§ 8.27 p.m.
§ Lord Vinson rose to ask Her Majesty's Government whether they recognise the economic and environmental advantages of appropriate new road building; and what action they will take.
§ The noble Lord said: My Lords, it is a great honour to open this debate this evening. Both this Government and the previous one have been under much pressure from single interest groups to delay and discontinue road building and road improvement schemes throughout the UK. I have to say that such groups are often more interested in opportunistic media attention than they are in recognising hard facts.
§ They have cleverly exploited a public mood swing which one can almost date from the time of the Department of Transport's appallingly insensitive handling of the Winchester bypass. It is not surprising that this act of environmental vandalism gathered new recruits to the anti-road lobby. But in these matters it is so much easier to give criticism than acclaim. By contrast, I wonder now if all those who held up the development of the Okehampton bypass for years, and with it the economic resuscitation of the south west, would, if they travelled that route today, honestly argue that it had done any great environmental harm. But it has brought huge positive benefits to the whole of the south west and scenic pleasure to the millions of motorists who now use it.
§ In instigating this debate, a number of us felt that it is high time that the positive advantages of appropriate road building were acclaimed; time that the dogs that do not bark were listened to—30 million car drivers. That is hugely more than the relatively small membership of the anti-road lobby.1734
§ The positive case for driving is too rarely put. The car is a great liberator. Every young person longs to own one. The elderly dread the curtailment to their lives that withdrawal of their licence would bring. Millions of people depend on them to get to their jobs and public transport could never offer a feasible alternative.
Our roads are vital economic arteries and the prosperity of the nation relies on the velocity of the exchange of goods. As the standard of living rises inevitably, so does the use of transport in all its forms. Above all, the car brings individual freedom and not least has emancipated the lives of many poorer families whose expenditure on their car is their highest priority after food. Clobbering the driver with unnecessary economic disincentives will diminish and not improve our quality of life. As an editorial in the Telegraph said recently,
to be anti-car is in varying degrees to be anti-freedom, anti-family and anti-prosperity".
§ I am not for one moment suggesting that we should spend less on rail transport and on public transport generally. Indeed, we should spend substantially more in these areas, but the fact is that there is no way that they can relieve more than the smallest percentage of the growing goods and passenger traffic from our present road system. The rail operators project that, even when their lines are running to full capacity—and that will not be until some 10 years' time—they will be unable to divert more than a small amount from our road system. Yes, their market share will double from 5 per cent. to 11 per cent., but during that period traffic growth on the roads will substantially exceed that figure, leaving 90 per cent. where it is.
§ Therefore, those who advocate a switch to rail should both look at the figures and the practicalities and remember that a rail journey is a three-part journey, and that getting passengers or goods to a railway station in itself creates substantial local congestion and often overall longer journeys than by door-to-door routeing.
§ In the last Budget, the Government raised taxes on road fuel, which will now bring in an additional £2.5 billion a year over the existing £28 billion that they already recover from the motorist—that is a total equivalent to over £1,000 per driver per year. That increase was dressed up by the Treasury as part of our obligations to reduce CO2 emissions, but the tax in itself was unnecessary as our obligations could have been met far more effectively, and in a completely CO2-free way, had the Government authorised the building of a further nuclear generator. France is only 50 miles away and meets all its obligations through its nuclear programme.
§ In practice, fuel taxes are not only inflationary, as we observed in today's announcements; they are also regressive. They make transport sensitive industries like forestry uneconomic and they particularly hit hard the poorest members of the community. It is surprising that a Labour Government cannot see this more clearly and recognise the importance of the car to working people.
§ In such a short debate it is not possible to cover all the ground, but I am indeed most grateful to see the Minister here at all this evening. She will know that her life and the lives of her colleagues consist as much as 1735 anything of seeing delegations of MPs and their constituents demanding bypasses and road improvements. It is a pleasure to see the Minister. I warmly thank her for finding the time.
§ The Minister will know that recently the law abiding citizens of Audley Edge—tired of traffic and pollution—were moved to take direct action to protest at the withdrawal of the agreement by this Government to build their bypass. Theirs is one of 500 bypasses awaiting approval. The Government's response is to reduce the bypass programme to two a year, which will hardly make the need or the problem go away.
§ It is also disingenuous to argue that roads create more traffic and are therefore not beneficial. They often create more traffic by taking substantial traffic off alternative roads. Can anyone seriously suggest that London could exist without the M.25, London's bypass? There are hundreds of examples of unfinished road schemes throughout the UK, whose completion would add immeasurably to the lives of our citizens. For example, the A.1 is of great significance to the economy of the country. Over half the journeys on the A.1 are made for business purposes. There have been some improvements over the years, but these are not being fully enjoyed while serious bottlenecks remain on the unimproved sections, thus creating hugely polluting tail backs. Cost-benefit analysis of improvements to the A.1, according to the 1993 DoT report, all show a sound return on the money invested in the construction due to the relief of congestion and the savings from reduced journey times.
§ Where single carriageways have been upgraded to motorway standard, the accident rate is between two or three times lower than before, resulting in the savings of many hundreds of accidents and lives per section. Overall, it is 382 miles long and currently only 88 miles are to motorway standard. It is farcical to argue that this road, one of the premier commercial arteries of the nation, should remain unimproved.
§ Let us take also the A.66, which is the key cross-Pennine road. It is of strategic importance, yet it is often impassable in winter and the road changes from single to dual carriageway nine times along its 50 mile length, giving it a very poor safety record. Here, again, there is every economic and environmental case for its improvement. Throughout the north of England and southern Scotland the improvement of the A.66 is seen as vital to the local economy and is key to making better use of the ports in the north east. Its improvement would deflect much of the goods that are currently trunked to the south of England via the overcrowded M.6.
§ The trans-Pennine links from the A.1 to the M.6 are wholly inadequate and their completion would bring big benefits to the high unemployment areas of the north east. Roads are the arteries of commerce. Surely the Government must recognise the universal support for the upgrading of this road, not least by the local authorities of their own persuasion in that area.
