HC Deb 14 July 2004 vol 423 cc449-58WH

11 am

Mr. Colin Challen (Morley and Rothwell) (Lab)

I am grateful for the opportunity to speak about the Way to Go campaign, which was launched by more than 30 non-governmental organisations with environmental and social objectives to set the pace in developing a progressive transport policy that places greater emphasis on public transport, cycling and walking.

I speak as one who has been a motorist for more than 30 years and who, until recently, according to the chart in my doctor's surgery, was categorised—unbelievably, I have to say—as obese. However, I have started a diet and taken up regular cycling again. I am no longer in the red column, but have moved into the pink, which is for those of us who are merely overweight.

I have been relearning the simple message that "lifestyle" and "healthy" should go hand in hand. However, in today's society they often do not. What is promoted as a good lifestyle these days will usually allude to cars, fast food and one's desire for convenience. Around the time that I was born, traffic was measured at about 33 billion vehicle miles. Now the number has risen to more than 300 billion vehicle miles and shows no sign of abating, which is not surprising as the cost of motoring continues to plummet and the costs of other forms of transport continue to rise.

The costs of obesity continue to increase, too. The Health Committee estimated the expense to the national health service of dealing with obesity at £3.7 billion a year. When we consider the proposals of the Way to Go campaign, which amount to the capital and revenue sum of £1.75 billion each year to 2010, we should consider how much we could save elsewhere. That is a central feature of the Way to Go campaign and why it was initiated not only by environmental or transport groups, but by such organisations as Help the Aged, Age Concern and the women's institute. They know that we need a transport strategy that is about social justice, as well as greening the environment. The organisations know that, if the campaign bears fruit, it will deal with social exclusion and give more people real mobility, as opposed to congestion, pollution and health problems—especially for those who live in inner cities and have to cope with the fumes spewed out by commuters' cars. We would have better rural services, too, which is why the Campaign to Protect Rural England also supports the Way to Go campaign.

The Government need to build on their successes. I welcomed the Secretary of State for Transport's announcement last week about car sharing on motorways and the recent publication of the walking and cycling action plan. I am pleased that the Department for Transport has a new public service agreement target to deal with climate change. I am delighted that, yesterday, the Government introduced a transport renewable fuel obligation to the Energy Bill. I welcome the fact that they have an open mind about new ideas and new ways in which to develop partnerships to deliver better transport.

I also acknowledge that the taxpayer does not have a bottomless pocket to pay for schemes and that the Government rightly want to obtain the maximum benefit from whatever schemes are proposed. I know very well how such strictures are applied because, at the local level, the Leeds supertram—a proposal that I support—has over the past 15 years or so seen its projected capital costs increase from £330 million to about £800 million. What a shame that the Leeds supertram has had so many false starts, but it is not alone. I recognise that the costs in general of light rail systems have mushroomed and that we have to be sure that they can deliver value for money. I believe that, in this instance, the case for that can still be made.

Can the same be said for all the road schemes still on the books? In an answer to a recent parliamentary question, I was told that the targeted programme of improvements had risen from £7,761 million to £8,781 million—an increase of more than £1 billion or, in itself, more than enough to fund the entire Way to Go capital proposals for the next six years. The amount is enough, in other words, to fund a cycle-friendly road network, cycle training for all, networks of bus lanes, the promotion of bus services, safe routes to schools, 20 mph speed limits in residential areas, the restoration of streets and pavements to good condition, quality standards for buses and trains, and grants for rail freight projects.

Mr. Paul Truswell (Pudsey) (Lab)

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate and on his sterling advocacy on behalf of the Way to Go campaign. I hear what he says about investment. Does he agree that the vast majority of passenger transport journeys are made by bus, and that since the ill-advised deregulation of bus services in 1986, patronage has plummeted, mainly because of unreliability, escalating fares and the constant chopping and changing of timetables?

Does my hon. Friend also agree with the 106 hon. Members who signed early-day motion 518 that the successful bus franchising in London should be extended to other places, such as the West Yorkshire passenger transport area. to secure quality bus contracts that strike a better and fairer balance between passengers and profit?

