dualled. We are now asking the Highways Agency to work up proposals. Clearly, plans will need to be developed and planning consents sought, but I want to get on with it as quickly as possible. As the House well knows, because of the fact that there are many people along the route who will want to have their say, getting planning permission can be a complex business.

Dr. Gavin Strang (Edinburgh, East and Musselburgh)

The whole House should welcome this major public investment in road and rail. I recognise the point that my right hon. Friend made about the strategic road network carrying about two thirds of our freight, but will he reaffirm the Government's commitment to major investment in rail freight? I am sure that he agrees that rail freight should not be seen as the Cinderella of the railway business. Will he confirm that the Government will continue to invest and to take all measures that they can to get freight off the roads and on to the railways?

Mr. Darling

The Government are determined to ensure that more freight is carried on rail—indeed, the amount carried on the railways has gone up by about 28 per cent. in the past five years. I certainly agree with the sentiments that my right hon. Friend expresses on rail freight, not least because of the fact that I am speaking at the Rail Freight Group's Christmas lunch tomorrow.

Mr. John Redwood (Wokingham)

I welcome the Secretary of State's commitment to expanding capacity on both roads and railways; that is sorely needed and it is a good idea. When looking at the need for capacity between the Thames valley and London, will he consider favourably noise-reducing surfaces and noise barriers along any sections of widened motorway that are close to human habitation? On the railways, will he look at better braking and signalling technologies to enable more trains per hour to run at peaks? We desperately need more peak rail capacity, and there is no room for extra track.

Mr. Darling

I agree with what the right hon. Gentleman says on improving the quality of road surfaces. As existing roads come up for renewal, different surfaces are being applied to them to reduce noise, and new roads also have surfaces that cause a lot less noise. That makes a dramatic difference for drivers and, importantly, for people living alongside such roads. As the right hon. Gentleman may know, about a month ago the Strategic Rail Authority announced major changes to the franchising system. There will be one franchisee for most principal London stations, which will help to deal with some of the hold-ups that are currently encountered. Also, one objective of the review into railway capacity and making better use of railways is to ensure that we make more sensible use of train timetables. I hope that that, together with the gradual upgrading of signalling, will lead to a system that is far more reliable than the current one.

Mr. Keith Bradley (Manchester, Withington)

May I welcome the Secretary of State's announcement concerning the metrolink extensions in Manchester? As a result, the light rail system will come to my constituency for the first time, saving thousands of car journeys, particularly to local hospitals and to Manchester airport. Does my right hon. Friend agree that these additional routes will lead to other routes such as that through to Stockport via Didsbury being considered much sooner than would otherwise have been the case? Such routes will be welcomed by all the people of south Manchester.

Mr. Darling

The Manchester metro is an excellent example of what can be achieved by investing in public transport and providing a good alternative, so that people leave their cars at home and travel by metro. I am very glad that we were able to reach agreement with the various councils in Greater Manchester on additional funding to ensure that the three new routes are properly served. If the service works well and is delivered efficiently, I hope that we can move on. Where an existing metro is in place and substantial public investment has already been made, it makes sense to develop it further, if and when we can. However, the most important thing is to ensure that the new investment goes in, and that the new system works as effectively as possible.

Mr. A. J. Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed)

Surely the Secretary of State cannot be satisfied that the main strategic road from eastern England to his own city of Edinburgh still has such a long and dangerous stretch of single carriageway. If he rests his case for that on the multi-modal study, why is he so lukewarm about the rail improvements contained in it, and why is Railtrack still blocking the reopening of stations such as Belford, which could take traffic off the road?

Mr. Darling

I am rather surprised to see the right hon. Gentleman on his feet, given the injunction imposed on him by the Liberal Democrats' finance spokesman, who said that they must stick to current budgets. The multi-modal study considered whether the A1 should be dualled to the Scottish border. It came to the view that it should not, but it did agree that a number of improvements were necessary. The right hon. Gentleman mentioned my home city of Edinburgh, and one of the things that may have influenced the study is that the Scottish Executive do not intend to dual the A1 north of the border. If we dualled it south of the border, the odd situation would arise of the road reverting to single carriageway the minute the line was crossed.