§ I turn now to rising fuel duties. These are a sizeable financial gain to the Treasury. Indeed, yield from fuel duty has risen from £11 billion in 1992 to a forecast £21 billion in 1998. So it was not as if the Government 1736 could not afford it. The duty on unleaded petrol has gone up by 88 per cent. since 1992. Out of this huge sum of £30 billion taken from the motorist in one way or another, only £2 billion a year is spent by local authorities on road maintenance. At current levels of expenditure, it will take 115 years to resurface the road system of this country. Is it surprising that it is collapsing? If ever there was an argument for a stitch in time saves nine, it is on the roads where today's false economies will make for tomorrow's major expenditure. But, instead of recognising this, the Government have cut the present road building allocation to a miserly £1.8 billion, a yet smaller figure than they have raised by the additional tax in the last Budget.
§ Frankly, that is completely back-to-front in terms of the economic needs of this country, the economic needs of a modern expanding economy and the simple requirements of people's everyday lives. The pretence that there is an alternative is seized upon by governments as an excuse for taxing motorists. But the bulk of the proceeds are neither spent on public transport nor on roads. An excellent paper by the Centre for Economic and Business Research has shown the substantial economic and environmental gains that come from appropriate new road building.
§ A more honest policy would recognise that fact and accept that road transport will continue to be the main form of transport; but, perfectly properly, coupled with this, the Government should seek to encourage the use of alternatives: yes, of course, the switch to rail where appropriate, the switch to public transport where feasible and the continuous development of cleaner fuels, more fuel efficient and quieter cars, toll roads and traffic calming measures generally, while recognising that even an improved public transport system can only marginally relieve the problem. Realistically there is simply no way that bulk road traffic can be transferred onto the rails or canals, and it is Luddite to pretend it can. We simply have to learn to live with road transport and, within reason, accommodate it.
§ The Government are long on good intentions but short on credible alternatives to road transport. If the leaks are anything to go by, the forthcoming White Paper on integrated transport systems is, in practical terms, more likely, through the increased congestion and pollution that it will fail to relieve, to do more harm than good. Without a comprehensive and well-maintained road system, both the personal freedom of our citizens and the competitiveness of the United Kingdom will be severely and quite unnecessarily restricted. To pretend otherwise is to fly in the face of reality.
§ In debates on Unstarred Questions no time is given for me to reply after the Minister has spoken. So I would like to use this opportunity to thank all of those who have come to the Chamber tonight. I hope and believe our deliberations will have an effect. I would particularly like to thank the Minister who I hope, will find some encouragement from this debate, knowing that her beleaguered and embattled department has the goodwill not only of most of those who are here today but most of the 30 million motorists who rely on their 1737 cars. I hope she will go forth strengthened in her determination to improve the transport systems of this country, and the road transport system not least.
§ 8.39 p.m.
§ Baroness Knight of Collingtree
My Lords, my noble friend Lord Vinson spoke of the huge amounts road users contribute to the national Exchequer and stressed how small a proportion of that sum is actually spent to improve road transport. Successive governments have cheated road users for years—about 70 by my reckoning for it was in the 1920s that the government of the day decided to call open season on the relatively small numbers of Britain's drivers and diverted all but a pittance of the tax they paid to other government departments. That game has been going on ever since.
Drivers pay £20 billion more in taxes each year than the sum that is invested in road infrastructure. That is not fair and never has been. I should record that there was an outbreak of decency and fairness back in 1984, when schemes were introduced to make those parking in towns and cities pay for the privilege. I refer to the Road Traffic Regulation Act. Section 55 of that Act—which I have carefully looked up—specifically states that all surpluses from parking revenue must be used for better traffic management and to improve parking facilities. That is quite right too! Alas, that small swallow did not make a summer of fair dealing for the motorist. The tax snatch policy continued and actually got worse. This Government in less than a year have imposed the biggest ever increase of petrol tax—38p a gallon. In no single year since motoring began has there been such a swingeing increase. However, I do not think the ordinary motorist realises quite how much more petrol costs in "Cool Britannia", because increases are quoted in litres not gallons. Some 4p or 6p a litre increase sounds a mere flea-bite and nothing to worry about. However, a litre is only a jugful of petrol. You try filling up your car with one litre of petrol and see how far it takes you. The reality is gallons; to talk of litres misleads.
If the French government had taxed so heavily and given road users so little in return, there would be rioting in the Republic. The streets of Paris would be jammed with people, screaming, shouting and waving banners. All trunk roads in the land would be solid with parked lorries. Here, there is not a peep, or not for the moment at least. But both the AA and the chambers of commerce report steadily growing anger. I warn Ministers to watch out. No wonder there is such anger when we not only have this blatant unfairness but the Minister has started to bully. First, he gave a hint some time ago that there might be a legal ban on having more than one car per family. We have not heard much about that since. The people of Birmingham would not be happy if that ban were enforced. I doubt whether families up and down the land would be happy either.
Now there is talk of "introducing punishing measures" to force commuters on to public transport. I have news for the Minister. People will turn to public transport only when it is less expensive than using their 1738 cars and when it is reliable, regular, comfortable and convenient. Then they will use public transport and will be happy to do so. Why not spend some of the tax revenue on improving public transport? If the Government used more of the tax they collect from road users to improve public transport they could have their wish come true.
I now turn to a particular problem in the West Midlands, which is the great heartland of British industry. Industrial productivity was mentioned at Question Time yesterday but transport was not mentioned at all. But I must tell your Lordships that successful industrial effort depends to a great extent on the efficient transport of raw materials, components and finished products. These things must be transported efficiently and quickly. But, daily and hourly, industrial achievement in the West Midlands is hampered and trammelled by traffic jams on the M6 motorway, particularly from Junctions 4 to 11.
The M6 is one of the main strategic arteries in the UK trunk road system. It is the only direct, high standard route between the east and south east of England, to the north west and Scotland. At the point where it connects with the M5 it is the main route between the north west and the south west of England. It is also a vital road to Wales. But anyone who uses that road knows to his cost that it frequently takes two hours to travel the 24 miles between Junctions 4 and 11. I am not talking about the rush hour; that can happen at any time of the day. I do not mention that simply because I have experienced it many times myself; I mention it particularly because of the consequences of that awful delay for industry.
