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Urban Charging Schemes

Volume 405: debated on Thursday 22 May 2003

The text on this page has been created from Hansard archive content, it may contain typographical errors.

[Relevant Documents: First Report from the Transport Committee, Session 2002–03, HC 390-I, and the Government's response thereto, Cm5818]

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.— [Charlotte Atkins.]

3.31 pm

I start by drawing attention to the Transport Committee's important report on urban charging schemes. It was published in February, shortly before the major central London charging scheme started, but after the smaller Durham city centre scheme had begun.

I also thank our Chair, my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody), for the way in which she conducted the wide-ranging inquiry that enabled the report to be produced. She is unable to be with us this afternoon, because she is officiating at the opening of a major highways project.

It is a pretty rare thing to have such a project being opened these days. Can the hon. Lady enlighten us as to what it is?

I am assured that the project is of great importance and I understand that it is in my hon. Friend's constituency. That shows the importance that she attaches to her constituency and to the vital work of the House.

The report is set firmly in the context of the Government's policy of producing an integrated public transport programme and of recognising the key importance of reducing congestion. The report recognises the important steps that the Government have taken in giving new urban charging powers to local authorities and the London Mayor, in association with the London Assembly. The Committee also noted that the Government had made possible the hypothecation of revenues secured from charging schemes. Furthermore, they have produced a framework and a forum to enable local authorities that are interested in introducing schemes to meet, discuss ideas and exchange information.

The Committee noted with concern, however, that the Government's expectations and enthusiasm for new charging schemes seemed to have waned between the publication of their White Paper "Breaking the Logjam" in December 1998 and the publication of the 10-year transport plan in May 2002. It noted that, in July 2000, £2.7 billion a year of revenue was expected to be secured from urban charging schemes. By December 2002, however, that had fallen somewhat to £1.3 billion a year.

We noted that congestion was a major problem that was due to increase, unless measures were taken to combat it. Government information states that 80 per cent, of the 1.6 billion hours wasted by drivers and passengers on British roads in 1996 was lost through congestion in urban areas. In 1996—–97, one third of vehicle journey times in the central London rush hour was spent in stationary vehicles. There is no doubt about the importance of the need to take action to deal with congestion.

While the Committee looked at proposals for workplace parking in Nottingham and road charging schemes in Bristol and Durham, it concentrated its work on the central London scheme, recognising the great importance that would be attached nationally to the success or otherwise of that project. We welcomed the Mayor's readiness to take action and recognised his political commitment to ensuring that some action was taken to attempt to deal with congestion.

What were our key findings and what is their relevance to future schemes? The report shows the importance of stressing the prime objective of reducing congestion and putting forward road charging schemes, and ensuring that reduction of congestion is achieved without displacement of congestion to other areas. We urged the Government to develop a more meaningful and understandable definition of "congestion". We stressed the importance of seeking independent monitoring of the central London charging scheme, in addition to the monitoring that was being undertaken by the Greater London Assembly.

It was, and is, important that particular concern is paid in that monitoring to issues such as how low-paid people, public service workers and the voluntary sector are affected. I am pleased that the Royal National Institute of the Blind has become involved in monitoring the scheme. It has drawn attention to the importance of providing adequate information to members of the public who are blind and partially sighted about schemes and concessions on charging schemes, as well as to the facilities themselves in order to enable disabled people to move around and not to be impaired in their mobility because such schemes are being introduced.

The report recognises the importance of linking charging policies with improving public transport, and that that is done both before and after charging schemes are introduced by improving access to and availability of alternatives to the car. That is why one of our recommendations is that there should be permanent hypothecation to local transport schemes of additional funding secured by charging schemes directly to assist local transport projects, in addition to money that was already destined to go to those local areas.

The Committee also recognised that successful reduction of congestion through charging schemes might lead to a reduced income stream, and we felt that that was something to which the Government should pay attention. We also felt that it was important that attention should be given to developing the technology involved in charging schemes. Electronic charging technology should meet national standards and be compatible with European systems that are being developed. That is particularly important for developing inter-urban charging schemes, such as those advocated in some of the multi-modal studies.

That is also important for freight. The Government have already agreed to what is virtually a nationwide user charging scheme for 2005. Treasury proposals for distance-based road user charging on freight to replace vehicle excise duties on UK-registered freight vehicles are planned to start. The Freight Transport Association has expressed its concerns about some aspects of the issue.

The Committee recognised that urban charging was not appropriate everywhere. Much as we felt that urban charging could make a major difference in certain areas, we thought that it was equally important to recognise that it should be for local authorities to take decisions on introducing urban charging schemes in local areas. We also felt that the Government must ensure that they continue their financial support to local authorities that decide not to go ahead with charging schemes to deal with congestion.

Does my hon. Friend accept that we should not be talking only about urban congestion charging? There are opportunities for a massive improvement in public service provision in market towns, for example. There is an awful problem in Stroud, where we have one of the highest rates of car ownership in the country and a deteriorating bus service. My right hon. Friend the Minister of State. Department of Transport, came to talk to us about bus strategies. Could we have the opportunity at least to consider congestion charging? Perhaps the Committee ought to consider congestion charges outside urban areas in some future inquiry.

I accept my hon. Friend's comments. It is important that issues concerning congestion are addressed wherever they may be found. I hope that consideration will be given to how my hon. Friend's point can be addressed when the success of existing charging schemes is assessed.

Although urban charging schemes are far from a panacea for urban congestion, a scheme that is fit for the purpose and properly targeted, assessed, supported and implemented could make a significant and positive impact. That was the conclusion that the Committee reached. It is too early to assess properly whether the London scheme has been successful, although some reports that have emerged suggest encouraging results. If charging schemes are to be given the full opportunity to work, it is important that the Government take a stronger lead to enable the potential of urban charging to be explored in the context of strengthened and integrated public transport.

We welcome both the initiatives with which the Government have come forward and the opportunity for local authorities to take their own decisions, whether in cities, towns or elsewhere. However, we should like the Government not to lose their nerve in this matter. While giving local authorities maximum opportunity for their choice, the Government should be willing both to take a lead where that is appropriate and to assist local authorities that wish to go forward with charging schemes in determining whether it is an effective way of dealing with the major problem of congestion.

3.43 pm

I follow my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs. Ellman) by commending the report to those hon. Members present. I want to concentrate on three topics: the nature of congestion and some of the things that the Committee discovered when taking evidence both on this report and on the reports that the Committee made on the multi-modal studies; briefly, the two schemes that are now operating; and, finally, how the evidence and experience that we have acquired from those two schemes may or may not be applied to other cities.

One of the things that we discovered is that urban congestion accounts for 80 per cent. of the congestion in this country. Some 20 per cent. of congestion on our motorway systems is inter-urban. That fact is not especially interesting in itself. However, it is interesting that the United Kingdom is different from all other—except perhaps one—European countries in that they have urban congestion, but do not have inter-urban congestion. That 20 per cent. level of inter-urban congestion, while not unique to this country, is very within Europe.

It is surprising, when we have questioned professors and Ministers or taken written evidence, to find that nobody knows what is the economic impact of that congestion. I suspect that there is not much of a negative economic impact, although there are all sorts of health and pollution issues connected with urban congestion. Urban congestion is often a measure of the success of a city. A city that lost its rush hour during the early 1980s recession was a city in trouble. That city would have done anything to get its rush hour and its congestion back because losing those was a measure of economic failure and decline. I can think of one city where that happened, but I do not wish to point it out because that would be pejorative.

The hon. Gentleman says that, in his view, there is no negative economic impact. I would like him to substantiate that. Why does he think that, over a number of years, the Confederation of British Industry has published very substantial figures on what it assesses to be the cost of congestion?

