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Transport

Volume 114: debated on Monday 6 April 1987

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Road Schemes

1.

asked the Secretary of State for Transport what representations he has received about the changes he proposes to make in the system whereby the economic benefit of road schemes is assessed.

One. We invited a number of experts and others to let us have their comments. I hope that those who intend to comment will do so by 21 April.

Will my hon. Friend confirm that the new formula means that the added weight that road users attach to their leisure time means that more road schemes will be justified economically in the future? Does this not demonstrate that the additional boost that the Government have already given to the roads programme to ease congestion is justified?

My hon. Friend will recognise that the change in the value of non-work time does not automatically increase the budget for the Department of Transport. It is true that the proposed changes will strengthen the economic case for most planned road schemes and heighten the urgency of building them.

Will these proposals prevent decisions such as that which resulted in the building of the Humber bridge? What will be done about the debt on that bridge? It is running at £250 million with the capital debt increasing by £22 million per annum. What will happen? Will the Government write off the debt?

In view of the possible election some time in the next year, my hon. Friend rightly draws attention to the most expensive by-election promise in history — the 1966 Humber bridge proposal. I look forward to hearing the proposals of the Humber bridge board. As the Government acknowledged in their response to the Select Committee report, there is perhaps a different case with the Humber bridge than with other estuarial crossings.

Merchant Fleet

2.

asked the Secretary of State for Transport what recent consultations he has had concerning the future of the merchant fleet.

I and my Department have had numerous discussions with shipowners and seafarers, their representatives, and other interested parties about matters affecting the future of the United Kingdom shipping industry.

Has the Minister had a chance to study the statement made in the 1987 shipping review by the general council, which predicted that the mainland United Kingdom fleet may be as low as 100 ships by 1995? Against that background, does the Minister not think that two matters need to be looked at : first, the tax regime that applies to shipping and the unfair effect that it has compared with overseas competitors; and, secondly, the unfair competition that comes particularly from countries such as Korea, Taiwan and other Asian countries in terms of the subsidies that are given to their shipbuilding industries?

The hon. Gentleman will not need to be reminded that the tax question is one for my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer. Having said that, I take the hon. Gentleman's second point quite seriously. He will be aware that under the British presidency during the last six months of last year we were able to secure for the first time a package of measures in regard to European Community shipping, which includes our own. It is important to try to prevent unfair competitive practices of the kind to which the hon. Gentleman referred. It is an important point.

Will my right hon. Friend, who is already aware of the problems of the British dredging fleet, keep in mind the fact that we need a dredging fleet capability under United Kingdom control, not only to keep the shipping lanes open for civilian craft, but in particular for servicing naval dockyards?

My hon. Friend is right. We are aware of the needs for shipping for military and civil re-supply in times of crisis or war, and to that extent we are concerned about particular kinds of vessel, including that to which my hon. Friend referred.

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that Britain is possibly the only maritime nation that does not have a maritime policy? Will he have a word with his colleagues in the Department of Trade and Industry and in the Ministry of Defence and produce a policy that will save not only the merchant fleet but the shipbuilding industry?

The hon. Gentleman is wrong. We have a maritime policy. He is aware from his experience of the shipbuilding industry and the problems of oversupply, which are a consequence of excessive shipbuilding throughout the world, that most maritime nations have suffered — many even more than we have — from the radical decline in the shipping industry. To the extent that I have departmental responsibilities for these matters, the hon. Gentleman will be aware of and, I trust, will support, the initiatives that I announced in December last year, about which we are consulting and which I hope to bring before the House as soon as possible and as soon as legislation permits.

I endorse what the hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire (Mr. Kirkwood) said about possible solutions to the difficulties of the merchant fleet. Will my right hon. Friend urgently consider the report by his Department's working party on the registration of merchant ships, particularly the idea of splitting off the fishing fleet from that register so that the merchant fleet and the shipping fleet can benefit? May we have legislation before the general election?

The other day my hon. Friend was given a relatively positive response by my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House on this issue, which he has pursued persistently. My hon. Friend will know from that response that my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and I are conscious of these needs and wish to bring measures forward as soon as practicable. I know that concern about this important issue is felt on both sides of the House.

