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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 478: debated on Tuesday 8 July 2008


The Secretary of State was asked—

Haulage Industry

1. What recent discussions she has had with her EU counterparts on competition in the haulage industry; and if she will make a statement. (216854)

I represented the UK at the June EU Transport Council where the Commission’s access to the road transport market proposal achieved political agreement. As a result of the agreement, the rules on cabotage will be simpler and easier to enforce and will limit cabotage to three operations within a seven-day period following an international journey.

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for that reply. I have just come from chairing the all-party group on freight transport, and the Freight Transport Association had some complimentary things to say about the Minister. UK hauliers are concerned about unfair foreign competition. Does the Minister agree that rigorous enforcement of cabotage rules and safety laws is essential? Our hauliers need reassurance that enforcement is the top priority for her Department.

I thank my hon. Friend and the association for their kind remarks. I want to pay tribute to both Roger King and Theo de Pencier, who were very helpful during the negotiations. I kept in regular touch with them about the situation. My hon. Friend is absolutely right to say that enforcement is a key issue—not just on cabotage but on other road safety issues. That is why an important part of the agreement was to get a commitment from the Commission to look at the exchange of national databases, which would make enforcement much easier for us to carry out.

Has the Minister had any discussions with Her Majesty’s Treasury about the differential in price and duty levels on petrol and diesel, which is placing British hauliers, including those in Kettering, at a distinct disadvantage?

The Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Poplar and Canning Town (Jim Fitzpatrick), had discussions with some of the key industry representatives last week. He listened carefully to their concerns and undertook to pass them on to the Chancellor.

I am sure my right hon. Friend is a heroine to the whole of the road haulage industry. She appears to have driven a hole through the treaty of Rome and free trade with the concessions that she has managed to get. Can she explain why, when there is unfair competition from foreign lorries that do not comply with our regulations, the graduated penalty and deposit scheme has been delayed?

I thank my hon. Friend for his kind remarks—at least I think they were kind. He is right to say that it will make a big difference in enforcement when the Commission can consider the exchange of national databases. On the other issue, I understand that statutory instruments are being drawn up to deal with the graduated penalty and deposit scheme.

According to research by National Economic Research Associates, foreign lorries operating on UK roads are imposing wear and tear costs of about £195 million a year. Do the Government still accept the principle that foreign hauliers should contribute to the cost of maintaining the UK road network?

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will know that the feasibility study that was commissioned to consider the issue was rejected by the Treasury, as it would almost cost more to administer than would have come in in revenue. However, he might not be aware that another proposal has come forward from the Commission, and we will consider it.

I am sure that my right hon. Friend will be aware of meetings that Members have had over the past week with those in road haulage societies. One problem that was identified involved lorries coming from the continent that were not roadworthy. Will she have a word with my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary so that there are more exercises, as we suggested in the Select Committee on Transport some time ago, whereby the police and all agencies check foreign lorries? Most of them are not fit to be on our roads.

My hon. Friend is quite right to point out some of the problems that can occur. The Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Poplar and Canning Town, recently announced some £24 million of extra investment to improve enforcement. As I have said, one of the key proposals to come out of the Council last week was to do with ensuring that the Commission would give a firm commitment to consider the exchange of databases, which is incredibly important in enforcement terms.

The biggest threat to our indigenous road haulage industry is not new cabotage rules but the difference in the price of diesel on each side of the channel. Eight years ago, when he was the leader of the Conservative party, my right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) suggested a vignette or Britdisc scheme, which was deemed not to be compliant with EU rules. Since then, however, Austria, Germany and the Czech Republic have introduced their own schemes. Has the Department examined schemes that could be introduced in this country and that do comply with EU regulations?

That is the question that I have just answered. As I explained, the previous feasibility study was rejected because the limit that could be charged was something like £7 a day, and the cost of administering the scheme would have been greater than the money charged. However, as I said to the hon. Member for Bexleyheath and Crayford (Mr. Evennett), the Commission has made new proposals, and we will of course examine them to see whether they would improve the situation.


2. What recent representations she has received on the dualling of the A21 between Tonbridge and Pembury and between Kippings Cross and Lamberhurst. (216855)

In the past three months, I have met local MPs, including the hon. Gentleman, and local authority representatives, and received several letters from MPs seeking assurances on the progress of the A21 Tonbridge to Pembury and Kippings Cross to Lamberhurst schemes.

