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Congestion Charging

Volume 457: debated on Friday 2 March 2007

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Alan Campbell.]

I am pleased to have secured this debate on congestion charging, as my constituency of Shrewsbury is one of only 10 areas in the country that have been selected for the possibility—I will not say “opportunity” because it is not an opportunity—of having congestion charging.

Yesterday’s press reported:

“Tony Blair admitted last night that it would be ‘kamikaze politics’ to force through road pricing amid massive public opposition.

The Prime Minister said he had learned lessons from the poll tax in 1989 and 1990, when Margaret Thatcher’s government was forced into a…climbdown.”

I would like to state for the record that, if the Government do try to impose congestion charging on the people of Shrewsbury, they will face their Waterloo.

As I have said, Shrewsbury is one of only 10 towns selected for congestion charging. We have what I perceive to be a Government quango, the transport innovation fund, which is linking vital transport infrastructure with congestion charging. Basically, we are being told as a community that, if we want the north-west relief road to be built, which is the last remaining link in the ring road around Shrewsbury, we will have to have congestion charging as part of the package.

That is wrong. I believe that that is getting Shrewsbury residents to pay for road building and other transport schemes by charging them to come into their own town centre. Transport schemes and improvements to transport infrastructure should come from the Government and from central funds, rather than imposing that new stealth tax on the community.

In Shrewsbury, we are trying to promote our beautiful county town and her development. We are pleased that, after a long and fraught campaign, we finally have a sign on the M6 to show where Shrewsbury is—down the M54 towards Wales. That was part of a long campaign by the Shrewsbury Chronicle and others to ensure that the Department for Transport gave us our own sign. Congestion charging is one thing in London—in fact, I think that it works quite well in London—but it is a different thing in an historic county town such as Shrewsbury.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. He mentioned congestion charging in London. Does he share my concern, and that of many Londoners, about the risk, according to today’s Evening Standard, that Londoners will be hit by the double whammy of the congestion charge and a national road pricing scheme? Does he share the concern of constituents of mine and of my neighbouring Members in south-east London that there is apparently a proposal to impose a congestion charge on the Blackwall tunnel? That would have ramifications well beyond Greenwich and the immediate area and would have an enormous impact on the national traffic network, including the A2 and the A20, which are key feeder roads into London? Does my hon. Friend agree that that should not be introduced without the fullest concern being expressed by the Minister’s Department and the greatest possible public consultation?

I totally concur. It is my understanding that Conservative party policy is to listen to local communities, and I very much hope that the Minister and the Government will do likewise.

Shrewsbury does not have the links to other areas that London has. We do not have a tube system in Shrewsbury. We do not have high-speed rail links to nearby airports. We have a relatively poor train service, which does not run very well, and poor connections. We do not even have a direct rail link to London. We are one of only a few county towns in England without a direct rail link to London, and although I am working very hard to try to secure that link for Shrewsbury we now hear that Arriva and Virgin Trains are trying to block it. We do not have the alternatives that London has in respect of encouraging movement into and out of Shrewsbury, whether for business or tourism. That is why my constituents rely on the motor car so much more than Londoners do; the alternatives simply do not exist.

We will, in effect, be guinea pigs, because we are one of only 10 areas selected in England. The problem with being a guinea pig and having this measure tested on us is that in the short and medium term there will be huge fiscal downsides for my community. Business will be driven away. Many companies have said to me that they will go to Telford, a big modern town to the east of us, nearer to Staffordshire. The Government are already subsidising Telford massively. It receives more than £80 per household more from the local government settlement scheme than my community receives for every household. By taking this step, the Government will be helping Telford even more to the detriment of my constituency. Many people come to Shrewsbury from Wales—they come from mid-Wales and all over Herefordshire. That trade will simply go to Telford, rather than come to our historic county town.

