HL Deb 27 June 1977 vol 384 cc921-32

4.20 p.m.

Baroness STEDMAN

My Lords, with the leave of the House, I will now repeat a Statement being made in another place by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Transport. The Statement is as follows:

"In April last year my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for the Environment published a consultation document on transport policy. The House will recall how much that document owed to the late Anthony Crosland. Since the creation of the Department of Transport in September, my honourable friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary and I have had discussions with a wide range of organisations. The House debated the consultation document on 20th January.

"The Queen's Speech promised that the Government would bring forward proposals for developing a transport policy best suited to economic and social needs. Our main conclusions are set out in the White Paper which is presented today by my right honourable friends the Secretaries of State for Scotland and Wales and myself. I regret that, owing to an industrial dispute at Her Majesty's Stationery Office, printed copies are not yet available for right honourable and honourable Members, but typescripts are available in the Vote Office"—

and in our Printed Paper Office.

"In this Statement I cannot set out all the proposals in a document over 30,000 words in length. It may help the House, however, if I refer to some of the principal features.

"First, public transport. The maintenance of our public services is the White Paper's main concern. Expenditure in support of public transport will not be reduced, as had been proposed in the consultation document and in this year's Public Expenditure White Paper. The White Paper provides for support to local bus services to be maintained at present levels in real terms to sustain essential networks and moderate fare increases.

"Second, we intend to place more responsibility for planning and securing properly integrated local public transport on local authorities. They are in the best position to assess local needs and how to meet them. They, with the operators, are best able to co-ordinate the different modes in a practical way, taking into account the views of the consumer, of local industry and commerce and of the trade unions. But outside the metropolitan areas the present arrangements are inadequate. The Government will introduce legislation to require county councils in these areas to prepare local public transport plans.

"We attach particular importance to our proposals for the rural areas whose special problems we recognise. The new county public transport plans should give greater stability to conventional bus services and there will be increased support for them. In addition, the licensing system will be modified to allow for flexibility and innovation in meeting needs in the most cost-effective ways. We see scope for more self-help and more community buses, based on local initiative in the light of local conditions.

"Third, we provide for an increase, by 1980–81, of £25 million over present levels of expenditure on concessionary fares for the elderly, blind and disabled.

"Fourth, the White Paper marks out a central and continuing role for the railways, notably in long-distance passenger transport, in important commuter services, in the movement of bulk freight and in providing essential local services. There can be no question of imposing major cuts on the network. By concentrating on the tasks they do well, by increasing efficiency and productivity and by skilful marketing, the Board, working together closely with the trade unions, can build an assured future for the railways. In the longer term it may be possible to look to higher levels of investment. Meanwhile, we shall give the Board more flexibility to deploy the available resources to best effect and agree rolling programmes for suitable investment.

"The Government have set two financial objectives for the railways; to contain, and then to reduce, subsidy to the revenue account for the operation of passenger services; and to eliminate any continuing requirement beyond this year for support to the other railway business. New arrangements are needed for setting targets for sectors of the business, but the Government have not set a specific financial objective for reducing subsidy to the London commuter services.

"National resources must go first-and-foremost to equip the railways to carry out those national tasks which they alone can perform, and where their contribution to the industrial strategy is the greatest. But the railways provide many local passenger services also, some carrying few passengers at high and increasing cost. We propose discussions with local government, the Railways Board and the unions on how best to involve local people in any necessary decisions on the future of such services and on how best to use resources to meet local needs.

"Finally, there is the level and nature of the road programme. The last 20 years have seen substantial improvements to the core of the national road system. For the future, there will be a new approach. The programme will be more selective, directed to meeting specific economic and environmental needs rather than to completing a national strategic network to a uniform standard throughout. For the next few years at least, expenditure will remain at about the reduced levels of the current year.

"The White Paper deals with many other matters which time does not allow me to describe in detail now. They include wider powers to control car parking in congested areas, while recognising the importance of the private car as a means of transport; greater attention to the needs of pedestrians and cyclists; and measures to civilise the heavy lorry. However, some matters will be the subject of later statements—notably our proposals for road safety and the future role and structure of the National Freight Corporation, including the ownership of Freightliners.

