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Road Congestion

Volume 448: debated on Tuesday 11 July 2006

The Government’s strategy is based on three elements—first, sustained investment, adding road capacity where appropriate; secondly, making the most of the existing network through better management; and thirdly, in line with our manifesto commitment, the Government are exploring the scope for developing a national scheme for road pricing.

Saltaire roundabout is probably the most congested part of the whole of the Bradford district and is the responsibility of the Highways Agency. The Highways Agency, with Bradford council, has done a joint study on what could be done to alleviate the congestion there. Given the importance of Saltaire as a world heritage site, will the Secretary of State ensure that the money is available to put in place the recommendations made by that joint study?

I appreciate that the Saltaire roundabout on the A650 suffers from congestion. It is certainly the case that the Highways Agency and Bradford council are working together to find a solution to address both safety and congestion concerns in relation to the roundabout, and I hope to be able to announce the outcome of that work and decisions on funding in the autumn.

I welcome the announcement this week of £42 million of investment in the Greater Bristol bus network, which will play a major role in freeing up the roads and easing congestion in the centre of Bristol. Can my right hon. Friend advise me about the progress of the road pricing pilot, for which Bristol is always working on a bid?

My hon. Friend recalls the recent announcement, which is only one part of the £1.7 billion that is provided for buses annually by the Department. We are working with a number of local authorities, including the authorities in Bristol, looking at the pilot projects for road pricing. In recent days I met representatives of one of the other local authorities to hear directly of their plans, and I can assure my hon. Friend that a number of local authorities are moving forward in anticipation of bids being received by the Department in the course of next year.

Given that the Minister acknowledged that road pricing schemes can cut congestion, what plans do the Government have for a potential toll road on the M11 between London and Stansted?

We are not at present planning a toll road, as the hon. Gentleman describes it. On paper, road pricing can lead to significant cuts in congestion, but we are maintaining our approach to targeted investment on our road network in the meantime.

Since I live only a few hundred yards from Saltaire roundabout, I agree with the remarks of the hon. Member for Shipley (Philip Davies). I was becoming a little hopeful because the island there is weed-strewn instead of being planted, as it usually is, so I had hoped that alterations would be made there. Is that not the case?

I do not feel qualified to comment on the specific detail that my hon. Friend has observed while passing the roundabout, but I am happy to note for the record that the A650, to which both my hon. Friend and the hon. Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) have referred, has already benefited from the £47.9 million Bingley bypass, which opened ahead of schedule in December 2003.

Last month, I pressed the Secretary of State to give some detailed answers about how his planned road pricing pilot will work, but he chose not to do so. May I press him about the overall principle of his policy? I heard what he said to the hon. Member for Bristol, East (Kerry McCarthy), but is he still planning a major single pilot project of his proposed national satellite-based road pricing system in an area such as Greater Manchester, the west midlands or Bristol in about 2010? Is it still Government policy to launch such a scheme on a national basis in about 2015?

I tested the thesis that the hon. Gentleman put to me at the last Transport questions in a recent meeting with the authorities in Manchester, and I do not recognise his characterisation of the pilots, which we are taking forward with local authorities, given my conversations with the Manchester authorities. The Manchester authorities are pressing forward on the detail of their proposed bid, which they aim to get to the Department by about next July with a view to the Department having reached a conclusion by the following December. Equally, we are already in close dialogue with the west midlands authorities, and we have made it clear to them that they need to come forward with specific proposals for the west midlands. The pilots will, of course, inform our thinking on national road pricing. We want to see them implemented by the earliest possible time scale, which will probably be four to five years. We hope to be able to develop a national scheme by about the middle of the next decade.

Given the fact that we are discussing probably the largest technology project ever seen in this country and the central part of the Government’s transport strategy, the Secretary of State’s responses are astonishingly vague, so I shall press him again. When will most people in this country start to experience road pricing? When does he expect to tell us in detail how his proposals will work? And will any national scheme that he plans be revenue neutral?

We hope that the pilots will be operational in four to five years. We face considerable technological questions, which is why we want to gain experience from local pilots to inform our thinking on the national scheme. On the national scheme and revenue neutrality, road pricing involves moving away from the present system of motoring taxation.

I am sure that my right hon. Friend is aware of the recent report on road pricing by Professor Glaister of the independent transport commission. Professor Glaister has concluded that revenue neutrality will be difficult to achieve and that it is almost inevitable that road users in urban areas will pay more than everybody else. Will my right hon. Friend assure me that if there is a pilot project in Manchester, it will not be a scheme that effectively transfers taxation from rural areas to urban areas?

Through the local pilots, we want a fair deal for motorists in urban areas, and I discussed that subject with the leaders of the authorities in Manchester when I visited the city last week.

I urge the Secretary of State to be a little less cautious on road pricing. He has outlined three legs of his policy today, of which road pricing is by far the most important. He will be aware that the difficulties that he anticipates have not been experienced by the scheme in Germany. What lessons has his Department drawn from that?

We have looked at the international comparisons—indeed, a study examining the international experience of road pricing has been published in the past couple of weeks. A balance needs to be struck between advancing a national debate and gaining individual experience within the discrete pilot areas, which will cover a significant portion of the population. As we seek to build a national consensus, it is incumbent on us all to engage with the discussions and to gain practical experience, which only the pilots can provide.