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Volume 470: debated on Tuesday 22 January 2008

The Secretary of State was asked—

Concessionary Travel

1. What discussions she has had with the Scottish Executive on the reciprocity of national pensioners’ bus schemes in England and Scotland. (180535)

In 2006, discussions were held with the Scottish Executive about reciprocal arrangements for concessionary travel. These identified technical and financial implications that would need to be resolved before there could be further extensions to national schemes. However, that does not prevent local authorities from making arrangements for cross-border travel, should they wish to do so.

The Minister has just conceded that these difficulties have been known about since 2006. There has therefore been ample time to resolve them before the national bus pass is introduced in April this year. Why should pensioners in border areas, who are now seeing notices on their buses saying that they will not be able to use their national bus passes across the border, not be able to benefit from this scheme, which is intended to enable pensioners to go to the doctor or the hospital, or to see their relations? Why do the Government not just get on with it?

Perhaps I can explain how the system would work if there were fully reciprocal arrangements. It would mean that anyone in England could use their pass to go anywhere in Scotland, and anyone in Scotland could do the same in England. Obviously, there would be financial implications, which the Scottish Executive and this Parliament would wish to address. There are particular arrangements in Berwick-upon-Tweed, however. I think that one small concession has been offered to enable people to get to the Borders general hospital. If local authorities wish to make cross-border arrangements, they may certainly do so, but they would need to do that as part of their local decision-making processes. There is nothing to prevent them from doing that if they want to.

The Minister has correctly described how such a scheme would work, and most of us—except perhaps the nationalists—do not see anything wrong with the scheme being applied so that pensioners could benefit in England and in Scotland. At the moment, pensioners from my constituency can travel free on the bus in Orkney but not in Carlisle, and pensioners from Newcastle can travel free in Penzance but not in Edinburgh. The Minister should treat this matter with more urgency, and I hope that we shall soon be able to establish a truly UK-wide scheme that will benefit all pensioners.

I certainly take on board my hon. Friend’s point. As I have said, there are obviously financial implications. At the moment, we are spending about £1 billion a year on concessionary travel for pensioners. This year, for example, in the constituency of the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith), there will be an increase in spending of 126 per cent. compared with the last financial year. The local authority might wish to put some of that towards cross-border travel. However, to make the scheme entirely nationwide between Scotland and England would have severe financial implications, on top of the extra £212 million that we have allocated this year for the concessionary fares scheme.

In relation to the scheme in England, I welcome the recognition that the funding has given to areas such as Brighton and Hove, which have done much to increase bus use and the take-up of passes over the past 12 years. Will the Minister liaise with colleagues in the Department for Communities and Local Government, however, to consider the representations that my local authority—Brighton and Hove city council—continues to make on the issue of funding?

Of course I will continue to liaise with the Department for Communities and Local Government on this issue. I should also point out, however, that my hon. Friend’s local council will see an increase of 33 per cent. in the amount allocated for the concessionary fares scheme, compared with the last financial year. The extra £350 million that was allocated in 2006 and the extra £212 million that is going in this year constitute a generous settlement as we try to make this extremely popular policy a success.

Is the Minister not aware that some of us believe that England and Scotland—and Wales and Northern Ireland, for that matter—are constituent parts of one United Kingdom, and that what the citizens of one country enjoy should be enjoyed by all?

I have said that we have opened discussions with the devolved Administrations about whether to extend the scheme further. Again, however, the hon. Gentleman might like to ask his own Front Benchers whether they would be prepared to make further financial commitments. What we are doing is concentrating on implementing the current scheme. In Staffordshire, this year’s increase over the previous financial year will be 30 per cent.—a massive increase in the amount devoted to the concessionary fares scheme, which, as the hon. Gentleman says, is extremely popular and widely welcomed by older people. It is important to fulfil the commitment in our manifesto to introduce the scheme as we have, but we can continue to discuss the financial and technical implications of extending it further.

Rail Timetables

3. What plans she has to hold discussions on the frequency of weekend train services on the east coast main line with National Express East Coast. (180537)

The responsibility for the setting of timetables rests not with the Department for Transport but with Network Rail, which is responsible for the national rail timetable. Individual train operating companies can agree changes to their timetables in co-operation with Network Rail.

If we are to encourage people, including my constituents, who want to travel to London away from congested roads such as the A14 and the M11, we need a rail service that is safe, clean and affordable but, above all, convenient. Notwithstanding the Minister’s answer, will he use his charm to persuade National Express East Coast to look again at providing a more comprehensive service on Saturdays, particularly Saturday evenings, because at the moment the last fast train from King’s Cross to Peterborough leaves at 8.30 pm?