Mr. Challen

I am grateful for my hon. Friend's intervention, and I agree with what he says; I think I am a signatory of the early-day motion. The Government should listen carefully to those proposals, as in the last 20 years, bus passengers have been ill served by the dogmatic, ideological Thatcherite deregulation in 1986. The Way to Go proposals, which may one day include those ideas too, are excellent. They have been costed and are waiting to go.

Last week, I read about the proposals from Central Railway to develop a new freight service between the north-west and the south-east, which would have a major impact in reducing both congestion and the need for extra lanes on the M62—one of Europe's busiest motorways, which goes through my constituency. Those proposals would boost the economy of the north-west, and I hope the Government consider them seriously.

As we review the transport strategy, we should try to apply a much greater vision and escape from the predict-and-provide shackles of the past. Roads will take the largest slice of funding for the foreseeable future and the car and road transport lobbies will say that they make a massive contribution to the Exchequer. That is true—I do not dispute it—but what often does not enter the equation is the huge environmental cost of road transport.

I acknowledge that there have been improvements such as reducing pollution from individual cars and that fuel consumption overall has moderately eased off in the last three or four years, although the long-term trend is up. Road traffic has increased by 79 per cent. since 1980, and fuel consumption rose by 53 per cent. in the same period. Since 1990, CO2 emissions have risen by 11 per cent., and transport on the ground and in the air threatens to wreck the Government's greenhouse gas emissions targets. My question is, what would happen if the costs of global warming were to be internalised in our assessment of the real cost of motoring? Given that road transport contributes 25 per cent. of our carbon emissions, compared to just 1 per cent. for rail, it is easy to see where the burden of improvement lies.

Adjustments have been made to vehicle excise duty to reflect the fact that smaller engines pollute less, but it would make sense to carry that logic through and to make larger engines pay more than the standard rate of VED. As any study will show, most four-wheel drives sold on the market today never see an off-road track, and for that the countryside must be grateful. These behemoths clog up our urban roads, but their fuel efficiencies are disgracefully low. Their owners may argue that they are therefore paying more in fuel duty, but that is to miss the point entirely. They were described by the Mayor of London as complete idiots, which may explain why 4x4 owners can so easily miss the point. Apart from the greater pollution they cause, they also hasten the demise of a finite resource. If they cannot be trusted to be the guardians of their children's future, the Government should take that small step and do it for them. Would that be such a terrible thing?

A modest adjustment in VED would pay for much of the Way to Go campaign's manifesto and it would save lives, too. Four-wheel drives have been shown to have a far higher risk of causing death to cyclists and pedestrians than ordinary vehicles, because of their greater height and bulk.

That proposal is an example of integrated transport, and we could use the money to train cyclists, as most journeys made are less than 5 miles. I believe that the Government's target was to quadruple cycling, but we are well short of that: at just 2 per cent. of journeys made, we are abysmally short of the Dutch 28 per cent. or the Danish 18 per cent. The smart Alecs who scoff at our attempts to boost cycling will retort that Holland and Denmark are flat countries more suited to cycling and that, besides, they have all those dedicated cycle lanes. However, is Switzerland, where 15 per cent. of journeys are made by bicycle, a flat country?

We know that measures to increase cycling have precisely that effect. London has bucked the national trend, and cycling has increased considerably. That is because cyclists are considered important and deserving of road space in their own right. The congestion charge has helped by making the roads safer for cyclists and by forcing motorists to reconsider how they get to work. The Government's action plan for cycling is a welcome document, but it is described in the introduction as a beginning, not an end. I hope that that is true, as we have seen some false starts in the recent past.

There are other measures I would like to be introduced, which go beyond the Way to Go proposals and perhaps show that that campaign is too modest in its objectives. I note, for example, that the Environmental Transport Association—I am a member of it, so I have declared my interest—is promoting carbon emissions offsetting. Under that scheme, motorists can seek to neutralise their carbon emissions by funding renewable energy schemes such as paying for the distribution of free low-energy light bulbs or the planting of forests. What help for such schemes are the Government willing to offer? These initiatives are new and we should see whether there are new ways to support them—with tax breaks, for example.