The Government have a policy on the maritime fleet, shipbuilding and the ancillary industries in general, but most people think that it is a policy of presiding over the decline of the British merchant fleet, with no efforts being made to begin the rejuvenation of our merchant fleet and coastal shipping and to make greater use of inland waterways. Those measures would be environmentally and economically advantageous.

It will be of no use to our maritime interests if we ignore basic realities. We are living in a world in which there has been a pattern of massive world oversupply of shipping and shipbuilding. In a world recession there has been an enormous drop in oil carriage, two thirds of the decline having been in tanker tonnage. I do not need to remind hon. Members of the relevance of that. There has also been a radical change in our trading patterns with the EEC. In the face of all that, I know that the hon. Gentleman will support the measures that I announced last December and which I hope to introduce in the House in the not too distant future.

Is the Secretary of State aware that the difficulties already mentioned have been compounded by the imposition of light dues, which will have a heavy bearing on the merchant and fishing fleets? The right hon. Gentleman is incorrect in saying that we are well up with our competitors. Britain is one of the worst European nations in terms of backing the merchant service.

I know that the right hon. Gentleman, as a fair man, would like me to correct the slightly unfortunate impression that he gave about light dues. Despite the unfortunate recent increases, they have decreased in real terms by 18 per cent. since the Conservative party took office in 1979. The right hon. Gentleman will be aware that nearly 90 per cent. of the vessels that are charged those dues are foreign. I am, of course, aware that dues are also relevant to the problems of our port industry.

The fact that 90 per cent. are foreign is a clear sign of the decline of the British fleet. Is the Secretary of State aware that he is showing all the hallmarks of his predecessors' complacency on this issue? If the right hon. Gentleman does not believe me, I suggest that he reads the debate on the Royal Navy and the contributions by his right hon. Friend the Member for Taunton (Sir E. du Cann) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth (Mr. Callaghan), who spelt out in graphic detail the problems that Britain is facing with the decline of our merchant fleet. Indeed, it is not just a decline; it is a massive haemorrhage. Unless the Government do something soon to stop that decline, within the next 10 years there will not be a British fleet. Why does the right hon. Gentleman not look at what the Irish Government have done with their fleet? What is he doing about the efficient ship programme? The Secretary of State sits in Cabinet beside the Chancellor of the Exchequer, so why does he not ask him to do something about benefits for our ship owners?

As the hon. Gentleman would expect, I have read fully and thoroughly the debate in question and I am not under any illusions about the difficulty facing our merchant marine, nor about the difficulties facing merchant marines throughout the world. Within that context, I know that the hon. Gentleman, who has understandable emotions about this subject, would not wish me to react Canute-like but would wish me to relate to the real problems that we face. The measures that I announced in December seek to address those problems and my statutory responsibility with regard to them.

Local Authority Airports

4.

asked the Secretary of State for Transport what is the total of capital allocations to local authority airports since 1979.

Since 1979 we have authorised local authorities to spend in excess of £220 million airport development. This compares with £16 million spent on capital investment at local authority airports during the period of the last Labour Government.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that reply. Will he contrast the figure that he has quoted with the increase in the traffic at, for example, Bristol airport?

The figure for Bristol since 1979 is 79 per cent. I am sure that that is a very much higher rate of increase than the increase under the previous Administration.

Does the Minister agree that expenditure on capital developments at regional airports would greatly assist the development of the depressed areas of our country?

Will my hon. Friend say how much of this investment has taken place at Manchester airport?

Between 1981 and 1986 the figure for Manchester airport was £80 million, which is an enormous figure.

I thank my hon. Friend for his confirmation that the creation of a plc for Hurn airport in my constituency will in no way change the planning aspects thereof. Will he please confirm that it is the Government's view that once these plcs have been set up the companies should no longer have the automatic right to get their sticky fingers on taxpayers' and ratepayers' money, as many of them have done in the past? Will he also confirm that county councillors who are directors of these companies will be required not to vote in county councils when these companies come along asking for money?

