HC Deb 15 October 2002 vol 390 cc169-71
9. Lawrie Quinn (Scarborough and Whitby)

How his Department will work with the regional development agencies in planning improvements for transport routes and systems within England. [71420]

The Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. Alistair Darling)

My Department is committed to working closely with regional development agencies to identify transport improvements that can enhance regional economic prosperity.

I am also asking the Highways Agency to press on with a package of improvements to tackle congestion and improve safety at around 90 junctions across the motorway and trunk road network in England. The package is valued at about £145 million. The agency aims to open all these schemes to traffic in the next five years. I will place a list of the junctions and a map giving their locations in the Libraries of both Houses of Parliament.

Lawrie Quinn

I warmly welcome that answer to my question. In the light of that, would the Secretary of State care to look at the Highways Agency's final strategy for the A64 corridor? Given that economic development should drive road schemes, should not schemes such as the improvements required on the A64 to the Yorkshire coast be somewhere near the top of that package in relation to the trans-Pennine routes?

Mr. Darling

I know that the A64 is currently the subject of a development agency study that will be considered by the Highways Agency. My hon. Friend is right that economic development is a consideration, but so too is the pressing need to tackle congestion and to improve road safety in different parts of the country. There are, therefore, different considerations in different parts of the country, and they all need to be addressed in their own way. Our objective is to make sure that we can build a more reliable road network that will assist and underpin our economic growth. A successful economy needs a transport system that can move people and goods around more effectively. However, we must also get our priorities right. Pollution and increasing safety, as well as economic regeneration, are also important.

Mr. John Butterfill (Bournemouth, West)

The Secretary of State will be aware that the south-east Dorset conurbation is the largest one in the south-west, yet there are no rail links between it and the Government offices in Bristol or westwards to the proposed regional seat of government in Exeter. The condition of the road links is even more parlous. Parts of the A31, A35 and the A350 resemble mediaeval cart tracks, so is it not the responsibility of the regional development agency and the Secretary of State to make an effort to improve communications?

Mr. Darling

I have some sympathy with the hon. Gentleman's view. He is right to highlight the fact that in some parts of the country—parts of the south-west of England, in particular—transport links historically look to London and not, for example, to the south coast and to Bristol. He is right to suggest that such issues need to be considered, but that will take time. However, in the next few months I hope to make announcements about a number of road and rail improvements. One thing that is striking in the south-west and other areas is that for everyone who wants a road there are rather a lot of people who do not want one. [Hon. Members: "The Liberal Democrats."] Yes, the Liberal Democrats are on both sides, and usually in respect of the same road. Very often the same people say different things to different people. However, the Liberals are not the only ones to do that. All of us as motorists want to be able to drive around the country, but all of us as environmentalists and conservationists want to be absolutely sure before we give the go-ahead to road improvements.

I will consider these issues, but let no one think that that is easy. We live in an extremely overcrowded island and all these proposals are controversial. As I said, my fundamental objective is to see what we can do to reduce the amount of congestion and to improve safety. That is how I will approach the issue in the south-west of England and in other areas.

Caroline Flint (Don Valley)

In my right hon. Friend's dealings with the regional development agencies, what thought has he given to the Government reviewing the way in which bus services are delivered? In south Yorkshire and Doncaster, we have erratic and dirty services that are taken off on a whim. The service needs to be expanded but the money is not there. Furthermore, when will we consider the expansion of school transport as a fundamental means of reducing congestion on our roads?

Mr. Darling

I have some sympathy with my hon. Friend on that latter point. She will know that in three areas—two in England and one in Wales—FirstBus is trying out the yellow buses that are used in the United States to take children to school. The objective is to encourage children to use a dedicated bus service rather than have their parents drive them to school. The reports will not be ready until the end of next year, but the interim reports are encouraging. Therefore, I certainly want to consider such schemes and, if possible, extend them further.

On the general point about buses, the fact is that in some parts of the country bus usage has gone up quite dramatically. For example, in Oxford—where there is a good bus service and a local authority that has gone out of its way to encourage bus travel—usage has gone up by 50 per cent. In other parts of the country, the record is lamentable. Therefore, rather than embark on fresh legislation, which I suspect would lead to a degree of planning blight, my objective is to see whether we can extend what works in some parts of the country to others, so that we can make far better use of bus services and make sure that they are as reliable as other forms of transport.

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