Unfortunately, the rail industry has no alternative but to close some routes to enable time for maintenance of the infrastructure, which is what happens on Saturday evenings and Sunday mornings on the east coast main line. I understand that that is frustrating for the hon. Gentleman and his constituents. However, First Capital Connect runs a service from London King’s Cross to Peterborough at 10 minutes to midnight on a Saturday evening. If it is the hon. Gentleman’s view that this particular franchise was underspecified, I am sure that his Front-Bench colleagues would be interested to hear about it.

There are frequency and capacity problems with commuter services from Milton Keynes to London on the west coast main line as well. Will the Minister speak to Network Rail and ask it to look again at the 2008 timetable to see if it could make a bit more room to cope with those commuter services and make them faster?

Of course, the £8 billion that the Government are spending on upgrading the west coast main line will have major beneficial effects for all communities along that particular line. It is understandable that communities that believe they should be benefiting more from the new timetable to December 2008 feel that they might be losing out, but I have to tell my hon. Friend that the vast majority of stations and services along the west coast main line will benefit from a markedly improved service, which will justify the Government’s record investment in this project.

But bearing in mind the fact that passengers who use the trains at weekends are treated in an appalling fashion, why do people end up having to pay the same amount at weekends as they have to pay for mid-week services? If trains are scheduled for long delays, should it not be taken into account in the fares that passengers are charged?

Then he will know that at weekends, wholly off-peak services are run so many fares are cheaper. I hope he will understand that it is simply impossible to maintain the safety of the infrastructure unless we close large sections of the railway to allow it to happen. Of course I understand the right hon. Gentleman’s frustration and that of many Members on both sides of the House, but I hope that people will understand that if we are to have a safe and efficient railway service there must be maintenance, which cannot be done while trains are running on the lines.

I am not going to embarrass the Minister by referring again to his charm, but I want to reinforce the point made by my right hon. Friend the Member for West Derbyshire (Mr. McLoughlin) and by my hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough (Mr. Jackson). Weekend services are always late, journeys are unduly protracted and the carriages are always overcrowded. That is bad news and the Minister should do something about it.

If you will forgive me Mr. Speaker, I will not refer to the right hon. and learned Gentleman’s charm either.

The right hon. and learned Gentleman suggested that all weekend services were late. That is clearly not the case. Of course there are more challenges at weekends than during the week, because it is at weekends, particularly on Sundays, that maintenance takes place. As I told the hon. Member for Peterborough (Mr. Jackson), services depend on a safe and efficient railway, and that can be achieved only if we allow maintenance to be carried out. Yes, we must ensure that it does not overrun, as happened in Rugby over the new year, but it is a crucial part of running the railways.

I am afraid the right hon. and learned Gentleman will simply have to accept that safety must come before all other considerations. If he is seriously asking me to intervene and micromanage the railways, I have to tell him “No”.

New Roads and Rail

Between 2001 and December 2007, the Highways Agency built approximately 227 miles of motorway and trunk road. The Department does not retain a central record of the mileage of new roads constructed on the local highway network.

In England and Wales, 70 miles of new heavy rail route were opened between 2003 and 2007 on the channel tunnel rail link. There have also been examples of the reopening of disused heavy rail lines, and lines formerly used only by freight traffic.

I fail to discern from that answer exactly how much new passenger, as opposed to heavy rail, network has been introduced, but it appears to be a pathetically small amount given the total of some 15,000 km of passenger railway track. Given that domestic transport is responsible for 21 per cent. of United Kingdom carbon emissions, is it not about time to reverse the historic shift from rail to roads initiated by Dr. Beeching? When lines such as those in Gloucestershire can be brought back into use, should that not happen?

The hon. Gentleman has made an important point It is time that more people had the opportunity to use the railway service, which is one reason why I am delighted that there are 40 per cent. more passengers on the railway than there were in 1997. At the same time, we are making the biggest investment in capacity for a generation. Far from managing the decline of Britain’s railways, as has been done in the past, we find that our problem now is managing growth.

The midlands, like every other area, deserves a transport network that is fit for the future. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government has just approved the black country study and the designation of Brierley Hill as a strategic centre. The missing part of the jigsaw is the extension to the midland metro. Will my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport undertake to visit the black country to see not only what has already been achieved but what can be achieved once approval is gained, in terms of job creation, regeneration and congestion busting?

I know that my hon. Friend has raised this issue with my right hon. Friend the Minister of State, who has agreed to visit the black country to view the proposed projects. I understand that this could be a priority for a regional allocation. I think it right for us to devolve money to the regions, so that they can choose between the various competing priorities and invest in those that best meet the needs of local people. However, I shall take a close interest in my right hon. Friend’s visit, and look forward to hearing what she has to say.

Is the Secretary of State aware that only 6 per cent. of passenger journeys are undertaken by rail, and that 84 per cent. are undertaken by road? The Government are currently spending £6.5 billion on rail subsidies, almost as much as the total roads budget. Is it not time to redress that ridiculous imbalance, and should the Secretary of State not start by building more roads?