"Transport policy must be directed towards economic growth and higher prosperity; ensuring for everyone a reasonable level of personal mobility; and minimising the harmful effects on the environment that result directly from the transport we use. It must take account of the conservation of energy and of land use planning. We have to meet these objectives within the resources of public expenditure which are available for transport. The Government's proposals make no claim on public expenditure beyond those set out in the Public Expenditure White Paper (Cmnd. 6721).

"As the House knows, the transport picture is complex but there is a temptation to look at it in simple terms. In practice this is the position traditionally adopted by the many lobbies that bring pressure to bear in the making of policy. It is the task of Government to understand these conflicting interests and if possible to reconcile them. But, above all, transport is a service to people, industry and commerce.

"Well over a million people are employed in the transport industry, half a million of them in public passenger transport. They all have a responsibility, lesser or greater, for the public's experience of it and for helping to translate the proposals in this White Paper into everyday reality. In the years ahead transport planning must remain flexible if it is to match changing circumstances and meet real needs. In the meantime I hope that the House will welcome the White Paper as a positive and major contribution to the solution of transport problems."

4.30 p.m.


My Lords, the whole House will be grateful to the noble Baroness for repeating the Statement of her right honourable friend. I should like straight away to congratulate the noble Baroness and the Government upon producing a Statement on their White Paper, which at first sight appears to be encouraging. It seems to contain positive thinking, something which for a long time we have needed in transport. I like the way that it is set out, and I shall look forward with very great interest to reading the document. I am particularly pleased to see that the intention is to give local authorities more responsibility, and also the Government's statement that local authorities are in the best position to know and assess their local needs. I find myself in such complete agreement that I wonder whether or not there will he a Labour/ Conservative pact!

The modification of the licensing system will be of tremendous help, especially in the rural areas. Is the noble Baroness able to say whether this means that more local authorities will be able to make use of the powers under the Experimental Areas Bill? I shall look forward to seeing more details about this in the document. I wonder also, slightly out loud, whether I hear the bells tolling in this Statement for the intended demise of the Traffic Commissioners. It was sad to hear that the ownership of Freightliner has not yet been dealt with. I wonder whether the noble Baroness is able to say when the Government's thinking will emerge on this question.

Regarding the railways, I am very pleased to hear about the Government's intentions. Both the railway staff and the public will welcome the statement that there will be no more major cuts. I take it that the Railways Board's commitment to reduce staff by natural wastage up to 1981 is still in being. However, both the public and the unions will be reassured that the Railways Board intend to contain and then to reduce subsidy to the revenue account while maintaining all these services and to eliminate any continuing requirement beyond this year to support other railway business. To make the railways more self-sufficient and efficient is what has been needed for a long time. Above all, the British Railways Board will be delighted that the Government are to give them the ability to undertake long term planning. I am sure that all noble Lords will agree that there has been far too much stop and go on the railways. To a certain extent one can adopt that policy over roads, but such a policy cannot be supported efficiently when it comes to railway planning; and it has been hard on the railways and the staff involved.

I should also like to congratulate the Government on their splendid statement in paragraph 14 regarding the Government's task being to understand the conflicting interests and to reconcile them, and, above all, on their statement that transport is a service to people, industry and commerce. I take that to imply that people, industry and commerce will have a choice and will use the form of transport best suited to their needs. Again I congratulate the Government, and I shall look forward very much to reading the White Paper.

Finally, I see no mention in the Statement of the National Transport Council. Again wonder whether or not the bells are tolling for it.

4.34 p.m.


My Lords, is the Minister aware that we also very much welcome the repetition of the Statement made in another place this afternoon by her right honourable friend, and that we are grateful for the information about the proposals contained in the document? The noble Baroness would not expect us to comment in detail on a White Paper which, as she has pointed out, is 30,000 words long. Obviously there must be a great deal of meat in the proposals which is not contained in the Statement.

Perhaps I may ask the noble Baroness one or two questions. Is she aware that not only in this House but elsewhere there will be widespread welcome for the assurance that expenditure in support of public transport will not be reduced? We are grateful for that assurance. With regard to the proposal that county councils should prepare local public transport plans, while one is in favour of any measure that will give local people a greater say in the provision of their own transport services, does not the Minister consider that perhaps county councils are too local for this purpose and that it would be better if one could bring a regional element into the planning of integrated public transport services and that this might be achieved within the framework of the White Paper.