I must also plug my ten-minute Bill, the Domestic Tradable Quotas (Carbon Emissions) Bill, launched last week. It shows how carbon trading at the individual level could help us all to reduce carbon emissions, and it might even raise a bit of money for the Government, which could be used to promote the schemes in the Way to Go manifesto.

We cannot afford to be timid in addressing the issues. We have panics about obesity, congestion and global warming, but we then comfort ourselves with the thought that, as change happens at such a slow pace, it does not really matter if we do not do something about those things today, if our next pair of trousers happens to be 2 in wider at the waist or if there is a slight change in the weather that means that somewhere else in the world a hurricane is stronger than usual. That is normally off our register.

Our psychology is the same in both regards, and collectively we persist in putting off the day when we take drastic action to tackle the problems. Like smokers, we always want one last fag. The question is, when are we going to curb our addiction to yet more roads and cars and recognise that what we need is not the transport equivalent of a nicotine patch, but a bit of exercise on the old step-change machine?

11.13 am
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. Tony McNulty)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Morley and Rothwell (Mr. Challen) on securing the debate. These are important matters.

I am grateful for the contribution that the Way to Go campaign has made to the review of the 10-year plan for transport. It has raised many points about how a future transport system could better service the needs of the population, and it highlights some key issues that the Department for Transport has regularly to consider as we aim to balance transport efficiency, safety and accessibility with achieving our environmental objectives.

As I hope to show, we are addressing many of, if not all, the issues in the Way to Go campaign, although I would be the first to agree that we need to go further in some areas. However, we start from the premise that we need a transport strategy that can meet the challenges of a growing economy, as well as a rapidly increasing demand for travel, and balance that with the environmental considerations to which my hon. Friend referred.

In passing, and no more than that, I say that the undercurrent of opinion that characterises our transport policy as "predict and provide" across all modes is simply wrong. I will not go into substantive detail on the air transport White Paper, but it has been characterised as predict and provide, and it is not.

Much debate prompted by the Way to Go campaign starts from the premise that this Government are as voracious as previous Governments when it comes to road building. Well, my hon. Friend will know that we imposed a moratorium on road building soon after we came to government to take stock of where we were with the road network and to see how, rather than simply building roads willy-nilly, we could optimise existing networks. That is what we have done across the piece, including the air transport White Paper.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport has said time and again of the road network that we will not, and cannot, build our way out of congestion. That is central to all we do, but it does not obviate the need for a roads programme. There clearly is such a need, but this Government, unlike the previous Government, start from the premise of optimising the existing road network before creating more scars across the land.

Last year, in my previous incarnation as a Minister responsible for housing and regeneration, I took great delight in visiting any number of city centres where scars across our communities were being torn down. I am referring to the once-fashionable inner-city ring roads that simply went straight through communities. The people who had those roads built could not care less about their impact on communities and on air quality and the environment. I do not accept, therefore, the underlying premise that our approach is all about predict and provide, that over the past seven years this Government have done exactly the same as any previous Government, that we are in hock to the road lobby and that our approach is all roads, roads, roads as that is the only answer.

The Way to Go campaign has published a list of measures that it wants the Government to incorporate in the review of the 10-year plan for transport. I will dwell on some of those to see where we are with them, as a prelude to publication of the review. First, on the provision of cycle networks and training, the Government have been proactive in their efforts to maximise cycling as an alternative to the motor car. I congratulate the many local authorities up and down the country that have taken the provision of cycle lanes and networks seriously.

As my hon. Friend suggests, it is no accident that London is ahead of the game in that regard. That is because London boroughs and local political leaderships in London take cycling and the provision of cycle lanes far more seriously than their colleagues elsewhere. I would venture to say that that includes West Yorkshire, which is not the brightest light bulb in the box when it comes to such provision.