In fact, for many people living in Scotland's central belt, the principal route to the south is now down the M74 and the M6, rather than down the A1. I know that the right hon. Gentleman has a long-standing interest in calling for that road to be improved. It will be improved, and the Highways Agency will keep the whole matter under review in years to come, but I do not want to hold out false hopes, because that would not be fair to the right hon. Gentleman or his constituents. However, he should acknowledge that substantial improvements are on the way for the section to which I referred, and for the junctions, which I hope will be made safer.

Mr. George Howarth (Knowsley, North and Sefton, East)

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on producing what I consider to be a balanced set of proposals, and in particular on agreeing to fund the Merseyside tram project, or light rail system, as he called it. The project will link Kirkby in my constituency with Liverpool city centre and, just as importantly, will go through some of the most deprived communities on Merseyside. Will my right hon. Friend join me in congratulating Merseytravel on bringing the project to the point where it is now a reality?

Mr. Darling

I agree on my hon. Friend's final point. Merseytravel has put a lot of work and effort into the project, and I am glad that we were able to agree the funding. The key thing is to get the link constructed and operating. I hope that the fact that we are giving the go-ahead for Merseytram will encourage others to invest in the city and secure the improvements that we want, not least by ensuring that more people are in work and helping to increase the city's prosperity.

Mr. George Osborne (Tatton)

The widening of the M6 through my constituency will be received as a mixed blessing, but there will be bitter disappointment that we still do not have a decision on the A556M. When will a decision be made about either improving junction 20 or building the new motorway? Enormous planning blight has been caused in my constituency for the people whom I represent.

Mr. Darling

The hon. Gentleman has craftily refrained from telling us which side he is on in that great debate. I have made it clear that I am concerned about the environmental impact that building a new road would have—and the road would be a new one, as it would not follow the line of the existing road. As I have said today and on other occasions—indeed, I said it as soon as I took up this job—we must consider long and hard whether new roads can be justified. I want to make a decision as quickly as possible, as I recognise what the hon. Gentleman said about blight. Clearly, the Highways Agency has to look at the feasibility of upgrading junction 20 to see whether there might be an alternative. I have asked the agency to look at the matter objectively and come up with an alternative. I hope that that is what happens.

Mr. Ronnie Campbell (Blyth Valley)

I welcome the report, although I am a little disappointed that the Blyth and Tyne rail link, which runs through my constituency in south-east Northumberland and into Newcastle, has not been mentioned so far. Will my right hon. Friend keep an eye on that link in the future?

Mr. Darling

My hon. Friend will know that the link is one of the matters covered in the report. As I made clear in my letter of response, the SRA will want to consider the matter, but I do not want to tell my hon. Friend, "Not to worry, that link is just down the road." We must be realistic, and we are spending a lot of money on transport. My hon. Friend will know that the costs of running the railway have gone up dramatically—not least because we now have a far clearer idea of the state of the network. I am afraid that we never had that under Railtrack or even under British Rail, and it has complicated matters.

Mrs. Angela Browning (Tiverton and Honiton)

The section of the A358 between Ilminster and Taunton is a legitimate candidate for dualling, but that should not happen as an alternative to dualling the A303 from Honiton to Ilminster. When the Government came to office, that piece of road had been subject to a full public inquiry. The very important environmental issues had been considered, and the contract was due to go out to tender. The economic arguments for another arterial route in and out of Devon are overwhelming. The CBI and the Devon and Cornwall Business Council support the project but, more importantly, so does every parish council along the route. If the Secretary of State is going to listen to local people, will he listen to parish councils and their elected representatives?