That is an easy question to answer. It is simple to do the arithmetic—the duration of a traffic jam multiplied by the number of the people in a traffic jam. One could say that that is a cost. That is what the CBI and various other people have said. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will accept that it is a different thing to take that figure at face value. I remember, when we had Professor Begg in front of us, asking him what the economic impact of that was, and he said that he did not know. The people in that traffic jam could be going to work early, coming back later, and doing more work. No one knows what the impact is; I urge the Government to find out. I also urge them to concentrate on the inter-urban problem.

I suspect that congestion, particularly within cities, is a bit like the old line about tax: there is only one thing worse than paying tax, and that is being too poor to pay tax. There is probably only one thing worse for a city than having congestion, with the problems that it brings, and that is not having congestion. The Committee, the Government and various independent departments in universities should investigate that matter.

We looked at two congestion schemes. The first was a small scheme in Durham that ran around its peninsula. The scheme has stopped people dropping off husbands and wives, polluting and congesting that area in the process. That has been highly successful. Putting a charge of about £2 on that route has reduced congestion by 20 per cent. The area is environmentally better and there has been no damage to the economy. In fact, the local economy has probably benefited. It is very difficult to use that specific small scheme as an example of how congestion charging would affect major conurbations such as Bristol, Manchester or Birmingham.

At the other end of the scale, we have London, one of the world's great cities. It has one of the largest schemes ever attempted. In terms of reducing congestion, it has been a moderate success. My hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Riverside is right to warn us to be careful and not to jump to any conclusions. The technology appears to have worked and congestion has lessened. We do not yet know what the economic impact is; it is difficult to disaggregate the impact of the congestion charge in central London from the failure of the Central line and the fact that there are fewer American tourists in London, but there is some evidence that fewer people are shopping in the west end. That has had an economic impact, which will take time to work through the system.

Although the report indicates that other cities will be looking at London and Durham to assess their success, it will be difficult for them to learn a great deal except on the technological side, because one scheme is so small and the other is so large.

Looking at the evidence—I am thinking particularly of Greater Manchester, but it applies to other cities—there are a number of common factors. First, there is the belief that high-quality public transport should be in place before, not after, congestion charging; and secondly, the notion that where urban centres are competing with out-of-town shopping centres or smaller urban centres, there should be a level playing field. In the case of Manchester, from the evidence that it gave to the Committee, there is a reluctance to say, "Yes, we shall introduce a congestion or workplace parking charge," when the Trafford centre at Dumplington just outside the city centre boundary has free parking. In the city centre one has to pay to park, so to add another charge would almost certainly lead to cars and shoppers moving out to the Trafford centre. That means longer journeys for the cars, probably more pollution caused by those longer journeys and economic decline in the city centre.

I suspect that most cities that have competition from out-of-town shopping centres or other centres—in Manchester's case that would include Bolton and Stockport—will not introduce congestion charging until those two conditions are met. I cannot resist saying that Manchester suffers from the fact that it has made the mistake of employing, in Control Plus, the most anti-shopper, anti-tourist set of people possible to control parking. They do not actually wear jackboots, but they have metaphorical ones on when they hand out more parking tickets than any other group of people in the country. They are motivated entirely by targets and profit and they have lost the sense that parking control should be about antisocial parking. They have been a disaster and the sooner that Manchester city council rips up their contract and throws them out the better. They have set records in upsetting people, they give out record numbers of tickets on bank holidays when there are no parking restrictions and they are offensive. With such handicaps, I cannot see Manchester city council going for the additional handicap of a congestion charge.

My hon. Friend talked of how we had welcomed hypothecation, and she mentioned the use of the moneys from congestion charging for 10 years£I suspect that in London's case it will have to be longer£to pay for the necessary improvements. We did welcome the hypothecation and the money might well be ring-fenced. However, the Minister and I know, as do others who have been involved in local government finance, that when our friends in the Treasury do the sums, they will add up that money and other grants and they may well take money from another pocket and say, "That should not be there." There is no way that that can be guaranteed by the Government in a changing, complicated financial system of support grants to local authorities, and there is no way that the Treasury will guarantee it. That money is ring-fenced and will be dedicated, but I am suspicious. I do not trust the Treasury not to take that money out of another pocket and put it elsewhere.

Certain towns, cities and urban centres are considering congestion charges, but London has one massive advantage over the rest of the country: its buses are still regulated. The rest of us have had the disbenefit of bus deregulation since the mid-1980s. My right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister appeared before the Committee when he was in charge of transport and said he believed that the buses must be re-regulated for there to be a properly integrated transport system. I agree with him. That is sensible. Unfortunately, the Secretary of State for Transport came before the Committee and said that re-regulating the buses was not on the agenda. That is a pity, because many urban centres are congested not by cars, but by empty buses competing for passengers on scarce road space. I believe that competition in such a privatised system should take place at the tendering stage. There are many different ways for bus companies to benefit from a commercial activity. They could respond quickly to the market, but in a deregulated system there is a complete waste of road space that adds to the congestion.

I hope that the Secretary of State will reconsider and agree with the Deputy Prime Minister that such systems will not work if the buses are not re-regulated. I understand why the Secretary of State said what he did; he does not want to bring any financial instability to the bus industry. I recognise that that is a serious consideration, but I want to bring transport stability to our great urban centres and the deregulated bus system is not helping.

If there are to be extensions of congestion charging to other urban centres, there must be support and a consensus among all the interested parties—the private and public sectors, the travelling public and the bus companies. I was concerned when I listened and read the evidence that showed, especially in the Nottingham scheme, that there was a direct conflict between the evidence presented by Nottingham city council and that of the private sector on their support for the scheme. If schemes are to work, the vast majority of interested parties must be on board, although it is never possible to get everybody involved. There can be benefits from road charging in such schemes, but they must be done properly and appropriately. That will not be the case in every city in the UK.

3.58 pm

I also commend the report. I shall explain my views on congestion charging and the scheme introduced in London.

I would not have introduced the London scheme as it was introduced, and I would not have done it at the time that it was done. Before I carried out such a scheme, I would have done various things first and considered other options. My objectives are the same as those of everyone who wants to reduce congestion in central London, but I am concerned about the long-term impacts that the charge will have on that area and the communities around it.

I calculate the income to be about £180 million a year, without taking out the costs of running and managing the scheme. It is estimated that in any week 98,000 people pay the charge—my figures are on the basis that everyone is paying the full charge, not the discounted rate that is available to people who live within a certain area. There are 15,000 fines a week which come to about £1.2 million. Rolling all those figures up makes about £180 million.

That income is simply not enough to carry out the programme that was talked about when we first held a public debate about congestion charging in London. The first figures that were bandied around were in the region of £350 million, which would be reinvested in public transport in London. Those figures have steadily come down. Just before the implementation of the congestion charge in London, £80 million was mentioned. I suggest that the current projected income from the charge will mean that less money will be available to reinvest in London's public transport network than was previously anticipated.

We therefore have a problem. The congestion charge was designed to be a revenue-raising exercise, and that was part of the debate that preceded its introduction. All those years ago, we were debating how to raise revenue to invest in expanding and improving London's public transport network. We will not achieve anywhere near enough income to invest in transport in the way that we expected.

The hon. Gentleman says that the charge is just a revenue-raising initiative. In the Government's response to the Select Committee's report, they made it clear that they would not authorise a congestion charge scheme that was solely about revenue raising, and that it had to achieve a reduction in congestion as well. Is the hon. Gentleman saying that the Government have failed?

There are various ways of achieving an objective. The Government are right to say that they will not just impose a tax, but that there must be an outcome. That is a credible position.