I am grateful to the Minister for meeting me and my colleagues. He will know that it is 11 years since the dualling of the A21 was cancelled, and every year since then the cost of the scheme has gone up. A new hospital is now being built and will rely on the road. The people of west Kent are clear that the Government should get on with it, because further delay means further costs. Can the Minister assure us that the dualling of the road will continue as planned in 2010-11?

I can give the hon. Gentleman the assurance that I will do everything I possibly can to ensure that that process is expedited. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will announce updated scheme cost estimates to inform the upcoming refresh of priorities within the regional funding allocation. Once that information is available, the regional transport board will be able to reconfirm its priorities for that road if it wishes. That being the case, I will do everything that I can to ensure that progress is made.

Colchester Northern Approach Road

3. When she expects work to commence on the construction of a junction from the A12 Colchester northern by-pass to the northern approach road into Colchester. (216856)

Delivery of the scheme is related to planning conditions and is a matter for developers to take forward in line with plans for the delivery of proposed housing, employment and leisure facilities in north Colchester. The road scheme must also complete its statutory processes. In view of that, a definite start date is not currently available, but work is expected to start in 2009 or 2010.

I am grateful to the Minister for that answer. His briefing will probably tell him that I asked a similar question in January 2004, which led to a productive meeting with the then Transport Minister, David Jamieson. I am pleased to say that the new community stadium, the new home for Colchester United, is nearing completion. The first fixture there is next month. The principal beneficiary of the development in north Colchester will be the national health service, which will sell land. In view of that, will the Minister meet me to consider whether there are alternative ways in which the junction can be built in advance of the land sales?

I would be more than happy to meet the hon. Gentleman and delegates from his constituency if he feels that that would be useful. We can talk about this in more detail at any subsequent meeting, but he might be interested to know that I understand that English Partnerships has already applied for community infrastructure fund money, which would allow the construction of the junction to proceed ahead of any subsequent agreement to invite private developers to contribute. I am more than happy to discuss the details of that at our meeting.

Concessionary Fares

The Department for Transport conducted regulatory impact assessments of both recent extensions to the statutory concessionary fares scheme. They showed that significant benefits such as improved social inclusion cannot be easily quantified, but that even without considering those benefits, on which it is difficult to put a price, the schemes could still offer value for money.

It will not come as a surprise to the Minister that I am going to ask here about the cross-border impact of concessionary bus travel between my constituency and Wales. I have been very disappointed by some of the answers that I have previously had from her. She has admitted that extending the scheme across borders would be very expensive, so we cannot rely on local authorities to do it, but I am very disappointed that she has said that she has no plans even to meet Welsh Assembly Government Ministers to discuss whether that might be possible at some point in future. Will she at least reconsider extending the scheme across the border?

I fear that I may continue to be a disappointment to the hon. Gentleman. That saddens me enormously, but he must recognise that extending the scheme into Wales or Scotland has some quite strong financial implications. At this stage, we want to make sure that the England-wide scheme is settling down. Obviously, negotiations about that are still going on and we want to wait before we proceed any further.

My right hon. Friend will be aware of the situation in Chorley. Concessionary travel was initially welcomed, but the council will no longer let people use the 50p scheme before 9.30 am, and its opposition to the continuation of the scheme means that people cannot travel across Chorley into any other district in Lancashire. What can she do to help pensioners who have to go to hospital, or people who have disabilities or are on training schemes, who now have to pay either full price or half price? The council’s decision seems to have led to a real anomaly.

I certainly understand the point that my hon. Friend makes. As he knows, central Government funding provides that the scheme should run from 9.30 am to 11 pm, but some local authorities have exercised the discretion that we have given them to extend it. In my area, it has been extended to carers, and people are able to use it on local trains. In addition, the hours for which it operates have also been extended. It is unfortunate that his local authority is not doing something similar, but I am sure that he will continue to campaign for such a change.

In replying to yesterday’s debate, the Minister disappointed us yet again when she admitted that the Government intended to stop reimbursing local authorities for the administrative cost of issuing bus passes. Many councils already have to subsidise what was supposed to be a Government-funded scheme. Is this another example of the Government taking the credit for something and local council tax payers picking up the bill—in this case, one of £50 million?