I am told that the M6 was designed to carry 70,000 to 80,000 vehicles per day. It now regularly carries 140,000. The need for the northern relief road is absolutely overwhelming. I am grateful to the Minister for listening so carefully. She may have heard my next point mentioned by others. There is an anti-road lobby using every legal trick in the book to stop the construction of the northern relief road. I have no objection to people working within the legal framework of the land, but sometimes it can be used deliberately to stop a project. I am told that at the moment there is a legal challenge to try to get officials to reveal details of penalty clauses. That is intended to thwart the project. I appeal to the Minister to bear in mind what is going on and to stop it.
In a spirit of helpful goodwill to the Government, who I know must be seeking ways to relieve the dreadful and increasing congestion on Britain's roads, I ask the Minister to consider my next two points. Both points have been inspired by American practices. First, could we not look seriously at giving cars with two or more persons in them the benefit of using a designated lane? A few days ago I read that Leeds is experimenting with this. It will be interesting to learn how that experiment turns out. However, I believe that only bus lanes are being used and therefore the experiment can only take place over short distances. There are a few four lane sections on our motorways and undoubtedly, as time goes on, we shall have to widen motorways. I warmly commend the notion of using the extra lane to encourage 1739 people to travel with others in their cars. In that way we would get rid of congestion and there would be fewer cars on the roads. Incidentally, could we do more to persuade motorists to use the middle and left lanes rather than using the fast lane all the time?
My second suggestion relates to country roads. Most of us, perhaps all of us, have suffered in a queue behind a slow-moving vehicle on a country road. It may be a tractor, or a very venerable car with an even more venerable driver behind the steering wheel. It is absolutely maddening. I have seen many a delay caused. I believe that we should adopt the rule that applies in America. If any driver has more than five vehicles behind him, he has to pull off and let those vehicles pass. There are plenty of places where cars could pull off the road. I suggest that idea to the Government for consideration.
As the whole country knows, this problem is great, and is becoming worse. I wish the Government well in dealing with it. The suggestions I have made are a genuine attempt to help.
§ 8.50 p.m.
§ Lord Berkeley
My Lords, I am pleased to take part in this debate introduced by the noble Lord, Lord Vinson. The two contributions that I have heard so far, from the noble Lord himself and the noble Baroness, Lady Knight, would have been more appropriate if this debate had taken place two or three years ago. The criticisms that I have heard so far of this Government's policy were all on matters started by the previous government over the past few years: the new road building programme collapsed; the trunk roads maintenance programme was slashed; and local authority finance for maintaining local roads was also slashed. And I believe it was the previous government who introduced the annual increase in the fuel price of 6 per cent. above inflation.
To explore those points in more detail, in the 1990s programme the previous government had a £20 billion plus, 500-scheme, "predict and build" roads programme. Ministers at the time boasted that it was the biggest roads programme since the Romans—quite a boast! By the time they left office it had been reduced to £6 billion and 147 schemes. They concluded that they could not build themselves out of congestion.
The budget for trunk road maintenance was slashed to £200 million in 1997–98. The then Transport Minister, John Watts, giving evidence to the Transport Select Committee in another place, said that it was inadequate. He said:we have had to make a lower provision for maintenance and for network enhancement than would reflect our real priorities".So we have seen it all before. The worst cases were Twyford Down and the Newbury bypass. Both schemes were pushed forward by the previous government. Another Conservative Minister of Transport, Steve Norris, was quoted in the press as saying of the Newbury by-pass:I believe we could have left all this countryside alone. I don't think this route should have been used. I think it is fair to say that the formula was more motorist based than it should have been and it didn't apply the same kind of cash value to environmental considerations that it did to motorists' inconvenience".1740 That says it all.
This Motion introduced by the noble Lord, Lord Vinson, refers back to the "predict and provide" policies of the previous government, who, some three years ago, produced some fascinating maps of congestion on the motorway and main road system in the year 2015. They are very difficult to see, because they are in colour, but they indicate that between six o'clock in the morning and midnight on every day of the week there would be severe congestion in 2015 between Preston and Maidstone. So whether as a country we want to go on building through "predict and provide" I do not know. I do not believe that we can afford it financially, environmentally or politically. On the environmental side, there has already been a pollution warning this year. As we all know, most of the CO2 pollution in this country comes from the motor vehicle.
A very interesting report was produced by the Standing Advisory Committee on Trunk Road Assessment (SACTRA). It is an independent committee advising governments on how to assess demand for road transport. It challenges the long-held belief that new roads to an area encourage economic development. Over the years, economic development officers and others around the country have said, "We must have a new road for economic development". The interim report, Transport Investment, Transport Intensity and Economic Growth, goes into some detail, and I shall not go through it all. It states that the case is not proven either way for or against roads as generators of economic development. One can see the reasons behind that. Exports out of a region are easier; but imports into a region are easier as well. The same applies to people driving in and out for employment.
The report also states:The state of the art in local and regional economic impact studies is underdeveloped; the pervasive, often implicit assumption that the benefit of improved accessibility will always accrue to the target area may often be misplaced".The report is available in the Printed Paper Office and is worth reading.
I believe there is another way. The key is to reduce the use of cars, not the ownership of cars. Let us make better use of existing roads for cars, lorries, buses, cyclists and pedestrians. They all have a right to the road space. It is not just a matter of cars. We have heard a lot about cars during this debate, but very little about other potential road users. It is a question of enabling people to get about. One has also to consider what it is like for those who do not have access to a car and who have to travel by bus, or walk or cycle. We have to make provision for their needs as much as we do for the motorist.
In the cities, there is the problem of bus lanes and enforcement. It is a matter that we have discussed many times in this House and I shall not go into it tonight. There are the problems raised by bridge closures. The subject of Hammersmith Bridge has arisen occasionally in this House.
An interesting study on bridge closures states that when a bridge closes or there is some other traffic constraint, only 75 per cent. of the traffic finds another 1741 way. The other 25 per cent. does not go at all, or uses public transport. That can be taken as a reductio ad absurdum; however it does not always mean that we need to build more roads to get people around.
We discussed the matter of cycling earlier today. More people in London would cycle if it was less dangerous to do so and there was less fear of being run over. I live in Oxford, where many more people cycle and the cycle lanes are quite good.
