[Relevant Documents: The Twelfth Report from the Transport Committee, Session 2005-06, Local Transport Planning and Funding, HC 1120, and the Government’s response thereto, Fourth Special Report, Session 2006-07, HC 334.]
Motion made, and Question proposed,
That, for the year ending with 31st March 2007, for expenditure by the Department for Transport—
(1) further resources, not exceeding £849,010,000, be authorised for use as set out in HC 293,
(2) a further sum, not exceeding £533,764,000, be granted to Her Majesty out of the Consolidated Fund to meet the costs as so set out, and
(3) limits as so set out be set on appropriations in aid.—[Claire Ward.]
The best kind of partnerships, whether they are social, sexual, economic or political, are those in which people talk to one another, and occasionally listen to the response. Considering how many millions of people there are in the world, these partnerships are not easily found, and not usually in politics. My Committee felt that it was time that we looked carefully at the partnership between the two groups of people who have to develop and deliver transport policy.
It is important to say at the outset that the Government are one of the first for a very long time who have committed themselves to developing a transport policy. They have put large sums of money into various aspects of transport. If I am not always pleased with the result, that is because, unlike the pope, my Government do not seem to be infallible. When one looks at the work of our Committee, it is essential to understand what we are saying. Governments can set transport strategies, and indeed they do. Governments can provide the budgets, and indeed they do. What Governments cannot do is deliver. The people who deliver the local transport plans are, by definition, local. It is not exactly a difficult thing to understand, but it is crucial.
Our Committee decided to look at the way that the local transport plan framework had been introduced, and we decided that it was an improvement on the former system. We said that it had achieved quite a lot. However, because local authorities have to deliver many of the targets, it is essential to examine the performance. It does not matter how good the intention—where is the performance?
We decided that there is always a particular tension between central and local government. The Department for Transport looks to local authorities to implement improvements but—let us be straightforward about this—it does not have a hands-off attitude. It sets the national priorities, it reviews and it scores, because that is the modern way of government. We all have to have our report cards, Mr. Deputy Speaker, even you or I. The Department awards capital funding for the integrated transport bloc and it decides on the balance between capital and revenue funding. It then decides which major transport schemes will be funded by central Government.
None of this is reprehensible or difficult to understand. The problem arises when, for one reason or another, that partnership begins to get slightly out of kilter. One could say that with that set of objectives, no local transport plan is, in effect, local. It is centrally decided and locally implemented, but the strategy, the money and the determination come from the Department for Transport.
Although I agree with the hon. Lady, does she agree that there is also the dynamic of the Office of Rail Regulation and Network Rail in relation to train services that are delivered locally, whatever the strategy of central Government? For example, in my constituency we want a new direct rail service from Shropshire to London, starting in Wrexham. Although the local authorities support it and, I understand, the Government support it, the Office of Rail Regulation and Network Rail are making it very difficult for that scheme to be developed.
The hon. Gentleman will forgive me if I do not wreck my entire career by getting involved in the politics of Wrexham. That was a lesson that I learned very early on and it is not something that I am likely to forget. Indeed, the Welsh Assembly Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire is likely to make known her views on the expenditure on transport from that Assembly without any help at all. One Dunwoody on the subject is quite enough.
We ought to accept that the guidance from the Department for Transport does not indicate what weighting is to be given to success in delivering against locally identified priorities. If there is to be a local transport plan, it must have clear local input. The Government have not yet told us how they weight their response. How do they judge the things that are important? The Government response said:
“The Department has not yet issued guidance on how the delivery of the second Local Transport Plans will be assessed, but has announced that it will not assess delivery until 2008 at the earliest.”
The difficulty is that local authorities do not have that much flexibility. They must know at an early point what is going to happen to their local transport plan. Although they have their own objectives, they need to know what the Government think is a priority. They also need to know clearly where the money is coming from.
My constituents are beginning to think of local transport planning in my area as a sick joke. A previous Secretary of State for Transport announced that a key bypass would be built in 2003. I heard from the Highways Agency only a few days ago that it is not likely to be built until 2016. Does the hon. Lady think that things have come to a pretty pass when there is a 13-year delay on a road that a Secretary of State has announced will be built?
We can all play the constituency game and say, “I haven’t got everything I want on my particular wish list.” A previous Government got their transport policies into one great mess because they promised everybody that they would get everything on their wish list and then ensured that there was never any money to achieve it. I am not going to play that game. I happen to think that we should be looking seriously at the problems that local authorities face to see how we can help to sort them out.
The Committee said that it was unacceptable that local authorities were penalised for pursuing regeneration and job-creation schemes. We stated:
“The Department should make it clear local authorities can prioritise specific local transport needs, such as economic regeneration, and then give them proper weight”.
How did performance against local priorities influence the local transport capital settlement for 2007-08? Will the Government confirm that local authorities will be rewarded in their local transport planning scores for performing well against local objectives of regeneration and job creation? When it comes to comparing performance between various authorities, as every authority has some differences from its next-door neighbours, can we know exactly what local transport needs, targets and objectives the Department is using in allocating funding according to performance against local targets? Those things will make an enormous difference.
We said that the Minister had told us that the
“second round guidance was less prescriptive than the first”.
However, after the Government response was published, the roads performance division within the Department wrote to 10 urban areas covered by the urban congestion target and said that if they wanted to submit “congestion delivery plans”—this Government are so clunky in the titles they choose that one would think they were Liberals—they could then have them assessed and payments would be awarded from a £60 million congestion performance fund over four years. Do these congestion delivery plans required of the 10 largest urban areas add another layer of planning and assessment, or are they a completely new approach? It would be helpful if we were told.
We looked carefully at capital funding and said that although the Department had told us it agreed with
“the principle of applying proportionality in the assessment of scheme bids”,
we were not at all clear what proposals were going to be implemented to make that a reality. There must be some, and it would be helpful if they were stated transparently and clearly.
We considered the whole question of bidding. It is time to understand that a lot of the processes not only cost a great deal in terms of a local authority’s time, but they also cost money. If we assess the amount of work that goes into bids, it is clear that unsuccessful bidders, as well as successful bidders, are spending a considerable amount. Is the Minister going to tell us that the Department has got a target to reduce bidding time and costs?
The Government also said that they were going to give final guidance on major scheme funding, including sharing scheme development costs, in early 2007. When will that appear? Please can we have an idea of what it will say about streamlining the bidding process and reducing the costs for local authorities? We have had enough bidding processes for us to make those assessments. Surely it is time that local councils were given the right support at the right time to enable them to make sensible decisions on whether they should continue with a bid if it is painfully clear—we were told this again and again in evidence—that, for one reason or another, the bid from a particular authority for a scheme that it regards as important is not going to be successful. Someone should tell local authorities at a reasonably early stage why a bid will be unsuccessful and on what basis that decision has been made. They should be told to begin to rethink their plans and not be allowed to continue at considerable expense and with considerable difficulty.
I come to our old friend, the private finance initiative. The Committee said that if PFIs are not appropriate for transport, the Department should consider making the funding available through other forms of procurement. Sometimes there is a commitment—almost an ideological commitment—to the idea that only by using private finance schemes can Government policies become a reality. Frankly, not only is that totally difficult to understand, but in transport matters it is transparently untrue. Most of the PFI schemes that are operating—whether in railways or other forms of transport—have not produced the results and are making a lot of money for a lot of people without a lot of effective results.
The Committee looked at the Department’s decision to introduce a transport innovation fund, which will override the four shared priorities agreed between central Government and local authorities. The response did not give us any clear justification for that decision. Perhaps the Minister would like to explain how the national objectives in terms of congestion and productivity will be included in the transport innovation fund.
I have no intention of taking time that should go to other Back Benchers, but it is important to say one or two things. We know that the Government are striving not to break their fiscal rules, but because of that local authorities frequently face the difficult conundrum of how they should balance their finances between revenue and capital, and how they are going to sustain the new transport schemes that many of them are introducing.
As the example has been set, I want to refer to what is happening in the bus scheme in Cheshire. It is an excellent scheme. It has great support and my constituents are highly delighted with it, but the counties have not received support for administering that highly complex and rather difficult scheme. Given the constraints of Gershon and the other problems that have been put on local authorities, it is clear that there is a cost in administering the scheme which has not been allowed for or even properly planned for. Indeed, the differences between one area and another mean that some local authorities receive rather more financially than they had expected and some receive rather less. Local councils have found it almost impossible to pool those resources and to work together, which has put an even greater strain on the services. That cannot go on year after year. If costs are constantly taken out of local authority finances, those costs will become plain and will not only produce a shortage of revenue, but hinder the use of prudential borrowing by local authorities because they cannot service the debt.