I wonder whether I sense another Tory spending commitment in the air. We gave local authorities a very generous grant of something like £31 million, equivalent to about £4.50 per pass, to cover the scheme’s introduction. In the past, local authorities have produced their own passes, so giving them money for the introduction of this pass was a change. However, given that something like £1 billion goes to local authorities for the concessionary fares scheme, we think it is entirely reasonable that they deal with further applications and renewals from now on.

The concessionary fare scheme has been a tremendous success. It is popular and a credit to the Government, but does my hon. Friend recall the Prime Minister saying that he wanted to remove all barriers to people receiving training and acquiring skills? Will she encourage local authorities and other bodies to come together and extend concessionary fares to young people between the ages of 16 and 19 who are pursuing further education and training?

My hon. Friend makes a very good point. As he said, something like 11 million people nationwide will be eligible for concessionary fares as a result of the changes that came in on 1 April. He is right to say that local authorities, transport authorities and other organisations in some parts of the country have come together to look at the problems facing young people undertaking training; in some instances, I think they are looking at facilitating travel for young people doing the new diplomas. We have given local authorities freedom to deal with this matter at their own discretion, and I am sure that some of them will consider what my hon. Friend suggests to be a good way forward.

Does the Minister recall the meeting that we had this morning with representatives of the Doncaster youth council? They raised the possibility of extending the scheme to students, especially those attending sixth-form colleges. Will she consider whether they might be included in the scheme in future?

Fortunately, I do remember the meeting that we had not five hours ago. My hon. Friend is right to say that Doncaster youth council was extremely keen to see the concessionary fares scheme extended to young people. As I explained to the council, extending the scheme nationwide to young people would have some severe financial implications, but as I said to my hon. Friend the Member for Tyne Bridge (Mr. Clelland), some local authorities are looking at extending it to young people, especially in areas where people want to get to school or training.

High-speed Trains

Following my recent invitation to examine longer-term options, Network Rail announced in June a study of the potential for new lines to accommodate future growth on the network. This will include an assessment of the role that high-speed lines might play. I look forward to seeing the results of the study next year. Separately, the Department is leading the procurement of new rolling stock to replace the existing fleet of high-speed trains.

I am grateful to the Secretary of State for that response. What reassurance can she give the House about the Government’s welcome ambitions for a new fleet of express trains and five high-speed routes? On the route to Penzance, as a result of rising sea levels, the line 100 miles away at Dawlish always becomes threatened when high spring tides coincide with strong easterlies. Is the Secretary of State able to factor that into the plans, or to make an announcement today that the high-speed route could be rerouted?

I am sure the hon. Gentleman would not expect me to make such an announcement today, but I understand that Network Rail is looking at the issue that he has raised with me. Network Rail needs to be in a position over the next year or so to understand where rail is going to be most intensively used, and that is why it is undertaking a study of where there might be a need for new lines, including high-speed lines. If the hon. Gentleman has issues with the scope of those studies, I am sure he will make representations to Network Rail.

I welcome the commissioning of the study, but can my right hon. Friend tell us what criteria she has set for Network Rail for assessing the feasibility of high-speed rail?

I can tell my hon. Friend that I invited Network Rail to carry out a wide-ranging study, without constraint, of where future demand might emerge on the railway, and where there might be need for extra capacity. As my hon. Friend and other hon. Members know, it takes a long time between thinking about and planning for a new line and constructing it, as with Crossrail, so Network Rail is carrying out a study with a wide scope of where extra demands might materialise and how plans can be put in place in case such a scenario arises.

High-speed rail lines from London to the continent have benefited the economy of the south-east of England. When will we see the network completed to Glasgow?

The hon. Gentleman from month to month tries to make the case for high-speed rail to Glasgow. I have not set my mind against high-speed lines; it is right that Network Rail should consider all the options, particularly how the need for extra capacity might be met. If extra capacity is needed and a new line needs to be built, it must consider whether that line should be high-speed. I do not suggest, as the hon. Gentleman sometimes does, that there is necessarily a huge carbon advantage from high-speed rail. For instance, if a high-speed line were to run between London and Manchester or London and Glasgow, one might expect a carbon advantage, but not the scale of advantage that some hon. Members sometimes suggest.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that people in Yorkshire very much want a high-speed service to the major cities of this country, not just to London? Is she also aware that recently at weekends some conspiracy between National Express and Network Rail has sealed off the northern region from the rest of the country through the disruption and damage done to the timetable?