But there are also problems for pedestrians on the roads, apart from pollution. There was a fascinating and moving debate in another place on 13th May, which I commend to your Lordships, about a fatal accident involving pedestrians.
There are other solutions in towns, such as lower speed limits—20 m.p.h., or even 10 m.p.h., in certain areas—which I hope the Government will consider. As we all know, speed kills. The passengers are protected but not those outside. Pedestrians and cyclists have their rights as well.
I welcome the Government's extra contribution in relation to country buses. I also wish to mention an interesting pilot study taking place in Wiltshire: the "Wigglybus". The bus follows a fixed route and timetable. People telephone in advance to its control and are given an approximate pick-up time when the bus will go off its route. If the bus is late, the bus driver will telephone people. It appears to be an interesting contribution towards helping those in the countryside who do not have access to public transport. I wish it well.
I wish to speak briefly about freight. I declare an interest as chairman of the Rail Freight Group. Rail transport can take quite a lot of long-distance freight off the road. It does not all have to go by lorry via the M.6. Rail freight is competing more and more in that line. I shall not go into further detail now.
Much more could be done in the way of lorry restrictions in towns at certain times. Maybe we could even look at urban distribution centres on the outskirts of towns, not the centre, with smaller distribution lorries.
One must not say that no new roads will ever be necessary, but there is concern that any new scheme is not only turning itself into a traffic generator but also moving a jam a few miles up the road to the next roundabout. That was going to happen on the M.40 until the Government—luckily for me and I am grateful—cancelled the White City westward scheme which did not seem to me likely to do much good.
It is against that background that I welcome the Government's new appraisal framework for new roads which enables different solutions to be compared against a much wider basis for criteria. They include safety, the environment, accessibility, the economy and integration. I am sure that will in the end be a much better and more objective assessment of whether new roads are right or wrong and whether some other measures should be introduced instead.
1742 I conclude by commenting that the noble Lord, Lord Vinson, said that the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions was beleaguered. I see totally the opposite. I see the emerging policy as a breath of fresh air. I see the Government asking difficult questions which the previous government ducked for years. They cut the roads budget without proposing any meaningful alternative for public transport or freight. I hope that the forthcoming White Paper will not only confirm those cuts but also propose some exciting initiatives to be the carrot that goes with the stick.
§ 9.1 p.m.
§ Lord Rowallan
My Lords, I too wish to thank my noble friend Lord Vinson for introducing the debate. I was a little alarmed by what the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, said. The first half of his speech seemed to be taken up with what the Conservative Government talked about. I was under the impression that it was May 1998, not May 1997, and we have had a Labour Government for a year. I am delighted and hope that they will get on, not worrying about what happened in the past but looking at what is happening today and tomorrow.
This debate is all about the environment and pollution of the environment. It is rail against road. War has been declared on the motorist by various governments for many years now, as my noble friend Lady Knight said. We must do something about it. The whole road building programme has been thwarted. Environmentalists say that more roads mean more vehicles; more vehicles mean more jams; more jams mean more pollution. The anti-brigade, epitomised by the media as Swampy and his ilk, claim that roads destroy the countryside, destroying trees and the peace and tranquillity of the rural environment.
In fact, it seems to me that with the few new roads that are being built at present more trees are being planted than were ever destroyed. Of course roads should not go through areas of natural beauty or sites of special interest. That is vital, because the environment is important and we are becoming much more environmentally aware.
Traffic is growing by 3 per cent. to 4 per cent. each year. I have to declare an interest as both a car driver and an HGV driver, driving some 50,000 miles each year. I contribute towards some of the traffic jams. Pollution is growing in the towns, villages and cities of our country. They are being polluted by the passing motorist. It is the stop, start, move slowly, "I'm in a jam", syndrome that maximises pollution. It is not the person going along at a steady speed. They produce pollution, but not nearly to the same extent.
In an ideal, pollution-free world, rail transport would go everywhere. Beeching saw to that a long time ago. There would be the horse and cart to finish the journey. But were we not there years ago at the start of the century? We have progressed since then. Or is it progress? We no longer live in an ideal world. Now huge areas of the United Kingdom have no railways at all. There is no alternative to the roads. Every train journey, whether it is by passengers or goods, 1743 necessitates another journey by road at each end. Roads are a necessity, not a luxury. Whether we like it or not, that is a fact of life. New roads built in the right places to take pollution out of the towns and villages and away from environmentally sensitive areas are needed.
Lorries must deliver goods. The public demand fresh food delivered daily. Businesses demand components delivered every day. Factories demand products to be delivered as quickly as possible. They cannot wait for a lorry to come and pick a product up, take it to a rail depot, perhaps for it to be delayed because a passenger train leaves first. When it arrives at the other end, the lorry may be late; it may miss the train, and the whole thing may go wrong.
Therefore, some new roads must be built. In my part of the world, the west of Scotland, 40 per cent. of all Scottish exports begin their life. If you want to transport goods from my area to England or from the west coast of Scotland to the east you have to go slap bang through the middle of Glasgow and pollute it. The M.8 cannot cope, especially near the centre of the Kingston Bridge. The traffic is very much stop-start, as it is on the M.6. If you drive to London from Scotland, I can assure you that if you get the M.6 at Birmingham right you will get the M.25 at London wrong. It is an absolute nightmare, unless you drive through the middle of the night, which I have started doing.
We are lucky that Scotland is one of the few parts of the country where a road is being built to motorway standards. That is the A.74 and M.74, which are about to become the M.6, which goes all the way to Glasgow, ending just short of the city. There is a 4.8 mile break between there and the other side of Glasgow, so all traffic has to go through the middle of Glasgow. Surely that is nonsense. It is destroying the confidence of business in the west of Scotland. Building the road would improve air quality in Glasgow and benefit the environment by easing congestion. It would take traffic away from all the bottlenecks and make journey times quicker and shorter and therefore cause less pollution.
It must be obvious that by building certain roads we can improve the environment and at the same time we can boost the local economy by encouraging business expansion and thereby employment. Those are both very important planks in this modern day.