The Transport Committee felt that not only had the Government got an excellent set of priorities, but they wanted to deliver those services where such services count most. What therefore upset us was that we felt that the guidance did not contain sufficient transparency, clarity or even evidence of exactly what the Government wanted local authorities to achieve. Yet again, I return to the point that it is a partnership between the Government and local authorities. Perhaps that partnership is uneven—it may be like the partnerships that one finds in medicine and legal affairs, where the senior partner gets the money and the junior partner does the work—but at some point it is nevertheless essential that the Government make their plans crystal clear. We cannot expect locally elected councillors not only to undertake responsibility for planning complex schemes and prioritising their interests, but to take the blame when the money is not available for schemes that have been promised. It is essential that the Government back up their extremely good intentions with a little more clarity and, dare I say it, a little more plain speaking. Ministers can do it, and it is about time that they got into the habit.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody). Her speech was a fair reflection of the report produced by her Committee. I commend the Committee for the report, which is as cogent as it is comprehensive—she has done the House a service. However, her reference to clunking titles and Liberal Democrats was a little gratuitous, but in view of the fact that some in my party have had worse maulings at the hands of the hon. Lady, and in view of a certain fondness in which I hold her, I will not pursue the point.
The overall picture that emerges from the report, and from the Government’s occasionally thin response to it, is one of an increasing tension between transport planning at the centre and transport planning at the local level, particularly at the local authority level. Such tension is not a bad thing per se—the right balance of tension can be creative—but the picture that emerges from this report, which has been confirmed by my experience of visiting different parts of the country, and dealing with different local authorities in different areas, is one in which the relationship between the centre and the local level has got so fundamentally out of kilter—the term used by the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich—that the tension is not creative, which is influencing how many local authorities, passenger transport authorities and passenger transport executives approach transport planning. We are seeing a disturbing lack of boldness, radicalism and innovation, which is to the detriment of the potential of the local transport planning structure.
I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman has a specific instance in mind, but I can see how that might happen occasionally. The approach should be based on “horses for courses”. In some areas on some issues at some times, there will be a role for the regional assemblies, but that will not always be the case. Yes, I share the hon. Gentleman’s concern that occasionally we seem determined to involve everyone, apparently for the hell of it. The difficulty that causes a lot of disillusionment for many local authorities is that, as the report confirms, they have responsibility without power.
I want to deal with a few issues that the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich mentioned in the course of her remarks.
Before the hon. Gentleman moves on, does he agree that one of the causes of disillusionment among local authorities is that they cannot trust the Government not to keep changing their plans? In the Thames Gateway, for example, the Government target for the number of houses to be built is being increased, but infrastructure investment is being delayed, which is damaging both the public and the local authorities’ ability to do transport planning. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the infrastructure should go in before the houses are built?
I commend that general approach. The Department for Communities and Local Government is a relatively young Department, but there is greater scope for some joined-up thinking and joint working between it and the Department for Transport. The social consequences, never mind the economic, congestion and environmental consequences, of not putting in the transport first and letting the other developments follow are obvious for all to see. If we have learned nothing else since the 1960s, when that approach was specifically disavowed, we should at least have learned that much.
As the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich said, this should really be a Back Benchers’ debate, but I want briefly to touch on the following areas: first, the departmental guidance on the preparation of local transport plans; secondly, the operation of the transport innovation fund; and thirdly, the strengthening of passenger transport authorities and passenger transport executives.
There could not be a more unambiguous statement of the situation that local authorities face than paragraph 31 of the report:
“If Local Transport Plans are to adequately reflect local objectives, the guidance and the scoring methodology must be rewritten to support it, and the way local and national priorities are weighted should be available to councils. It is unacceptable that local authorities are effectively penalised for pursuing regeneration and job creation schemes. The Department’s Local Transport Plan assessment should make it clear that local authorities can prioritise specific local transport needs, such as economic regeneration, and that those priorities will be given proper weight. That said, it is incumbent on local authorities that wish to emphasise local transport priorities to be bolder in pursuing their objectives.”
I have always been of the view that transport exists as a service to underpin and reinforce Government policy in other areas. Social inclusion is one of the greatest opportunities, particularly when it involves a bus service, and economic regeneration and economic development is another. That relates to the point made by the hon. Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink) a few minutes ago. The inability to integrate transport planning into other policy areas is one of the biggest failings, and it is one of the biggest frustrations for many people in local government today.
The final point in paragraph 31—
“it is incumbent on local authorities that wish to emphasise local transport priorities to be bolder in pursuing their objectives”—
is absolutely true, but we must recognise that such failures often stem from the almost siege mentality that now exists in many local authorities as a result of the constant battering at the hands of central Government.
Turning to the measurement of local transport plans, the Committee should be commended for its work in that area. Paragraph 36 states:
“It is wrong that local authorities are measured against targets over which they have no direct control, such as bus satisfaction or passenger numbers. Either local authorities need direct control over these services; or they should not be held responsible for them.”
That is an irrefutable conclusion. I am delighted that this is something of a work in progress, now that we have the Government’s White Paper on reforming bus regulation. If what is produced at the end of the process strengthens local provision, and in particular local accountability, I would certainly be prepared to support it.
On bus regulation, the Committee’s comments at paragraph 177 on the strengthening of the powers of passenger transport authorities are particularly pertinent to the metropolitan areas, because those are the areas where there has been the greatest failure in the deregulated bus market, and it has ceased to operate effectively. Allowing for more powers and meaningful resourcing of passenger transport executives and passenger transport authorities must lie at the heart of developing the Government’s bus policy. The deregulated system has worked well in some places—I think of Brighton, Harrogate, York and Cambridge—but that is because they are towns and cities of a certain size that have the critical mass of population to be able to make the integration of partnership working effective. In areas such as Greater Manchester, for example, it is pretty clear that that has not been the case. I should place on record my appreciation of the work of the Greater Manchester PTA, which is among the most effective of the authorities with which I have come into contact since I took on this brief. Particular credit goes to the Labour chairman, who has been assiduous in bringing the concerns of his organisation to Government.
On the transport innovation fund, I agree with the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich that we can all welcome the significant injection of funds that it represents. However, in paragraph 116 the Committee makes pertinent comments about the way in which the transport innovation fund threatens the very concept of local transport planning:
“The Transport Innovation Fund is not in any way about local choice or local schemes but about central government transferring its risk to local councils for what are schemes of national importance. It is not about innovation; it is about central control.”
I fear that the transport innovation fund might eventually defeat the Government’s own policy, particularly on congestion. A patchwork of pilot schemes designed to tackle congestion might be difficult to bring together thereafter and to marry into one national scheme. I think that pilot schemes are emerging because that is the only show in town as regards local authorities getting money for transport innovation. We might be left with a series of areas where action to tackle congestion proves to be unpopular because it is seen as an extra charge. That could put at risk instead of encourage the creation of a national scheme, which everybody who is serious about tackling congestion should accept.
The House will soon consider the national concessionary bus travel scheme, which has already been dealt with in the other place. I am keen that we should all be able to unite around that scheme, which my party, in co-operation with the Labour party in Scotland, has been able to implement and to promote. My concern about the way in which it has been handled in the other place so far is that we risk taking an idea that everyone supports and implementing it in such a way that it will end up offending most people. Trying to fund a scheme as a bolt-on to the local government settlement is setting it up to fail.
Hon. Members will be aware that the basis on which local authorities are given their financial settlement every year is byzantine to the point of opaque, and has little to do with bus ridership in their areas. Significant numbers of local authority areas will struggle to finance the scheme because the funding has been given in such a way. I hope that when the Bill comes before the House the Government will look again at how the scheme will be funded and that they will take seriously the opportunities presented by a nationwide smartcard scheme, for example. That would be the best way of relating the money that goes to councils for the provision of services to their actual use. Failure to do that will mean that a significant number of areas, particularly in coastal and resort towns, will suffer, which surely cannot be an outcome that the Government intend.
It is important to put the debate about local transport planning and funding into context. With the best will in the world, any Government, of whatever colour, would have difficulty in operating the current arrangements between local democracy and central Government. The arrangements were arrived at, after a lot of confrontation and argument, in the mid-1980s, when the metropolitan counties were abolished, bus services were deregulated, and the poll tax was introduced and replaced by the council tax. That ended up with many public services not being controlled by directly elected local councillors, and where councillors did have control, it was over only a tiny percentage of their income, with the Government controlling the rest. That obviously puts some obligation on the Government to ensure that the money is spent sensibly. That is not the right balance, and it makes things difficult. I hope that Lyons gets it right and that after the ongoing reviews we will end up with a better balance between central and local government.
I do not believe that there is another country in Europe where, if cities the size of Manchester, Leeds, Southampton and Nottingham wanted to control their buses and invest in tram systems, their central Governments could or would stop them, but that is the situation that we face. Some of the greatest cities in Europe cannot determine whether they have tram systems. That cannot be a satisfactory arrangement.
The Committee therefore first considered the context and interviewed Michael Lyons. Having done that, we considered the position as it is. We asked whether the relationship between local transport plans and central Government was the right one, and whether it functioned effectively, efficiently and economically. When we took evidence, council after council, expert after expert and councillor after councillor answered no. They said that the system was burdensome, costly and inefficient, and that they did not feel that they were in control of their local priorities.
A measure of the extent of central Government control or interference is that schemes costing more than £5 million are determined by central Government. One of the Committee’s minor recommendations was to increase that figure to £10 million and to provide for applying a light touch and light regulation to schemes of £20 million. I thought that the Government would leap at that and say, “Of course. These are trivial figures. What do officials know about such expenditure in local areas?” The answer to that is, “Almost nothing.” However, the Government have effectively deferred making a decision in their response.