There should be two objectives. We do not have enough revenue coming into our public transport network, and that is true of many major cities in this country. To resolve that problem, we must have somewhere for people to transfer to so that they can travel in and out of a major city such as London.

My constituency is in south-east London so I know the situation very well. At peak times, the rail network is running at overcapacity. We have pixies—people in excess of capacity—on our rail network. People in my area say that we have pixies because the timetable is away with the fairies, but that is a separate issue. The problem is that, because there is no London underground station in that area, a congestion charge in the centre means that the only option for travelling into central London is heavy rail, which is already running at overcapacity. Where do those people go? If we just want to reduce congestion in central London, we must provide an alternative to which those people can transfer.

Any approach towards introducing a congestion charge has to be two pronged. First and foremost, there must be the objective of reducing traffic. We can reach that objective by imposing a charge both to dissuade people from using their cars and to raise revenue to invest in public transport. Getting people to transfer from their cars to public transport must be one objective, otherwise we would simply be displacing traffic or, as my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Blackley (Mr. Stringer) said, damaging the city centre's economy. There is no evidence yet to prove that argument, but that has always been my worry about the impact of the draconian measure that the Mayor has introduced for traffic congestion.

I am not saying, as the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake) suggested, that the charge is only revenue-raising, but that was the original incentive. If we are honest about what we were doing in local government before we entered Parliament, as we sat in transport committees in town halls around London, we were talking about how to raise money to invest in public transport. We needed a hypothecated method of raising money to reinvest in public transport.

The congestion charge is not raising enough money, and I am concerned about its impact on low-paid workers—those who work in the public and voluntary sectors. Have they disappeared from the roads? What has been the impact on public services? We need proper measures to monitor what is going on within the congestion charge area to ensure that those who need public sector workers are not suffering, that low-paid workers are not penalised and that people are not being forced from living in a certain area. I come from central London and have many friends and relatives who still live and work there, so I understand the problem.

There is talk now, although I do not think that there are any specific proposals on the table, of widening the congestion charge area in London. That causes me a great deal of concern, because the only people who are forced to pay the congestion charge are those who live there. Nobody else is forced to pay it. Those who work in the zone have the choice of using public transport. From time to time, however, car owners who live in the area will have no choice but to pay the congestion charge. That is a penalty on people for living there. Why do they have to pay? It is because they happen to live an area to which people drive from outlying areas, thereby creating congestion problems. The only people who have the freedom to avoid paying the charge are those who do not live in that area and can therefore skirt around it. That is a fundamental flaw in the concept of congestion charging. There are other ways by which we could have raised money before imposing the congestion charge.

Does my hon. Friend agree that the taxation is highly regressive for those on modest and moderate incomes?

I could not agree more. The charge is a flat-rate tax that is imposed on everyone, and that is a flaw.

One of my pet projects—the Minister might want to leave the Room to laugh about it—is based on the fact that I believe the Mayor does not have enough revenue-raising powers. There are many out-of-town developments around London and other cities. They provide free parking, and generate an enormous quantity of traffic in and around the development, yet there seems to be no charge, or environmental cost, levied on the development that could be hypothecated and reinvested in transport networks.

In Nottingham, we considered a scheme of workplace levies, which I support. It would be possible to raise such a levy, and a modicum of money made by a city could be hypothecated and reinvested in its transport network. It need not produce a punitive figure. For a city the size of London, if we added together all the parking spaces that could be charged for, we could be talking about raising significant sums of money. Similarly, in respect of free parking spaces in out-of-town developments—I can think of enormous ones, but I will not name and shame them—a small charge could be made for using each parking space on that land. The fee would not be paid by the person parking the car, but would be passed on to the business operating on that site. A supermarket, for example, could put a small extra charge on some of its goods to cover the costs, and pass them on to the customer that way.

We are talking about a revenue-raising stream that comes from people parking their cars. That money could be reinvested in our public transport network. If we charged a small sum for parking spaces—the amount would be far less than that charged to those who drive into central London—we could raise a significant amount, far more than we are raising through the congestion charge, and we could do that without the huge bureaucracy that was needed to back up the congestion charge. Also, the charge would focus not on a small section of car users in London but on everyone in London, and would widen the area from which we raise money. Less would be charged to each person, but when the money was added up, the sum could be significantly greater than the amount that the congestion charge looks likely to raise, as things stand.

There are concerns about businesses in central London. The CBI recently suggested that a quarter of the 520 major businesses in central London that it surveyed were thinking of relocating, and had named the congestion charge as a reason. Other surveys have suggested that the majority of businesses find the charge satisfactory and are not critical of it, but time will tell.

I have heard anecdotal evidence on the subject from my constituents. One business person has a number of vans that make deliveries across London. He does not know until the end of the day, and sometimes not until the next morning, which vans went into the congestion charge zone, and has a great deal of difficulty administering the payments. There are problems with flexibility, and he says that he might pay the congestion charge unnecessarily on some days and forget to pay, and so incur a penalty charge, on others. He is concerned about that; he is running an independent business and does not have time to administer the charge in that way.

On the issue of displacement, let me point out that there has not been the growth in use of the London underground or buses that was anticipated before the congestion charge came in. If those people have simply disappeared, that must add to concerns about the impact on businesses and trade in central London. We will have to monitor that closely to ensure that the charge is not having an adverse effect on business. We have to enter into a genuine debate about the future of the congestion charge, because it may have to change significantly.

Trafficmaster has suggested that there has been significant growth in traffic on roads outside the congestion charge zone. It measured the times for journeys such as that from Dartford to my constituency of Eltham as one of the indicators, and it has suggested that at peak times that journey now takes significantly longer. There is evidence to suggest that there has been some displacement; people are still carrying out their journeys, but are skirting around the congestion charge zone. There has been talk of widening the net to catch those people, because not enough people are going into the congestion charge zone. They are avoiding paying, and we need to chase them by extending the boundary of the congestion charge to generate the income that was desired from the scheme in the first place.

Either the scheme has worked, and all that we are concerned about is reducing traffic, or it has not, and it has merely displaced the traffic and moved the problem elsewhere so that the boundaries have to be altered. We cannot have it both ways.

We should also consider the issue of inter-urban charging, which was the subject of another of the Committee's reports. As I said, people who live in the congestion charge zone have no choice but to pay the charge if they use their cars. However, those who choose not to drive into the area can avoid paying the charge

. My community of Eltham, in south-east London, is at the junction of the A20 and the A2, and we suffer all the problems of congestion every morning. As I explained, there are few alternatives to driving into London, other than the overcrowded trains. That has an enormous impact on air quality and other environmental factors in my constituency.

Many people drive through Eltham into central London. Indeed, the same thing happens all the way round London, but it is particularly significant in the south-east, where there is no underground. Those people then park in places such as Westminster and Camden, with the result that local authorities across London take in about £380 million a year in parking fees and penalty charges. Many of those people drive through constituencies such as mine and leave their pollution behind, but they go on to places such as Westminster and pay the parking fee. Westminster will use that income to subsidise lower council taxes, but my constituents will get absolutely none of the money.

That takes me back to my earlier point. The Mayor should get a proportion of the money from parking charges, given that people throughout London suffer in some small way because others drive through their communities. At present, the people who benefit most are those who get the income from parking charges in central London. We need to address that, because my constituents would benefit enormously if some of that money were invested in public transport links. They would then have the choice of not using their cars or cramming themselves on to already overcrowded trains.

Traffic congestion and rail-heading cause enormous problems in my constituency, and money from parking charges could help to deal with those problems if it were fairly distributed, rather than ending up in the coffers of a few fortunate local authorities in central London, which can make enormous sums We mentioned that the total projected income from the congestion charge was £180 million before administration costs were taken out. Westminster city council alone makes £80 million in parking fees, and if we multiply that across all of central London, we are talking about significant sums that could be invested in the London transport network.