My hon. Friend's second point is about county councillors. Under the terms of the new Act any councillor or county councillor who is a member of the board of the company will not be allowed to vote on council airport matters. My hon. Friend asked about subsidies. It is our clear intention and desire that these airports should be privatised, but as long as they remain in local authority hands it will be for the local authorities to decide what subsidies to provide for their airports. The accounts will now clearly show the ratepayers what they are contributing towards their airports.

Arising from the supplementary question by my hon. Friend the Member for Eccles (Mr. Carter-Jones) and the Minister's comprehensive reply, does the Minister agree that the economy of the west midlands might well be boosted in the context of capital allocations from central Government by the granting of gateway status to what is, after all, on his Department's own figures the fastest growing provincial airport in Britain?

I thought that the hon. Gentleman was going to ask about figures, and I was about to give him the figure of £63 million as the amount spent on Birmingham. That is also a case where we have spent massive sums—about four times as much as the Labour Government spent in total. The hon. Gentleman asked about gateway status. I imagine that he is talking about American carriers. If they wish to come forward to apply to enter Birmingham, of course we will listen to their requests very seriously.

Will my hon. Friend pay attention to those successful and profitable local authority airports, like Southend, that do not want any money at all? We have been trying to persuade the Government to persuade the German authorities to allow us to run one bus to connect Ostend with Frankfurt. We have been trying for two years and have not been able to persuade the Germans to agree to what we were told was agreed by the Common Market 15 years ago.

My hon. Friend is quite right when he says that Southend airport does not cost his ratepayers any money. It balances the books very largely because private companies come in and help with the management of that airport. My hon. Friend asks about the bus that the Germans will not allow. With the great encouragement of my hon. Friend, we have made many representations to the German Government and no doubt they will have heard what he has said in Parliament today.

London (Bus Services)

5.

asked the Secretary of State for Transport what recent discussions he has had with the chairman of London Regional Transport about the quality of bus services.

My right hon. Friend and I meet the chairman from time to time to discuss a range of issues, including quality of service. I last met Sir Keith Bright on 24 March in Camden for the launch of another innovative high frequency midibus service.

Is the Minister aware that our constituents are thoroughly fed up with the ever-worsening bus services in London? Does he agree that the threatened closure of Wandsworth, Hendon and Clapton bus garages and the threat of others to follow will make matters a great deal worse? Will he make representations to London Regional Transport and London Buses Ltd. to halt the closure of those garages?

There has been no overall worsening of London Buses' performance, although engineers' industrial action at the end of 1986 caused temporary problems. Waiting times and the percentage of schedules operating this year are considerably better than they were in the early 1980s when the GLC was responsible for them. As for garage closures, it is for the management of London Buses Ltd. to decide how many garages are needed to service its fleet.

If quality of service is to be measured by increased use and frequency of services, does my hon. Friend agree that since the demise of the GLC there has been an improvement in the quality of public transport throughout London? If quality is to be measured by comfort, does my hon. Friend agree that the best way to achieve that is to increase capital investment, which was increased last year and is to be further increased this year?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right about capital investment, which is running at £260 million for LRT this year and is expected to increase to £280 million next year. London Buses Ltd. expects the highest passenger mileage this year since 1978 and has introduced a number of frequent midibus services, of which the Camden Hoppa is the most recent, and these are well and truly welcomed by the travelling public.

Does the Minister appreciate that large buses are appropriate for many routes, especially the No. 15 route, from which London Transport may remove the Routemasters? Is he aware that when I wrote to the chairman pressing him to retain these very popular platform buses and asking why he was trying to sell them to China he replied that conditions in China were less rigorous than those in London. As the chairman also said that customer service remained the chief objective, does the Minister agree that his answer in relation to the Routemasters was ridiculous, stupid and illogical?

No, Sir, because platform buses have a greater accident problem with passengers getting on and off, and that must also be taken into account.

A23 (Crawley)

6.

asked the Secretary of State for Transport when he proposes to upgrade the A23 south of Crawley.

Timing of existing schemes for the improvement of the A23 from the M23 at Pease Pottage to Handcross and from Warninglid flyover to Brighton will depend on the progress of the statutory procedures. I am considering the needs of the section between Handcross and Warninglid in the current review of the trunk road programme.