My hon. Friend will know that there is huge investment in the network at present, including an extra £10 billion allocated to invest in capacity over the five-year period to 2014. Clearly, from time to time there will be disruption on the route, some of which may be unavoidable as a consequence of the upgrading of the line. If it is not unavoidable that is clearly unacceptable, and I am sure my hon. Friend will make representations to Network Rail, as indeed shall I on his behalf.

Does the right hon. Lady understand that it is not much fun standing on a platform and a high-speed train sucks you off because of the turbulence—[Laughter]—or whatever. The important thing is that the train should stop, so will she bear in mind the fact that high-speed trains should go not just from major centres of population to other major centres of population but, as the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman) said, to some of our great cities, including the great city of Lichfield?

The hon. Gentleman is of course right; it would not be much fun, but nor would the train be very high speed if it were to stop at every station. Clearly, there is a trade-off between reductions in journey time and the number of stations where trains stop, but I am sure those issues will be taken into account.

My right hon. Friend is aware of my support, and that of many of my hon. Friends, for the reopening of the Woodhead line over the Pennines. Will she give us an assurance today that the economic benefits to the north of such a link will be given serious consideration as part of the study being conducted by Network Rail?

My right hon. Friend the Minister of State assures me that she has met both National Grid and Network Rail to discuss precisely those issues. A freight study is being carried out to assess whether the Woodhead tunnel might be needed in future to carry freight trains, and there could of course be passenger benefits, too. My hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Ms Smith) has ensured that the issue has been put on the table, and I can assure her in response that it is being studied seriously.

Rail Network

6. What change there has been in the length in miles of the rail network in England since 1st May 1997, excluding the channel tunnel rail link. (216859)

I am advised by Network Rail and the Office of Rail Regulation that the information is not available in the form requested. Since 1997 the channel tunnel rail link has opened, and there have been no significant closures over this period. However, we have committed to investing £10 billion in increasing capacity over the next five years, which at this stage can be done most effectively by investing in additional rolling stock and improving the existing network.

Is not the likely answer zero if the channel tunnel rail link is excluded, and is it not astonishing that the Government can spend £11.5 billion building 405 miles of major new road network, yet not put any money into extending rail? Given that the rail network will approach maximum capacity in the next few years, what plans do the Government have to expand the network and provide capacity beyond 2014?

I am afraid the hon. Gentleman’s argument is completely misleading. If we want to put extra capacity on the railway, the most important thing is to lengthen platforms and invest in new carriages. If we want to increase capacity in the road network, the most important thing is to widen roads or turn the hard shoulder into an extra running lane. However, when we look at the facts on investment, we see that last year alone an extra £3.5 billion was invested in rail capacity and just over £1 billion in roads. There was nearly three times as much investment in rail, so I do not think anyone can accuse the Government of starving the railways of investment.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that one of the most effective ways of increasing the number of miles available for the passenger network is reopening existing freight lines for passenger transport? She will be aware of a number of such schemes nationwide, but will she look again at the considerable potential for passenger use of the heavy freight line that links Leicester and Burton? Will she support the feasibility work being done on a line that could take a significant number of cars off the congested roads of Leicester and Leicestershire?

I know how interested in and passionate about the issue of freight my hon. Friend is. I assure him that as part of its new line study, Network Rail is thinking about whether there is a need for a dedicated freight line, which would not only benefit the freight industry but potentially increase capacity for passengers. Also, in the rail White Paper, we allocated an extra £200 million for investment in the strategic freight network. Together, those measures will, I hope, provide much greater reliability for the freight industry, which is incredibly important, and deliver passenger benefits.

When considering the extra capacity and lines that are needed, particularly for high-speed train services, will my right hon. Friend consider the needs of Northampton and the surrounding growth area, which will urgently need more train services as the population increases in the coming years?

My hon. Friend is persistent in making the case for her constituents in Northampton, particularly on the need for more investment in capacity. I know that Northampton is being considered as a stop for the new inter-city express trains, which would provide substantially more seats than current trains do. I am sure that we will be able to take her representations into account when we decide on the best use of those trains.


The Highways Agency classified roads in the strategic roads network as national or regional roads in 2005 to support the regional funding allocation process. Roads were assessed against set criteria, and the A1 north of Newcastle was judged to be a route of regional importance. There are no plans to carry out a review of those classifications for the forthcoming round of advice on regional funding allocations.