Government decisions at micro level are not good. Let me give two local examples of Government officials forcing bus lanes on my constituency. Most of us are in favour of bus lanes and bus priority, but to achieve the right scheme the right debate must be held between local interests, such as shopkeepers, people who use the buses and bus operators; everybody has to have a say. Bus lanes were forced on the constituency in Cheetham Hill road and Bury Old road. Officials said, without examining the details, that if we did not accept the bus priority schemes we would not get money for other matters.
There were two consequences. First, 18 months after bus priority was accepted, a big sign went up at the top of Cheetham Hill road to tell people to beware because 75 accidents had occurred on the road in the past year. That happened because the scheme was forced and badly planned. Secondly, as was said in the recent bus debate, just as the buses have been given greater priority in a deregulated system, the bus network has contracted. In a micro sense, that is what central Government control does to local priorities.
Is not there a danger in the otherwise welcome proposals in “Putting Passengers First”, to which the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael) referred, that we might go even further down the wrong track through the decision-making process outlined for quality contracts? Under it, the current system would be delegated to an unaccountable and unelected set of traffic commissioners, with an appeal to the transport tribunal. Even the democratically elected element of the current system—the Secretary of State—would be removed from the new set-up. Would not that take us even further down the path that my hon. Friend describes?
My hon. Friend makes a pertinent point. I do not want to say any more about buses, but I agree that although the recognition in the White Paper that the current system is working is welcome, some of the proposals in it could put more hurdles in the way of passenger transport authorities and local authorities trying to regulate buses than the previous system did.
I apologise for interrupting my hon. Friend, but I do not want him to give the impression that traffic commissioners are not part of a protection. Indeed, if they had more power to monitor bus companies’ day-to-day decisions, the quality of bus services might be much better.
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. Traffic commissioners are badly underfunded. If they had more resources, there is no doubt that their impact, even on a deregulated system, would be positive. I hope that in response to my hon. Friend the Member for Pudsey (Mr. Truswell) I was making the different point that however good they are at examining the current system, they are unelected. There are also other hurdles in the White Paper that might be difficult to overcome.
There is a completely different system in London. The balance of funding between the rest of England and London has changed from roughly 50:50 to 60:40 in London’s favour. That has been done without being explicitly stated, and I would be grateful if the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Lincoln (Gillian Merron) could justify it. When we ask the Secretary of State, the reply is always that London is different. London is no more different now than it was 10 or 15 years ago. It is special, as are many cities in this country.
My hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) has already referred to other contradictions. Three sets of priorities sit on top of local schemes. There is the interference—as I would characterise it—of the regional transport plans, which are sorted out in a vacuum by people who are not directly elected. There are the local schemes, with priorities that have been agreed between the Government and the Local Government Association. Those for local transport schemes are congestion, access to public transport, safety and reduction of pollution.
I believe that every local authority representative who has come before the Select Committee and been asked the question, in this inquiry and in others, has always said that they wanted regeneration to be a priority. Clearly, there are conflicts between the set priorities and what most councils—particularly those representing deprived areas—want, which is to regenerate their areas, create jobs and bring wealth and prosperity to the people whom they represent.
On top of that is the transport innovation fund system. As the report says, it is a centralising system with two priorities, one of which is to relieve congestion and the other is to improve economic performance. Those are all central controls and they contradict each other. Last Tuesday, when I asked the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Lincoln to explain what a TIF bid meant for Greater Manchester, I was, in a sense, not surprised when, as I went through aspects such as the regulation of buses, tram system funding and control over trains, she said that it was “quite a shopping list”. It is exactly the same sort of control that obtains in London, but at the end of her reply on 6 March last week, the Minister said that “local solutions” were “the right way forward”. I agree, but when central Government are effectively imposing on people an extra tax of potentially more than £2,000 in real terms, we need to know what the public offer is.
Is it or is it not the Government’s intention under the TIF proposals to fund the whole of the Metrolink scheme, as approved in 2000? When we asked these questions, and in response to our report, the Select Committee was told—I refer hon. Members particularly to point 22 in the response—to see the Government’s consultation document on light rail and its improvement. Of course, when the Government recommend something like that, I immediately respond and look at it.
Given that Ministers have regularly said that they are committed to light rail schemes, will the Under-Secretary explain why that document was a year late? Since April 2005, and in our report on light rail, we asked what excuse there was for that document to be a year late. How many officials were reprimanded? Was it a change of Government policy? Are Ministers going to tell us why the report was a year late? Is it because they have no commitment to Metrolink? I would like to know. One Minister asked me why I thought officials in the Department for Transport were against light rail, so this is one of the reasons.
When I read the report—I advise my colleagues on the Select Committee to read it—I found that it was written in such a biased and unfair way that its clear objective could be only to damage light rail, not to respond to the needs of local people. The report carries on by saying that light rail is not always the best alternative. Of course not; sometimes buses are the right alternative, but in many cases light rail is. Does the report say what the benefits are? No, it is completely silent about them. It does not explain that the only real example of “modal shift” as the experts call it—people leaving their cars at home and using public transport—is Metrolink, which has an impressive record on regeneration and air quality. There is no response in the report on capacity issues, either.
If we really want to get more people to use public transport, we need to provide the capacity. Sufficient evidence has been given to the Government and to the Select Committee that, even if we took all the cars off the roads in areas such as the west midlands and Greater Manchester, there would not be the capacity for people to change to public transport. We would have to increase that capacity and, in the case of Greater Manchester, that would best be achieved by using Metrolink. Why is that not mentioned in the report? I look forward to hearing the Minister’s reply, but I can only draw the conclusion that officials and Ministers are anti-Metrolink. That is why I want to know whether the Government are going to fund Metrolink if congestion charging is brought in. Why is the contribution to Metrolink and the tram system 25 per cent. at the start and not 10 per cent., as for other major schemes? That shows bias against the systems.
Possibly the most worrying statement in the consultation document is that there is apparently a problem with giving state aid to tram systems. This appears in paragraph 7.45 of the document. It is unexplained, and no distinction is drawn anywhere in the report between new tram systems and existing ones that might be extended. I understand the statement to mean that the Government envisage a legal obstacle to investing in trams because it would create unfair subsidised competition with buses. If that is the case, the report should have taken more than two sentences to explain it. I would be grateful if my hon. Friend the Minister would explain whether there is a European competitive hurdle to be overcome before we can reinvest in trams. Has the position changed in the past few years? Several tram systems have been brought on track recently, including those in Nottingham, Manchester, Sheffield and the west midlands. Has something changed, or has this obstacle been thought up by unhelpful officials?
Many of the transport problems in this country were caused by the Tories over 18 years ago—
Of course. The problems result from deregulation, under-investment, and the privatisation of rail. Having said that, I am also going to say something nice about the Conservatives. I do not often do that, so I have to put it in its real context. From the abolition of the Greater Manchester metropolitan council in 1986, which left no expertise on the new passenger transport authority, under a Conservative Government it took five years from the planning stage for the Queen to come and open the tram system in Greater Manchester. The applications for the extension of Metrolink have been in since the start of this Government. The Deputy Prime Minister gave his authority for Metrolink to go ahead in 2000. It is now 2007, and we are getting documents—a year late, according to the Government’s own timetable—that directly inhibit progress. That is completely unacceptable, as far as I am concerned.
I have talked a lot about trams, but there are two other schemes in Greater Manchester that provide an example of how the system is slow and fails to meet local priorities. The A57/A628 bypass round Mottram, Hollingworth and Tintwistle was agreed after public consultation in 1993. Tameside council wants it, Greater Manchester wants it, and there is no alternative. It has been through a whole series of reassessments under the previous Government and this Government. According to the latest projections, however, the earliest date by which it is likely to be completed is 2012.
The other example is the Leigh guided busway. I have already talked to the Minister of State, Department of Health, my hon. Friend the Member for Leigh (Andy Burnham), about this matter. In a way, he is a good exemplar of the lack of understanding of what is local and what is national. Last Wednesday, I was in a very happy mood, having voted to abolish the other place. I was sitting down in the Strangers Bar to watch Manchester United go through to the next round of the European cup, when along bounced my hon. Friend. I was sitting with Councillor Roger Jones, the chair of the Greater Manchester passenger transport authority, whom the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael) has already mentioned. My hon. Friend the Member for Leigh asked, “Where’s my guided busway?” He should really ask his ministerial colleagues in the Department for Transport why a £26 million scheme that was agreed seven years ago and has had three public consultations—for planning, and under the road traffic legislation and the Transport and Works Act 1992—has still not been approved. The scheme is very pro-public transport and anti-congestion, and I hope that my hon. Friend and the people of Leigh get it. He should not, however, harass the chair of the passenger transport authority; he should harass my hon. Friends the Transport Ministers.
The report shows that even in the context of the present local government settlement, the balance between central Government and detailed interference in national priorities, which sometimes has perverse effects at a local level, is wrong. The Government need to take more notice than they have done of the Transport Committee’s report.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Manchester, Blackley (Graham Stringer), who has great experience of local government and was one of the authors of the Transport Committee report.
I was not going to speak in tonight’s debate, as I have spoken in so many other transport debates over the past 18 months. I remembered, however, that transport planning and funding wind up my constituents probably more than any other subject.