It is useful, once in a while, to hear the opposite case being put by a Conservative Member. I know that the right hon. Gentleman’s party is not keen on rail subsidy, and would like fare payers to pay more. I look forward to the response of the hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Mrs. Villiers) in due course, but the fact is that it is not a choice between rail and road. We must have a good road network and we must also invest in rail services, so that people have a real choice in relation to how they travel.

Lord Eddington, who reported to my Department last year, examined the issue and suggested that we consider not just building new roads but investing in rail capacity. I am pleased to be able to tell the House that that is precisely what we are doing.

Leaving aside the Conservatives’ new green policy, may I say that the Secretary of State is right to refer to the problem of growth? She has said that she wants the industry to produce 22.5 per cent. more capacity by 2014, but a parliamentary answer that I received earlier this month indicated that the Government expected a 54 per cent. increase in the number of railway passengers by 2020. Is the Secretary of State going to allow more of the overcrowding that we are seeing now, is she going to allow people to be priced off the railway, which is also now happening, or is she going to grasp the nettle and expand the network? It cannot wait until 2014 for an assessment.

We are of course expanding the network, which is why the cross-channel rail link was such an important project. It is also why we have committed to look in future at whether disused rail lines such as the one between Birmingham and London might be brought back into use. The fact is that we have set out real money—the biggest investment in rail capacity for a generation—to take us up to 2014. Beyond that, we are planning for a doubling of rail capacity over the next 30 years. What we want to do is not, as it were, look into a crystal ball and predict how many people might be using the rail network in 2020 or 2030, but make the decisions at the right point in time. If more investment is needed, more will be forthcoming over the following years.

The Government have undoubtedly invested in the rail network in recent years, but is my right hon. Friend aware of the congestion problems in the Manchester rail hub, which is causing particular problems for services going through Manchester Piccadilly, especially from the south of the city where we need to increase capacity? This is a major hindrance to the future growth of the rail network in and around not only Greater Manchester but the north of England.

I agree with my hon. Friend, which is why before Christmas I asked Network Rail whether it might carry out a full feasibility study to find out whether a radical project around Manchester would enhance rail services. I know that the Northern Way has looked at that and specifically singled it out as its utmost priority in the plan for the region. I think that in the future a sensibly costed plan for Manchester, perhaps including linking Manchester Victoria and Piccadilly, could lead to far more commuters being able to travel in greater comfort in and out of Manchester every day.

The Secretary of State will know that Network Rail has been carrying out feasibility studies into two dual-tracking schemes—those between Swindon and Kemble and between Oxford and Worcester. Last week, there were disturbing rumours that those schemes had been postponed, so I e-mailed the chief executive of Network Rail and received a reply from his PA saying he would give me a substantive reply in the near future. Can the Secretary of State update me on those schemes this afternoon? If not, will she write to me to do so?

I will of course do that, but the fact of the matter is that these issues are for Network Rail to deal with. We have committed the funding for a five-year period up to 2014. Network Rail has put forward a business plan which is now being scrutinised by the Office of Rail Regulation, and which involves investment in 1,300 new carriages, platform lengthening and increasing capacity by, as the hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker) said, more than 20 per cent. over that period. However, I will certainly ask the chief executive to let me, and hence the hon. Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown), know of his specific intentions for those lines.

Rail Freight

We provide grants to encourage the transfer of freight from road to rail, and more than £44 million has been awarded for the next three years. In addition, we are providing more than £150 million from the transport innovation fund for rail infrastructure improvements that particularly benefit rail freight by improving services to and from the major ports, and a further £200 million for the development of a strategic freight network to provide a core network of trunk freight routes.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that encouraging answer. She will be aware of the impending upgrading of the railway track between Southampton and the midlands, which will enable Southampton to develop much greater freight services from the port, but is she also aware that freight services on rail, upgraded or not, generally stop at weekends? Might she seek to talk to the freight transport companies and Network Rail to find out whether methods could be employed that would enable seven-day working, subject to the maintenance of the railway track?

My hon. Friend makes an important point. It is important for the region and the nation’s economy that we have rail services that can work for freight not only during the week but at weekends, but it is also important for passengers that freight services can be accommodated outside the ordinary working day. That is why the strategic freight network is so important. We have allocated £200 million to unlock pinch points for freight services, some of which will help to alleviate the specific problem to which my hon. Friend refers. It is extremely important that over time we try to encourage freight services at weekends as well as during the week.

Why did the nationalised Post Office transfer so much of its activity from rail freight to the roads? Does the Secretary of State have any plans that might encourage the railways to win that business back?

The answer is a very simple one: it was a commercial decision for the Post Office. The fact of the matter is that rail freight is growing incredibly quickly; it has increased by about 49.5 per cent. over the past 10 years. We can do more—I would like more goods to be shifted by rail freight over the coming years—but ultimately these are decisions that commercial companies have to take for themselves.