I talked earlier about people being displaced, according to the Trafficmaster survey, and I want to return to my example about people travelling from Dartford into Eltham. In that respect, I can see a direct comparison between someone using their car on a motorway and someone using a train service. I can therefore see a justification for charging a toll on motorways. However, we cannot do that in isolation on one stretch of motorway, because people will attempt to skirt round it to avoid the payment. However, people will pay a charge to use the road if they think that the charge is pitched at a realistic level that it is reasonable rather than punitive, and that a direct benefit will come from it. The Government must look in more detail at the possibility of inter-urban charging schemes for motorways.

I refer back to my point that local communities suffering from schemes such as the congestion charge cannot avoid paying it, but people using motorways and driving through those communities, who are forcing the congestion charge on them because they are causing congestion in those areas, are paying nothing for their journey in from places such as Dartford to Eltham—or other places around London. Inter-urban charging that is set at a reasonable level can make a significant contribution not only to reducing traffic, but to raising revenue to invest in public transport—and, hopefully, to diverting people from using their cars unnecessarily.

The Mayor has taken a brave step. I commend him for not sitting back and saying, "We should do nothing because the scheme could prove to be unpopular and that would cost me votes." However, I would not have introduced the scheme in the way that he has. He has reduced traffic congestion, but that was not the only issue at the front of our minds when we were talking about reducing traffic and raising revenue to invest in London's public transport network.

We must have a detailed survey of the impacts of the congestion charge scheme. I am pleased that the Mayor has said that he will participate in an independent review and that the Select Committee has indicated that it welcomes that. It is vital that we understand the impact of the congestion charge, because many other cities are looking closely at it to decide what they should do about their traffic congestion problems. Only by understanding the real impact can we convince people that they must act to do something to combat the problem. However, there are a variety of measures that could be taken that might allow those cities to raise revenue to invest in their transport networks without penalising businesses and local communities in the way that I fear that the congestion charge has.

4.22 pm

I am very sorry that the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) cannot be present today. I am sure that she would have put her case forcefully. However, I am happy that she has found another Member to stand in for her, who made a good job of introducing the debate an hour or so ago.

It is interesting to note which hon. Members are present to participate in this debate. Several Members who very vocally opposed congestion charges and predicted that they would have various impacts attended our debate of 11 February, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Christchurch (Mr. Chope) on being here today because he is the only vocal opponent of congestion charges who has had the courage to attend this debate.

It is worth reminding Members of what some of them said. The hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Field) predicted:
There are now six days to go until Ken's car tax turns London's already congested roads into utter chaos."
Whatever one thinks about congestion charges, they have not done that. The hon. Gentleman went on to say that the scheme was being rushed through with woefully inadequate technology. I admit that there were some problems with regard to registration numbers, issuing tickets and so forth but, on the whole, the technology has coped relatively well. The hon. Gentleman finished his remarks by saying that,
"a nightmare is about to befall the city".
I cannot see that nightmare today.

What does the hon. Gentleman have to say about the concerns expressed by the London chamber of commerce that there is a potential shortfall of about 25 per cent. in business activity in London as a result of the congestion charge?

I hope that I will cover that point shortly, as it is valid and worthy of investigation.

Then there was the hon. Member for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey), who claimed to have shown what nonsense the scheme was and predicted that
"People living on the boundary of the zone will be hit by huge amounts of extra traffic".
> I accept that those people may have been hit with extra traffic, but we shall have to see whether that extra constitutes a huge amount when we examine the outcome of the scheme more carefully in the months or years to come. The hon. Lady also predicted that there would be
"no fewer cars coming into London … than there were … after the congestion charge starts."
I would dispute whether that was accurate. She almost closed her remarks with the comment that
"Londoners do not need or want the charge, and its effects will be quite bad."
Again, that is not actually true.

The hon. Member for Christchurch said that the congestion charge is
"grossly unjust, unaffordable and unnecessary. That is why the Conservative party is unequivocally pledged to abolish it at the earliest opportunity."
That is what Steve Norris pledged on the very day that the scheme was introduced when, whatever one felt about the scheme, one could already tell that it was probably going to work and that the predictions of chaos were not going to come true. The hon. Gentleman went on to say:
"It is an insult to the people of London who are going to suffer this grave injustice",
and then added:
"The people of London should demonstrate to the Mayor that there is so much resistance to the charge that it is not sustainable."—
On the day that the scheme was introduced there were small numbers of demonstrators but, again, Londoners on the whole have not got on to the barricades to demonstrate week after week against the introduction of congestion charges. The hon. Gentleman closed his comments by saying that
"The congestion charge is an appalling scheme".—[Official Report, Westminster Hall, 11 February 2003; Vol. 399, c. 183–203WH.]
As I said, I commend the hon. Gentleman on being present today, but it is a pity that some of the other opponents are not here to explain why their dire predictions of chaos, catastrophe and nightmares in the city have not come true.

Hon. Members have made a number of useful points, in particular the hon. Member for Manchester, Blackley (Mr. Stringer). I accept that it is not easy to demonstrate the financial impact of congestion, although the CBI has put forward some figures. I agree with the hon. Gentleman that it is easy to calculate that time spent in traffic times an hourly rate equals x, and so on. However, it is surely equally true that it is quite simple for a delivery firm to work out that if traffic is moving x per cent, faster and if it is thereby making one, two, five or 10 more deliveries a day, the unit costs go down. One can apportion a figure that way and although it will not be 100 per cent, accurate, it will be a reasonable figure for the cost of congestion.

Unlike the hon. Gentleman, I think that there is a cost to congestion. Surely it cannot be a coincidence that some of the most productive cities in Europe—I am thinking of Helsinki, Zurich and some cities in Scandinavian countries—tend to be less congested than others. To satisfy the hon. Gentleman, I would say that neither he nor I have figures that we can swear by, although I tend to support the CBIs position more than his.

I think that we are almost coming to an agreement. We were talking about two slightly different things. On the one hand, there is the undoubted cost and there are different ways of measuring it. On the other hand, however, academic work on the economic impact has not been done, which is much more difficult to do, although it is possible. We could all benefit from knowing about that and I assume that the hon. Gentleman does not disagree that we should have that extra knowledge.

I agree with that point. When that analysis is done perhaps the point that the hon. Member for Christchurch made about the impact on businesses will be picked up on. I understand that the Federation of Small Businesses is going to conduct a detailed survey on the impact, which will be welcome and will perhaps give us something concrete about the impact on business, as opposed to something fairly anecdotal.

Hon. Members can quote examples of businesses that have been affected, but equally I can refer to a conversation that my hon. Friend the Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) had with the chief executive of a major retail company in London. It is one of the largest companies in the country and its name is one that everybody would recognise. That chief executive said that the scheme has been a success. He found that when people come to purchase major capital items or white goods, they drive. If they are paying a local authority parking charge of £3 or £4 per hour, the £5 on top does not make that much difference. Otherwise, more people are coming to the shop via public transport. We can all point to anecdotal evidence to support either case. We need concrete evidence in the form of a significant report from an organisation, such as the Federation of Small Businesses, London First, and so on, to discover what is really happening.

The hon. Member for Eltham (Clive Efford) referred to commuters who travel from south London. I travel from south London. My local train company is South Central; his is Connex. The evidence shows that there is no noticeable change in the numbers of people who are travelling by those services. That is because there has been a drop in the number of discretionary trips that people are taking into London in their cars. A couple of weeks after the congestion charge was introduced, I had a meeting with the managing director of Connex, who said that he had been surprised to find that there had not been any difference in passenger numbers on its services. From his point of view, that is probably a good thing because, as other hon. Members have said, it would create problems and put the timetable in the lap of the fairies.