One of our most prestigious employers in the town centre is a company that has been there for hundreds of years, a major wine merchant called Tanners. I recently met the owner, Mr. James Tanner, at his central Shrewsbury site. He told me unequivocally that he will leave Shrewsbury—that he will move away from that community—if congestion charging is introduced. I have also met Shrewsbury Business Chamber. I spoke to a leading member of that august body, Graham Galliers. He believes that congestion charging will devastate business in the town.

Over the past few weeks, I have met the owners of many small shops in the town centre who are very worried. I use shops in Shrewsbury all the time—dry cleaners, hairdressers, newsagents, cafes, clothes shops. They are small businesses, set up in the town centre by entrepreneurial, hard-working people. All of them are extremely worried about the prospects for their businesses if congestion charging is imposed on our community.

In preparation for the debate, I also spoke to the managing director of one of our leading hotels, Mr. Michael Matthews, who runs the Prince Rupert hotel. He said that congestion charging will have a devastating impact on tourism in Shrewsbury. His hotel is in the town centre, and he often says to people who stay there, “We are very pleased to have you, but, out of interest, why have you come to stay in Shrewsbury for two or three days?” Many people reply, “Actually, we were passing through Shrewsbury and we thought we’d stop and have a look.” As it is such a beautiful town, they always then think, “Right—we’ll come back another time for a longer holiday.” That is how Shrewsbury gets a lot of its tourist trade: people pass through, see how beautiful the town is and come back. Mr. Matthews said to me unequivocally, “These people are not going to come into Shrewsbury, stop for a few hours to have a look and come back again if they know that there is congestion charging.” We will lose a lot of trade because people will be put off. They will not pay the congestion charge merely to have a quick look at the town with a view to visiting it in future.

I have spoken a great deal about business and tourism, but there is another issue that I want to point out to the Minister. Many of the senior citizens and people with mobility problems who come to see me point out that Shrewsbury is a very hilly town. Anyone who drives on Shrewsbury’s roads will see that it is not like a pancake. It is a very steep, historic town, and people with mobility problems will have difficulty in getting into the town centre if they do not have use of a motor car. If we introduce congestion charging, we will make life more difficult for senior citizens and people with mobility problems.

Congestion charging will impact hardest on the poorest in society. It is a regressive tax that will hit the lowest earners—people who work in the town centre such as cleaners, and waiters and waitresses. It is the people who do the really important jobs in the town centre who will be hit hardest, by being charged simply to go into their own town.

I feel so passionately about this issue that I have started an online petition. A gentleman from Telford—he is not a constituent of mine—put a petition with 1.8 million signatures on the Prime Minister’s No. 10 website, so I took a leaf out of his book and put my own petition on my parliamentary website. So strongly do I feel about this issue that I will write to every single constituent in Shrewsbury asking them to express their views to me by logging on to my parliamentary website, and to join our campaign. We are trying to gather together 20,000 signatures to present to the Minister, to show how strongly people in Shrewsbury oppose congestion charging.

I have been informed by the Minister’s office that he is willing to discuss this issue with me and that he has kindly agreed to meet me in Shrewsbury on 25 April. I hope that his office has told him that.

I will take the opportunity to show him round my beautiful county town, and to show him just how little congestion there is in Shrewsbury. Indeed, this is the thing that is exciting me more than anything else. I want him to see for himself just how uncongested Shrewsbury is; in fact, there is no congestion. It is fair enough to choose another area that genuinely needs a congestion charging scheme, but not Shrewsbury. The local chairman of Campaign to Protect Rural England—a gentleman of great standing in my community who has lived in Shrewsbury for many years—told me that there is less congestion in Shrewsbury now than there was in the 1960s and 1970s, due to our excellent park-and-ride scheme. Shrewsbury and Atcham borough council, which is an excellent council, has some very exciting plans for a cultural and educational quarter in Shrewsbury town centre. I have great aspirations for the very heart of Shrewsbury; I want it to develop and become a magnet for tourists and inward investment. Securing that inward investment is not necessarily easy for a place such as Shrewsbury, because it is a historic town. It does not have a modern layout. That is why it is difficult to compete against new towns, such as Telford and others. We have to fight doubly hard to secure that business investment.