I am glad to hear that my right hon. Friend is committed to developing the use of rail for freight. She will be aware that many Members of this House share the ambition of the Northern Way to reopen the Woodhead line, not least because doing so would offer us the opportunity to carry more freight by rail in the north. Will she therefore commit to ensuring that the National Grid Company does not use the 1953 Woodhead tunnel for its recabling work, because doing so would dash completely any hope that we have of reopening that line for freight?

My hon. Friend makes her point in her own way, but it is important that we keep as many options open as possible. I have had contact with the National Grid Company about this, and I think that two points are true. First, it owns the tunnel and can invest in its own cabling in the tunnel. Secondly, it has assured us that even if it did that, it would not preclude reopening the tunnel for freight traffic were the growth of freight traffic to warrant it. I am committed to ensuring that we work with the National Grid Company to keep all options on the table.

The east of England had accepted the need for one strategic rail freight interchange. Since that decision was taken, the Bexley and Shellhaven developments—two in the east of England—have been approved. Will the Secretary of State bear that in mind when the Planning Inspectorate’s decision comes before her in respect of granting or not granting such a development in Radlett in my constituency? We do not need it accessed from our busy roads. We have more than sufficient capacity, given the two decisions that have been made since the application was made.

The hon. Lady is one of the few Members in this House who speaks out against the desirability of increasing rail freight in the future. Rail freight has much potential—it is good for the environment and the economy. It is important that we invest in such a way as to unlock potential pinch points on the network and enable more goods to be delivered by freight. Clearly the Planning Inspectorate needs to examine some issues, and if her claims are right the matter will come before me in due course. It would not be right for me to comment on any possible outcome of that process.

My right hon. Friend realises that an important part of the development of the rail freight system is the four-tracking of the west coast main line north of Tamworth, and her Department is aware that a bridge across a road in Tamworth, which was due for completion in July 2007, is yet to be completed. Without greater control over these projects, does she have plans for the development or merely hopes?

My hon. Friend will know that this is Network Rail’s responsibility, so I urge him to take the matter up with Network Rail and encourage it to make faster progress on that part of the route. I will of course mention the issue when I next meet Network Rail.

The Secretary of State will know that one of the conditions for approving Felixstowe docks’ plans for expansion was that they invest some £50 million in improvements to the rail network, some of the locations being as much as 100 miles away from the docks. Will she explain why it is impossible for Railtrack to give them any long-term guarantees of access for rail freight for their purposes? How does that square with joined-up government?

It is clearly important that any commitments are fulfilled. In future, we intend to look right across modes to ensure that when we think about investment in ports we think about the need to carry goods by rail as well as by road, where it makes sense to do so. That is why we commissioned the Eddington study, which will allow us to look right across the network to see what can be delivered in different ways. I shall examine the specific points that the hon. Gentleman raised and get back to him.

Inter-city Express Programme

6. Whether the next generation of inter-city express rolling stock will be available for services on the midland main line from St. Pancras to Nottingham; and if she will make a statement. (180540)

Trains for the new inter-city express programme have been developed to be capable of operating on all of the UK’s main inter-city routes, including, potentially, the midland main line.

I am grateful to the Minister for that response. There is concern in my constituency that the midland main line area was excluded in the tender for applications for the current tranche of inter-city rolling stock. While I appreciate the need to look for a sensible business case in every tender, it is important that we also have a fair and equitable distribution across the regions. In the same way as we find ourselves at the back of the queue for electrification, we are concerned that we will find ourselves at the back of the queue for rolling stock for the inter-city express programme.

The Department is leading the programme to specify and procure the next generation of inter-city trains, providing greater capacity, performance, flexibility, environmental credentials, passenger facilities and value for money. My hon. Friend will be interested to know that the Department has been working on a business case for the use of the new trains on the midland main line. That could not happen during their first phase of deployment owing to the infrastructure changes that would be necessary, and it would be subject to securing best value for the taxpayer. I can reassure him, however, that his case will be treated with absolute fairness.

Does the Minister accept that, given the rise in energy prices, it makes sense to consider ensuring that the midland main line, along with other lines, is electrified? The cost of the capital investment will be more than recouped by the savings in energy costs.

The prospect of further electrification has to be considered on a case-by-case basis. It is naive to assume that electrification of the whole network is a good thing, while not to electrify it is a bad thing. In our statement of July last year, we made it clear we had decided that our priority would be to increase capacity. In the next control period, between 2009 and 2014, £10 billion will be spent on increasing capacity. I understand and accept that there will occasionally be strong cases for the electrification of certain lines and of certain segments of lines. However, to claim that money should be diverted from the creation of capacity to electrification would be a mistake.

May I put the question slightly differently? My hon. Friend the Minister will be aware of Network Rail’s view that £80 million needs to be spent on the midland main line to try to bring about some time savings in the future. In the longer term, Network Rail says that the only way to improve the service, because of the complications posed by the track, is to bring in the new generation of light-weight electrified trains. Obviously, that is a longer-term decision, but will my hon. Friend keep open the possibility that his officials will sit down with Network Rail and consider the potential for electrification to try to bring about the long-term significant improvements that the line needs?