Roads are the key, whether we like it or not. Trains, planes and boats, however attractive in theory, just do not go where people live. They do not convey goods at sufficient speed and they do not deliver to the factory gate, the shop or the business. The pendulum of what is environmentally friendly, what is green, has swung too far in the opposite direction now. Sensible road construction is a must, to help keep the country moving, to clean up pollution in our urban areas and to provide transport in our rural areas. We must not be frightened to stand up and say so against the vocal but minority anti-brigade that exists today.
§ 9.8 p.m.
§ Lord Teviot
My Lords, like other noble Lords, I thank my noble friend Lord Vinson for introducing 1744 this extremely important subject. Whether or not precise points have been covered so far, I feel it necessary to reiterate them.
The extreme populist view covering the whole party political divide is that no new roads should be built, all freight should be carried by rail, and everyone else, apart from oneself, should be carried by public transport. That is an extreme view, but the average view is not that much more watered down. The same people do not realise that gridlock will occur, if it has not occurred already; jobs will be lost; and certain towns and villages will suffer.
Major employers have already moved away from towns where the road infrastructure is poor. I take as examples two towns on the south-east coast, Eastbourne and Hastings. Some years ago Eastbourne had a major employer who moved out because of the road structure. Hastings is around 75 miles from London but although the railway is electrified the journey still takes one hour 45 minutes. Even in times of high employment, unemployment there was always higher than the national average. The A.21 is abysmal. I agree that the last government did not upgrade the road. Unfortunately, any mention of a new road or bypass being built brings blood to the head and all reason goes out of the window for the greater percentage of the population. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, that the last government severely reduced the road building programme and this Government may be worse.
So far perhaps I have over-generalised. However, I have a few more generalisations to make before I get down to specific issues. I am not advocating wholesale new roadbuilding. It must be done in a planned and structured way. The original road system grew haphazardly around the towns and villages. There was rail building in the middle of the last century. Routes proliferated and in the middle of this century many had to go because they were uneconomic. In hindsight, some routes should have remained. Possibly more should be done on existing roads and even motorways to give priority to public transport and freight. Certain traffic calming devices have been introduced and have proved successful. But even some of those defeat the object because they impair emergency services.
I consulted two bodies. One was the Confederation of Road Passenger Transport. It gave me a mere outline, being a member of the Road Federation Authority and not averse to a bit of road building. It does not have a strong view. However, having been acquainted with the industry, I feel that I must do some public relations for it. Long distance road travel will always be cheaper for those on lower incomes and more suitable for some very senior citizens who can no longer cope with large stations and city terminals. They prefer the confines of a bus or coach, especially when essential facilities are provided together with refreshments brought to their seat.
For the rest of my intervention I turn to the views of the Road Haulage Association which, together with the Freight Transport Association, has most hauliers and firms with large transport departments among its 1745 membership. The road haulage industry plays a pivotal role in the United Kingdom economy, carrying over 80 per cent. of all domestic freight. It is worth noting that 20 years ago more vehicles carried less tonnage of goods, demonstrating how the industry has improved its efficiency.
We should also remember that the haulage industry is a service provider. Hauliers do not make journeys for the sake of it. Therefore, if society wishes to reduce the number and frequency of trucks on the road, haulage companies could probably accommodate their wishes. However, there would be some very significant consequences. For example—this point was mentioned by my noble friend Lord Rowallan—if we stop goods being transported by road from abroad and other areas of the country, there would be less choice available in our shops. If we ban heavy vehicles from an area at a certain time of day, the need for that delivery does not go away; it will simply have to be made at another time which will give rise to a new area of complaints. If it is in the middle of the night, the residents will know when the goods are being delivered and further complaints will arise.
If we introduce weight limits in certain areas, that will result in a large number of journeys by smaller vehicles instead of one journey by a larger vehicle. It is also important to remember that haulage companies do not operate solely in the United Kingdom. Many operate all over the world, competing with foreign companies for business. United Kingdom companies must remain competitive for the good of our economy.
I move straight on to the congestion issue. The noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, referred to a document published last year—What Role for Trunk Roads in England. It was introduced by the Department of Transport and the Department of the Environment. It is a consultation paper with a foreword by the present Deputy Prime Minister. One also has stress maps, which make uncomfortable reading. The stress map for 1996 looks bad enough but, as has been mentioned, traffic stress in 2016 shows an awful line from Preston to well beyond the M.25 going almost to Dover.
The document suggests all kinds of remedies. However, if the stress map is true, the position is really too horrifying for words. Although comparisons are often odious, I have a chart showing the percentage of major links congested for more than one hour per day. About 11 per cent. of our routes are congested for more than four hours; in Belgium, the figure is under 2 per cent., in France, under 4 per cent., in Germany, about 5 per cent., and in the Netherlands, about 5 per cent. That is worrying.
The RHA has some good ideas about what needs to be done. First, it suggests making use of existing infrastructure. There is a range of tools available that should be considered, including increased use of technology—such as variable message signs and speed limits, which are working quite well on some of our major roads—and the introduction of more draconian measures such as restricting the number of entrance/exit junctions. Too many people are using trunk roads just to go from one gate to the next. Secondly, it believes 1746 that action is needed on managing demand. A combination of sticks, such as more stringent parking restrictions and pricing policies, and carrots, such as improvements to public transport, are required. Ultimately the Road Haulage Association believes it may be necessary to ration road space, giving priority to "essential traffic" over other types of traffic. That has to be enforced if it is to be of any use at all. Thirdly, it suggests action on infrastructure investment. There will remain circumstances where road improvements will provide the only viable solution and in such cases the necessary investment must be made. The priorities for investment must be removing congestion and accident blackspots, maintenance of existing roads and network enhancement projects.
This does not mean to say that all funds must come from the public purse. There may well be many other alternative sources of funding which have not been exploited. But some initiatives are unlikely to be forthcoming unless the Government give a clear signal.
I appreciate that there are no easy solutions to our problems. But we must first educate the public and alleviate their fears and apprehensions about new roads. Our future well-being and existence depend on our road structure being efficient, and when and where necessary new roads may be the only option.
§ 9.17 p.m.
§ Baroness Thomas of Walliswood
My Lords, I start by declaring that I am not Swampy. On the other hand, I partake of the tendencies of the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley. In fact, I am strongly of the view that he has been reading our policy documents—either that or we have come to very similar conclusions by some mental process of getting closer to each other. In any case, I am on his side in the argument.