I ask the Minister not to trample on our growth or on our prosperity, but please to respect the wishes of nearly all the borough councillors in Shrewsbury, my views, and the views of my constituents.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski) on securing this debate and on his interest in this matter. It gives me an opportunity to set the record straight on several issues.

I begin by saying that nobody will impose anything on Shrewsbury. Nothing has been decided and no scheme has been designed for Shrewsbury, for any of the other local pilot areas or for anywhere in the country. The local council has made no commitment other than to be open-minded when considering the problems of congestion and transport in Shrewsbury. Only when it has done a proper business analysis, based on the real situation, will it make a decision about whether to bid for funding from the transport innovation fund—TIF. In order to do that, the council will have to take the public of Shrewsbury and—I guess—the hon. Gentleman with it and demonstrate the value of the scheme.

Just as the Prime Minister has said, we cannot go forward with any road pricing scheme without taking the people with us. That will be true of all the local pilots. All local authorities are democratically controlled and they all answer to local people. They will all have to take local people with them when they propose schemes. We have said clearly that we will not proceed with a national scheme until we have seen it working in local areas that have introduced it on a voluntary basis. Only then would we make a decision about a national scheme. No national scheme has been designed and nothing will happen unless we can take with us the 1.8 million people who signed the petition that the hon. Gentleman mentioned.

The Minister refers to the need to take people with him. He will appreciate therefore the reason for my intervention about the effect of the proposal for a congestion charging scheme for the Blackwall tunnel. That will have an impact on his constituents as much as it will on mine. What will he and his Department do to ensure that the scheme will not be introduced unless it takes with it people who do not live in the immediate locality of Greenwich, given that the Mayor imposed a congestion charge in west London that manifestly did not take the people with it? What will the Minister do to ensure that his constituents and mine do not have such a scheme imposed on them against their will?

Those factors will be considered should any such scheme be put to us. At this stage, we have seen no business case for such a scheme. Transport for London may or may not be thinking about it. It will be for TFL and the Mayor to consult local people and to see whether they are interested in the potential benefits that such a scheme could offer. It will then make a bid for TIF funding, in just the same way as any other local authority would, and we will all have our say then. However, we should wait until we see some proposals before we panic too much about them.

I was interested in hearing about the transport problems of the hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham and, as he said, I intend to visit Shrewsbury next month. I look forward to that and I hope to meet local politicians, including him and the hon. Member for North Shropshire (Mr. Paterson), who is in his place on the Front Bench, to hear from them directly what they think about the scheme. The scheme is not being imposed by me. I am coming to hear about it, but it is for the local council and people to decide whether road charging might be part of the solution to their problems and to bring a scheme forward. I am simply making a private visit to meet politicians, both local authority and national, to hear for myself about their ideas.

Over the past few weeks, the press have given a lot of coverage to road pricing. Much of it has been misinformed, including the rather silly story in The Times this morning. I encourage anybody who is interested in that story to read the speech that I gave. They will find little similarity between my speech and that article. I emphasise again, as I emphasised all through that speech, that no system has been designed and that there are various ways in which we could design systems that protect people’s privacy. None of them has been chosen yet. I encourage people before making up their minds to look at the facts about road pricing that we are presenting on the Department for Transport website.

Sadly, the debate has often been reduced to simplistic arguments. As we take the public debate forward, we must look at the facts and understand the choices that lie ahead. I encourage the hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham to be open-minded. I know that he is opposed to the idea at the moment, but if he is open-minded and it turns out that the arguments that he put forward today are justified, there will not be a bid from Shrewsbury. On the other hand, if he is open-minded and the business case is developed and it looks like there might be something in it, it is in his interests and those of his constituents to engage in that debate.