I am talking about not simply cycle networks and the like, but going beyond that and getting our infrastructure right in relation to the balance between public transport and the motor car. To many local authorities up and down the country, bus priority measures mean a bus stop, rather than a bus lane or similar devices. I endorse what the Way to Go campaign says about getting the balance in many of our towns and cities much more favourably disposed towards all road users. I also agree with that in the context of cycling.

As my hon. Friend said, in June, after working closely with experts and organisations in each area, we published an action plan on our strategy to encourage cycling and walking. Improvements can best be driven through at local level, and the best councils are developing improved cycle routes as an integral part of their local transport plans. We certainly encourage that. Local authority spending on cycle infrastructure was about £45 million in 2003–04—up a third on two years earlier—but, as my hon. Friend said of the document that we published, it is a beginning. We have not secured everything we need in that regard. We have been working with more than 20 road safety and cycling organisations on a new national standard for child cycle training. Many other schemes reflect our commitment to those important issues.

I can reconfirm that buses remain at the centre of our strategy for local transport networks. The vast majority of public transport trips are made by bus. Overwhelmingly, buses connect our communities to key areas of employment, leisure, retail and other activities. In the context of transport as a weapon in the battle against social exclusion, buses are, will be and should be at the core of our strategy. We employ a host of measures to help to improve bus efficiency, including priority at traffic signals and access to vehicle-restricted areas. The Department has published local transport note 1/97, "Keeping Buses Moving: A Guide to Traffic Management". More recently, we published a guidance pack on behalf of the Bus Partnership Forum called "Bus Priority: The Way Ahead".

I repeat, however, that it is incumbent on local authorities to take these matters forward. I make no apology for getting local transport plan resources down to the local level over the past four or five years, so that in the first instance local authorities can determine what is necessary in terms of local transport for their own areas. When I appear before local government organisations or forums, I take every opportunity to repeat that it is in their hands not to describe bus priority measures as an add-on or a frill that they might get around to if they want. If we are serious about tackling urban congestion, the bald logic that 80 people on a bus is 80 people not in 50,60 or 70 cars must commend itself. However, there is no point having 50,60,70 or 80 people on a bus if all it is doing is sitting in the same traffic that everybody else is sitting in.

Local authorities can and should do more, and elected representatives in the House could do more with their local authorities to ensure not only that the buses work, but that measures are taken. We must get a better balance between the various users of road space. Many of the Way to Go policy proposals are about reconfiguring our public space, especially our road space, so we can achieve that. I endorse that, and local transport is central to achieving it.

We support the uptake of real-time information for bus users, which allows passengers to make better-informed decisions. In 2002, £20 million was allocated to local authorities to implement real-time information schemes. People will use the buses and rely on public transport if they are reliable, efficient and safe and there is the necessary information for them to be able to rely on it.

Developing safe and efficient routes to school is also an important part of our transport plans. We have put into action a wide range of initiatives to improve travelling to school for children and parents, tackle rising car use on the school run and encourage healthy and safe routes to school. That should also be seen in the context of the anti-obesity campaign. Those initiatives include a travelling to school action plan and a good practice guide. We want every school in England to have a school travel plan by the end of the decade; all of them will focus on developing safe routes to school.

I turn to other issues highlighted by the Way to Go campaign. We believe that decisions on local speed limits are best made at local level. Local authorities already have the freedom to introduce 20 mph speed zones through their local transport plans. We recommend that 20 mph zones be installed near schools, where appropriate. Our child pedestrian casualty record has improved in recent years and we have a number of initiatives under way to reduce casualties further. My hon. Friend knows that our record in terms of the statistics on killed or seriously injured children and adults is far superior to that of most of our colleagues in Europe, but we can and should go much further.