Is the Minister aware that everybody will also very much welcome the agreement on rolling programmes for investment in British Rail? Does she not agree that the failure of the Government to approve the investment programme of British Rail has been one of the major criticisms levelled at the transport policy which they have pursued until now? With regard to the subsidies for rail services, the Minister said that no specific financial objective had been set for reducing the subsidies in respect of the London commuter service. Could she give a broad indication of what this means in terms of increased fare levels for the London region commuters during 1977 and 1978.

On the question of the planning of a national road system and the new approach which is outlined in paragraph 11, does this mean that the aim, which has been followed until now, of completing a specific number of miles of motorway and trunk road network, has been abandoned in favour of the more flexible approach described here? Finally, the Minister spoke of civilising the heavy lorry, a phrase which some of us might think is about as meaningful as speaking about civilising the Dalek. Does the Minister agree that the operators of heavy lorries should now be made to conform with the law, which so many of them treat with the utmost contempt, and that they should be compelled to pay the track cost which they impose on the rest of the community, so that at least there is a greater element of fairness in competition between road and rail.

4.37 p.m.

Baroness STEDMAN

My Lords, I am most grateful to the two noble Lords for their encouraging response to the Statement. We hoped that we had produced something which might meet with a general measure of agreement so that at a later stage we could get down to the nitty-gritty of working out the details. The noble Lord, Lord Mowbray and Stourton, asked whether the licensing modifications would mean that more local authorities would be able to use the powers under the Experimental Areas Bill. The answer is, Yes, when we know the results of those experiments. When we know the results early next year, we hope that we shall be able to suggest to other authorities where they may best try to use the results of those experiments in their areas. This does not exactly mean the end of the Traffic Commissioners; the bells are not tolling too loudly at the moment. We are aware of the problems, but we are also aware of their great knowledge of the licensing laws, and before we made any change in the licensing procedure we should want to hold further consultations and to take more soundings.

I cannot say when there will be the other Statement on Freightliners and on the future of the National Freight Corporation. We are looking at this matter at the moment, and when a decision is taken another Statement will be made to the House. So far as British Rail staff are concerned, it is anticipated that natural wastage will take care of the reductions, but now that we have this new framework we hope that the British Railways Board and the trade unions will work together and look at their industry. They have more flexibility now than they had before. If between them they can find better ways of achieving more productivity, then I am sure that the Government will welcome it.

The noble Lord commented on the fact that I said that transport is now a service. We have always felt that transport is a service. We believe that the proposals which are contained in the White Paper will mean that people, industry and commerce will have a wider choice as to which mode of transport is best suited to their purposes. On the question of the National Transport Council, Yes, I think that the bell has tolled. There was quite a lot of opposition both in your Lordships' House and in other places when the Consultative Document was put forward, and we are not now proposing a National Transport Council.

The noble Lord, Lord Avebury, also welcomed the White Paper and referred to the involvement of local authorities. We believe that these responsibilities should be placed upon county councils who are the people at ground level who know what is wanted in their area. We have so many people who tell us that they could do better at ground level than people sitting at a desk in an ivory tower in Whitehall or in Marsham Street. This will be a chance for the local authorities to prove that they know what is going on. It also means that local residents will be able to get at the members of the local authorities if they are not satisfied with the services they are getting and that they will be able to put local pressure on to them. We hope that there will be a much better service to the public as a result of the local authority involvement. I was delighted with the welcome given to the rolling programme for investment and the greater flexibility that we are giving to the British Railways Board to manage their own affairs.

The noble Lord, Lord Avebury, also raised the question of the motorways and the trunk roads network. We realise that we need good roads in order to enable heavy traffic to move more smoothly. We now have over 1,400 miles of dual carriageways and some 1,360 miles of motorways, and while the new approach that we are taking in the White Paper does not mean the end of motorways or of other new roads, it does mean that there is a change of direction. While money is short, and while we have not got so much to invest in large motorway projects, we have to look at our priorities—industrial, regional, and indeed environmental.

We want to take those measures which will sort out the bottlenecks between factories and customers; that will take heavy lorries out of our towns and villages by means of more by-passes, by means of road widening and by putting in small stretches of dual carriageway. We want to deal with the situation on the spot rather than taking over acres and acres of land and cutting these vast motorways through the country. We shall have to take a closer look in future at the standards of the individual sections of road, and the case will have to be very good for building them up to motorway standards. It is a little early to say what the effects of the lower expenditure levels will be on individual schemes, but I can assure the noble Lord that we are looking at it, we hope in a practical and sympathetic way.