The Minister gives me a great assurance that he will respect the wishes of my constituents. Obviously, I have called for the debate because of the huge interest that the issue has given rise to in my community. People are keen for me to raise the issue in the Commons. He says that the county council will make the decision. May I ask for clarification on that point? As I mentioned at the beginning of my speech, my understanding and that of my constituents is that TIF is telling us that, if we want the north-west relief road, which is the last quarter link in our ring road, we have to have congestion charging. Is it possible for TIF to make those specific demands in relation to funding or can we reject them and still have the north-west relief road?

Shrewsbury can indeed reject demand management and still make bids for the north-west relief road through the normal channels. The TIF congestion money is in addition to all the sources that are normally in place for transport infrastructure funding. If Shrewsbury decides that it does not want to go ahead with demand management—if demand management is not part of the package and therefore Shrewsbury feels that it is not eligible to apply for money from TIF—it can make its application through the regional funding allocation process in the same way as it would normally. If the project is prioritised by the region, it will go ahead. If it is not, it will wait until it is prioritised by the region.

Potentially, the TIF congestion fund gives Shrewsbury the opportunity to move more quickly on that. There is a sum of money that we want to use to create packages—part of which will involve demand management. We can use that to demonstrate to the public how demand management will work in practice, as part of a process of taking the debate forward. If demand management is not an obvious part of the solution in Shrewsbury, or if it is not popular in Shrewsbury and Shrewsbury does not want to go in that direction, it can use all the existing avenues of funding that would normally be available anyway. I hope that that gives the hon. Gentleman the assurance that he sought.

I am sure that we all agree that congestion is bad for everybody. It affects quality of life and business. The Eddington report recently set out the long-term challenges and options ahead of us. It is clear that congestion is going to get worse and impose substantial costs on business. Eddington shows us that as the economy and prosperity grow, people can afford new choices about where they live and shop, and how they engage in leisure activities. Congestion is predicted to rise by 25 per cent. by 2015. There are 6 million more vehicles on the road now than in 1997 and that trend is going to continue. Unchecked, congestion would mean that journeys would take longer and be less reliable. The costs of that would be real. Sir Rod estimated that if we did nothing, by 2025 congestion could cost an extra £22 billion a year in wasted time. Around half of that £22 billion would be direct costs on business.

There is not a single magic fix to the congestion problem. We are, of course, improving public transport and the road network. We have doubled investment since 1997. We are spending £2.5 billion on buses and £4 billion on trains this year alone, with the result that more people are using them than have done for decades. We will continue to invest and we plan to deliver £140 billion in sustained investment in transport over the 10 years to 2015.

We will also make the most of our existing assets, which is why we are putting a lot of effort into finding ways to keep traffic moving, such as the appointment of 1,000 Highways Agency traffic officers who clear incidents from the motorway. We are developing smarter travel arrangements by encouraging flexible working, sustainable travel-to-school initiatives and active traffic management. We are putting in place that panoply of measures to keep traffic moving, but despite all of that, and despite the £140 billion we will spend, congestion will get worse—increasing by 25 per cent. by 2015.

That is the challenge that we must face. If we do not come up with some solution on top of what we already plan, that increase will be the effect. That is why the hon. Member for North Shropshire acknowledged that road pricing has its place. He thinks that it should be built out of local schemes, and in many ways that is exactly what we are trying to do. There will be local pilot schemes, and only when we have seen whether they are successful will any decision be made about a national scheme. The Liberal Democrats, who are not in their places, also support the principle of road pricing.

I have said on the record that we recognise that the price mechanism can work, but it is a huge leap from that to a national scheme. I keep repeating, as I did in the debate earlier today, this question: how can we go ahead when one in 15 cars are not registered? To me, that appears to be a complete non-starter.

In other countries, such as Holland, there is a clear, transparent programme laid out in Parliament; there are parliamentary gates in the Dutch Parliament that the process has to go through. In this country, there is huge suspicion, reflected in the petition, because people see the process as a way of raising money and feel that their civil liberties are being infringed. The programme has not been clearly explained by the Government.