The importance of transport within the economy is simply not contestable. It is particularly important to certain industries. I would suppose that distribution and tourism are probably the two at the top of the list. But that does not mean that one goes straight back to predict and provide without asking the other questions which surround this issue. One of the questions which occurs to me is: does all this transport have to be provided by road and by car or HGV?
Interestingly, a recent report from the AA, which was sent to me because of the debate, brings some up-to-the-minute assessment from local government economic development officers, who are supposed to know what is going on in their areas—and probably do—as to the current importance of transport issues in all British regions as economic concerns also rise.
In general, both employers and employees put congestion at the top of their list of transport-related worries or issues. Whereas 24 per cent. of employers mentioned the need to increase investment in trunk roads, 50 per cent. of employees—and there are many more people who are not senior managers than those who are—pointed out that poor public transport means that there is no alternative in their area to the use of a private car, with the long delays in journey times and the congestion that that brings.
1747 Interestingly, those living within any given region tended to have concerns about the lack of public transport available to them within the region while those travelling between regions tended to say that motorway congestion or the lack of capacity in main roads was a problem. That at least suggests that different strategies are required at local and national levels.
I hope, think and pray that passenger rail services are beginning to respond to the need to adapt to the new way of looking at transport and serving transport needs. Certainly in my part of the world there are old carriages and pretty scruffy stations, but the numbers of people using rail travel are increasing. That is a purely personal impression, but I believe that more people, especially in non-peak hours, such as folk going to London or visiting their friends, and not necessarily commuting, are using the trains. Commuter trains, as they always have been, are jammed to the gills.
So I believe that rail has a role to play in long-distance passenger transport. I often think of people who complain about terrible delays on motorways. They are sitting right next to a railway which in 90 cases out of 100 will take them, as predicted, to their journey's end in the city centre without the delays which they complain about. In so doing they can read their papers, work or sleep en route according to their fancy.
Until very recently few people thought that rail could play a significant role in freight transport. But I see slight glimmers of hope that, with new management and new ownership of the freight companies, there is a new dynamism and competitive spirit in the approach of the rail industry towards the carriage of freight. I do not believe that that will solve all the problems. If noble Lords do not already know it, I can tell them that, if anyone suggests that a rail line which passes Mrs. Snooks's house should be upgraded and the speed and weight of the trains going by should be increased, she will be just as angry as she would be if someone suggested that the use of the road past her front door should be increased. One does not solve planning problems by offering people alternatives, although I have no doubt where my backing lies. In the broader view no doubt we could transfer more freight to rail and that would be enormously beneficial in a number of different ways.
I now turn to economic benefits. Are there any economic "disbenefits" to our current situation? There has been some dispute about that. Various people have mentioned the relevant SACTRA report. I merely point to the way in which cheap road transport over the past 40 or 50 years has changed the location of manufacturing. The brewing industry is a case in point. There is far greater concentration of manufacturing, which has inflicted disbenefits in the places from which the breweries have retreated in order to achieve that concentration. There are also environmental disbenefits, because both suppliers and distributors of finished goods have to travel further to reach the manufacturing centre. There are some wonderful cases of that kind involving the transport of milk and strawberries all over Europe in 1748 order to make strawberry yoghurt which is then shipped back to where the strawberries came from. However, I shall not trouble Members with that.
Even from the economic point of view, there are certain disbenefits. The just-in-time approach is not the cause of the demand for road transport. It is the availability of road transport which has made it possible to have warehouses on wheels. Again, that has totally changed the way in which people work, but perhaps, given that a technical shift has changed things once, another technical shift could change things back again. These are not fixed factors in our lives. We can alter our attitudes and behaviour. Indeed, we shall do so when the technology changes.
The county of Surrey is one of the most congested counties in England. We predicted years ago—I almost echo the words that I used in that report—that simply providing for the predicted amount of traffic was neither economically feasible nor environmentally desirable. Those words are almost identical to the words that appeared in the report seven or eight years ago. I am pleased that noble Lords have read it.
I have another question. What about the SACTRA effect? The 1994 report suggested that the more roads that are created, the greater the increase in traffic. Road schemes can be analysed according to the cost/benefit analysis to which the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, referred. One of the problems with that is that it undervalues undeveloped land. How can you value such land? How can you see an SSSI in terms of pounds and pence? You do not; you cannot. Such areas tend, therefore, to be trampled underfoot in the interests of other things, one of which is the reduction of congestion and the pursuit of improved journey times. In fact, experience of large numbers of road-building projects has shown that the reduction in delays and the improvement in congestion resulting from road improvement schemes can last for as little as three years or as long as 20 years. In the end, however, the road fills up again.
The idea that all road improvement schemes offer relief to surrounding areas was totally and utterly disproved by the brilliant efforts of the county council of which I used to be a member. It demonstrated that efforts to widen the M.25 all the way round London, as was originally proposed, would result merely in increasing congestion on every road approaching the M.25 and over a wide area stretching from Beaconsfield to Guildford and half-way into west London. The effect of attracting traffic on to the M.25 has increased congestion as everyone tries to reach the motorway. Those figures were finally accepted by the department and the Highways Agency. I hope that we have disproved the idea that all roads are always economically successful, even on the narrow approach of the cost/benefit analysis.
How do we balance our environmental requirements and our need for transport? We must consider all the suggestions put forward by noble Lords. I agree about the importance of good road maintenance. Bad maintenance of roads reduces the amount of space available on our roads. I agree that we must also 1749 consider the difference between what happens on a by-pass and what happens in a town. There is no point in having a by-pass if traffic is not stopped from going through towns. Failure to do that simply increases the amount of traffic everywhere. It is a question of granting space to people, not cars, so that locally they can walk and bicycle rather than get into their cars, as many do, to pick up fags or a local newspaper. To use the motor car for that purpose is crazy. We should not be against car ownership but, rather, the irrational, greedy use of the car which helps to destroy our environment.
§ 9.29 p.m.
§ Baroness Seccombe
My Lords, I too thank my noble friend Lord Vinson for tabling this Question, thus giving noble Lords the opportunity to discuss an issue which is neither fashionable nor sexy. Certainly it is not high in the popularity stakes. This has been a fascinating debate and I thank my noble friends for their positive suggestions.