My hon. Friend makes some valid points, but I remind him that the inter-city express programme will result in trains that are run by electric energy or by diesel. They will be flexible enough to run throughout the rail network, whether it is electrified or not. The use of the new IEP trains will not depend on whether a line has been electrified.

We have heard a little about green credentials this afternoon. Of course, we know that the Department for Transport’s main green initiative is recycling announcements.

When the Government announced the provision of 1,300 new carriages in July, most commentators assumed that they were part of the IEP. For the sake of clarity, will the Minister confirm whether they were delivered? When and where will we see the IEP finally introduced?

I know that the announcement about those 1,300 carriages led to quite a lot of confusion on the Conservative Front Bench, but there is no confusion on this side of the House that those 1,300 carriages represented a commitment and that they will be delivered to the rail network during the next control period. As for the allocation of the IEP, those trains will be employed, as a priority, on the great western and the east coast main lines.

The allocation of rolling stock is very important. The expansion and the move forward into a new era is to be welcomed, but the distribution of carriages in some parts of the rail system needs to be looked at. I hope that the Minister will bear in mind the fact that the congested areas in the south are not the only ones that need more carriages.

My hon. Friend makes an absolutely valid point. It is for the industry, and not the Department, to identify the areas where the new carriages will be best used. I know she accepts that 70 per cent. of all train journeys begin and end in London and the south-east, but she is right to say that a significant number of the carriages will go to routes and companies operating outside the capital.


7. If she will take steps to reduce the gap between the per capita spend on transport in London and the rest of the English regions. (180541)

Transport spending per person for the English regions outside London increased by 78 per cent. between 2001-02 and 2006-07. Spending for London is higher per resident but that is because it is generally more expensive to provide services in London, and millions of people throughout the country benefit from investment in projects such as the new St. Pancras station.

Five years ago, spending in London was 80 per cent. higher than in the English regions, but that gap has widened to 150 per cent. How can England’s great regional cities compete and contribute to the UK economy if they are relatively starved of investment?

Funding for local transport in the north-west has increased from £95 million in 2001 to £213 million in 2007. I would not call that starvation. Moreover, the Department has plans for 36 major road and transport schemes by 2015-16, at a total cost of £1.27 billion. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State mentioned the feasibility study that has been commissioned on increasing rail capacity in the wider Manchester area, and more than £8 billion has been invested in the west coast main line between London and the north-west in the past eight years. I do not call that starving the north-west of funds; it is good investment that is leading to real improvements for the north-west.

Will the Minister accept that the per capita investment in London’s rail network must ensure value for money for passengers? Will she look at the disgraceful muck-up that happened the day after new year’s day, when Liverpool Street station failed to open despite the commitments that had been given? That caused massive disruption for constituents of mine who were trying to get to work in the capital.

I understand the point that the hon. Gentleman makes, and I appreciate how incredibly irritating the problem must have been for people trying to use the station and the lines into it. The matter is being investigated by the rail regulator, and the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, South (Mr. Harris), will take note of the findings and report back to the House.

I appreciate that per capita spending is not the only measure of what is going on, but serious problems of overcrowding on the rail system into Manchester affects the whole of the Greater Manchester region, and the economy of the entire north-west. It is therefore imperative that parts of the country other than London get their fair share when the new rolling stock becomes available. May I take it that the answer that my right hon. Friend gave earlier was a green light on this matter, and that there will be equity in how the rolling stock is distributed?

I understand the point that my hon. Friend makes. Further announcements about the allocation of rolling stock will be made later this year, and I am sure that what he has said will be taken into account.

Some £3 million was wasted when the Government binned the Leeds super tram. The Yorkshire Post’s “Road to Ruin” campaign has highlighted the chaos that is this Government’s regional transport policy. What meetings has the Minister had with the new regional Ministers to discuss infrastructure issues—or have they been too busy in marginal seats to engage with that important matter?

The Under-Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, South, recently met the regional Ministers to discuss rail issues. The hon. Gentleman needs to take on board the fact that we believe a lot of these schemes can help but, obviously, not at any price. It is vital that we get value for money. When the prices of such schemes escalate, there sometimes comes a point at which a decision must be made on whether they are still the best thing for the people in the local area. If he does not understand that point, he will find it difficult to say what he thinks the priorities for his region are.

When the north-east remains cut off from the nation’s motorway system; when it is more than 22 years since the last major improvement to the Gateshead western bypass, which is our region’s most congested road; and when the Department continues to pour cold water on the idea of a high-speed rail link, does the Minister understand why there is more than just a raising of eyebrows when we see billions of pounds being invested in transport infrastructure in London?

