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Short Car Journeys

Volume 472: debated on Tuesday 4 March 2008

The Government have taken several steps to encourage people to make fewer short car journeys. We are providing record spending on buses and other local transport, and bus patronage is increasing. I announced a sixfold increase in funding for Cycling England, and in our sustainable travel towns people are choosing to travel differently, reducing car trips by more than 10 per cent. and increasing bus use by 16 per cent.

I thank the Secretary of State for her response—but in the past 10 years, according to figures provided by her Department, the number of journeys made on foot has fallen by 15 per cent. and the number of bike journeys has fallen by 14 per cent. How much further does she expect the number of such trips to fall as a result of the programme of 2,500 post office closures? Has she been able to assess how many extra short car journeys will need to be made as a result of that closure programme?

The key here is to encourage the local leadership in local councils to think through how people get around their towns and cities. Places such as the London borough of Sutton are looking at our sustainable travel towns initiatives and seeing the dramatic effect that they can have on cycling and walking. They are introducing personalised travel and information for people, so that they can change the nature of their car journeys. The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to say that where the critical local infrastructure—the post office, the school, the local shops—is located matters enormously. That is why it is important for us to work with the Department for Communities and Local Government to look at the planning system, to ensure that people can get about easily on foot or by bike.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the Tyne and Wear Metro system saves some 15 million short car journeys every year? It is now more than 20 years old, however, and it is beginning to creak and groan a bit. The business plan for the improvement of the Metro system was submitted to her Department in June last year, and discussions have been ongoing. Can she confirm that she will soon be in a position to make a statement on the reinvigoration of the Metro system, so that it can continue to provide an alternative to short car journeys?

I congratulate my hon. Friend on his tenacity in raising the issue of the Metro. He is absolutely right to say that it matters enormously to people in Tyne and Wear and the surrounding areas, and it is important that we take any investment case seriously. The business case is with the Department, and I hope to be able to make an announcement shortly.

Of course, where possible, people should be encouraged to take as few car journeys as possible. However, in many places, including my island constituency, that is almost impossible because of the rural nature of the area. Would the Minister consider supporting a proposal similar to one that this Government have supported for rural France involving the reduction of rural fuel duty by 3 per cent.? Last week the Scottish Government reduced ferry fares for the island constituencies. I wonder whether we might now have some good news from Westminster about taking positive steps to reduce fuel tax in rural areas, as the Government have agreed should happen in France.

To be honest, I found the hon. Gentleman’s argument slightly hard to follow, but if he is talking about taxation, that is clearly an issue for the Treasury. He is absolutely right, however, to say that access from rural communities to neighbouring towns and cities—and, indeed, to London and beyond this country—is hugely important. That is one of the reasons why it is not possible to say that all journeys will be able to be made by high-speed train or by road, for example; we need flights, too. I hope that the hon. Gentleman supports our proposal—which will, of course, be subject to strict local environmental conditions being met—to expand capacity at Heathrow, so that we will be able to serve rural communities.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that one of the best ways to discourage short car journeys is to improve the bus service? Will she join me in celebrating the achievements of the Mayor of London in recent years in improving London’s bus service, including through extensions to the freedom pass and discounts for low-income families? Does my right hon. Friend agree that a serious threat to that would be the 15 per cent. fare hike that would result from the Conservatives’ underfunded commitment to—[Interruption.]

I do; my hon. Friend is absolutely right. Every Londoner should know that the hon. Member for Henley (Mr. Johnson) is pledging a minimum 15 per cent. increase in bus fares. I must say to my hon. Friend and her colleagues that this is a very important election, which will have a real impact on millions of Londoners. The Mayor of London has a role on the world stage, whereas the hon. Member for Henley is, I think, more suited to a role in the circus.

Order. We had best be careful about the language we use, as it is unfair to attack an hon. Member of the House in that way.

In her answer, the Secretary of State touched on a very important topic. Will she make a start on short journeys by requesting her right hon. Friend the Prime Minister to make the short journey between Downing street and this House each Wednesday on foot?

The hon. Gentleman makes a cheap political point. I am sure that he travels on foot to all his meetings and that he would encourage every Member to do the same.

Does my right hon. Friend accept that cutting short car journeys requires an effective bus service? Will she explain just what powers her Department has given local authorities to ensure that services delivered on paper are actual and that Arriva and Stagecoach cannot cut services at the drop of a hat, and deny them to my constituents?

My hon. Friend has been assiduous in pushing the case of her constituents. Indeed, I believe that a Department for Transport official recently visited Stockton council and members of neighbouring councils to talk about how they can ensure a good quality bus service in their local areas. The Local Transport Bill, which is currently proceeding through the House of Lords and will shortly come to this place, sets in place a framework that will allow councils either to negotiate a voluntary partnership with bus operators, to implement a statutory partnership or—if they think they will have greater control and be able better to deliver on fares, punctuality and the type of routes they want served—a quality contract, so that they can commission the bus services that they think their communities need.