The West Sussex county council is responsible for the A23 between Crawley and the M23 at Pease Pottage.

I thank my hon. Friend for that reply. Does he agree that it is devoutly to be hoped that the statutory procedures will be hurried up in view of the great difficulties, which he has seen for himself, on the A23 at Pease Pottage and to the south? Will he ensure that as soon as it is convenient and legally possible to do so the important repairs and improvements to that stretch of road will be speedily and efficiently carried out?

Yes, Sir. My hon. Friend has a reputation for pressing for the traffic needs of his constituents and others to be met. We hope to consult the public on improvement options for Pease Pottage to Handcross this summer and to publish compulsory purchase orders this year for the Warninglid flyover to Brighton section.

Kings Cross-Edinburgh Line

7.

asked the Secretary of State for Transport what information he has as to when British Rail expects to complete its assessment of the case for investment in the east coast route King's Cross-Edinburgh, and onward routes to Glasgow.

East coast mainline electrification was approved in 1984 and it is expected that the scheme will be completed on schedule in May 1991. BR is still at an early stage of assessing whether there is a case for electrifying any further route from Edinburgh to Glasgow.

Before any conclusions are reached on the matter, could there be some opportunity for public discussion as to whether to electrify the Fauldhouse-Shotts route, or the Linlithgow-Polmont-Falkirk route? Are there not grave implications, one way or the other, for local services, which could be disrupted by long distance London-Glasgow traffic via Edinburgh?

The hon. Gentleman is making a perfectly fair point — one which should certainly be considered. At the moment no proposals have been received from British Rail by Ministers, so we are not yet in a position to give the further examination that is needed. I shall keep the hon. Gentleman's point in mind and draw it to the attention of the board.

Has the Minister noted the interesting suggestion, made a few days ago, that British Rail might well be divided into two, with the running of the trains left to a private company and British Rail left to run the tracks, the signalling and the stations? Does he think that if that were done it would, in any way, lead to the faster achievement of the objective of the hon. Member for Linlithgow?

The concept of a track authority has been examined by different Governments and a number of experts. The case for moving in that way has not been made.

Is the Minister aware that British Rail plans to reroute all the Anglo-Scottish east coast sleeper services down the west coast from 1988, on the quaint assumption that it is better to arrive at Euston than King's Cross? Does he realise that that would deprive the Borders and Northumberland of sleeper services, and give passengers from Edinburgh a less smooth and comfortable ride than they now enjoy going down the east coast route?

That question is entirely for the management of British Rail. It is the management that decides— [Interruption.] I know that some Opposition Members would like to fiddle with the railways and interfere with the management so that it cannot get on with its job. The routeing of sleeper trains is entirely a matter for British Rail management. Having said that, I will draw the hon. Gentleman's concern to the attention of the chairman.

When all is said and done, does my hon. Friend agree that the east coast main line electrification has been discussed for half a century, has now been authorised and is currently under construction? Disregarding all the excuses from the Opposition about why that was not done before, are the Government not entitled to take some credit for having given the go-ahead for this and many other projects of railway improvement for which we have waited for a long time?

My hon. Friend is right. I do not think that the House is fully apprised of how massive a modernisation of British Rail is now fully under way. Between 1974 and 1979 the Labour Government authorised three electrification schemes. We have authorised 19. Approvals were at the rate of £38 million per annum under the previous Government, compared to £69 million under this one, all sums adjusted to current year prices.

Will the Minister take a look at his geography and recognise that the east coast line extends further than Edinburgh? Will he encourage British Rail, before it contemplates electrification of the line from Edinburgh to Glasgow, running from east to west, to plan now the electrification of the line from Edinburgh to Aberdeen?

Before the hon. Gentleman declares his interest in that particular matter, I wish to say that British Rail is alert to the opportunities for further electrification. It is considering a number of schemes, and it would be right and proper to see what it brings forward.

Railways (Electrification)

9.

asked the Secretary of State for Transport if he has received any recent representations concerning the electrification of railway lines serving south Wales.