I am therefore grateful to the Transport Committee for producing the report, which covers the sort of local-national relationships of which Reading’s transport infrastructure has many. Reading station is a national hub, and Crossrail might end up coming to Reading. In addition, the Heathrow link from the west, M4 widening and a third Thames bridge, which is important to north-south transport communication, make up the tip of a big transport iceberg facing my constituents.
In many ways, it is no surprise that my constituency faces big transport issues. The area is growing economically, and has done extremely well from the economic reforms of the 1980s, and yet one sometimes despairs of my local authority’s approach to local transport planning. Most authorities use the opportunity to consult, take the temperature locally and get people on board—literally, in some cases—for new transport projects. Reading’s local authority, however, likes to have what I regard as sham consultations, in which local people never feel engaged. That is a serious point, because the Government have a duty, when funding local projects, to ensure that the projects have substantial local backing. If they do not have such backing, where is the accountability? What is the justification for handing over so much taxpayers’ cash?
For example, a one-way system around the town centre is currently being foisted on my constituents. Every poll in my constituency demonstrates massive opposition to a scheme that increases car journeys, worsens pollution and creates havoc for traffic bordering the Reading borough area. The scheme merely displaces traffic, costs £12 million to £15 million and has no local support—the neighbouring local authority is taking the matter to the High Court. Surely that is no way to fund and plan local transport in my area.
When I wrote to Transport Ministers, asking them to intervene in this expensive folly, I was told that they could do absolutely nothing about it. Local people will therefore have to use what they will regard as the default option: if they want an expensive folly, they can vote Labour in the local elections; if they do not, they can vote Conservative. I know that when she replies to the debate the Minister will speak of local people making local decisions. I am entirely happy with that, but I predict that, in Reading at least, the local Labour transport councillor will struggle to hold his seat in May, if indeed he stands for re-election: he may withdraw to save face.
That brings me to a second, important point about road pricing. Reading borough council is keen to use it, and, as the Minister will know, has been given a significant amount of money for a pilot scheme. I am not against road pricing in principle—many local areas might well support it, and it sometimes serves as a helpful local solution—but there are planning and funding issues. When I asked the Minister about them last week, her answer was not particularly reassuring.
Although the Government deny it, there appears to be a link between access to investment funding to improve local transport and road pricing and congestion charging schemes. The chairman of Greater Manchester passenger transport authority has said:
“We are being, in inverted commas, blackmailed.”
If that is true, it is nothing short of an abuse of funding and, indeed, power. Pushing or forcing local authorities to introduce road pricing by refusing to fund local transport schemes would certainly be an abuse of power. I urge the Minister to state categorically that there will be no strings attached to any bid for funding by a local authority, as it should be done without fear or favour.
Gary Clarke, chairman of West Midlands PTA, said recently
“The Government is trying to attach strings to this money”
—by which he meant money from the transport innovation fund.
“We were told that if we didn't put road pricing in the bid, it wouldn't help our case.”
Roger Jones, the Greater Manchester PTA chairman, said
“The Government is pushing us very hard. They are saying ‘you either follow our policy or you don't get the money’.”
Will the Minister tell us whether that is true? If it is, what action is she taking to correct what is happening?
Members will understand my constituents’ concern about road pricing and a road piloting scheme. There has been no local consultation, and there has been massive opposition; yet the scheme seems to sweep ahead like a massive juggernaut. It appears that local planning and transport are now a private and privileged matter between central and local government, consisting of a series of sticks and not many carrots. No wonder so many people are failing to turn out at local elections.
Before the Minister responds to the debate—I can tell that she is winding herself up to do so—she may wish to look at the Secretary of State’s speech of 10 May 2006, in which he said that the transport innovation fund would be used to support road pricing.
I am curious about the hon. Gentleman’s argument. He began by saying that central Government had failed to intervene in a difference of opinion between local people and a local authority and to make a decision. Now he seems to be arguing that central Government are imposing too much power locally. I am not sure what his position is on the relationship between central and local government.
Local decisions should be made as locally as possible, but there are occasions when there needs to be a way of appealing against decisions that are fundamentally wrong and undemocratic. That applies to my constituency at present.
It is not all disagreement, however. There is one issue on which all parties in Reading agree: the need to upgrade Reading station. As we all know, Reading is a bottleneck on the national network, causing massive inconvenience and delays. Network Rail has pushed for it to be funded, as has First Great Western, because its trains are always arriving late; but funding has yet to be announced. I know that I keep banging on about this issue, but it is critical both to my constituents and to the national economy.
I know that the hon. Gentleman will recognise that the massive inconvenience that he talks about is mainly caused to constituents in the west country and Wales who do not have a proper rail system simply because of the blockage in the system that is Reading.
The hon. Gentleman is right. That causes massive inconvenience to the west, but it also causes massive inconvenience along the north-west main line because Reading is also part of that network. As I have said, it is very much a national hub. The funding process for the Reading station project is very complicated, very long-winded and extremely bureaucratic, and I find it impossible to understand fully. Funding should be transparent and understandable, but it clearly is not.
The Government are playing fast and loose with transport planning and funding, and they should step back from the profoundly undemocratic course that they are taking.
It is a great pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Reading, East (Mr. Wilson) and other Members who have spoken. The need for the Government to let go has been highlighted in all contributions—not least that of the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody), and the report of the Transport Committee, which she chairs, also makes that clear. That is the consensus across the House; the only Members who do not share it are those on the Government Front Bench. Why? We heard in an earlier debate that the Chancellor of the Exchequer has damaged health by centralising control, and that is also happening with transport.
I intend my remarks to be brief—although I realise that Members often say that but fail to deliver. Yorkshire receives significantly lower transport funding than the national average. It is a dynamic area of the country, but many of its areas are in need of regeneration—a fact that Members in all parts of the House have mentioned. Many Members from different parties attended a reception last week at which the case was put for greater funding for Yorkshire. I hope that the Minister heard about that reception, and that she will receive inputs from Members across the political spectrum in support of Yorkshire’s case.
If Yorkshire were to receive fair funding—the national average outside London—proper attention could be paid to regenerating the Humber ports, which offer fantastic opportunities for economic and social improvement. If the Government, especially the Treasury, were to sort out their priorities, we would look at several matters, such as the ludicrous Humber bridge charges, which cause great hardship to those who need to access hospital services on the north bank and have a depressing economic effect on the whole region, particularly on the south bank, but on the north bank too. The Exchequer loses vast sums because of that failure of joined-up government. I hope that the Minister will be able to speak to colleagues in the Treasury and put the case, which I know is strongly felt by Members who represent the area, for lowering the charges and writing off some of the debt, which is spiralling and will never be properly repaid by charging to cross the Humber bridge.
Fairer funding would also, and more directly, give the opportunity to revisit the issue of the Beverley to York railway line, and indeed that of the whole corridor from Hull to York, which could play an important role in the regeneration of Hull and allow us to capitalise on the contribution that the Humber ports make to the country as a whole. I pay tribute to the Minsters’ rail campaign. It has for many years been chaired by my Labour opponent at the last general election, George McManus, who has persisted in pushing the case of the Minsters’ rail campaign to reopen the Beverley to York railway line. The East Riding is an economically successful area of the country. It is fortunate in having a Conservative-led council that has the highest financial management rating in the country and is graded as excellent in its ability to implement transport schemes. Will the Minister consider the Beverley to York railway line?
Will the Minister also consider the need to upgrade the A1079, on which there have been 16 deaths in five years and hundreds of casualties? I am grateful to her for meeting my right hon. Friend for East Yorkshire (Mr. Knight) and me to discuss that issue. The road goes from Hull to York and is vital for businesses and economic activity. Its current condition leads to substantial safety considerations. The Minister has agreed that her officials will work with our local authority in any way that they can to help it to get the best possible bid and to consider properly any bid that comes in. I know that people in Beverley, Holderness, Hull and York and all the areas in between look forward to that road being seriously improved to the benefit of the whole area.
The theme of the debate so far has been the recognition that centralisation is not working and that we need innovation. There is no point in having a highly centralised innovation fund and falsely presenting it to the House as something that will create new ideas locally. It turns out that the fund will be even more centralised than current funding and can be used only to implement Government policy. The Chancellor’s obsessive centralisation is damaging health delivery, as we have heard, and is also damaging the implementation of transport strategies. People in Yorkshire are browned off about health and transport; motorists and rail passengers are also browned off. It is time for a change. It is time for transport that works to be delivered through local ideas, control and leadership. That seems to be a common theme across the House. I hope that the Minister will announce a U-turn in Government attitude.
The thrust of the Select Committee’s report focuses on how the relationship between local authorities and central Government should develop. The debate has highlighted the contradictions in people’s approaches to the issue.
The hon. Member for Reading, East (Mr. Wilson) began his speech by suggesting that the Government were at fault because they did not intervene in a difference of opinion between a section of the community in Reading and the local authority over its decisions. He then complained that the Government are trying to impose policy from the centre. That demonstrates one of the difficulties with ensuring that the relationship between the Government and local government decision making reflects not only the policies of the Government, because they have an interest, but local needs. It must respect the fact that the people who are closest to the local community, and who are more directly responsible to it for week in, week out and year in, year out decision making, are best placed to respond to local needs.