In recent years the environmental lobby has been hyperactive and dedicated in its attack on roads and travel by private vehicles. So it has been refreshing to listen to speeches in support of appropriate road travel by both commercial and private vehicles.
Like my noble friend Lord Vinson, I understand the importance of rail services and wholeheartedly support the need to encourage travel on high quality services where the customer comes first. However, as the noble Baroness, Lady Thomas of Walliswood, has just said, we all know that for many people that is not possible, particularly those who live in the country. They depend on the car for their daily round: carrying the shopping, taking the children to school and numerous other outings and visits to doctors, dentists, vets, etc., in addition to social gatherings—essential trips that are not possible by public transport. It is easier for urban dwellers to travel by bus or train, but even then for an elderly or incapacitated person it is so much easier, and for some so much nicer, to take the car. We should never forget that for some severely handicapped people the car is a real lifeline.
The subject of roads seems to generate perhaps more heat than any other, quite literally. I am sure that we have all been stationary on a motorway bemoaning the growth in the number of cars on the roads, the consequential stagnation in the flow of traffic and the pollution such traffic jams cause. Yet not many of us would be willing to give up the privilege of owning and driving a car.
As a magistrate, only too often I hear how essential it is for a defendant to keep his driving licence. There is no doubt that we have all become psychologically dependent on our cars. Due to illness, my husband was not allowed to drive for six months. It altered both our lives considerably and the loss of freedom and independence made us realise how precious it is to have a driving licence. We were on holiday abroad on the day that the licence was restored. I shall never forget my husband saying what a lovely day we had had but that it seemed a bit of a waste when he could have been driving.
1750 We accept the car as a necessity in everyday life. That is certainly a far cry from the days when people had only 14 days' paid holiday, usually taken in one go at the seaside with the family who had travelled by train to their chosen resort. Today people have four to five weeks' holiday, some of which is spent abroad and some here in the UK, and enjoy short breaks and one-day outings. The leisure industry is now big business. Tourism is one of our major industries. It is therefore essential for internal tourism and for visitors from abroad that we have an infrastructure that enables people to travel in comfort on our major roads.
The AA has produced figures which show how the Treasury has short-changed the motorist with more and more tax on the premise that it is of benefit to the environment. However, it seems to have little impact on the motorist who may do his "bit" by replacing his vehicle with one that is more fuel efficient. There is very little evidence that fuel price increases have more than a marginal effect on traffic volumes. As my noble friend said, vehicle taxes are becoming a bonanza for the Treasury, rising from just over £11 billion in 1992–93 to an estimated £21.5 billion in the current year. We were, therefore, horrified to see the Government's policy on the accelerated review of 12 major road schemes.
I understand that a decision on the remaining projects under consideration by the Government will be published in a White Paper in the next few weeks. We can only hope that there will be no further curtailment of the programme. There are very real problems in the areas concerned, and as a fellow West-Midlander perhaps I may, like my noble friend Lady Knight of Collingtree, refer to the dreadful situation on the M.6. I am sure that anyone condemned to usage of that road will agree that the serious congestion that exists for most of the day must be addressed. Of course there are other examples, including sections of the M.26 and the M.62 and, as my noble friend Lord Rowallan said, the M.8.
Many cities, towns and villages have benefited enormously from the building of a bypass, so eliminating the misery of heavy goods vehicles thundering through narrow streets causing chaos for the local inhabitants and damage to much loved buildings. I hope that the programme to be announced will give others similar relief.
My noble friends have highlighted many of the difficulties caused to industry by an inadequate national road network. The British Chamber of Commerce has stated that its members cite unsuitable roads as the biggest transport problem they face, with 88 per cent. of its members complaining about congestion and suggesting that the cost to small business is in the region of £6 billion.
Today's need for a successful economy is dependent upon a good road network. There is evidence that road improvements have a very positive impact on regional economies, by encouraging inward investment and assisting local businesses to become more competitive and so expand their markets. I am sure we have all witnessed the development of brown and even greenfield sites and seen how the road links are a vital 1751 component of any such project. Good access to motorways is always stressed to potential tenants as a plus factor. As my noble friend Lord Teviot said, that is what business demands today, and we must respond.
Before the general election, the Labour Party criticised the reduction of the programme set out by the then Conservative government. It promised a better network of roads throughout the country. Now it seems that the Government are reneging on a promise to voters. We need those appropriate road projects to enable us to have more jobs, more prosperity, and a thriving economy for all our people. We realise that there are no easy solutions, but we hope that in her reply the Minister will give us good news.
§ 9.37 p.m.
§ Baroness Hayman
My Lords, I, too, am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Vinson, for introducing the debate. He was generous in speaking of my courtesy in being here—not that I was given a great deal of choice in the matter—although it is a rare and pleasant occasion for me to be answering at the Dispatch Box on a subject that is also my ministerial responsibility. I am tempted to throw away the prepared speech and just to answer some of the points that have been made this evening.
The noble Baroness, Lady Seccombe, accused the Government of reneging on a promise. The promise in the Labour Party manifesto which relates to the topic that we are debating was that we would conduct a comprehensive review of the previous government's roads programme, based on the criteria of safety, accessibility, economy and environment. That is what I have spent a great deal of the past year trying to do. We shall be publishing the results soon, after the publication of the integrated transport White Paper.
I have to take issue with the characterisation of the department as beleaguered. The noble Lord, Lord Teviot, referred to the "Department of Transport". We are not the department of transport. We are the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions. That means that we have to consider the issues of transport, and the road and trunk road network in an overall context.
§ Lord Teviot
My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. On these documents that I have in my hand, the two departments have been put together.
§ Baroness Hayman
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord. At the beginning I believe that we had some trouble in putting the logos together. The Prime Minister clearly asked the Deputy Prime Minister to take control of an overall department.
The point I sought to make was that we are trying to look at complex issues in a holistic way. I do not think it helps anyone in the debate to caricature the approach of one side as anti-car or anti-motorist, and the other as pro-environment. These are balanced issues that will need a balanced approach.
