HL Deb 23 October 2002 vol 639 cc1326-9

2.45 p.m.

Lord Bradshaw asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether the progress of the 10-year transport plan is satisfactory.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, the Government are making steady progress towards implementing the investment plans set out in the 10-year plan. A report on the plan, which will set out progress to date, will be published in due course.

Lord Bradshaw

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that Answer. Bearing in mind that outside London the numbers of people travelling on the railway are falling, that the bus industry is facing a crisis of reinvestment because profits in the industry are falling so dramatically, that the road safety targets are moving the wrong way rather than the right way and that congestion is a problem that affects everybody throughout the country, will the Minister please point to some areas of success to which the Government adhere?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, I acknowledge the truth of the first few words of the question of the noble Lord, Lord Bradshaw. Yes, it is certainly true—partly because of the effects of the Hatfield disaster and partly because of the known shortcomings of Railtrack—that there are grave difficulties in the rail area. However, contrary to what the noble Lord said, bus ridership is up and London Underground is carrying more passengers than ever before. As for road safety, the numbers of people who died or were seriously injured have declined by 15 per cent since the average for 1994–98 and the numbers of children who died or were seriously injured have declined by 27 per cent, which is well on the way to meeting our targets.

Viscount Astor

My Lords, what are the Government doing to reduce traffic levels? In the 10-year plan, they said that they wanted to reduce traffic levels by 5 per cent by 2010. In the first two years of the plan, traffic levels have probably gone up by more than 1 per cent a year. Can the Minister tell us of a single government project or initiative to cut traffic levels?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, there is always a conflict in this regard because successful economic policies, for which the Government are very distinguished, have the unfortunate tendency of increasing traffic levels. The programme to reduce traffic levels, which was rightly identified by the noble Viscount, Lord Astor, is a long-term programme and we shall report on it in our next review of the 10-year plan.

Lord Marsh

My Lords, is not the problem with long-term planning in the public sector the simple fact that no government can bind their successor and that no attempt ever seems to be made to get parties to underwrite a policy outlining the way forward? They are just meaningless.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, the Government intend to stay in office for at least the next 10 years. It is true that we do not commit ourselves to financial expenditure over the full 10-year period but the introduction of the three-year spending reviews, with updates every two years, means that there are expenditure commitments ahead for at least two years. So far as the transport plan is concerned, we have a clear commitment over the next three years to increase spending on transport by 12 per cent a year in real terms. I call that a very significant improvement on previous governments' achievements.

Lord Berkeley

My Lords, while I congratulate the Government on meeting the target for rail freight—I declare an interest as chairman of the Rail Freight Group—does the Minister agree that leadership from the Strategic Rail Authority is possibly concentrating too much on inter-city rail services, particularly those painted red, to the detriment of some of the regional services, such as First North Western and Arriva? They have suffered serious industrial relations problems for several months, probably causing severe loss of traffic and consumer lack of confidence. Given that all of those services are now virtually funded by the Government—they are certainly directed by the Government—should not the Government be seeking to resolve that?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, I do not think that one keeps a dog and barks oneself. The Strategic Rail Authority is responsible for relations with the train operating companies. If there had been the kind of systematic distortion which the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, described, I am sure that we would have heard more about it.

Lord Campbell of Croy

My Lords, can the Minister be more precise? What stage has the 10-year plan now reached and does it cover coastal and canal traffic?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, the 10-year plan covers the period from 2001 to 2011. Therefore, there is only one complete year of the plan on which to make a progress report. My understanding—I may be wrong—is that it covers coastal and canal traffic.

Lord Lea of Crondall

My Lords, does my noble friend recall that, contrary to what was implied, I believe, by the noble Lord, Lord Marsh, when the 10-year plan was introduced following primary legislation more than two years ago, there was all-party support for it? All sides of the House welcomed the fact that we were trying to look ahead over 10 years. Whether or not a change of government would take place during those 10 years was another question. But, for the first time, an attempt was being made to examine the investment figure of £180 billion over the 10 years. Is it not the case that, even now, despite all the setbacks and difficulties—events, dear boy, events; there have been events!—it is nevertheless important to attempt to sustain credibility and all-party support for the concept of the 10-year plan?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Lea. He is right. We have not resiled in any way from the £180 billion commitment which we made at the time of the 10-year plan. I remind the House that that represents a 42 per cent real-terms increase in transport expenditure compared with that of the previous 10 years.

Baroness Oppenheim-Barnes

My Lords, does the Minister accept that it is not simply expenditure of money that is needed but a little common sense? Many of the problems that exist today, and which have reached crisis point in London and other parts of the country, could be solved without great expenditure, without penalising drivers and without penalising people on public transport. Will the Government please get rid of the traffic consultants, who cost a fortune and exacerbate every problem?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, I hate to say this, but at the time that the railways were privatised, some of us in the Labour Party thought that there was a certain lack of common sense in the then government's proposals. Have we not been proved right? Traffic consultants are in the private sector, and their employment is a matter for the individuals who hire them and not for the Government.

The Earl of Mar and Kellie

My Lords, is the Minister mindful that the railway network in England is Scotland's access to Europe and to the rest of the United Kingdom? Will he ensure that Scotland's strategic rail links, by which I mean the East Coast and West Coast Main Lines, are redeveloped more speedily so as to prevent over-reliance on airlines and the air pollution which they cause?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, I congratulate the noble Earl, Lord Mar and Kellie, on the way that he framed his question so that it did not fall foul of the devolution prohibition. What he says is extremely important, and the upgrading of the West Coast Main Line to a speed far greater than has been achieved in the past is a significant contribution to that. But I am sure that there is far more to be done.

Lord Roberts of Conwy

My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that at certain points on the motorways traffic congestion has more than doubled over the past five years? Can he confirm, or otherwise, the announcement in the Sunday Times of 13th October that the Department for Transport has a programme to tackle what are known as "pinch points" in the motorway network?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, within the past two weeks the Secretary of State has announced a programme of 92 projects which are designed to tackle pinch points. A number of those are on motorways.

Lord Elton

My Lords, the original Question, which the noble Lord did not answer, was whether the progress of the 10-year transport plan was, in the Government's view, satisfactory. Do I take it from the extent of his defensive remarks that the answer is: not entirely?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

No, my Lords. That does not follow at all. I said that the progress is steady. But, in answer to another question, I said that, as only one year of the 10-year plan has been completed, clearly it would be premature to pass judgment on it as a whole.

Lord Bradshaw

My Lords, perhaps I may assure the Minister that, in asking the Question, I was in no way departing from my general support for the principles of the 10-year plan. I was expressing disappointment with what has been achieved so far. I hope that he will concur that a great deal of work remains to be done.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, the commitment of the noble Lord, Lord Bradshaw, to integrated transport and his distinguished service on the Commission for Integrated Transport are well known. I am grateful for his support and, of course, I agree that there is a great deal more to be done. There is bound to be in eight-and-a-half years.