Well, is it not time that there was a review of the classification, especially as the regional transport board, the regional development agency and all the local authorities involved think that the A1 north of Newcastle should be treated as a national strategic road? The traffic patterns—the distances travelled—seem to support that view. The Highways Agency itself spent £5.25 million working up schemes before the classification was changed.

With your permission, Mr. Speaker, it may be helpful to the right hon. Gentleman and the House if I briefly set out the four criteria. The first is an average daily traffic flow of more than 60,000 vehicles along the length of the route. Secondly, the road must link at least two of the top 20 English cities by population, or link one of those cities with an airport or seaport, or with Wales or Scotland. Thirdly, heavy goods vehicles must make up 15 per cent. or more of the traffic, on average, along the length of the route. Fourthly, the road must be part of the European Union’s trans-European transport network. I have to tell him that the A1 north of Newcastle does not meet those criteria.

May I ask the Minister to reconsider the matter in the light of the opening of the second Tyne tunnel, which is due to take place in 2012? The Tyne tunnel road was originally the A1, and the A1 was routed round to the west of Newcastle, but that was some 20 or 30 years ago. May I ask him to reconsider the matter, as some of the information to which he just referred would look entirely different if we considered the future of the trunk road network through the built-up area of Tyne and Wear?

My hon. Friend is right inasmuch as, to quote John Maynard Keynes,

“When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?”

Of course, if the facts change, the Government will look at the matter again, but we have to make sure that the criteria are consistent across the whole country. I advise my hon. Friend, and other right hon. and hon. Members, that simply reclassifying a road does not create any extra resources with which to upgrade and expand it. The amount of money in the pot stays static. Of course, if we have to fund a particular scheme from central resources, that means fewer resources for the regional funding allocation.

Learner Drivers

8. What progress she has made on her plans to introduce a foundation course on safe road use for people planning to learn to drive; and if she will make a statement. (216862)

The Driving Standards Agency is working with the Scottish Qualifications Authority and other interested parties to design a course that young people and potential employers will value. Our plans are for the qualification to be available in Scotland from this autumn, and then become available in the rest of Great Britain.

Does my hon. Friend share my concern about the fact that the overall casualty rates for young people have not changed since the mid-1990s? In contrast, overall, serious accidents and deaths have fallen by over 30 per cent. How does he think the initiative that we are discussing would reduce the casualty figures?

The whole House will welcome the data published two weeks ago by the Department showing that road deaths in the UK fell below 3,000 for the first time since 1926, when records were first kept. However, my hon. Friend is absolutely right to point out that incidents in which young drivers are killed or suffer serious injury are not falling at the same rate. The learn-to-drive consultation that the Department is running to try to improve the standards of skill for our young drivers is very much part of the drive to make sure that those figures keep moving downwards, and we are confident that the qualification will help in that regard.

How much time will it take for motorcyclists to travel from the Isle of Wight to places where they are tested, and might they not, as an alternative, drive indefinitely on L-plates?

The multi-purpose test centres have been designed, first, to comply with the European directive on testing motorcyclists and, secondly, to comply with our safety ambition to cut the numbers of motorcyclists who die on our roads. In 2006, there were 599 such deaths; in 2007, there were 588. They are the biggest single category of deaths on the road, and many motorcyclists are victims of other road users. We are trying to make sure that the MPTCs are as close as possible to where people live, and targets have been set. I know that the hon. Gentleman is aware of that, and he knows, too, that we are engaged in that examination.

While I applaud what my hon. Friend said about reducing deaths on the roads, there have unfortunately been several deaths on the A23 in Sussex in the past year. Can he fit what he said about safety on the roads with the closure of both test centres in Brighton and Hove, so that learner drivers must travel to Burgess Hill, not just to take their test, but possibly to familiarise themselves with the roads? The most direct route to that test centre is on the dual carriageway on the unfortunate A23.

My hon. Friend raises the question of the journey to the test centre for people who want to take their driving test. Some ADIs—approved driving instructors—spend a lot of time with their trainees on the test course, but we are trying to say that that is not what they ought to be doing. Rather than teaching people how to pass the test, they are supposed to teach them how to drive. Some people will have to travel longer distances, but for the majority, the centre will still be within 45 minutes of their home. We are trying to improve the centres, which will be compliant with the Disability Discrimination Act 2005 and will be better for staff and examiners. We want to achieve the objective of cutting the number of people killed and injured, which is why we are revising the whole exam course.