I turn to the issue of whether the scheme is a regressive step. I accept that there are poor people who own a car who have been hit by the scheme, but I hope that hon. Members will accept that the poorest people do not own a car, so will have benefited from improvements in public transport. As for the point on superstores, that is one that has been highlighted in previous Select Committee inquiries and reports.

I move to the Government's response to the Transport Committee's report. Other Members have not focused at length on that. In the introduction, there is a lukewarm endorsement of congestion charges. Getting support for the scheme was a bit like extracting teeth, so that endorsement is welcome. The response states that
"it is now running and although it will take time to evaluate the effectiveness of the scheme, it appears to be working well."
I suppose that that is as good as we are going to get. However, the Government's response highlights a number of issues to which I hope that the Minister will turn.

I am grateful for the opportunity to be able to correct something that I said earlier. When I mentioned the CBI, I meant to say the London chamber of commerce. If its study proves to be accurate—a quarter of the 520 major businesses that it surveyed in central London were thinking of relocating as a result of the congestion charge—would the hon. Gentleman be concerned about that? Would that not suggest that the Government are right to take a cautious approach to whether it is the resounding success that the hon. Gentleman suggests it is?

I agree that if that were proved to be correct, it would be an issue that needs to be addressed. However, what we must do is identify the various impacts and factors on business. Many businesses in central London may have experienced a downturn. The question is how much of that downturn is associated with fewer tourists coming over from America, rather than the impact of the congestion charge scheme. The analysis must establish what percentage of the impact is congestion-charge related.

We know that the lorry road-user charging scheme is to be set up. Can the Minister say whether the technology for such a scheme could be applied to other vehicles, such as cars? If we have a national road-user charging scheme for lorries, will it be possible to roll it out in future for inter-urban charging purposes?

The Government say that they will not approve a scheme unless its primary purpose is to reduce traffic congestion. What would the Government do if, subsequent to a scheme's being introduced, it were proven that it did not reduce congestion? Many other factors come into play. For instance, if Westminster decided substantially to reduce its car-parking charges—for a driver who comes and parks for eight or 10 hours they are much more significant than the congestion charge—and much more traffic came in, what position would the Government adopt? Would they say, "That is tough. The scheme is now in place and we cannot look at it again"? Is the rule that a scheme must reduce congestion one that applies only at the point at which the Government authorise it?

The Government say in their response that, with London agencies, they are
"reviewing traffic signalling at each of these junctions … to ensure that the timings are at their most efficient".
Can the Minister comment on what the Government will do if they are not at their most efficient, and how efficiency is calculated; is it about how quickly a driver can get across a particular junction or how safely a pedestrian can cross?

In one of its recommendations, the Transport Committee asked that a consistent and coherent strategy to address urban congestion be introduced. In their response, the Government welcomed the Select Committee's support for the view
"that local authorities are best placed to respond to local congestion problems".
That is not quite what the Transport Committee was saying. It was saying that it wanted the Government to provide a consistent and coherent strategy or framework in which local authorities could consider introducing congestion charges. I hope that the Minister will be able to comment on that point.

The Government go on to say that they have provided a clear lead on urban charging. The Select Committee disagreed with that. The fact that the Government have facilitated the introduction of urban charges does not constitute a clear lead on the issue. The hon. Member for Manchester, Blackley made an extremely important point about the revenue being additional to existing funds coming from central Government. The Government say in their response that they consider
"The revenue raised through charging … additional to, local transport funding provided by central government."
Again, that is not exactly the Committee's point. Of course, it is additional. However if, as the hon. Member for Manchester, Blackley says, the Government chop by an equivalent or greater amount the income that a local authority gains, they will not be responding to the Select Committee's point. I accept that it is difficult to guarantee that a local authority will get a certain amount of money over the next number of years to invest in transport and that, if it introduces a congestion charging scheme that creates additional revenue, the Government will not cut the amount that they contribute because they know that it will be offset by the congestion charge revenue.

The Minister needs to give greater reassurance than is contained in the response, because it only confirms the obvious, rather than reassures Members that such revenue will be additional—and ongoing additional—money. It is unfortunate that the amount that is being chopped from Transport for London's budget in terms of grant appears—perhaps over-coincidentally—to be of the same magnitude as the amount that will be raised through congestion charges.

In the Government's response, they say that local authorities
"will be increasingly rewarded in future settlements",
if they deliver solutions to congestion problems. Can the Minister tell us how and to what extent that will occur, and who will be the judge of whether they have delivered those solutions?

At paragraph (x) on page 7 of the response, the Select Committee suggests that local authorities should be allowed to introduce only
"electronic road user charging systems"
if they provide an
"alternative and convenient means of paying the charge"
for those who do not have "access to electronic technology". In their response, the Government agree only to approve schemes that meet that criterion. Can the Minister confirm whether that means that if, for example, a company that was introducing a scheme decided that it would provide the electronic technology free of charge or at a discount, the Government would allow that as an alternative to providing an
"alternative and convenient means of paying the charge",
which was not electronic? Can it be one or the other?
I can envisage future inter-urban charging schemes that require some kind of electronic gadget in a car. The Government's response might preclude such a scheme from being introduced. I am seeking further clarification on whether I have understood what the Government are saying on that matter.

To conclude, I agree that it is too early to assess the impact on business in London and that the matter needs to be looked at further. The detailed survey that the Federation of Small Businesses will carry out will be helpful. There has clearly been a reduction in traffic in London. Whether there has been an increase in congestion at the boundaries and in outer London needs to be examined more closely.

It is interesting to note that King's Ferry, which runs commuter bus services in from Kent, has apparently had to revise its timetable and has chopped 20 minutes off its time because of the success of the scheme. That at least suggests that the speed of radial movements coming from a long way out of London has improved. It has clearly improved within the congestion charge zone. There may only have been an increase in congestion around the orbital routes.

There is talk of extending the scheme to Westminster and parts of Kensington and Chelsea. There has been a U-turn on that issue by those local authorities which, having opposed congestion charges, now want the scheme extended. While we could support that, there comes a point where the scheme is extended so much and so many discounted residential charges are provided, that it does not pay its way or raise any revenue. That would have an impact on the reduction of congestion, because more people would be contained within a larger zone and they would be paying only a relatively small price for living and driving within it.

On the whole, in London the scheme has been a success. The hon. Member for Eltham said that there had not been any impact on bus usage, yet according to the figures that I have, there has been an increase of 6,000 passengers compared with the period prior to the introduction of the scheme.

I wish to clarify the point that I made. I said that there has not been the increase that was anticipated, because Transport for London or London Buses allowed for 14,000 extra bus passengers and significantly more than that on the underground, but neither increase was realised.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for clarifying that point. The record will show the point that he was seeking to make.

I want to conclude my remarks by saying that I hope that the Minister will look seriously at the urban charging scheme that has been introduced in London. On the whole, it has been a success, although the business impact needs to be looked at. The Transport Committee desperately needs a clearer position statement from the Government on where they stand on this important issue and the contribution that they can make towards public transport, particularly in urban areas throughout the country.

4.45 pm

As the first person to participate in the debate who is not a member of the Select Committee, from a neutral standpoint I congratulate it on producing a thought-provoking and well researched report.

For those of us who have been slightly puzzled by the Government's ambivalent attitude, it has become apparent during the debate why they are sitting on the fence so much. All the contributions, apart from that of the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake), effectively damned the system with faint praise. The hon. Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs. Ellman) is a worthy substitute for the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody), whose presence we miss. I thought that the hon. Member for Liverpool, Riverside introduced the debate in an exemplary way, emphasising the Committee's main findings and pointing out key issues that we might address.