The Way to Go campaign says that funding for local transport is a priority. We have doubled our capital funding for local transport, and we are delivering a sustained investment policy to ensure that we do not return to the days of stop-start investment in transport. We have not shifted the resources focus to the local dimension through the local transport plans simply to starve them of resources. Whatever the mode of public transport, throughout the past 20 or 30 years there has been stop-start investment, which has been detrimental to the entire public transport network. We must ensure not only that there is investment, but that it is sustained.

In December 2003, we announced an investment package of almost £2 billion in local transport—roughly three times the investment in the mid-1990s. We have also given local authorities extra power to solve local transport issues themselves. New guidance on the next round of local transport plans is due soon. In addition, almost £200 million has been made available in the three years between 2001 and 2004 to improve rural transport provision. I accept what has been said about the need for transport in rural areas. We have a rural bus subsidy grant, which has funded more than 2,100 new and enhanced bus services in rural areas in 2003–04.

I agree with the underpinning points of the Way to Go campaign, especially with respect to sharing very limited space when there is urban congestion. We are taking forward policies on streets in a manual for streets to help to provide guidance on the design and layout of roads.

The development of a tool to help local authorities to manage streets effectively has been proposed as part of the integrated local transport bid. That would help authorities to bring together the many different parties responsible for our modern streetscape. We cannot encourage people to walk far more in urban areas to alleviate aspects of urban congestion if the very act of walking is unsafe and unhealthy and takes people through what is almost a war zone or obstacle course.

It is necessary to reconfigure and to bring balance back into the equation in terms of design and what can be found on our streets and at road junctions. Professional engineers especially need to think about why people may walk through a certain area and whether some road space should be configured for pedestrians as well as for motorists.

Among other Way to Go priorities is the improvement of quality standards for bus and rail travel, which we are keen to continue. Journeys involving those will be improved by the new Transport Direct programme—a comprehensive national information service covering all modes of transport.

We are determined to improve standards by making buses and trains more accessible. With 1,400 new rail vehicles entering service over the past two and a half years, and another 1,000 to come over the next 18 months, we will see a big improvement in rail services and accessibility in many areas.

Mr. Challen

On rail travel, a senior executive of a train operating company told me recently that he was told by a Minister—I know that this is all anecdotal, but I hope that my hon. Friend will take it on trust that it is true—that the way to handle the capacity problems that some rail services have is to put up prices. How will that message go down with commuters, particularly those who travel through my constituency on two lines where extra carriages are sorely needed? If they thought that they would have to pay more to use those services, that would give them a grievance.

Mr. McNulty

I accept the point behind my hon. Friend's intervention—price is an important dimension of all aspects of public transport—and that we cannot allow rail services, which are a crucial part of the network, to price themselves out. More often than not, if people are priced off the railways, they do not jump on a bicycle or walk to where they are going; they get in their cars. However, I should make the point in passing that pricing is in the first instance a matter for the train operating companies.

We will bring in new initiatives to make taxis and buses more accessible. Such initiatives are already bearing fruit in some ways and we are making transport safer by cracking down on crime.

As to discount railcards, the Secretary of State has, in response to the fares review, asked the Strategic Rail Authority to work with the industry to develop a national discount railcard. I know that that is another concern of the Way to Go campaign.

In response to the ninth point on the Way to Go list, we are already encouraging motorists to buy smaller, cleaner cars. Vehicle excise duty and the range of taxation and fiscal measures are a matter for the Chancellor of the Exchequer, not for me, and if my hon. Friend wants to pursue that aspect through an Adjournment debate, I am happy for him to do so, as I will not be answering.

Broadly speaking, although I accept that we may need to go further, and we probably will not make sufficient progress on some Way to Go issues, much of what we are already doing through our transport policies, as I have tried to show in the short time available, goes with the grain of the Way to Go campaign.

Buses are central to our transport strategy. Public transport is central to all that we try to do. Across all modes of transport—roads, rail and buses—we try to make optimum use of existing capacity before even considering any additional capacity. In that way, as we progress over the coming years. the Way to Go campaign and what we are trying to do nationally are at least aligned in terms of direction of travel, if not in every detail.

11.30 am

Sitting suspended until Two o'clock.