Mr. Darling

I drove along that route recently to see what the position was. As the hon. Lady may know, I spoke to representatives of industry in the south-west, so I know people's feelings on the matter. However, as I said in my statement earlier, the location has been designated an area of outstanding natural beauty. Successive Governments have taken a view on the environmental benefits of such designations, and we must think long and hard before agreeing to build a new road through the area. That is why it is right to determine whether the alternative through to Taunton would be better. As I told the hon. Member for Tatton (Mr. Osborne), Governments have a duty to have regard to the environmental consequences of what they do. They must think long and hard before committing to projects that could have an adverse effect on the environment.

Ms Candy Atherton (Falmouth and Camborne)

I warmly welcome the statement, and the news on the A303 will be widely welcomed in the west country. It is an example of the Government delivering for Cornwall. Our periphery means that it is critical that we have first-class road and rail links. I appreciate that my right hon. Friend needs to think long and hard about the Blackdown hills, but can I urge him to think more quickly, because we need an urgent decision?

Mr. Darling

Just a few moments ago I said that my preference as regards the Blackdown hills is to look at an alternative. However, my hon. Friend is right that the Government are doing a lot in Cornwall. A number of bypasses and road improvements are being worked on in Cornwall. It is important to ensure that road and rail links in all parts of the country are brought up to standard, and that those from the south-west to the rest of the country are improved. After all, it is not just a matter of quality of life and convenience—the economic prosperity of the south-west depends on its transport links.

Mr. Simon Thomas (Ceredigion)

In welcoming the improvements in road links to south Wales, I draw the Secretary of State's attention to the fact that 90 per cent. of journeys in Wales are taken by car in contrast to some 84 per cent. in England, so investment in our rail infrastructure is vital for our economy and our environment. In that context, will the right hon. Gentleman take this opportunity to rule out the suggested 10 or even 20 per cent. decrease in funding for the Wales and borders franchise that is being discussed?

Mr. Darling

I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman's welcome and I am sure that the improvements on the M4 and M5 around Bristol will also help traffic travelling to south Wales—at least, it should do, from my experience. On rail expenditure, as I said earlier, the Government are determined to ensure that we continue to invest in the railways the money that has been allocated. However, some people in the industry—operators as well as contractors—are approaching this as if they can simply ask the Government to write a blank cheque. No responsible Government could agree to that, so although of course we want to make sure that we achieve good quality and better standards than we have at present, we cannot accept a situation in which operators say how much money they want and we hand it over. That is no way to run a railway.

Geraldine Smith (Morecambe and Lunesdale)

Although my right hon. Friend's statement is most welcome, particularly the improvements to the M6, does he agree that it is important to improve motorway link roads such as the proposed Heysham Port/M6 link road, which will bring massive benefits to my constituency when it is finally completed? Can he give me an assurance that when this scheme is submitted to the Government for funding, he will give it his careful consideration?

Mr. Darling

I always consider schemes, but my hon. Friend knows that I cannot go as far as to say that I will approve them. She is right that although it is of course important to improve our strategic arterial routes, the link roads to various parts of the country are equally important. All proposals will be considered carefully, especially those that ensure the continued economic development of certain areas or that benefit areas that are being opened up for additional development.

Mr. Nigel Waterson (Eastbourne)

Can the Secretary of State confirm that the south coast multi-modal study has concluded quite clearly that major improvements are necessary to the A27 between Lewes and Polegate and that they should be a priority? So why is he going to wait until the spring to make a decision?

Mr. Darling

Well, simply because we get these reports from the consultants; they then go to the regional assemblies; and various other people have to have their say before they come to me for consideration. I could have waited and looked at them all together, as some people urged me to do, but I thought it best to deal with them in sensible groups. If I jump the process, I fear that somebody will head off to my learned friends in court—as I found out only too recently—and I do not want to repeat that experience too often.