The hon. Lady highlighted the question whether congestion charging would displace congestion from the zone in which the charges apply to an area outside it. From the evidence produced by the Committee and published in the Evening Standard to mark the third month of congestion charging, it is clear that in large parts of London outside the zone there has been an increase in congestion and journey times. That conclusion is based on evidence supplied by Trafficmaster. Therefore, the charge is having the effect of displacing congestion from inside the zone to outside it—the very effect that the Government said they did not want to achieve.

It is valid to emphasise the issue of monitoring. I, too, have received representations from the Royal National Institute of the Blind, which expressed its worries about this and other such schemes, and the importance of being able to assess its impact on individuals who are not as able-bodied as others. It is significant that in the scheme so far—by mid-March—about 100,000 blue badge holders had registered for discounts. When we hear about the number of vehicles using central London, we must recognise that those 100,000 people with blue badges are not making any contribution to the payment of the charge because they are exempt, and rightly so.

I shall repeat some points that I made in the 11 February debate to the effect that the exemptions should be much more widely drawn, short of abolishing the scheme, which Conservative Members would like to do. The hon. Member for Liverpool, Riverside referred to the scheme's linkage with improvements to public transport. As she made clear, those have not occurred. Instead, the economics of public transport in London have deteriorated badly over the past year, and the projections are even graver.

Does the hon. Gentleman accept that the Committee drew attention to the importance of that point? For example, it recommended that hypothecation should be continuous and not restricted to 10 years.

I accept that. I was about to say how much subsidy is already going into buses in London—£400 million a year, and Mr. Hendy said that it will increase to £500 million a year next year and that, within a few years, it will be £1 billion a year. That is not sustainable. That sum cannot be recouped from the congestion charge. It is a revenue subsidy, and it is doing nothing to improve the public transport infrastructure, such as building or extending rail schemes.

There is a crisis. It was originally expected that Transport for London would receive increased revenue from the underground and the buses as a result of the displacement of people from the roads, but we have seen no evidence of that. A few more people are using the buses, but the enormous shortfall in bus revenue is coupled with a massively increased subsidy. It is escalating by £100 million a year, which is unsustainable.

It is said to be too early to assess whether the London scheme is a success. The only person who thinks that it is not too early to make such an assessment is the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington, who said before it started that it was bound to be a great success. He made fun of what was said during the 11 February debate, but many of the concerns expressed by Members on both sides of the House have been shown to be valid and have been borne out in practice.

The hon. Member for Manchester, Blackley (Mr. Stringer) made some important points, and I hope that the Minister responds to them. The hon. Gentleman emphasised how important it is for the economy to tackle the congestion problem on the inter-urban road network. That is the biggest difference in transport arrangements between us and the countries of mainland Europe or the United States. The implementation of the working time directive will be a big competitive problem for us, relative to other countries in Europe, because it will impose rigid restrictions on the number of hours that lorry drivers can work. If lorry drivers are unable to travel the long distances on British roads that they can on continental roads, that will put a real burden on our economy. We should address that matter urgently.

The hon. Gentleman also expressed suspicion about hypothecation. Like him, I have experience of local government, and I have tried to confront the Treasury on various issues. He is right to be extremely suspicious. All money raised through taxes or charges is the property of the Treasury, and it will always be so. We shall delude people if we say that we will get any extra benefit from those charging systems.

The evidence of London First is on page 63 of the report entitled "Urban Charging Schemes", and paragraph 4 states:
"We have been campaigning consistently for more resources for transport in London. In our consultation with member companies between 1997 and 1999 we established that they were prepared to accept that business should make some contribution. About 40 per cent. felt that the increased cost would be a problem but over 90 per cent. believed that this would be worthwhile if the revenue was hypothecated for improvement to the transport system."
As we have discovered, almost all the revenue is being absorbed by administration costs. The only surplus is probably coming from the penalty charges that are being imposed to a great extent on innocent, or perhaps forgetful, drivers. If they continue at the current rate, those charges could generate about £80 million a year. Although people who are the victims of the penalties will not be marching in the streets, they will not suffer in silence for ever. Next year, they will have the chance to express their views on the injustice of the system, and they can vote for a Mayor who will scrap it.

I share the hon. Gentleman's misgivings about the amount that the scheme will raise. Nevertheless, it will raise some money. His party has pledged to abolish it. Will Londoners have to pay the cost of that, or will it be paid by a future Conservative Government or another source?

At present, the burden of the scheme on the London economy is negative. Scrapping it will produce an overall benefit to London's economy. We can become more involved in that debate as we come closer to the mayoral elections. The Conservative party's line is that it is an absurd imposition on Londoners to charge them more than £100 million a year, which is just going on administration costs. Most of that administration is carried out in Coventry, not in London.

The hon. Gentleman's last point may be accurate, but money is being raised by the scheme and the Mayor is investing it in London's public transport. You have pledged to cut off that revenue stream, so how will you fill the gap?

Order. The hon. Gentleman is referring to me and I am not responsible for anything.

I think, Mr. Pike, that the world would be a better place if you were responsible for some things.

The answer to the hon. Gentleman's question must be looked at in the round. He suggests that the matter will be the biggest issue. I have already drawn attention to the fact that, as we speak, the cost of subsidising London buses will increase to £500 million a year, rising to £1 billion a year. The net yield from the scheme is a small proportion of the subsidy that is currently going into London buses.

The hon. Gentleman's point is important. We are not a million miles away on the merits of the congestion charge. Nevertheless, money is being raised and without the scheme there would be a gap—as the hon. Gentleman says, a Conservative Mayor would cut the number of London buses.

I certainly did not say that and the hon. Gentleman knows it, which is why he tried to put those words into my mouth. All I have done is draw to his attention and that of other Londoners the projections that have been published by Transport for London. If things carry on as they are, within a few years the subsidy that they will have to pay for the buses will exceed £1 billion a year. It will be paid not by the national taxpayer, but by either the bus users or the taxpayers of London. The hon. Gentleman will have to face up to such a reality in the run-up to the next general election, and it will be addressed by the great expert on such matters, Mr. Steve Norris, who knows a lot about transport.

I shall not give way at the moment, as I want to make progress. The hon. Gentleman has made some important points. As he said, we have much in common. I wish to re-emphasise his point on the revenue shortfall. It is clear from the evidence of London First that, when the scheme was set up, net revenue of £250 million a year was expected. Just before the scheme began, it was estimated that there would be net revenue of £150 million. It appears that the figure will be far less than that, and it will be dwarfed by the subsidy that is already going into London buses.

The hon. Gentleman identifies the fact that there will be a shortfall in revenue raised. Does his party propose to make good that shortfall? If so, how?

I am sure that all will be revealed when the mayoral candidates declare their manifestos for the election. I do not know about the hon. Gentleman's party, but we Conservatives delegate responsibility for the mayoral elections to our candidate and his campaign team. Transport for London has been given delegated authority to balance the books as far as public transport is concerned, and I am sure that our mayoral candidate will want to address what Mr. Hendy—a Transport for London official—says is unsustainable. In an interview with the Financial Times, Mr. Hendy says:

"The future mayors face hard choices about transport priorities."
He says that bus subsidies would need to rise to about £1 billion to maintain the service. I am sure that Mr. Norris, if not the other mayoral candidates, will be considering that.