I am well aware of the strength of feeling in the north-east. When I met my hon. Friend and colleagues up there, they put their points very well. However, I think my hon. Friend also recognises that the system for deciding priorities in the region through the regional funding allocations, which have been vastly increased in recent years, is the right way to go. Overall, departmental spending in the north-east has increased by more than 80 per cent. in the past six years. Some £457 million has been provisionally allocated to fund major schemes in the north-east. We recently announced £245 million of funding over the next three years for local authorities throughout the north-east region. We are illustrating a commitment to the people of the north-east through increased investment and modernisation.

Is the Minister aware of the absurd revisions that were recently published to the so-called regional spatial strategy for the south-west? They remove entirely any reference to what we have known as the second strategic route, which most people refer to as the A303, in favour of amorphous improvements in city areas. If the south-west had the same sort of investment as the London area, would we have at least some improvements to our infrastructure?

The hon. Gentleman will be meeting my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary fairly shortly to discuss that specific issue. Through things such as the spatial strategy, it is important that regions themselves decide how they want to plan for the future and what schemes they wish to include in it. Spending on road and rail in the south-west has more than doubled over the past six years. Some 35 major road and public transport schemes are planned to be funded, and £951 million has been provisionally allocated to the region from 2005 to 2015. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will recognise that there has been massive investment in the area.

Infrastructure (Lancashire)

8. What assistance her Department will provide to enable the transport infrastructure in central Lancashire to cope with the impact of local housing growth. (180542)

The Department for Transport encourages local authorities, through their local transport plans, to plan for housing growth and the accompanying transport needs. It provides funding through each authority’s annual LTP allocations to assist them in delivering their plans.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. Central Lancashire is one of the most buoyant parts of the north-west. It has the potential for considerable economic and housing growth, but that can take place only if the transport infrastructure south of Preston is dealt with properly. Will she ensure that Lancashire county council gives that adequate consideration? When the regional priorities for the north-west are drawn up, will she ensure that proper care and consideration are given to the needs of central Lancashire?

I certainly expect that the regional transport board will take my hon. Friend’s points into account. He raises issues specific to his area which he thinks give rise to particular problems. I would be more than happy to meet him to discuss some of them and to ensure that the board is aware of his comments.

Severn Crossings

9. What recent discussions her Department has had with the operator of the M48 Severn bridge and the second Severn crossing. (180543)

The Highways Agency has regular contact with the operator of the Severn crossings. The most recent quarterly meeting was held on 21 November 2007. Other meetings are held to discuss ongoing issues.

Tolls on the Severn bridges increased again in the new year. It is now £5.30 for a car, which is a large burden for many of my constituents, particularly commuters. Added to that is the problem of not being able to pay by any modern electronic payment method; people can pay only by cash or cheque. Will the Minister meet me to discuss reviewing the charges with the operator, so that we can offer better discounts for those who live locally, and to discuss the ongoing issue of the method of payment of the tolls?

I would be more than happy to meet my hon. Friend, who I know is extremely concerned about the issue. The Severn Bridges Act 1992 set the tolls for the two bridges, and set out the process for increases. The Act requires the tolls to be increased by inflation and rounded to the nearest 10p. That increase is applied every December. I certainly take on board the point about the use of methods such as credit cards to make payment easier. A working group has been set up to consider the financial and technical barriers to that. When we meet, I shall be more than happy to update her on the progress that is being made.

The Minister may have seen media reports suggesting that the suspension wires on the old Severn bridge are fracturing at a precipitous rate as a result of corrosion. Have the Government made any assessment of the implications for the durability of the bridge and for public safety?

I was not aware of those media reports. I am certainly prepared to look into the issue and write to the hon. Gentleman about the assessment made.

Topical Questions

Yesterday I announced a £140 million investment to support cycling. Helping people to make low-carbon choices is an important element of my Department’s wider sustainable transport strategy. In addition, my Department has been working closely with the investigators of the incident at Heathrow. An initial report on the incident was released last week. In the same week, Network Rail announced the initial results of its investigation into the engineering overruns during the Christmas period. The chairman of Network Rail briefed me on the initial findings on their release, and I look forward to seeing the conclusions. Later this week, my Department will launch a consultation on a range of proposals for modernising the blue badge scheme.

The recent Government publication on noise contours around the busiest English airports showed vividly the impact of night flights at East Midlands airport on communities in North-West Leicestershire, South Derbyshire and Rushcliffe in south Nottinghamshire. When will the Government impose on regional airports with high noise levels the same limits on air traffic movements that they impose on London airports, requiring them all to deliver on the requirements of the stringent environmental framework promised by the 2003 aviation White Paper 1,500 long, sleep-interrupted nights ago?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to say that the air transport White Paper imposed stringent local environmental conditions on the extension at Heathrow and on other places. He is right, too, to have concerns on behalf of local residents about the impact of any changes on the environment, particularly as regards noise. However, it is not right to suggest that there is a one-size-fits-all solution on airport expansion. For instance, the impact of noise will vary enormously depending on how close the airport is to local residents, and on the type and number of flights. That is why we think that a local response is the right way forward. I understand that East Midlands airport will publish its local plan to manage noise later this year. I urge my hon. Friend to get involved in that consultation on behalf of his local community, and to make his views known.