Perhaps that is my failing and I have not explained it well enough, but I believe it has been well set out. We said that we will spend the next two years carrying out technology demonstrations to show people how the process would work. We will then set up local pilots with volunteer authorities. We are expecting the first of those in four to five years—it may be Shrewsbury, or not, depending on how people there feel about it. It is only when we have seen whether those local pilots are a success that a decision will be made about national road pricing.

With regard to the democratic process, we have said that we need new powers even to have local pilots. Those will be included in a draft local transport Bill that will be published this year. Next year, there will be a parliamentary opportunity either to accept or reject that Bill. It will give us the powers relating to local schemes only. If those schemes are a success, and we as a nation, and the Government, decide to progress to a national scheme, a new Bill will have to be introduced to Parliament to grant powers relating to a national scheme. Therefore, we cannot progress to a national scheme without at least two parliamentary processes, and given the time scale involved, there will be at least two general elections during which those matters can be sounded out with the public. That is why we say that it will not happen if we cannot take everyone with us.

The Minister said that the process will be voluntary. I am worried about something and would like an explanation. Is the Minister not worried, as I am, that in areas without congestion problems such as Shrewsbury—when he visits he will see for himself that it does not have such problems—a council such as Shropshire county council might be tempted to go for TIF funding, despite not having congestion charging, merely to get funding more quickly for the north-west relief road, or an important transport scheme, as he said it would do?

It might be tempted to do that, but it would have to sell the process to the local population. The council is democratically controlled as well, and if the idea is as unpopular as he says, the local electorate would not give it its blessing.

When an application comes to us, one of the reasons why we will put aside an extra sum of money is to create packages, part of which relates to demand management, and part of which relates to public transport improvements. We understand that we will never sell the process to anyone if there is no deal on the table. Motorists and local people need to be able to say, “Yes, I can see what we are getting for being part of this pilot scheme.” If the partners cannot take people with them, the schemes will not happen. Equally, if we would not be able to learn anything from what they were proposing, we would not accept their bids.

If there is no congestion in Shrewsbury, what could we learn from a congestion scheme there? However, that is not what the local council tells me; I am informed that there are problems with the through movement of traffic and congestion. We have told the council—we have said this to all the TIF partners—that the first thing that it needs to do is to produce a business case and to examine where the congestion is in its area. We are not interested in partners coming up with solutions yet, which is why it is ridiculous that people suggest that we have designed a scheme. We have told the partners not to design a scheme yet, but to examine their congestion problems. When they have done that analysis, we can move on to making a decision on the package of measures that might help and the way in which demand management could fit into that package. Only after that would we decide that a partner had a scheme that would work, about which it could convince its local population, and from which we could learn something. The TIF money might then be made available.

I have been greatly impressed by Shropshire’s bid for funding. It has been given some pump-priming money to help it to carry out its work, although there is no commitment on either its or our part. The money is simply for the officer time necessary to produce the business case and carry out planning. We have asked the authority first to identify the nature of the congestion problem and, secondly, to develop a robust business case for Government support. I have not seen the business case yet, so I cannot comment on any specific proposals. The authority’s clear vision for Shrewsbury was set out in the initial discussions. I understand that the idea is to relieve the historical and attractive town centre of choking traffic, thus making it a more pleasant environment for tourists and shoppers. Better and more frequent buses, better park-and-ride facilities and better road routes for through traffic are likely to be part of the package.

On the face of it, that seems like an exciting prospect. There is the potential for a package of measures that could bring great benefits to people and businesses in Shrewsbury. If the county council decides to move ahead and make a bid to the fund, it will need a package approach that combines both transport improvements and a road pricing scheme. The proposal will need to be an effective solution to the problems that the area faces.

We are not interested in forcing areas to develop schemes. We want volunteers, not pressed men. As I have said many times, we have designed nothing and decided nothing. If we cannot convince local people, the 1.8 million people who signed the petition and everyone else in the country that such an approach is the best way forward for the country, it will not go ahead. However, given the facts and the modelling on the way in which congestion is building up, we have to do something more than we are already planning—

The motion having been made after half-past Two o'clock, and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. Deputy Speaker adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at two minutes past Three o'clock.