I share the concerns about the charge being a regressive tax and about its impact on low-paid workers. The comments on widening the zone and there then being a charge on local residents were also valid observations. As one who, during the week, lives inside the zone and is entitled to a 90 per cent. discount, it would be wrong of me to think that this is the end of the story. For a relatively modest sum, I can avoid paying the full penalty of the charge, but all the other costs to people living inside the zone have gone up. If they want someone to deliver to their houses or carry out work, a premium is being charged on vehicles and workers coming into the zone. The costs for residents inside the zone have therefore gone up significantly.

I want to talk about exemptions, which the Government have still not addressed. They have said that they are looking at the issue, but urgent action is needed to widen exemptions. Those who are most adversely affected by the charge are small businesses inside the zone and residents living just outside. Why is it not possible for residents who live, say, within a mile of the edge of the zone to register for some discount for a reduced rate of travel in the zone—travel that may be part of their everyday lives?

It is clear from the evidence presented at the beginning of the debate that all the economic costs are falling on either those who are forced to stop using their cars because they cannot afford to pay the charge or those who are paying the charge reluctantly and who have to cut other items of expenditure. Those people are suffering. The people who are benefiting are those who have the charge paid for them by others or those who are so well off that the cost makes no difference. Such an allocation of the tax burden is offensive in the extreme. In the end, that will be the downfall of this unfair charging regime. It probably also explains why the Government are still sitting on the fence.

I want to speak briefly on what the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington said about the warnings raised during the 11 February debate. My hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Field) used the word "chaos". I do not know whether the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington has seen that word used in recent reports on how the system is operating, particularly outside the zone where there is increased traffic. The chaos referred to by my hon. Friend has happened outside rather than inside the zone, as predicted by the hon. Member for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey) in whose constituency I live during the week. She said that there would be extra traffic outside the zone and emphasised the injustice of the charge for people who live just outside, but who have to travel inside as part of their everyday life.

Quite a lot of evidence is coming in from other reports. The funny thing about reports is that if they do not confirm people's prejudices they say, "Well, we must have something independent." I understand that the report produced by the London chamber of commerce is an independent survey of 520 businesses. Its findings should be enough to concern the Government greatly, because London—particularly central London—is the engine of the British economy. Small businesses are essential to that economy, but they are suffering a lot as a result of the charge.

That message must be taken to heart by the Mayor and the Government when they think about exemptions. The Government cannot abolish the charge—that is for the Mayor to decide—but they could insist on much wider exemptions. The road haulage industry has a point of view on that. The Road Haulage Association and the Freight Transport Association are keen to have exemptions for their members. One can see why.

People do not drive heavy goods vehicles or vans into the centre of London during the day just for the fun of it. They do so to provide services. Heavy goods vehicles doing a quick "in and out" a few hundred yards into the zone for only one delivery pay the same as a steamroller travelling round in central London all day and causing enormous congestion. That is another fault with the charge: it is the same for everybody, irrespective of how much use they make of the roads inside the zone. In that respect, it is very different from the new road haulage charge that will be introduced. The Government have announced that they support it, as does my party. That charge will be related to the use that is made of the roads by a heavy goods vehicle, rather than there being an arbitrary fixed charge, which is one of the big problems with the system under discussion.

I have information that might interest the hon. Gentleman. There is evidence that hauliers are organising their deliveries more efficiently—they ensure that they use a smaller number of vehicles. Does he agree that that is a positive outcome of the scheme?

Order. Before I call Mr. Chope, I remind him that we want to hear the Minister's response.

I do not think that it is a benefit to have 15 or 20 vehicles on the road doing what one could do. That is a bigger subject, however. I, too, wish to listen to the Minister. I thank the Select Committee for enabling us to have this productive debate.

5.9 pm

I congratulate the Transport Committee on producing the report and on its success in getting the report brought before the House through the Liaison Committee. I, too, am sorry that my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) was not here to open the debate; she always does so with great capability and forcefulness. I was, however, delighted to hear my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs. Ellman) fulfil that role most capably.

The report is helpful, especially as it focuses on the London congestion scheme. It is not only in this country that there is interest in that scheme; many other cities are looking closely at it. When one attends meetings in other countries with people in transport, it is clear that there is substantial interest throughout the world in what is happening here in London.

This is the third debate on the subject in less than nine months, and the other two were held before the scheme was introduced. Like the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake), I think it significant that attendance at the debates has differed so much. The contributions today were also very different from those that we heard before. The hon. Members for doom and gloom have absented themselves this afternoon, although I am not sure why. I daresay they may attend in future to express other concerns, or even to withdraw some of the comments that they made in previous debates. Some strongly worded comments were made, and I am surprised that the hon. Members who made them have not attended to give further support to those views.

I should like to mention some of the other methods that the Government are using to reduce congestion, because during the debate we have mostly focused on congestion charging. The Select Committee's report highlighted the growing feeling that traffic congestion in many towns and major conurbations has reached unacceptable levels and, unless we deal with the problem, the undesirable consequences of urban congestion will only get worse. Traffic growth and congestion are faced by all successful economies. Our economy is doing extremely well. I often say that 1.5 million more people are in work since 1997, so more people are travelling to work. Indeed, more people are travelling for leisure and pleasure because they have more money in their pockets. That greater wealth gives greater opportunities for car ownership and more opportunity for business and leisure travel.

We must weaken the link between prosperity and traffic growth. Select Committee members will soundly agree with me on that. We can do that through better planning policies aimed at reducing dependency on cars, by improving public transport alternatives and by encouraging more people to walk or cycle. However, more than anything, we must all think more about how we get from place to place; we must all think about the journeys that we take, about whether they are necessary and about whether some of them could be combined. We cannot leave that to everyone else; we must all take responsibility for it in our own way.

There is much that we can do. Business and individuals could undertake their journeys more sensibly and sustainably. There is no single magic answer to congestion. We can travel more freely on our roads only if we apply a range of measures and attitudes. We can do much to use and manage our roads more effectively. One such area is that of school travel. The Government are committed to reducing the need for the present level of car use for the journey to and from school, which contributes substantially to congestion, especially in urban areas.

To reduce car use we must increase choices for children travelling to school and improve road safety. Like the hon. Member for Christchurch (Mr. Chope), I live in the zone, near a school. Since the congestion charge was introduced I have noticed that many more children are walking to school, partly because they have a short distance to travel, whereas previously they travelled by car. I would suggest that walking is not only safer but much healthier. Also, the congestion and confusion often found outside schools has been reduced, as has the danger to children who walk to school.

We have asked all local authorities to include in their local transport plans an integrated strategy for reducing car use and improving children's safety on the journey to school. We have also asked them to include separate targets for modal shift and plans for monitoring progress, and to say how they will work with schools to develop school travel plans. To help authorities to do that, we have awarded 57 bursaries for them to employ staff dedicated to promoting travel plans for schools. Working together, local authorities, schools and parents—and, indeed, children—can help to reduce the number of car trips.

There is already a lot of good practice for others to emulate, and some schools have achieved dramatic reductions in car use in a short time. In fact, I am soon to visit a school that has encouraged the use of the bicycle. Whereas only four or five children used to cycle, now so many do so that the school can allow only one year group at a time to cycle to school, because it does not have the capacity to keep all the bicycles in the school.

In some places, there are localised problems that need to be dealt with. For example, in December, the Secretary of State announced a £5.5 billion package of major national and local transport measures to tackle congestion and to improve safety, reliability and quality of life. The improvements tackle some of the country's most serious transport problems. My right hon. Friend announced up to 1,600 traffic management schemes, more than 400 new or improved road junctions and up to 55 new or extended park-and-ride schemes.