Without turning the debate into too much of a political knockabout, I make the point that Conservative Front Benchers have argued that congestion charging and local road charging should be a matter for local government, but we know that Governments are under a great deal of pressure to address climate change. Should the country ever make the mistake of re-electing a Conservative Government—
I think that both hon. Gentlemen will be drawing their pensions long before that happens.
I can imagine a future Prime Minister going around the Cabinet table and asking how each Department is contributing to tackling the important issue of climate change, and the Transport Secretary saying, “I am delivering nothing because local government will not play ball.” I really do not see that as a credible position, but, at the same time, there has to be some degree of local autonomy. That highlights the difficulty that we face in debating these matters.
We have a democratically accountable transport authority for the whole of London and my area provides an example of some of the difficulties that communities face in getting a London-wide authority to pay attention to the minute detail of some of the transport issues at a local level. The authority looks at the broader picture. It quite rightly holds up the fact that it has been able to transfer a significant number of people from private cars to public transport and points to that success, but, at the same time, when local communities ask for minor alterations in bus services and extensions to local transport services, they find that their voices are drowned out in the wider context of the debate about London-wide transport issues. It is difficult for communities to get themselves heard. That is an example of what we are talking about in the relationship between local government and central Government.
In an intervention on the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael), a Conservative Back Bencher asked whether infrastructure should be put in place before major developments such as the Thames Gateway. The hon. Gentleman gave a rather curious answer. He seemed to suggest that we should hold up regeneration in the Thames Gateway area until such time as we have developed the transport infrastructure. I must point out that one of the most significant developments is going to be Crossrail. If we were to postpone development of the Thames Gateway area to wait for Crossrail, there would be significant suffering for people in that part of London. I suggest that he might want to reconsider the position that he adopted in his response to that intervention, because it certainly does not make any sense. I grant that it is desirable to put all transport infrastructure in place before development takes place, but if we were to postpone development until projects such as Crossrail were in place, we would be making a serious error and we would be perpetuating the suffering of a lot of people in the south-east who need that development. [Interruption.] Yes, they will also need the infrastructure.
The hon. Gentleman is asking about a peculiar answer from the Liberal Democrats, which is hardly unusual, but he himself seems to be suggesting that, because the Government are incapable of delivering transport projects—as the hon. Member for Manchester, Blackley (Graham Stringer) laid out very well—housing development must go ahead, even though there will not be the infrastructure to support it. Surely it is not unreasonable to suggest that a co-ordinated Government should be able to put infrastructure in place before the people who need that infrastructure are living there.
If the hon. Gentleman considers what he is saying, he will realise that there is transport infrastructure in place already. What we are talking about is expanding that infrastructure. That is essential to the development of the Thames Gateway area, which will take place over the next two decades, but I suggest that if we were to postpone decisions and postpone putting in place some of that development until that infrastructure were in place, that would make no sense.
Does my hon. Friend agree that it might be quite helpful if all the private sources of finance that are so delighted and anxious to support major transport schemes and so keen on seeing Crossrail came forward now with a staged plan and a clear guarantee of the amount of money that would be required? That would allow Government money to go into schemes outside the south-east.
I agree with my hon. Friend to a certain extent. She tempts me to debate the whole Crossrail issue, but I urge my hon. Friends on the Treasury Bench, as well as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport, to consider the proposals for the Crossrail station at Woolwich. By comparison with any other station on the Crossrail line, we are putting in a large amount of private sector funding for the station at Woolwich to make its funding stack up.
My last point is about regeneration. Local authorities that gave evidence to the Select Committee were clearly confused about whether regeneration as part of their local transport plan would score well in terms of the investment their proposals would attract from the Department for Transport. If we are looking to local government as the driving force for regeneration in an area, regeneration must be an essential part of its transport infrastructure development. I urge the Government to clear up the confusion about the score attached to regeneration when local transport authorities are developing transport plans.
I return to the example of the Crossrail station at Woolwich, as it will be essential for my community, which is south of Woolwich. The station is vital not only as part of the regeneration programme to meet the needs of the north Kent and Thames Gateway developments, but for the wider community. One of my concerns about some of the infrastructure development that has already taken place is how people in communities not immediately adjacent to new stations and train lines will access the transport hubs that are being developed in the second phase. In particular, how can we reach deprived communities that could benefit from the new transport schemes? How do we provide links that benefit the wider community, not just people who live close to major infrastructure projects, or have easy access to them? Such projects have an impact in localities where they can assist in tackling social exclusion and increase participation in the economy. Their value cannot be overstated. It is essential that we take a wider strategic approach to major transport programmes. Local transport plans are at the heart of delivering them. In the relationship between central and local government, we need clarification of the role that regeneration plays in the development of local government plans.
I am grateful for the opportunity to contribute to this debate on the Select Committee’s report and the Government’s record on local transport planning and funding. I commend the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) on her excellent introduction to the debate. There have been interesting contributions from both sides of the House.
The speech of the hon. Member for Manchester, Blackley (Graham Stringer) was interesting in a number of respects. He argued his case forcefully—as he does often. My hon. Friends the Member for Beverley and Holderness (Mr. Stuart) and for Reading, East (Mr. Wilson) also made forceful contributions. The hon. Member for Eltham (Clive Efford) seemed to criticise another Member, but then fell into the same trap, especially on his point about Government and private funding of Crossrail.
While the private sector has already guaranteed a certain amount, it is for the Government to tell us either how much they are going to put in, or whether they will support the project with a Government-backed bond, which would make the private sector funding even cheaper and more effective, and might even produce extra money to deliver the hon. Gentleman’s Crossrail station.
The hon. Gentleman is right, but he should not forget that the Government punted the issue into the long grass by referring it to the Lyons committee, which did not need to consider it.
We have been discussing an excellent report that makes sensible recommendations and is the result of detailed analysis. The report makes interesting criticisms of the Government. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s response to several of those points. As the hon. Member for Manchester, Blackley said, before we look at the report in a great deal of depth, it is instructive to explain the context of the situation and some of the promises that the Government have made over the past 10 years.
The infamous transport plan of 2000 hangs like a millstone around the neck of Ministers as they pass in and out of the Department for Transport. The plan promised 200 major local road improvements and 70 bypasses. I am sure that the Minister will tell us exactly how many of those improvements and bypasses have been funded and built. On heavy rail, the plan said that the Government would provide new capacity to meet new demand and to improve the quality of services—two more failures there.
The plan promised to
“fund a substantial increase in the role of light rail in our larger cities and conurbations over the next ten years.”
It went on to promise 25 new light rail schemes. Later, the Minister will be able to stand up and count on the fingers of her left hand the number of light rail routes that have been introduced under the Government. The hon. Member for Manchester, Blackley made the point that funding approval has been revoked or turned down over the past couple of years for schemes in Manchester, Leeds, Liverpool and south Hampshire. Indeed, when the Transport Committee examined the matter in the last Session, it highlighted the clear tension that existed between local and central Government on light rail. Its report said:
“Disappointment over the Department’s decision to revoke funding for some Major Schemes has raised the profile of the relationship between the Department and local authorities in the context of projects such as light rail. There was severe criticism of the Department's decision to reject schemes which local authorities had judged to comply with national transport strategy and priorities, and present good value for money.”
That report echoes some of the criticisms about which we have heard today. The Department for Transport’s changes to, and delays in, policy have added significantly to the cost of various schemes, and its value-for-money criteria are, at best, opaque. Local authorities have pointed out that they had little idea of what the Department was trying to achieve, of why their light rail schemes had been rejected, and of what they needed to do to get those schemes approved. Many of the targets in the 10-year transport plan that were set out in 2000 have not been achieved, and now the targets have been quietly dropped and are nothing more than aims.
The hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich said that local transport was a partnership. It is key to vibrant local communities and the lifeblood of local economies. The local transport that is provided in an area can define the area, its community and its economy. Local authorities are responsible for the provision and funding of such transport, but the funding comes from both local and central Government—that is the partnership. The interrelation between those two aspects of government defines how effectively transport is delivered. Whatever the Government’s plans for the funding of local authority transport, one must hope, in the spirit of partnership, that they are somewhat better, and have more longevity, than the 10-year plan that was produced in 2000.
The Government have talked a lot about devolving power to local authorities, but the harsh reality for many local councils is that the Government are imposing more responsibilities on them without the requisite extra funding. The fact remains that when it comes to transport, local authorities’ freedom of manoeuvre is woefully inadequate, as authorities are entitled to bid for central Government money for local schemes that meet local priorities only if those local priorities are in accordance with the Department for Transport’s diktat. That is one of the clear themes that comes through in the Select Committee report.
In 2000, alongside the 10-year plan, the Government introduced a new framework for transport planning by local authorities, the local transport plan, and that is the essence of what the report is considering. The local transport plan imposed on authorities the obligation to produce a local transport plan every five years. The first phase was 2001-02 to 2005-06, and the next round, which is taking place at the moment, is 2006-07 to 2010-11. A notable feature of the local transport plan’s first round has been the cost associated with the plans’ production. The Select Committee report cites the average cost as between £50,000 and £200,000 per county council; in metropolitan areas, the cost is significantly greater.