The Secretary of State has received no recent representations on that matter.

Does the Minister appreciate that if the Government are serious about the Channel tunnel project, let alone the future well-being of the Welsh economy, electrification should go ahead without any further delay, and coupled with that should be the development, not the closure, of the Severn tunnel junction?

The form of locomotion that is used between Wales and the Channel tunnel does not necessarily have a direct bearing on the availability of services. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that the needs of Wales, which are considerable and well understood, will be borne in mind.

Is it not a disgrace that not a single mile of railway line in Wales is electrified? If the Government, as suggested by the hon. Member for Christchurch (Mr. Adley) a few moments ago, take credit for the electrification of the east coast line, surely they must take responsibility for the failure to electrify the railways in Wales?

There is no implicit failure on the part of British Rail if it has not discovered that it is possible to provide the most efficient, fast and punctual services in Wales by electrification. Modern diesel multiple units, such as the Sprinter train, can provide almost the same standard of service as electrification, and where the numbers travelling are lower and the frequencies fewer than in the intensively used parts of the system, it makes much better value for money for British Rail to provide diesel services.

Infrastructure (Expenditure)

10.

asked the Secretary of State for Transport if he will make a statement on the increase in capital spending on transport infrastructure in real terms since 1982.

Capital spending on transport infrastructure is expected to show an increase of 16 per cent in real terms in 1987–88 over 1982–83.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that that very important figure should be publicised, given the myths that are being perpetrated on the Opposition Benches about the extent of the Government's increase in infrastructure expenditure? Can my right hon. Friend tell us how that compares with the wasteful expenditure that one sometimes gets on things such as subsidies?

My right hon. Friend is, of course, right. I recall so many times in the past his arguments for a better quality and increased pattern of capital expenditure by the state. On my right hon. Friend's specific point, as opposed to the 16 per cent. increase in transport infrastructure capital expenditure in real terms, subsidies are down by 31 per cent. in real terms.

Does the Secretary of State agree that investment in freight facilities is an important part of the infrastructure, not least if we are to have an upturn in manufacturing industry, and also if the nations and regions of Britain are to benefit from the Channel tunnel? How can the right hon. Gentleman justify the closure in the past week of the Freightliner depots?

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on getting in the question that has not been asked because of the absence of the hon. Member for Monklands, West (Mr. Clarke). He will recall that the changes that have been announced by Freightliner relate to the problem that it has had on constant losses on the domestic, not the international, side. We must rely on those who seek to manage that successful business to advise us on how they should invest in freight opportunities for the future. They have done that.

Will my right hon. Friend advise the House what proportion of the transport infrastructure applies to the railway industry, which has constantly been attacked by the trade unions, yet under this Government has gone forward in real terms?

Without notice I cannot give the precise proportion, but, just in case the Opposition would like me to give the precise figure for capital expenditure in regard to the question, although they will not appreciate the answer, the increase is 48 per cent. in real terms.

It is all right for the Secretary of State to stand at the Dispatch Box and brag about the increase for transport infrastructure, but is he aware that in the county of Nottingham we have an expanding industry in many places, particularly in my constituency, which is striving very hard in areas where the Government have closed down one or two pits? Several of those firms have a marvellous export record, but they cannot move the goods. Why not spend some money in my area for a change?

I know that the hon. Gentleman will not mind me reminding him of the way in which, under a Labour Government, far more pits were closed than under this Government, but I understand his legitimate interest in the movement of goods in his area. I hope that he will remember what I have said so far in my answer to the question. In real terms there has been a major increase in all forms of infrastructure capital expenditure throughout the Government's period of office. I know that the hon. Gentleman will welcome that expenditure, especially on British Rail and on local and national roads. I can give the hon. Gentleman detailed figures for his area in a letter that I shall be happy to send him after this Question Time.

When my right hon. Friend is looking at his capital programme for transport infrastructure, will he look again at the A417 and A4I9 route between Swindon and the M5 at Cheltenham? Does he accept that we now have a patchwork quilt of single and dual carriageway sections, which are dangerous to road safety and could be improved dramatically by the provision of dual carriageway throughout the length of the route? That would also help the economic needs of firms in my constituency.