T2. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, the United Nations, the Royal Society, the chief scientist at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the Chancellor’s adviser—Professor King—and the Environmental Audit Committee are all urging caution about the environmental and social impacts of biofuels, so will the Government think again about whether a £500-million biofuels subsidy is the wisest, most cost-effective way to cut transport emissions? (180526)

As a result of the renewable transport fuel obligation, which we passed only a few months ago, biofuels are expected to save 2.6 million to 3 million tonnes of carbon dioxide per annum. The UK pioneered a world-leading reporting strategy to determine the accuracy of carbon reductions and sustainability considerations. We are trying to press the European Commission to make sure that that is mirrored at European level. We recognise the concerns, but science is moving forward, and we are convinced that that is the right way to proceed.

An arcane rule prevents us from ascertaining how much Metronet owes in taxes. Likewise, Transport Ministers are secretive about deals done and the cost to taxpayers, council tax payers and fare payers. They are secretive, too, about the lack of maintenance that will result from Metronet going into administration. Will Ministers now come clean and provide that information?

I assure my hon. Friend that there is no intention to conceal any information. It is, however, difficult to know what the impact of Metronet’s failure will be on the taxpayer, although I do not doubt there will be such an impact, particularly in the short term. When Metronet leaves administration in, I hope, the not-too-distant future and its detailed financial accounts are published, that information will be put into the public domain. However, I will update the House if there are developments that I can report.

T3. Is the Secretary of State aware of the huge increase in the cost of the statutory bus concessionary travel scheme, which has far outstripped the additional grant given to local authorities and has caused serious difficulty for many councils, including Maldon district council? Will she meet a delegation from affected local authorities in Essex to see what can be done to help? (180527)

I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman was present for our wide-ranging discussion on Question 1 about the national concessionary fares scheme. We spend about £1 billion a year on the scheme, and most regions received an increase of about 30 per cent. over the last financial year. His area is treated exactly the same. That is a generous settlement, and if local authorities wish to build on it with their own local concessions, that is up to them. However, the £212 million that has been allocated over and above the amount that local authorities already receive is adequate to cover the increased costs.

T5. In 1997, the former Deputy Prime Minister, the right hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, East (Mr. Prescott), said that he would “have failed” if there were not far fewer journeys by car after five years. After 10 years, my hon. Friend the Member for Lewes (Norman Baker) revealed that traffic has increased across England by 12 per cent. and in Gloucestershire by 17 per cent., increasing public risk, congestion and carbon emissions. Will the Government now admit that they have failed? (180529)

Well, it is certainly true that as countries become wealthier and more people want to buy cars, congestion is an issue faced by all developed nations. The fact of the matter is that here in the United Kingdom we are leading the fight against congestion through sustained investment in public transport. Indeed, our investment in the railways, as I have just discussed with the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath), is the biggest investment in capacity for a generation. In addition, for the first time, we have broken the link between economic growth and increased traffic. I call that success, even though I recognise that there is a lot more to do.

T4. The Under-Secretary of State for Transport, the hon. Member for Glasgow, South (Mr. Harris), wrote to hon. Members on 31 October last year, acknowledging that “for some time” First Great Western services had been “unsatisfactory”. He said he would“continue to keep a close interest in performance…to ensure”that First Great Western lived up to its promises. Passengers have had to endure continued overcrowding, poor services and unreliability, only to be rewarded for their loyalty with an above-inflation price hike. Can the Under-Secretary not do anything to step in and hold back those ticket price rises until quality thresholds are met, and what will he do to put those matters right? (180528)

The hon. Gentleman is certainly correct, in that the performance of First Great Western has been a concern to me and to the Department for some time. There is little good news, although there is some. The December 2007 timetable has proved to be more robust and more workable than had been predicted. However, he is correct to say that performance is still a major cause of concern. I continue to meet representatives of First Great Western on a regular basis, but I would not try to mislead the House by pretending that it does not give me very serious cause for concern about its future performance.

Four-year-old Finlay Martin was tragically killed last July when he was hit by a trailer that broke free from a car while he was walking in the village of Heage with his mother. The deputy coroner at the inquest just held said that she would write to the Department for Transport to ensure that lessons were learned. Will my hon. Friend investigate seriously the introduction of an annual mandatory test of road worthiness and an MOT for trailers that are pulled by road vehicles, and for such vehicles to have mandatory brake systems, which did not happen in this case? That has been requested by Finlay’s grandparents and many of my constituents.