Mr. George Stevenson (Stoke-on-Trent, South)

Will my right hon. Friend accept from me a guarded welcome for the M6 proposals? Major projects such as the widening of the M6 have an enormous impact on local sub-regions such as north Staffordshire and Stoke-on-Trent. Does my right hon. Friend therefore share my concern that the multi-modal study did not consider the potential of such rail links as the Crewe-Derby line, which runs through the whole of the north Staffordshire sub-region and into south Cheshire? Will he undertake to review that serious omission so that the potential for passengers and freight on that enormously important sub-regional line can be considered?

Mr. Darling

The SRA will no doubt want to look at a number of rail projects throughout the country. As I pointed out earlier, the cost of running the railways in this country is greater than was anticipated—mainly due to the state of the track, although other factors are also involved.

In relation to the M6, I am grateful for my hon. Friend's "guarded" welcome, but regardless of our ability to get more people to travel by train, that road was built between 30 and 40 years ago, when not too much attention was paid to the environmental consequences, and it is in need of improvement, so the improvements that I announced today would have been necessary in any case.

The SRA will of course look at particular railway lines but I do not want to tell any right hon. or hon. Member that funding is guaranteed. We shall look into such matters, but we have to operate under constraints.

Mr. Michael Jack (Fylde)

I welcome the Secretary of State's attempt to change the M6 from a car park—as it sometimes is—into a working road. However, one aspect of that endeavour was missing from the right hon. Gentleman's statement: there was no sense of the time scale. When is work timetabled to begin on the improvements and will it be funded by a public-private partnership? Does the Secretary of State have any thoughts about tolling the road when it is completed? Finally, when he considers links between Lancashire and Yorkshire, will he be studying plans for an extension of the M65 through the Aire valley to open up another trans-Pennine crossing?

Mr. Darling

In relation to the right hon. Gentleman's question on the M65, the answer is not at the moment. However, it might be helpful if I write to him to let him know where we stand on that matter.

The right hon. Gentleman should not assume from anything that I said today that the road will be tolled. That is not one of our proposals. We need to examine whether it should be funded conventionally or through a public finance scheme. It might be helpful for the right hon. Gentleman and the House to know that the Highways Agency will work up specific proposals and we shall then have to seek planning permission as almost all of them will involve additional land take. The length of that process is not entirely in our hands but we can speed it up by ensuring that the design, environmental considerations, engagement of contractors and so on are telescoped. We are starting to do that, so the process will be quicker than might otherwise have been the case.

As I said in my statement, we cannot begin such projects tomorrow morning; it will be several years before the work is started and completed. I want to get on with things as quickly as possible. The M6 needs that additional capacity as soon as possible. However, I have not the slightest doubt that in future many Members sitting in the Chamber today will raise the legitimate concerns of their constituents about the environmental impacts of the road—we have to marry up the two objectives.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)

As the Secretary of State is aware, a senior member of his Department, Mr. Leslie Packer, last night attended a formidably well-researched presentation by the Motor Industry Research Association and British Nuclear Fuels Ltd at the Parliamentary and Scientific Committee on hydrogen fuel cells and their future use. As the British Government are good at handling situations when only one Department is involved, but perhaps less good when several are involved, such as—in this case—the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the Department of Trade and Industry, will my right hon. Friend, as the lead Minister, pay some attention to the serious proposals, made by serious people, on the non-fanciful development of hydrogen fuel?

Mr. Darling

I agree with my hon. Friend. In fact, my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary chairs an inter-ministerial group that is considering that work. I strongly believe that the Government should encourage the development of hydrogen fuels, and we shall do everything that we can, either directly or indirectly through the efforts currently being undertaken by the industry. Unfortunately, I suspect that it will take time to develop a proposition that is commercially exploitable, but I am sure that most Members will agree that we should be looking into such alternative forms of propulsion. There are huge environmental gains to come and my hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) has my assurance that we will do everything that we can to expedite that work.