To minimise the disruption caused to road users by street works—another huge source of congestion—highways authorities have, since April 2002, been able to charge utilities up to —2,000 a day for each of their street works which overruns an agreed deadline. So far, 120 authorities have taken up those powers. We have made it quite clear that if that does not reduce disruption sufficiently, new powers will be activated that allow utilities to be charged a daily rate from the start of the works, regardless of whether they overrun or not. Pilot schemes to test those new powers have begun in Camden and Middlesbrough. Utilities excavating the street have to pay up to £750 a day for the duration of the works.

Those developments will go a long way to reducing the disruption that drivers experience, and they will improve the overall journey times on the road network, including, most importantly, those for buses. However, although we can increase the capacity in the systems to manage the strategic road network better, that is a lot more difficult to do in our towns and cities, where most of us have experience of congestion. Indeed, 80 per cent, of congestion is to be found in urban areas.

Time wasted in congestion costs business and people every day. Traffic congestion degrades and pollutes the environment in which we live and bring up our children. Congestion charging is a way of confronting each of us with the questions that we have always been reluctant to ask ourselves. Do I need to be here now? Is this journey necessary, or could I organise things better? Congestion charging provides an incentive for motorists to look more critically at the real cost of their travel decisions, and at the possibilities for using alternative means of transport. Of course, it also secures additional funds through a hypothecated revenue stream for spending on improved local transport systems.

As the Secretary of State has said on many occasions, congestion charging is just one of a number of measures that can be used to tackle congestion. It is not the answer in itself; authorities might have to think about the role that they can play in creating an overall strategic vision for their town or city.

As we made clear in our response to the Select Committee's report, the Government's firm view is that all proposals for the introduction of charging must have the reduction of congestion as their primary and continuing objective. We also recognise that the public's perception of congestion charging is important for its acceptability. Not only do people have to understand the principles underlying charging, but they need to see the tangible benefits that it can bring.

Local authorities and the public must be open-minded in considering how congestion can be managed in their community. The process of dialogue and consultation may result in options other than charging being considered and taken forward. That is good, and entirely consistent with the theme of local decision making. As the Select Committee recognises, charging can be a powerful policy tool and it can benefit all road users. It is important to remember that we have no one-size-fits-all solution. Local authorities need to make use of the flexibility afforded them by the legislation in designing their schemes to meet local needs and solve local problems. For example, a scheme for central London, Manchester or Birmingham might be entirely different from a project in the Peak district, where there is congestion at the weekend.

I take issue with the Select Committee's suggestion, which has been mentioned in some of the contributions, that the Government have been lukewarm on this matter. Congestion charging is available because the Government listened to local authorities and gave them the powers to go ahead with it. We did not produce a blueprint in Westminster or Whitehall and say, "This is what you have to do." We allowed local authorities to take democratic decisions in their own areas. That is the best way forward.

Just to clear this up once and for all, will the Minister take the opportunity to say that he will be extremely happy for local authorities to introduce congestion charging if that is what they decide to do?

Absolutely. If a local authority has developed a scheme, has consulted properly locally, can show that it will reduce congestion and can demonstrate all the features that are needed under the legislation, of course the Government will be very supportive. However, we would want to know that the scheme had local support and that there had been proper consultation. Our approach has not changed over two or three years. What is different is that there are those who are trying to say that the Government should have a blueprint or a master plan. We are not minded to do that—such things are best determined locally.

There has, rightly, been a good deal of talk about the impact of congestion charging on low-paid workers and other key public sector workers. That is an issue that we would expect authorities to consider fully when designing schemes. They will be required to monitor the impacts of schemes. As my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Blackley (Mr. Stringer) said, the legislation allows authorities to proceed but they must consider carefully the scheme's impact on their community and fine-tune it as appropriate. Local authorities also have the ability to build exemptions and concessions into their scheme. In determining the level and scope of those they need to bear in mind their possible impact on the effectiveness of the scheme.

I have been following the Minister's arguments carefully. Can he explain why local authorities outside London, if they are thinking of introducing a congestion charge, should have to do that with the disadvantage of a deregulated bus system, which is not the case in London?

I can see the direction in which my hon. Friend is tempting me to go, but local authorities will always have to devise a scheme within the confines of the systems that operate in their own areas. Durham brought in arrangements based on the transport system in that city. My hon. Friend raises an interesting but separate argument. We may examine it on another day.

My hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Riverside, in a careful and considered opening to the debate, talked about permanent hypothecation to give a long-term view of schemes. We shall keep that in mind, especially if an authority wants to spend some of the money on a long-term project. A tram scheme, for example, may need financing over far more than the 10 years of hypothecation.

My hon. Friend also made an important point about developing technology and ensuring its compatibility where appropriate. It was important to ensure that there was compatibility between the services operated by the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency and the technology used for London's congestion charge, and that seems to have worked satisfactorily.

My hon. Friend the Member for Eltham (Clive Efford) spoke with some eloquence, although I was not sure in the end whether he was for or against the scheme. He also talked about the Mayor's revenue-raising powers. I took careful note of his comments about charging in out-of-town car parks. The Government had originally thought of extending the workplace levy to retail sites and out-of-town centres. However, when the Bill that became the Transport Act 2000 was going through Parliament, we felt that further work was needed, so the issue was not included in the Bill. The Commission for Integrated Transport is considering it, however, and I assure my hon. Friend that it is not off the agenda. We shall return to it in time.

My hon. Friend also mentioned the money available for outlying boroughs. Some £50 million is available to the Mayor to implement local traffic mitigation measures in outlying boroughs. It is for the appropriate authorities to catch his attention and talk through some of the issues.

My hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Blackley made an important point about the scheme's effects on business, and I know that the Mayor is having to monitor those carefully. We shall also be considering such issues, because they are important for London and for possible future schemes.

The hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington kindly did the initial part of my job for me by summarising the comments made last time by what I called the voices of doom and gloom, so I have now thrown that bit of my speech away. If I may spoil things for a moment, however, he should read some of the election literature that went out in Bristol. If he does, he will find that the Liberal Democrats implacably opposed the congestion charge scheme there. I know that there is a different message on every doorstep with the Liberals, but there also seems to be a different message for every town. The hon. Gentleman may want to pop to Bristol to rap his colleagues gently on the knuckles.

But the hon. Gentleman said that we needed a national policy. A moment ago, he asked me whether the Government would support any scheme, so let me ask him a question. If he were doing my job, and Bristol came up with a congestion charge scheme, would he support the Liberal Democrats current position or would he take our line? I will give way if he wants to respond, but I can see that he is not going to—perhaps he will do so in a future debate. In any case, he needs to get his lines of communication sorted out.

Talking of lines of communication, I turn to the contribution by the hon. Member for Christchurch. Interestingly, he spoke from the Back Benches today—perhaps he was afraid that something he said might be deemed to be Tory party policy. In any case, he said in our previous debate that congestion charging was a grossly unjust system. I wondered whether his tone had not changed very slightly since then—perhaps as a result of that weekend he recently spent with his colleagues. In any case, it is interesting that the Conservative party's mayoral candidate is very much opposed to the London scheme and would scrap it.

The hon. Gentleman was a Transport Minister in a previous incarnation—it was just before 1992, when the electorate decided that he should do another job for a while. In 1991, he presided over the London congestion charging research programme, which concluded:
"Congestion charging could, however, significantly reduce congestion and the environmental impacts of traffic".
That is from a report initiated during his time at the Department for Transport. Furthermore, those of his colleagues who held senior ministerial jobs have been very supportive of congestion charging over the years. I am surprised that Conservative Members are not supportive today, but there we are—that was their past, and we look forward to their future.

If I have not covered any points, I shall be happy, as always, to engage in correspondence with hon. Members.

It being half-past Five o'clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the sitting lapsed, without Question put.