That has become clear in the course of the debate. It has been pointed out that the scale of the problems that we face in this country are enormous. Congestion was 1752 an issue that we undertook within the manifesto to address. Many of the organisations which have been in contact with the noble Lord recognise that a simplistic approach of attempting to build one's way out of the problems of congestion by producing more road capacity is not acceptable for a variety of reasons. Fundamentally, it is not acceptable because it does not work. We cannot build at the rate at which traffic growth is predicted. That means we have to be more innovative and more wide ranging in the armoury of weapons that we bring to the problem.
It is important that we consider policies towards the road network in the context of an integrated transport policy. We have to look at different modes of transport, and at the real opportunities which will be of enormous environmental benefit, for example, in transferring road freight to rail.
Not only must we look at different modes of transport: we must also look at land use planning, and the need for journeys in the first place. Considering, for example, the creation of out of town shopping centres, many of us would challenge the effects of that policy not only as regards demand for road transport, but also in the light of the effect on the health and prosperity of town and city centres.
Nor can we ignore the effect of increases in road transport on CO2 emissions and global warming, and on local air quality, in particular within cities. How one addresses that problem requires a range of answers. In the Cleaner Vehicles Task Force we are looking at how we can utilise improved technologies so that we minimise emissions. Noble Lords who spoke have sometimes been scathing about fiscal measures. However, there are important fiscal measures. We talked about them in terms of VED rates for cleaner, more fuel efficient cars, which can have a significant effect. No one in this Government is crudely anti-car, anti-motorist. I have to say to the noble Lord that there was never a suggestion by anyone that it would be illegal to own a second car. In this country we have lower car ownership than in many Continental European countries, and higher car usage. We have to ask ourselves whether that is sustainable in the interests of the economy, of a functioning road system and of the environment.
That is where the concerns of the noble Baroness, Lady Knight, about public transport come into play. We are talking about giving people greater choice as to how they make the journeys they need to make. In order to give them real choice, yes, there has to be reliable public transport. It has to be safe, efficient, and priced so that people can afford it. I should also add that it has to be innovative, such as the Wigglybus to which my noble friend referred. We must not write off rural areas as incapable of being provided with public transport.
Much concern has been expressed tonight about the needs of the motorist. We must recognise that one in three families does not have access to a car. We have to provide choice, not only for people who do not have cars to use but also for people who do not want to be forced into making a car journey. In that area it is important that we look at the number of trips made by 1753 car that are not the inter-urban journeys which have been referred to but are very much intra-urban journeys of below two miles.
We must ask ourselves in whose interest it is that twice as many schoolchildren are being driven to school than was the case 10 years ago. I say that not simply in terms of congestion—the fact that 25 per cent. of journeys being undertaken in rush hours in many of our city centres are journeys to school—but in terms of the future health of a generation of children. These children do not even get the exercise of walking to school or experience the confidence which comes from being out on their own. We can get into a vicious circle of streets being deserted, parents concerned about security driving their children to school, emphasising and recreating the problems that were there in the first place.
There is a whole range of issues that we can bring to this area. I make no apology for the roads programme in that context. We have to look at priorities. But I should like to make it clear that we recognise that the road network is a key part of our transport system and of the economic fabric of the country.
The noble Lord, Lord Rowallan, said that we should not talk about the last government, we should talk about this one. I certainly shall talk about it. I shall talk about putting £300 million into trunk road maintenance this year rather than the £200 million that we inherited from the last government and starting to put right some of the under-investment in maintenance.
§ Lord Vinson
My Lords, I hope the Minister will forgive me as she is making such an erudite and agreeable speech at this time in the evening. But I am anxious that the Minister does not dodge the issue of the huge demand for bypasses from constituents all over the country and their MPs. These are measures which reduce pollution and improve the local environment and are of great importance. I hope the Minister will be able to deal with that matter.
§ Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton
My Lords, perhaps the noble Lord will forgive me. We are very tight for time and the Minister does have the opportunity to reply to many points that have been put.
§ Baroness Hayman
My Lords, I shall certainly reply to the noble Lord. I shall not bypass the issue but I have to say to him that all the schemes within the programme—and they are varied schemes from large motorway widening to small bypasses—are being assessed against the criteria. As the Minister with responsibility for road safety, I am aware of the effects on road safety that can be provided by targeted investment in improving the trunk road network. We 1754 have to be careful that we do not have a scatter gun approach here. We are developing a new appraisal framework that manages to assess the value of schemes—the value to economic regeneration, to road safety and to the environment. There are schemes which can improve air quality and the environment of people within villages which have a huge amount of traffic going through them. It is absolutely understood and I am under no illusion about the lack of support locally for individual schemes because I sit and listen to that a great deal of the time and receive letters about it.
I was rather surprised when the noble Baroness, Lady Seccombe, said how distressed she was about the accelerated review decisions. Early on, we tried to take decisions which were extremely urgent. I was not sure whether she was distressed about the decision to go ahead with the A.13 scheme or the Birmingham Northern Relief Road to which the noble Baroness, Lady Knight, referred and said there was a great need for it. We recognised an overwhelming economic need to deal with congestion in the short term, the here and now, and not on the basis of predict and provide. The noble Baroness will understand that, because of the proceedings now taking place, I cannot comment on the court proceedings. I did not know whether she was concerned about the decision to cancel the Salisbury bypass. In that case, we felt that the weight and the scale of the balance went the other way and the environmental damage was too great.
As regards the SACTRA Report, there are differing interpretations of the effect of road building schemes on local economies. That should make us all aware that we are not dealing with black and white issues. Not all road building creates economic growth, just as not all taking away of road schemes will help the environment.
We need to take a balanced approach. This Government are fulfilling their responsibilities as regards assessing very carefully against open criteria in an exercise that has had a huge response. Ministers have gone to the regions and those in regional offices have talked to people within their areas about their priorities for schemes. I have met MPs from all the different regions to discuss their schemes with them. We shall be extremely open about the appraisal framework and the values that have been taken into account in making decisions as to which schemes should or should not go ahead.
I conclude by saying that we are aware that there is much support for tackling the problems that have been described this evening in some areas and in some cases by additional investment in road improvement schemes. But we must look at those demands for investment in the whole context of dealing with this country's transport problem in an integrated framework.
§ House adjourned at seven minutes before ten o'clock.