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome)

I think I can give a wholehearted welcome to something that the right hon. Gentleman said this afternoon, but will he confirm whether what he said about the A303 means that the on-line safety improvements on the Sparkford to Ilchester stretch in my constituency will now take place? Those plans have been in place since 1996; they have gone through a public inquiry and have been agreed. If that is what the right hon. Gentleman is saying, may I thank him on behalf of all those in the local communities who have been making representations not because they want to increase capacity, but because they want to save lives?

Mr. Darling

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his wholehearted welcome. I think we have now had from the Liberals one maybe, one against and one in favour: that sums up the Liberal party quite nicely.

In relation to the A303, we have considered the recommendations and taken a decision in principle to go ahead with the dualling, so we will now ask the Highways Agency to work up proposals. Discussions will have to take place with various people locally, who will have strong views on precisely what is planned, but I am quite happy to set out the procedure in relation to the hon. Gentleman's specific points if he would like me to do so, as that would probably help him to talk to his constituents about them.

Phil Sawford (Kettering)

I thank my right hon. Friend for this statement. I welcome news of the £12.7 million investment to build the A43 Corby link road, which will bring great relief to the village of Geddington in my constituency. In view of the volume of traffic, particularly heavy vehicles, and the number of fatalities and serious injuries, will my right hon. Friend do everything that he can to expedite that project so that it can begin as quickly as possible?

Mr. Darling

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for those remarks. Yes, the A43 Corby link road has been approved and, yes, I will do everything that I can to bring forward those things as fast as I can. I should just repeat, however, that approving such schemes is the easy stage in some ways; the most difficult thing is to reach agreement on the precise configuration and layout, so I hope that all those hon. Members who have spoken in favour of such things this afternoon will apply their minds to addressing the undoubted difficulties that sometimes arise when people say that they are in favour of a road in principle but do not happen to want it just where we had in mind. I hope that my hon. Friend can help us with that as well.

Mr. Nick Hawkins (Surrey Heath)

When this Government came to office and declared war on the motorist in 1997, the Deputy Prime Minister cancelled a whole series of important road schemes, including the Bisley bypass in my constituency. Now that the present Secretary of State has belatedly seen sense, will he agree that I can bring to see him or one of this ministerial colleagues a delegation of my constituents to raise the issue of the Bisely bypass and a matter that I have raised at two previous meetings with his junior Ministers: the resurfacing and noise barriers that are needed on the M3, which bisects my constituency? At the moment, only one carriageway has been resurfaced. That does not help to reduce the noise pollution from which my constituents suffer, and the Highways Agency tells us that the other carriageway cannot be resurfaced for several years. That is nonsense. Logically, all the work should have been done together.

Mr. Darling

In relation to whether the hon. Gentleman can come to see one of my colleagues, there is never any difficulty with right hon. or hon. Members seeking to see Ministers in my Department. As we are here to represent our constituents, we ought to be able to do that in one-to-one meetings, as that suits most hon. Members. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary is aware of the representations to which the hon. Gentleman refers.

In answer to the hon. Gentleman's first, rather ungracious, comment, I simply make the point, since he raises the issue, that what we need in this country is Governments who are able and determined to maintain spending year on year, decade on decade. It would be very useful if the hon. Gentleman would back that, although it would put him at odds with the rest of his party.

Mr. Lindsay Hoyle (Chorley)

I welcome my right hon. Friend's announcement today, but does he realise that he will create a problem on the M6? I welcome the four-lane motorway up to the south of Manchester, but there will be a gap north of Warrington to the south of Preston, where it will have three lanes and become a bottleneck. There is a short span of four-lane motorway between Preston and Blackpool. I wonder whether my right hon. Friend will consider finding the funds to ensure that we have a four-lane motorway all the way through Lancashire.

Mr. Darling

I have already spent quite a lot of money today, and I will be careful about offering to spend more. I know the stretch of road to which my hon. Friend refers, and the Highways Agency will keep the matter under review.

Mr. John Randall (Uxbridge)

Do the Government have a policy on reducing road traffic?