The report comments that the second round of the local transport plans has continued that trend. The Committee says that the production of Manchester’s second-round local transport plan is reckoned to cost some £500,000. One wonders how much that would buy. How many improvements could be made to buses in Manchester town centre or on the Oxford road corridor for that amount? Yet that is just the cost of preparation. The preparation costs for the scheme are at a level that raises questions about the scheme’s benefits. Are the local transport plan production costs proportionate to the investment secured, or the new transport schemes delivered? I look forward to hearing the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, the hon. Member for Lincoln (Gillian Merron), talk about the proportionality of costs.
In introducing the debate, the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich talked about delivery, and the report is scathing on the subject of the delivery of transport improvements. Its conclusion is that little has been delivered, despite the capital investment made. To quote the report,
“The gap between what was anticipated and what has been delivered in terms of local transport improvements makes it difficult to judge what has actually been achieved.”
Furthermore, it says that
“on the existing evidence it is disappointing that there were not more transport improvements delivered”.
The Government’s response to that criticism was to comment that there have been “substantial improvements”; I am sure that the Minister will expand on that in her speech, but there was no qualification or quantification of the statement. It is instructive to note that the other knee-jerk response, which is to say, “We’ve put the matter out to consultants, who will issue a report”, was used, too. How long will that take, and how much will it cost?
It is clear that the costs of producing local transport plans must have diminished the delivery of improvements. The guidance to local authorities has at times hindered the delivery of those plans, too. On that subject, there is criticism in the report about the guidance, but the Government’s guidance is often less than transparent on other occasions as well. I was alerted to that particular feature of the Department’s performance last week, in a slightly different context, when I spoke to the councillor responsible for transport for Christchurch borough council. When concessionary bus fares for senior citizens were introduced last year—the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael) mentioned that earlier—local authorities were warned by the Government that they would have to notify bus operators of the arrangements for reimbursing them four months in advance of the April start date, or they might face action against them. The only trouble was that the Department issued the guidance in mid-January.
We have spoken about first-round costs, but it looks like the second-round plans will incur extra costs, as the Department for Transport has issued revised guidance. Clearly, there has been recognition that the guidance associated with the first-round plans needed change and revision, but the Department’s failure to alert local authorities to the fact that revised guidance was being introduced has undoubtedly caused a number of local authorities extra problems with delivery, and has resulted in extra costs for their bid preparation. The Select Committee report highlights that, and it will be interesting to hear the Minister’s response on that point.
The Department believes that the second round of guidance on plan preparation is less prescriptive than the first, but it is the only body that believes that; the view is shared by no one else. The Local Government Association said that the prescriptive nature of the guidance altered the relationship between the Department and councils. The reality is that although the Government provide extra funding through local transport plans—I shall come on to that in a moment—they seek, too, to override the local aspect of those plans. They speak about local plans and local action, but they are a centralising Government. It is possible to have a local plan if it fits central Government requirements, and that trait has become even more evident in the transport innovation fund that the Government have introduced.
The Select Committee’s report rightly makes the point that over-prescription of guidance has increased the costs and production time of local transport plans, without creating any greater certainty about funding, fulfilment, or indeed about delivery. What should a local transport plan comprise? Should it best reflect the needs of the local community and the local authority, or should it recognise the uniqueness of a local area, bearing in mind the fact that areas differ from one another? The answer is yes, but not in the Department for Transport. In 2002, the Department supposedly shared with local authorities priorities such as accessibility, congestion, air quality and road safety. Those are the Department’s priorities, because it believes that local authorities are responsible for “delivering national transport objectives.” If those four priorities reflect the priorities of local authorities, all is well. If they do not, the Government will use them to restrict what local authorities can implement, and much has been made today of the fact that regeneration criteria have been left out of those plans.
The over-prescription and overriding of local priorities is highlighted by the fact that the revised guidance contains 16 pages on shared priorities—namely, the Government’s priorities—and only two on other local priorities. Yet again, the Committee’s report consistently highlights the fact that the Government speak about localising but act by centralising. Local authorities do not believe that they are free to set their own priorities; they believe that local transport plans are scored on how well it delivers national, Department for Transport-set priorities. If local transport plans are to deliver local objectives, the Government must revise their guidance one more time. It must be less prescriptive, and it must ensure that the scoring procedure for the weighting of local priorities against national priorities is transparent. That recommendation is highlighted in the report.
The Government’s most recent transport scheme—the transport innovation fund—also highlights their centralising nature. It was announced in July 2004, and when it was re-announced in 2006, the Secretary of State announced that it would be available only for packages aimed at tackling congestion and schemes that met productivity objectives. Yet again, the Government have centrally governed and micro-managed local transport. No one can be in any doubt that transport funding, via the transport innovation fund, is anything other than a national pot of money that carries national obligations for any local authority wishing to access it. My hon. Friend the Member for Reading, East rightly made that point earlier.
I shall quote the Committee report one more time. It says that TIF
“is nationally administered and bypasses the strategic frameworks provided by Local Transport Plans and regional transport strategies…it represents a move away from local determination.”
The theme continues throughout the report. The Government are not concerned about local priorities. My hon. Friend the Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink) is no longer in the Chamber, but on my visit to Southend, the councillors and officers of Southend borough council told me that they need to access funds for their local transport plan and, indeed, for a number of local transport improvements, but that they have no need for a congestion scheme. However, it is clear to them that if they do not include such a scheme in their TIF bid, they will not receive TIF funding. TIF is not
“about local choice or local schemes…It is not about innovation; it is about central control.”
Excellent words, excellent summary; thanks once again to the Select Committee.
The Select Committee makes some interesting points about funding in its report. First, it points out that in 2001-02 to 2005-06 there was an increase in capital funding available for transport. That is to the Government’s credit. What is not yet clear is whether the increased capital resources in period 1 will necessarily be renewed into period 2. Paragraph 15 of the Government’s response states:
“The Government has set planning guidelines for investment in both block funding and major schemes that increase significantly”,
but elsewhere the Department states that authorities are encouraged to deliver their second round of local transport plan targets on the assumption that there are no new major projects funded by the Department. On one hand there is the promise of extra funding, and on the other the Government explicitly deny that it is available.
As other hon. Members noted, the Department for Transport indicated that there would be extra capital funds for major schemes. During the first phase of local transport plans, the Government would not fund schemes below £5 million out of the budget, and authorities were not allowed to spend more than £5 million on a scheme without Government approval—a point raised by the hon. Member for Manchester, Blackley earlier. That resulted in a number of decisions being taken out of local authority control, where they might more properly have been made. It resulted in local authorities struggling to find funds to enable major schemes, and the limit of £5 million requiring central approval meant significant cost and time to prepare a bid.
I recognise, as does the whole House, that the Department for Transport must ensure that the funding for schemes offers value for money, and that there must necessarily be a robust appraisal, but it is also clear that the bidding process is costly and in a number of cases diminishes the amount of funding available for delivery. The Department has stated that it is necessary for local authorities to undertake an appropriate level of appraisal work. True, but as the Select Committee report highlights the fact that it can cost 5 to 15 per cent. of the total cost of the project just to get a scheme to the stage where it can be presented to the Department for analysis, surely the Minister will agree with everyone else in the House and with the Select Committee report that that is sub-optimal, especially as the report states:
“Rejected bids are likely to increase in number.”
The process is costly, and it is not clear whether there will be new central funding for major schemes between 2006 and 2011. The Government appear to be indicating that they will consider only major schemes already at provisional approval stage, and have said that it should be assumed that no new major schemes will be funded. That will inevitably undermine the efforts of local authorities to transform and revitalise their local transport networks. Yet again, the Government are talking big but failing to deliver, and talking local but centralising in action.
Is the hon. Gentleman nearly halfway yet?
Let us leave capital funding and move on to revenue funding briefly. Atkins found that the lack of revenue funding was a major barrier to the implementation and maintenance of transport schemes. The Government often speak about local revenue funding of transport to promote social policy objectives, but the shortage is affecting bus and community transport. Last year the concessionary travel scheme for over-60s was introduced in local areas. The Government provided £350 million. When I telephoned 20 local authorities to check whether their allocated funding out of that money would cover the extra cost of the scheme, 19 said no and one was not sure. The £250 million that the Government have announced to implement the national scheme will clearly exacerbate the revenue funding problems for local authorities.
Perhaps we should not worry too much about revenue funding, however, because riding over the horizon to the rescue comes the Lyons inquiry. So far Crossrail, Thameslink and funding for pretty much everything else has been held up while we await Sir Michael’s report. Whether it proves to be the universal panacea remains to be seen. The report has taken two and a half years to reach fruition. We have no idea what he is going to recommend on the ability to raise local funds for local projects or what he is going to say about local business taxation for local transport projects. The Lyons report carries the hopes of many, but let us hope it is not an Eddington—promising much and delivering little.
The conclusion one must reach if one looks at the Select Committee report and the history of the Government when examining their record on local transport and funding is that the Department for Transport says that it looks to local authorities to implement local schemes, but in reality it only looks to local authorities if those schemes comply with Government prescription and Government national priorities. Local transport plans are rated against national objectives and stand no chance of receiving funding unless they meet them. The reality is that the Department looks to local authorities to implement national priorities. That was reinforced by the Committee’s earlier observation:
“While the Department insists that councils are free to set their own priorities, this does not match the local authority interpretation of the guidance and assessment for funding.”
In addition—[Interruption.] I am still taking less time than the hon. Member for Manchester, Blackley.