With regard to public transport in London and commuters, we accept that there is a special need in London and the South-East for the railways and for coaches to transport people into London. The British Railways Board themselves do not anticipate any vast increases in fares. We think that British Rail, with the improvement in the provision of rolling stock, will be able to give a better service to commuters, with more flexibility, and will be able, we hope, to maintain their fares and improve their standards.

I am most grateful to noble Lords for the way in which they have received the document and in due course I look forward to hearing their comments, when they have had time to read 309 paragraphs and 30,000 words.

4.46 p.m.


My Lords, the noble Baroness has indicated that the Government envisage legislation on the subject of the greater involvement of local authorities in transport. The Press has given us to understand that the Cabinet has recently considered the legislative programme for next year. Is she in a position to say whether it is the present intention of the Government to introduce a Bill on this subject in the coming Session.

Baroness STEDMAN

Not at this stage, my Lords. All I can say is that once the White Paper has been launched —as it has now—we shall be starting consultations with the local authority associations. Then we shall have to take our chance with all the other things that come up as to whether we get in the Queen's Speech and into the legislative programme of next Session.


My Lords, we welcome the Statement that has been made, not least because we have had to wait a long time for it. The noble Baroness has indicated that there are some 30,000 words in the report, and it appears that we shall have to wait until we read it before we can digest the import of these important changes that are likely to take place.

I should like to congratulate the Government on at long last making the firm statement that transport is a service. Your Lordships will know that it is a favourite theme of mine on which I have been arguing for many years past. Looking at transport as a whole will certainly be in the best interests of the nation. We also welcome the idea of the rolling programme which we have said for many years was a policy that ought to be adopted. I am convinced that in regard to both road and rail the rolling programme is something tangible that can be developed. To allow the Railways Board to have more freedom in deciding their priorities and the best way of dealing with their particular service I am sure is the right approach, and I congratulate the Government on this policy so far as we can understand it at the moment.


My Lords, while welcoming the Statement, I should like to refer to the point made by the noble Baroness as to the parking congestion in city centres. Would she not think it a good idea, and one which she might pass on to the Department, and indeed one which would produce more revenue to the Government, if a much higher car tax were to be imposed on those who wanted to use the centres of cities? One could then do without meter attendants. Of course it would not apply to doctors or such people who have to use a car.

I should like also to refer to the remark made by the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, with regard to the "civilising" of heavy lorries. I am not with my Party on this because I have always maintained that certain loads over a certain distance—say, 150 miles and heavy goods such as coal —ought to be transported on the railways, and I should not be averse to subsidies in order to attain that.


My Lords, as everybody seems to be asking questions, I should like to ask the noble Baroness, Lady Stedman, whether her Statement in any way means that the by-pass round Gosforth, outside Newcastle-on-Tyne, will be any nearer to reality.

Baroness STEDMAN

My Lords, to deal first with the question asked by the noble Baroness, Lady Ward of North Tyneside, I should want notice of that because I am not able to deal with how the new proposals will affect present schemes. We know of the concern felt by the noble Baroness in this matter and I will keep my eye on it for her.

I am most grateful to my noble friend Lord Popplewell. Over the last two years I have sat here on many occasions and listened to him criticising what the Government were doing for the railways, so it was particularly pleasing to hear him welcome the suggestions that we were putting forward and to hear that we had at last been "converted", as he put it, to the idea that railways and transport generally is a service.

With regard to the points made by the noble Viscount, Lord Massereene and Ferrard, all kinds of things need looking at. In these days we have to accept that most of the bulk long-distance traffic still travels by rail, but there are many difficulties when goods have to be unloaded and taken out into cities. Where goods can be taken from A to B in one step by rail, it is much easier to persuade people to use the railways. The railways are particularly well equipped for long distance bulk traffic. Indeed, they have increased the amount of coal which they carry and they are continuing to increase it.

Under our proposals, local authorities will have more powers for traffic management and the organisation and operation of car parking. We are particularly anxious also that local authorities and others should give some thought and attention to the needs of pedestrians and cyclists. We shall be issuing some instructions or advice on how authorities can, in our opinion, best approach the problems of pedestrianisation and also give cyclists greater safety within their areas. I shall certainly take the noble Lord's views back to my Secretary of State for his consideration.