Mr. Darling

Let me make two points to the hon. Gentleman. First, if the economy continues to grow, and if, therefore, more people have more money and more reasons to travel, and if we get more people into work who must therefore travel to work, it follows, does it not, that people will move around more. Secondly, one of the reasons why more people are moving around today than were doing so 10 years ago is that, 10 years ago, we were in the teeth of a recession. Surely it cannot be any Government's policy to try to lock people up in their own homes. Our priority is not to stop people moving around but to make sure that we tackle congestion, improve the reliability of journeys and improve road safety. That is the Government's policy, and it will continue to be our policy.

Clive Efford (Eltham)

Does my right hon. Friend accept that the price of owning and running a car has gone down in the last year? If we are to tackle congestion on our roads, especially in relation to inter-urban transport, we must address that issue. I accept my right hon. Friend's statement that the introduction of interurban congestion charging is a very difficult task, but we need to find other methods to encourage people to leave their cars at home. When he comes to consider the M25 review, it should not just deal with congestion and road size but with transferring people from their cars to public transport. It must also consider major park-and-ride schemes for the London area.

Mr. Darling

I agree with some of what my hon. Friend said, as where it is possible to get people out of their cars and into public transport, our transport policy ought to back that. That is why we have announced funding today for the metro light-rail schemes. In relation to London, for example, my hon. Friend will know that I am anxious to make sure that there are improvements to the Thameslink, and that a workable, affordable and deliverable Crossrail project is worked up. He will also know about extensions not just to the tube but to the docklands light railway. At the risk of raising a sore point, we have, of course, announced large sums of money going into the London underground. My hon. Friend is right that money must go into public transport because people must be given a sensible alternative. Without that, we do not have a coherent public transport strategy. I agree with that, and I also agree that some of these issues are difficult and take time to see through.

Mr. David Laws (Yeovil)

Can the Secretary of State tell us how long it will take to make a judgement about the A358 route from the A303 through to the M5 at Taunton? When does he expect to make a decision on that important issue, on which I think he is heading in the right direction? Can he also say whether he remains committed to dualling the rail line between Exeter and Salisbury?

Mr. Darling

In relation to the link through to Taunton, I cannot give the hon. Gentleman a precise time. What is important is that we look at all the implications before coming forward with a final worked-up proposal. I do not want to mislead the hon. Gentleman by giving him an artificial time plucked out of the air.

The rail improvements are matters for the SRA to consider, and I cannot give the hon. Gentleman an undertaking on that at the moment. What I can say is that it is particularly important to make sure that the SRA and First Great Western concentrate on achieving a reliable service between the south-west and London.

Mr. Brian H. Donohoe (Cunninghame, South)

While I realise that today's announcement is restricted to England and Wales, I wonder whether my right hon. Friend has had any advances made to him from the Scottish Executive in relation to similar additional funding being made available for roads north of the border.

Mr. Darling

Well, no, because the Scottish Executive must fund its roads programme from the sum devolved to it. Many hon. Members would be surprised if the national Government offered to hand over more money. Road policy within Scotland is devolved. We do, of course, have a clear interest in working with the Scottish Executive in relation to rail policy and aviation policy, much of which are national responsibilities.

Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (West Derbyshire)

Some years ago, the Government promised to resurface concrete roads. The A50 is one of the concrete roads that deserves and needs to be resurfaced. There has been no mention of that in what the Secretary of State has said today. A promise was made, so when can the people of Doveridge expect the A50 to be resurfaced?

Mr. Darling

I am not sure whether the hon. Gentleman was in the Chamber when the right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood) asked a similar question and I said it was the Government's policy to replace such surfaces. That is part of a rolling programme that will take some years to carry out, because some surfaces are relatively new and the policy is relatively recent. I certainly undertake to write to the hon. Gentleman about the stretch of motorway that he mentioned. However, I remind him and all Conservative Members that, if the work is to get done, it will require sustained public spending. It is an awful pity that the Conservative party's policy is not to match us on that spending. If we return to stop-go policies, all the things about which hon. Members have complained today will continue.

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