TIF is even worse. Any local authority can have the temerity to submit a bid based on its local needs, but it will be refused unless it fulfils a narrow set of national priorities. Be it phase 1 or phase 2 of local transport plans or TIF, little about transport planning or funding under this Government is local. The conclusion from the Select Committee report and the conclusion tonight is that this is a Government who talk local but act central.
I am pleased that we have debated local transport planning and funding. The subject is vital to achieving the Government’s goals for transport. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) and her Committee for their work. It has informed us in the Department, as it always does.
I am also pleased that the Select Committee chose to hold an inquiry into local transport planning and funding last year, and I welcome scrutiny of this important policy area. The Committee took evidence from many eminent and expert witnesses, including my hon. Friend the Minister of State. Hon. Members will have to decide for themselves whether he is eminent or expert, or both. I would suggest both.
I welcome the Committee’s support for the principle of a local transport planning framework. That is clearly within the Committee’s thoughts. It is a core responsibility of local government. I am pleased that alongside the concerns that the Committee has highlighted, it has also welcomed many of the key recent policy developments, which include introducing a formula to distribute the funding support for local authorities for smaller schemes and changing the arrangements for councils to report progress to the Department. The Committee rightly identified those as necessary.
I want to make some underlying points before addressing the particular points raised. Local transport plans are making a real difference. Substantially larger capital budgets are being spent on local transport. Government funding support has more than doubled compared with a decade ago. The investment has contributed to continued major reductions in serious casualties on local roads and even more rapid falls in the number of those who are seriously injured on our roads. I regard that as progress. That has also reversed the long-term under-investment in road maintenance. Again, I consider not only halting but reversing the decline in road conditions to be a major advance.
A broader range of projects is being delivered. Measures are being taken locally to manage the use of cars more effectively and to encourage alternative ways of travelling. There is more consultation with stakeholders and the public, which I welcome. More effective schemes are being delivered, and delivery of schemes is being focused on the intended outcomes, a point to which I shall return later. Those are not just my opinions; they are some of the findings of the independent evaluation that the Department has set up in respect of this policy.
I recognise that more needs to be done. The Secretary of State and I have undertaken a review of bus services: in some areas, we found real improvements being achieved in partnership between bus operators and local authorities, but all too often, as hon. Members have mentioned this evening, the current framework is still not delivering the services that passengers rightly expect. In December, we set out proposals in “Putting Passengers First” to modernise the framework to improve delivery, which was, of course, the biggest shake-up of bus services for 20 years since deregulation by the Conservative party.
The Stern report highlighted the challenge of climate change, which is a key challenge for transport including for local transport planning. Over the past three years, the Department for Transport has worked closely with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to foster links between tackling air quality and transport problems locally, which cuts across tiers of councils and across government. The broader issue of climate change is one to which we will apply ourselves even further as we develop local transport planning, and I know that many local authorities welcome that approach.
The Eddington study examined the effects of transport on economic growth, competition and productivity. The local transport plan framework provides a way of considering action on transport locally in the context of wider issues, which the Conservative party has not acknowledged this evening but which we know takes place in reality. The Eddington study highlights buses in urban areas and sub-national decision making as critical delivery areas. We will therefore consider the findings of the study as we develop the local transport planning framework. All those points are responses to studies conducted outside the Department.
Last autumn’s local government White Paper, which has been referred to this evening, sets out this Government’s vision of revitalised local authorities working with partners to reshape public services around members of the public and the communities that they serve. That means changing how the Government work with local authorities, so for local transport planning we are introducing less burdensome reporting to Government and providing more choice for localities to deliver the solutions that are right for their circumstances and priorities. I hope that that has addressed a number of the concerns raised in the House this evening.
I value the Select Committee’s report as we consider the way forward for local transport planning.
I am sure that hon. Members on both sides of the House, and especially those who have spoken this evening, will welcome the Minister’s words about releasing central control. Does she accept the central tenet of the Committee report and of all the contributions made this evening that the Government have been too prescriptive over the past 10 years?
I do not.
The record investment levels that we have set in government are being sustained. For smaller schemes, we have announced year-on-year increases for the next four years. Local authorities receive that funding as a block grant to enable them to identify and fund local priorities, with the level of funding for an area reflecting pressures and the Department’s overall assessments of the local transport plans—I hope that that has set the record straight on funding. For larger schemes, decisions are made in the light of advice from the particular region and are met by either the regional funding allocation or, potentially, the transport innovation fund. The regional funding allocations increase year on year over the 10-year guideline period. I therefore find it difficult to recognise the reference to the Government imposing their will and refusing to fund, which is clearly not the case.
On top of that, the transport innovation fund will provide substantial extra resources to those local authorities interested in addressing local congestion problems through innovative demand management responses. We are working with local authorities to develop local transport plans further, as the Committee wanted us to. I am happy to report that the Department and local authority officials are working together on how progress on delivering plans should be reviewed in future.
The hon. Member for Wimbledon (Stephen Hammond) correctly reported our national priorities for local transport plans as tackling congestion, dealing with road safety, undertaking accessibility planning, and tackling air quality hotspots. However, contrary to what he said, those were all agreed with the Local Government Association. As that is Conservative led, I find it difficult to recognise the allegation that those priorities were imposed.
My hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich called for improved guidance. The Department issued final guidance on the second local transport plan 16 months before the final deadline for the completion of the plan. We recognise the need for local authorities, including those participating on joint plans, which we encourage, to have enough time to draft and approve their plans, and in future we will endeavour to publish guidance about plans even further in advance. We are here to support local authorities, not in any way to make life difficult for them. The Department is committed to enabling them to present local priorities within local transport plans, and the criteria are widely advertised and well known. There will be an assessment of the coherence of plans as a whole. People sometimes draw an artificial distinction on priorities, but these are common priorities locally and nationally. We are keen that local authorities find the right answers for their local areas and that we assist them in doing so. I wish to re-emphasise that we are working very closely with local authority officials to improve the manner of assessments.
Reference was made to the possibility of increasing the threshold of the scheme to £10 million. Views have been put to us on that, although they are somewhat mixed. We gather that there is now a consultation on the regional funding allocations. It is worth saying that increasing the limit would reduce the ability of authorities to apply for extra funding for schemes, and that must be taken into account. Nevertheless, we are considering the matters that have been raised with us.
The hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael) referred several times to a lack of boldness. I was reminded that it was once said that we are at our best when we are at our boldest. That is indeed the case when it comes to transport.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich said, the national concessionary fares scheme is extremely popular. The Government are extremely proud of it. From April next year, we will provide about £1 billion a year to fund concessionary travel, which we believe will be sufficient to ensure its roll-out. We do, however, recognise that local authorities have concerns about the distribution of funding. We are therefore considering several options in conjunction with local authorities, other stakeholders and users to find the right way forward for the roll-out of the scheme, which will benefit some 11 million pensioners and disabled people throughout the country.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way. The scheme is important and popular, and the Government should take credit for it. However, may I have her word that a positive attempt will be made not only to work out the cost of administering the scheme but, where there is a need for harmonisation, to take account of some sort of equalisation when local authorities are being asked for their views?
I can confirm that that will be taken into account.
My hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Blackley (Graham Stringer) raised several points. He sometimes overlooked some of the positive developments in his area—for example, in July 2006, we gave conditional approval for Manchester Metrolink phase 3a extensions to Rochdale, Oldham and Chorlton. The Department will provide up £244 million, which fulfils the commitment made to Manchester in December 2004 that the £520 million package remained available, subject to detailed proposals.
There is a delay on the Mottram to Tintwistle bypass because we are waiting for advice from the region on the schemes that are affordable within the budget. It is therefore not owing to national diktat; we are following local advice.
The Government are not anti-tram. We realise that the tram can be an effective way in which to attract people to public transport and that it may be the best solution. However, it is also expensive and schemes will not be approved at any cost. Again, it is a matter of finding the right solution within the available resources.
My hon. Friend is not convincing me at the moment, hard as she tries. If the Government are not against trams, why does the consultation document not include any of the positive cases? The consultation finished on 9 March. I did not mention, for example, that the document does not compare like with like. It compares the revenue costs of buses with the capital costs of trams. How is that fair? Why does not the consultation document include any of the positive cases?
My hon. Friend the Minister of State heard my hon. Friend’s comments. I confirm again that the Government are not anti-tram but that the right solution has to be found within the resources available. There are occasions when the bus is a better, cheaper, more effective and economic alternative.
I was interested that the hon. Member for Reading, East (Mr. Wilson) talked about the Government playing “fast and loose”. I have never known that said of a Government who have given conditional approval to a scheme to improve junction 11 of the M4 and make related improvements to Mereoak junction, which will allow Reading to invite tenders for construction. The Government expect to provide more than £62 million for the scheme, which will ease congestion on the main access from the M4 into Reading. If that is playing fast and loose, many hon. Members would welcome it.
The scheme for Reading station was originally developed by the council with Network Rail. Following further review in the emerging conclusions of the Intercity Express project, a larger scheme than was originally envisaged is now required at Reading to create an interchange that is capable of handling the forecast growth in passenger numbers, including the possibility of new direct airport services. Key stakeholders, including my hon. Friend the Member for Reading, West (Martin Salter), support that view. The Thames valley regional planning assessment for the railway is in the final stages of development and is considering the required upgrade of Reading station. We hope that the required documentation will be published around Easter.