I am sure that the Minister will agree that some of the safest drivers are older drivers. Will he give the House a commitment that his consultation on fitness to drive will not discriminate against older drivers?

Obviously, demographics are important: we are living to an older age, and we have an ageing population. There is a question mark over people living to a very old age and their ability to drive. We have an arrangement whereby, once someone reaches the age of 70, they have to re-qualify, and there is a three-yearly recertification process. We will consult on that, and on health aspects in due course. At this point, however, we have no plans to change the existing arrangement.

Six times as many young men under 21 as young women are killed on our roads when driving. Young men are the problem, so what are we doing to address that issue?

My hon. Friend makes the same point as my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Mahmood). Newly qualified drivers, particularly young men, feature disproportionately among those who are killed and seriously injured. The new qualification that we will take into schools and youth clubs will address the culture of being a passenger as well as the prospect of being a driver. It will deal with how someone should act towards other users in a courteous manner, as well as how to deal with peer pressure, because their girlfriend or boyfriend is in the car, or their mates are in the back trying to gee them up. That is very much a matter of trying to make people more mature in their approach to driving, and the qualification about which my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr asked is very much part of preparing people for driving. In addition, by fundamentally reviewing the exam, we will test whether people are able to drive, not just manoeuvre a vehicle.

Protecting learner drivers from sexual offenders must be an important consideration for the Department, but two years ago I alerted it to the loophole in the law that prevents the suspension of recently convicted sexual offenders from the approved driving instructors register. That meant that sexual offenders who were driving instructors would be allowed to continue for a further 45 days after conviction, and I was told by the Minister at the time that that serious loophole would be closed. Why has nothing been done during that period? Why are women now at risk throughout the country? The Government have failed to act to close the loophole.

Order. Perhaps in future, the hon. Gentleman should be briefer, and he was a bit wide of the question.

Prospective approved driving instructors must provide enhanced-level criminal record checks. Existing ADIs must undergo such checks when re-registering every four years, and the position of driving instructor has the status of a notifiable occupation, so the Driving Standards Agency is informed of convictions. The DSA is seeking a suitable Bill to allow for the suspension of ADIs. The hon. Gentleman has quite correctly drawn attention to the matter and it has been under review. There have been changes, but clearly further matters must be pursued.

Regional Airports

Regional airports generate regional growth, jobs and investment, and we support their development provided that environmental considerations are addressed. Our White Paper, “The Future of Air Transport”, invited airports to publish master plans outlining how their future development proposals would help regional economies, and many have now done so.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. She will know the tremendous benefits to industry and commerce not only in Greater Manchester but throughout the north-west of England of having a large regional hub airport based at Manchester. Will she ensure that the vital economic role played by regional airports such as Manchester is properly considered in the current aviation policy consultation and in the current debate about the expansion of Heathrow?

My hon. Friend makes an incredibly important point. In fact, I think that about 35,000 jobs are supported by Manchester airport alone, and businesses choose where to locate in Britain partly because of international connectivity. The economic impact of transfer passengers has been widely debated inside and outside the House, and when we consider the issues about Heathrow expansion, it is important to take into account the impact of such passengers within the UK. After all, one quarter of all transfer passengers at Heathrow come from regional airports. That is one factor that we must take into account, but obviously the decision will be based on local environmental considerations as well as on the overall economic impact.

I agree with the Secretary of State that regional airports make a very important contribution to the economic development of the regions in which they are located, but does she agree that it is also important that, like all other forms of economic activity, regional airports are subject to proper planning controls and constraints in the interests of the communities around them? In that connection, does she think it reasonable for the Government to plan for East Midlands airport to become a major air freight hub, with the implication that there will be an increased amount of night flying, without any controls on night flights in and out of the airport to reflect the balance of interests between night-flying operators and the communities around the airport?

The right hon. Gentleman will know about our proposals in the air transport White Paper. There are clearly issues in respect of East Midlands airport, but he would not expect me to touch on them in the House, partly because they are being contested. The fact is that regional airports are hugely important for regional and UK economic growth, and the provision of specific places for air freight is also important for the country’s economic growth. Clearly, they need to be properly planned, and clearly we need to take into account the local environmental impact, including the impact on noise and air quality.

