HC Deb 28 January 2003 vol 398 cc699-701
1. Sue Doughty (Guildford)

If he will make a statement on his plans for (a) traffic and (b) congestion reduction. [93529]

The Minister for Transport (Mr. John Spellar)

For strategic roads, we have introduced incident response units on the busiest motorways, and are working with the police on a range of measures to improve incident and traffic management to keep traffic flowing. In addition, we are in the process of building a new traffic control centre, and are planning a major trial of active traffic management systems on the M42 next year. That ties in with the Highways Agency's extensive programme of local improvements by seeking to make the best use of the existing trunk road network. In London, we have brought together all the key players, including Transport for London, the police and the boroughs, to keep traffic moving in London.

Sue Doughty

I thank the Minister for his reply. Given that his Department's advisory committee on trunk road assessment said that traffic reduction can improve economic welfare and that the Chancellor's own forecast for economic growth has been downgraded, will he come clean and admit that there are serious flaws in a reply given to me by the Secretary of State in which he said that "strong economic growth" will mean a greater increase in traffic and congestion? Has he abandoned his plan?

Mr. Spellar

The hon. Lady could have given some credit to the fact that an extra 1.5 million people are in work since 1997, which is a significant factor in increased demand on all transport networks, as we have seen with the growing numbers travelling on the tube and railway system. That is precisely why we are looking at how we can make best use of the existing network, both the highways and in London. We are doing so to increasing effect, but I do not underestimate the difficulties, especially those that arise from the strong economic growth in this country compared with other major economies.

Caroline Flint (Don Valley)

It is self-evident that during the school term there is more traffic on the roads than during school holidays, but it is also true that parents are concerned about the safety of their children. More women work these days and are making combination journeys, dropping their kids off before they go to work. What plans does my right hon. Friend have for looking at extending opportunities for safe and affordable school transport to reduce congestion on our roads during school terms?

Mr. Spellar

I thank my hon. Friend for her question. As she is aware, in her county of Yorkshire there has been an extremely successful experiment with school buses. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, along with the Secretary of State for Education and Skills, will shortly review the lessons of that experiment and look at how such a scheme could be rolled out. Of course, it is not just about bus transport, either scheduled routes or specialised buses, but about creating the facilities for safer school routes, whether for cycling or walking, and providing realistic alternatives to reduce the need or desire for the school run.

Mr. Christopher Chope (Christchurch)

Yesterday, the Government announced a welcome U-turn in their approach to the London congestion tax. It is amazing that the Minister has not referred to that tax. The Government have said that they are committed to providing a uniform minimum standard of exemptions or concessions from local road user charges".—[Official Report, 27 January 2003; Vol. 398, c. 521 W.] Can the Minister tell us when those concessions will be introduced? Will they be backdated to 17 February, and will they include help for parents, key workers, shift workers, small businesses and people living just outside the zone? Would it not be better to scrap the whole ludicrous scheme now?

Mr. Spellar

I do not have to tell the hon. Gentleman that, in the main, those matters are best addressed locally. Mayoral or local authority candidates can put their programme to the electorate, who will either endorse it or not. I should have thought that the hon. Gentleman would want issues to be properly decided by the local authority in the light of local circumstances. Any scheme that is to be introduced must command the majority support of its electorate.

Mrs. Louise Ellman (Liverpool, Riverside)

What implications do the Strategic Rail Authority's unilateral announcements of cuts in rail services have for integrated transport and the reduction of congestion?

Mr. Spellar

My hon. Friend should reflect on the fact that the Strategic Rail Authority has introduced a number of measures precisely to increase reliability, which we know, anecdotally and from statistics and public opinion, is the main factor that people consider when deciding whether to take public transport or travel by car. There is no doubt that in certain areas train paths have been oversold, so if anything went wrong on the network the chances of recovery were greatly diminished, which has had a significant impact on the reliability of the system. The SRA believes—we think that it is right—that by taking out some of the less used services, it will be able, particularly with extended trains on other services, to provide a more reliable service and carry more passengers, which will sustain the growth of passenger traffic that has ocurred in recent years.

Mr. Don Foster (Bath)

Further to that answer, are not the Department's claims to be interested in integrated transport increasingly bogus? What thought did it give to the impact on road congestion of sanctioning rail cuts such as those on the line from Bristol Temple Meads to Oxford, which have put thousands of additional cars on the road? Can the Minister at least give us an absolute assurance that there will be no sanctioning of the proposed cuts in rail freight grants, which, if they go ahead, will put millions of additional freight lorry journeys on to our roads each year?

Mr. Spellar

Some £40 million is going into rail freight grants this year alone. On reductions in individual services, those represent some 100 services out of 17,000. As I said in reply to the previous question, our objective is to ensure that we have more reliable services, because that is far more likely to attract people and retain them on the rail system than the current position. That is in line with the expectations of the travelling public and it is the right way to ensure a sustainable rail system.