On the Reading inner-distributor road, I, like my hon. Friend the Member for Eltham (Clive Efford), was somewhat confused because it appeared as though the hon. Member for Reading, East wanted local decisions at all times unless they were not the decisions that he supported. To clarify, I am aware that this is a controversial scheme. However, it is proposed in order to address congestion, which we all know needs to be done, and I also emphasise that the Department for Transport is not being asked to contribute any funds. I am aware that Reading borough council is fully apprised of the requirements on it.
I would like to say a few words of clarification about the transport innovation fund. That is extra money allotted for an additional purpose: that fund is not taking money from anyone and no one is forced to apply for it. It has a separate set of requirements and criteria. It is intended to deal with both congestion and productivity. It is important to clarify that, as a misleading or strange impression has been created that TIF is somehow taking money away, but it is not.
We had some discussion of road pricing, on which I am interested to see that the Conservatives have many views. The hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling) said:
“Demand management is an option and we will look very seriously at road pricing.”
The hon. Member for Tatton (Mr. Osborne) said that the Conservatives were
“sympathetic to the concept of road pricing”,
and the right hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) said:
“Britain now needs a concerted programme of road building, accompanied by the introduction of advanced traffic management methods, including new solutions for road charging based on usage and the time of day”.
It seems to me that there is quite a lot of support among those on the Conservative Benches for the transport innovation fund, which I am delighted to discover.
The hon. Member for Beverley and Holderness (Mr. Stuart) referred to Yorkshire not receiving enough money. Well, I must put further questions to the hon. Gentleman. From where would he seek to take the money and how on earth can he reconcile the call for more money for his own region with the various points put forward by his party about plans to share the proceeds of economic growth, which is a code for tax cuts? Indeed, in an article on ConservativeHome, which has since been removed, the hon. Member for Wimbledon called for £20 billion-worth of cuts, and the Forsyth tax reform commission advocated £16 billion-worth of cuts. I understand that hon. Members always want more resources for their own area, but it is incumbent on us to show some responsibility and say where that money will come from.
My hon. Friend the Member for Eltham made the point, as forcefully as always, about the need for a further station in Woolwich under the Crossrail development. I have noted that and I can confirm that the Secretary of State is looking further into the matter and has committed to reporting back to the Select Committee on Crossrail.
This has been an interesting debate. I have not recognised all the reflections on the Government’s local transport policy, but I can say without any doubt that more funding and more effective planning is going into local transport today than was the case 10 years ago. The Select Committee supports the principle of local transport plans and I am grateful to it. I also welcome the constructive points that have been put forward. I can confirm that we are aiming and working towards further improvements in our support for local authorities so that they can achieve even better results in serving the people for whom they work. I hope that the House will support that.
With the leave of the House, I would like to say that we have had a very useful debate. There is a great partnership to be had between local authorities and the Government and we look forward to developing it in the future.
It being Ten o’clock, Mr. Speaker proceeded to put forthwith the deferred Questions relating to Estimates which he was directed to put at that hour, pursuant to Standing Order No. 54 (Consideration of estimates, &c.).
SUPPLEMENTARY ESTIMATES, 2006-07
Department of Health
That, for the year ending with 31st March 2007, for expenditure by the Department of Health—
(1) further resources, not exceeding £94,395,000, be authorised for use as set out in HC 293,
(2) a further sum, not exceeding £1,000, be granted to Her Majesty out of the Consolidated Fund to meet the costs as so set out, and
(3) limits as so set out be set on appropriations in aid.
Department for Transport
That, for the year ending with 31st March 2007, for expenditure by the Department for Transport—
(1) further resources, not exceeding £849,010,000, be authorised for use as set out in HC 293,
(2) a further sum, not exceeding £533,764,000, be granted to Her Majesty out of the Consolidated Fund to meet the costs as so set out, and
(3) limits as so set out be set on appropriations in aid.
Mr. Speaker then proceeded to put forthwith the Questions relating to Estimates which he was directed to put at that hour, pursuant to Standing Order No. 55 (1) and (3) (Questions on voting of estimates, &c.).
ESTIMATES, 2007-08 (NAVY) VOTE A
That, during the year ending with 31st March 2008, a number not exceeding 42,240 all ranks be maintained for Naval Service and that numbers in the Reserve Naval and Marine Forces be authorised for the purposes of Parts 1, 3, 4 and 5 of the Reserve Forces Act 1996 up to the maximum numbers set out in HC 280 of this Session.
ESTIMATES, 2007-08 (ARMY) VOTE A
That, during the year ending with 31st March 2008, a number not exceeding 125,785 all ranks be maintained for Army Service and that numbers in the Reserve Land Forces be authorised for the purposes of Parts 1, 3, 4 and 5 of the Reserve Forces Act 1996 up to the maximum numbers set out in HC 280 of this Session.
ESTIMATES, 2007-08 (AIR) VOTE A
That, during the year ending with 31st March 2008, a number not exceeding 48,360 all ranks be maintained for Air Force Service and that numbers in the Reserve Air Forces be authorised for the purposes of Parts 1, 3, 4 and 5 of the Reserve Forces Act 1996 up to the maximum numbers set out in HC 280 of this Session.
ESTIMATES, EXCESSES, 2005-06
That, for the year that ended with 31st March 2006—
(1) resources, not exceeding £795,801,000, be authorised for use to make good excesses of certain resources for defence and civil services as set out in HC 243;
(2) a sum, not exceeding £4,956,000, be granted to Her Majesty out of the Consolidated Fund to make good excesses of certain grants for defence and civil services as so set out; and
(3) limits as so set out be set on appropriations in aid.
SUPPLEMENTARY ESTIMATES, 2006-07
That, for the year ending with 31st March 2007—
(1) further resources, not exceeding £6,125,169,000, be authorised for defence and civil services as set out in HC 293,
(2) a further sum, not exceeding £7,122,263,000, be granted to Her Majesty out of the Consolidated Fund to meet the costs of defence and civil services as so set out; and
(3) limits as so set out be set on appropriations in aid.
That a Bill be brought in on the foregoing resolutions relating to Supplementary Estimates, 2006-07, and Estimates, Excesses, 2005-06, and the resolutions of 7th December relating to Supplementary and New Estimates, 2006-07: And that the Chairman of Ways and Means, Mr. Chancellor of the Exchequer, Mr. Stephen Timms, Dawn Primarolo, Ed Balls and John Healey do prepare and bring it in.
Consolidated Fund (Appropriation) Bill
John Healey accordingly presented a Bill to authorise the use of resources for the service of the years ending with 31st March 2006 and 31st March 2007 and to apply certain sums out of the Consolidated Fund to the service of the years ending with 31st March 2006 and 31st March 2007; and to appropriate the supply authorised in this Session of Parliament for the service of the years ending with 31st March 2006 and 31st March 2007: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time tomorrow, and to be printed [Bill 78].
Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 118(6) (Delegated Legislation Committees),
That the draft Tax Credits Up-rating Regulations 2007, which were laid before this House on 30th January, be approved.—[Steve McCabe.]
Question agreed to.
Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 118(6) (Delegated Legislation Committees),
That the draft Environmental Offences (Use of Fixed Penalty Receipts) Regulations 2007, which were laid before this House on 31st January, be approved.—[ Steve McCabe.]
Question agreed to.
Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 118(6) (Delegated Legislation Committees),
Representation of the People
That the draft Representation of the People (Scotland) (Amendment) Regulations 2007, which were laid before this House on 6th February, be approved.—[ Steve McCabe.]
Question agreed to.
That the draft Local Electoral Administration and Registration Services (Scotland) Act 2006 (Consequential Provisions and Modifications) Order 2007, which was laid before this House on 6th February, be approved.—[ Steve McCabe.]
Question agreed to.
That the draft Scottish Parliament (Elections etc.) Order 2007, which was laid before this House on 7th February, be approved.—[ Steve McCabe.]
Question agreed to.
That the draft Housing (Tenancy Deposit Schemes) Order 2007, which was laid before this House on 8th February, be approved.—[ Steve McCabe.]
Question agreed to.
EUROPEAN COMMUNITY DOCUMENTS
Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 119(9) (European Standing Committees),
That this House takes note of European Union Documents No. 17066/06, Commission Communication on Coordinating Member States’ direct tax systems in the internal market, No. 17067/06 and Addendum 1, Commission Communication on Tax treatment of losses in cross-border situations, and No. 17068/06, Commission Communication on Exit taxation and the need for coordination of Member States’ tax policies; and supports the Government’s intention of combining a robust defence of the right of Member States to determine their own direct taxation policies in compliance with Community law, with a recognition that national tax authorities, within the EU and elsewhere, will continue to work together both bilaterally and multilaterally to ensure that their direct tax systems work together properly.—[Steve McCabe.]
Question agreed to.
MODERNISATION OF THE HOUSE
That Mr. Edward Vaizey be discharged from the Select Committee on Modernisation of the House of Commons and Philip Davies be added.—[Steve McCabe.]
That Mr. Richard Bacon be discharged from the European Scrutiny Committee and Mr. Greg Hands be added.—[Rosemary McKenna, on behalf of the Committee of Selection.]