Could the Secretary of State impress on her Treasury colleagues the concerns of regional airport operators, who feel that they are being asked to set up a cumbersome and expensive bureaucracy to collect the new aviation tax, instead of that being left to the airlines, which currently collect the aviation air passenger duty that the new tax is replacing?

I take that as confirmation that the Conservative party supports the Government’s proposals for an aviation tax that reflects the impact of aviation on the environment. The Treasury is consulting on the detail, and my right hon. Friend the Chancellor is thinking about the issues with a view to making decisions later this year.

Multi-purpose Driving Test Centres

10. How many new multi-purpose driving test centres the Government plan to establish; and at what cost. (216864)

The Driving Standards Agency plans to establish a network of 66 multi-purpose driving test centres. The capital budget for the project is £71 million and revenue costs will be £13 million per annum.

The Minister has rightly confirmed that the Government are planning to spend £71 million because of a European Union directive. However, if the Government had applied for a derogation from the directive so that 50 kph was translated to 30 mph, no expenditure would have been necessary. Why did the Government waste £71 million rather than apply for a derogation?

We do not see it as wasting £71 million, but as something that improves the test and the facilities for examiners and the examined. It will enable the tests to be conducted off-road because of the manoeuvres that are expected to be required. That will enhance safety because it will improve the skills of those who go to the new multi-purpose driving test centres.

I sincerely hope that Crawley will have a multi-purpose test centre. It is vital that the new centres should allow people to take a variety of tests, provide safety and comfort to those taking their tests as they wait for people to arrive and provide secure accommodation for those who are teaching. I hope that all those things will be achieved at Crawley.

The new purpose-built MPTCs are environmentally friendly and compliant with the Disability Discrimination Act 2005. They provide improved facilities for customers and staff. When my hon. Friend visits her new centre, I am sure that she will be impressed by the facilities on offer.

My apologies, Mr. Speaker; I had not seen that the previous three questions had been withdrawn. In that case, may I ask whether the Secretary of State thinks that the management and accountability structures of Network Rail are satisfactory? If her answer is yes, will she seek some early medical attention? If the answer is no, what does she propose to do about it?

The Government have no plans to look again at the structure of the railway industry. I am confident that the current governing procedures for Network Rail are satisfactory. They are delivering for the passenger and the railway industry.

Topical Questions

I am delighted to tell the House that, on 9 June, I was pleased to announce the Government’s support for a £2.8 billion investment package for public transport in Greater Manchester by awarding its transport innovation fund bid programme entry. Last month, I announced that Bristol had been appointed Britain’s first cycling city, alongside an additional 11 cycling demonstration towns winning a share of a record £100 million to increase cycling in their areas. Yesterday, following the publication of Professor Gallagher’s review of biofuels, I announced my intention to consult on slowing down the rate of increase of the renewable transport fuels obligation to take into account emerging evidence about the sustainability of biofuels and to establish international sustainability standards and controls. Today I made a statement on the timing of the Heathrow consultation process that set out how I intend to ensure that all the evidence can be considered before crucial decisions are taken before the end of the year.

I was delighted to hear my right hon. Friend confirm in yesterday’s statement that the Gallagher review has rejected a moratorium on biofuels development. Will she acknowledge and accept that by slowing down the rate of use of biofuels, which according to the targets set will be 5 per cent. by 2010-11, we will undermine investment and research in the world’s leading biofuels company on Teesside?

My hon. Friend makes an important point. Partly underlying the Gallagher conclusions on the renewable transport fuel obligation and the decision to keep the 5 per cent. in place, albeit on a slowing timetable, was the desire to keep innovation in the industry and to encourage the investment in the north-east that has already been found. Importantly, Professor Gallagher said that we should amend but not abandon our biofuels policy. The RTFO is set to rise to 5 per cent. I hope that the industry can now have some certainty that that will happen, albeit at a slightly slower pace.

EU limits on NOx pollution become legally binding in 2010. At the weekend, Professor Mike Pilling, who chaired a Government expert group on Heathrow air quality, disputed DFT claims that an expanded Heathrow is capable of complying with those limits. The Environment Agency has also highlighted the impact of NOx and worsened air quality on mortality and morbidity around Heathrow. Is the Secretary of State planning to listen to her environment advisers or ignore them?

Of course we are planning to listen to our advisers, just as we are planning to listen to all the responses to the consultation. This morning, I told the House that we were going to carry out a rigorous process and ensure that we analyse all the responses to the consultation and provide a full impact study—including on equalities, which is another issue that has been raised—in order to make an appropriate decision based on the science before the end of the year.