We are aware of this tragic accident, which occurred last summer. We extend our deepest sympathies to the parents and family of Finlay, who lost his life as a result of what happened. We want to make sure that when we introduce new regulations, they can be applied and they are appropriate. Introducing MOT-style tests for such trailers is a possibility that we have considered before, and it is a matter that we keep under review. There have been several such accidents in recent months, and I will certainly consider the matter with officials in the Department to see whether we need to move on that.

The UN believes that palm oil production could destroy 90 per cent. of Indonesia’s rain forest within the next 12 years. When will binding rules be introduced into the Government’s renewable transport fuel obligation to ensure that the biofuels that it promotes come from sustainable sources and not from ripping up the rain forest?

The hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson) raised the matter a moment ago, and I could refer the hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Mrs. Villiers) to the answer that I gave a few moments ago. However, that would be wholly inappropriate as this is a serious subject. When we discussed the RTFO in Committee and the setting up of the Renewable Fuels Agency, that was keenly tested by hon. Friends as well as by Opposition Members. We are setting up, as I outlined, the most robust reporting mechanism we can, which starts in April 2008. We are trying to impress on the European Commission that we need to do the same thing Europe-wide, because sustainability and carbon reduction appear achievable through biofuels, and we are determined to make sure that that works.

We are pleased to hear that the Government are starting to take the issue much more seriously, but we are still worried that that date is not soon enough. Valuable habitats and carbon sinks are under threat right now. Friends of the Earth has said:

“The Government’s dash for biofuels is ill thought out . . . and could be creating more problems than it solves”.

As a matter of urgency, will the Government suspend the operation of the RTFO until guaranteed safeguards are in place to remove the very real risk that the unintended effect of their policy could be to encourage people to use biofuels that are produced in ways that are unsustainable and could actively damage the environment?

The hon. Gentleman is obviously a keen supporter of that line. We are clear that we recognise the genuine sustainability questions that are at stake, and we are determined to ensure that biofuels are not brought forward at the expense of the planet and at a cost of additional climate change. I refer the hon. Lady to a comment from the right hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron), who said:

“Five per cent. of all fuel sold in the UK to come from biofuels is a start, but it is a minimum step: we will need to go further in the future.”

There is clearly potential for carbon reduction, but it must not be at the price of sustainability and of exposing developing countries to further exploitation. We intend to get the balance right. We hope the Opposition parties will support us.

Will the Secretary of State join me in paying tribute to the crew of BA flight 38 last Thursday who, along with the emergency services, ensured that, with the crash-landing of the aeroplane, a catastrophe was avoided? I call upon her to instigate an immediate risk assessment of the safety of the doubling the size of Heathrow airport, which would be the effect of building a third runway and a sixth terminal there.

I certainly join my hon. Friend in paying tribute to the emergency services that dealt so well with the incident, and to the crew for the professional and calm way in which they dealt with it and their evident care and concern for the passengers. I am relieved that there were so few injuries.

My hon. Friend raised the issue of safety and the expansion proposals for Heathrow airport. I assure him that the Civil Aviation Authority has examined the White Paper proposals for additional airport capacity and believes that the necessary airspace capacity can be provided safely through the redesign of airspace and the introduction of enhanced air traffic techniques and systems. However, safety must always be our foremost priority.

T6. Is the Secretary of State aware that 40 per cent. of bikers are evading vehicle licensing duty? What is she going to do about it? (180530)

The Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency successfully collects £5 billion—or 95 per cent.—of vehicle excise duty annually. As the hon. Gentleman has highlighted, motorcycles are an enforcement challenge because of their size, the position of their number plates and their manoeuvrability. However, we have developed a dedicated enforcement strategy targeting motorcyclists. We have run focused, hard-hitting awareness campaigns and invested in improved automatic number plate recognition systems. We are coming forward with additional material and initiatives to make sure that motorcyclists, who have increasingly been evading, will no longer be able to do so.

T7. When will Network Rail, a publicly owned company, get to grips with problems such as a very tatty and run down station in Wokingham that could be rebuilt from the proceeds of planning gain on its very valuable site? (180531)

The right hon. Gentleman has been misinformed. Network Rail is a private company over whose operations I have no direct control. He takes a close interest in these matters, so he will know that in the White Paper published in July we announced £150 million to act as leverage money for the 150 medium-sized stations. We expect major improvements to be carried out by Network Rail and its partners during the next control period between 2009 and 2014.

T8. Will the Minister kindly agree to meet a delegation from the Kettering Rail Users group and Kettering borough council to discuss the severe train cuts to and from Kettering coming this December and how completely incompatible the proposals are with the Government-backed housing expansion plans? We are set to see an increase of one third in the number of homes in Kettering borough by 2021. (180532)

I am always happy to meet colleagues and delegations from rail user groups. No doubt the issue will be discussed at the relevant time. However, I disagree with the hon. Gentleman’s fundamental assertion that there have been major service cuts at Kettering.