I know that my hon. Friend the Minister with responsibility for roads will consider my hon. Friend's question carefully. He will also direct my hon. Friend's attention to the fact that since 1979 capital expenditure on roads has increased by 30 per cent. in real terms.

Will the Secretary of State tell the House how the allocation of that expenditure in 1986 differs from the allocation to various forms of transport in 1982?

I should not like to give all the details without notice, but I shall be happy to write to the hon. Gentleman drawing his attention to the variations, going back to 1979, if he wishes. However, that would not deny the basic, essential point that is made from the Dispatch Box time and again, that we have massively increased expenditure on transport capital infrastructure.

Does my right hon. Friend recall that when he visited Eastbourne last year he came by train? If he made the journey by car, would he agree that extra capital expenditure is required to improve the A22 trunk road?

Of course I went by train, because I knew that it was the proper way to travel on that route. However, I am also aware—because my hon. Friend has told me personally and at the last Question Time, the Minister with responsibility for roads — the road movement down to his constituency. I am sure that he will have heard the arguments again this time.

National Bus Company

12.

asked the Secretary of State for Transport what progress he has made in the privatisation of the National Bus Company.

Eighteen of the National Bus Company's local operating subsidiaries have been sold to their managements. Twelve other subsidiaries have also been sold. I congratulate NBC on this excellent progress. I am particularly pleased that so many companies have been sold to their managements, and that in most of these cases employees are being given the opportunity to acquire shares in their businesses.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that a bus company in my constituency, Eastern National, has been successfully sold to its management, and that following privatisation the number and standard of services provided by the company have improved dramatically, to the benefit of my constituents and consumer demand in the area?

I am delighted to hear that. It reflects well on the Government's programme, which seeks to improve benefits to the consumer.

Is the Secretary of State aware that there is continuing disquiet about the price obtained in the sale of National Bus Company subsidiaries? Is he further aware that his reticence in giving the figures is fuelling speculation that the companies are being sold off at grossly low prices and with great possible capital and investment opportunities? Will he now clear the air by telling us as soon as possible the price at which each subsidiary has been sold?

The hon. Gentleman is normally very fair, and I hope that he will recognise that such comments are not normally made in public. On 26 November, in the bus deregulation debate, I said :

"we need to protect confidentiality to ensure that the proper benefits go to the taxpayer".
I explained the problem of trying to illustrate the figures, which might reduce the possibility of the public purse receiving the proper amount of funds from further similar sales, and I said :
"the information must be regularly made available to the National Audit Office, and so to the PAC, which has arrangements for conserving public confidentiality". — [Official Report, 26 November 1986; Vol. 106, c. 282.]
That is a means of ensuring that the House is aware through the proper route, without the state being denied the benefits of full and proper proceeds from future sales.

Greater Manchester (Bus Services)

13.

asked the Secretary of State for Transport what representations he has received from political parties on the effects of the introduction of competition into bus services in the Greater Manchester area.

None from political parties, but during the period following bus deregulation I received a number of representations about problems in Greater Manchester where the PTE failed to deliver the normal, smooth transition achieved in most other areas.

If, as now seems to be extraordinarily unlikely, the Conservative party were not returned to office at the next general election, what would happen to free enterprise bus operators and to Stockport's Bee Line Buzz Company? My hon. Friend has already seen this busy little company and knows that it has stung the Greater Manchester Bus Company, which has fumbled and bungled for years, into action. Stockport is now all abuzz. What will happen to us if that untoward event were to happen?

I have visited the Bee Line Buzz Company in south Manchester, where over 220 minibuses are operating at present. The whole place is a hive of activity. My hon. Friend is right to be concerned about the future of minibus activities in the 150 towns and villages up and down the country where minibuses operate, including Manchester, because the Labour party's policy for transport statement says:

"The first legislation to be introduced by a Labour Transport Secretary will include the repeal of the 1985 Transport Act".
In that case, my hon. Friend has very good reason to be concerned, as have many other people who have benefited from the new services that have been introduced following the passing of the Act.