The right hon. Lady’s environmental calculations on Heathrow are under sustained attack. The flight path proposals from NATS could destroy the tranquillity of much of rural England. Her plans for Stansted make no sense and command no support. Is it not time for her to rethink her “predict and provide” approach to aviation, go back to the drawing board on the environmental data on Heathrow and drop her deeply misguided proposals for a second Stansted runway?

I do not agree. I find it quite surprising, that the Conservative party has turned its face against any expansion of aviation in the south-east. That view is not supported by the business community. The clear evidence is that there would be a substantial negative impact not only on the London economy but on the UK economy. Clearly, we have to balance that impact against any local environmental considerations. Our modelling at the Department for Transport shows that, even with the third runway, NOx emissions from Heathrow would fall by almost 50 per cent. between 2002 and 2030. We have been very clear about our intention to put that modelling into the public domain, to have it scrutinised and challenged, and to reflect on the outcome of that. It is absolutely imperative that we make our case based on the scientific evidence, not on some arbitrary political positioning.

T2. Warrington Bank Quay main line station is currently having a long-awaited refurbishment, but we still have only 98 car parking spaces. Will my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State use her considerable influence to get us the car parking that we urgently need? (216845)

My right hon. Friend probably has more influence than I do, but of course I am willing to take up the case. My hon. Friend is right—all the evidence is that the more car parking space is provided at railway stations, the more people will use public transport, particularly the railways. Virgin and Network Rail are aware of the situation at Warrington Bank Quay, which remains problematic unless new land is bought or the car park is double-decked. Nevertheless, I am informed that Virgin and Network Rail aim to provide 140 new car parking spaces by November 2009.

T4. In 2001, the Government promised that, in the next 10 years, they would produce a more silent surface on all the urban motorways. We are still waiting for the major repairs that have to take place close to Walton-on-the-Hill, between junctions 8 and 9 of the M25. Why are my constituents going to have to wait any longer for the Government to deliver on their promises? (216847)

Essentially, the hon. Gentleman is asking that new, low-noise surfacing should be imposed on particular stretches of motorway, even when they do not require resurfacing as a result of wear and tear. The Government’s position is that the best value for money for the taxpayer is to use low-noise surface material when it is necessary to resurface a motorway. If the hon. Gentleman believes that a huge extra expenditure in his area is justified, he should speak to those on his Front Bench, but I do not think that they would be willing to put their hands in their pockets and make that commitment.

T3. Last year, 1,500 people died in London as a result of air pollution. A decision was taken this morning that will set in reverse 50 years of work to improve the air quality in London by issuing an invitation to encourage even more polluting, gas-guzzling, Chelsea tractors to poison the air we breathe. What can the Government do to protect us from the anti-environment excesses of Boris the buffoon? (216846)

My hon. Friend obviously feels strongly on this matter, but the issue in question is devolved to the Mayor of London. No doubt my hon. Friend will make his views clear to him.

T5. Given the number of airlines going out of business and the number of British airlines suffering in the credit crunch, does the Minister agree with the recent decision by the Civil Aviation Authority to increase its charges at Heathrow by 86 per cent. over the next five years? (216848)

That decision is a matter for the CAA, which makes the recommendations. There is an outstanding legal case, in which easyJet is undertaking a judicial review of certain decisions made, and those matters will be resolved in the courts shortly.

T6. Transport for London is investing in greener, non-petrol driven buses, but it is a slow process. There should really be a national, co-ordinated programme of investment. What is the Department doing to get a programme under way, so that we can ensure that the majority of buses—if not all of them—are non-petrol driven? (216849)

My hon. Friend makes an important point about the investigation of alternatives. There are various ways in which we can assist in that process. Research programmes have been undertaken to look at some of the alternatives and, in some instances, we are assisting businesses in that respect. With the reform of the bus subsidy for operators, we will be able to look at what can be done to encourage alternative, more efficient vehicles.

T7. The guidance published in 2006 on setting local speed limits was welcomed by those campaigning for 20 mph limits. However, instead of just encouraging local councils to adopt such schemes, what plans have the Government put in place to ensure that they are made mandatory, and not just outside schools, but nurseries, too? (216850)

I do not want to disappoint my hon. Friend, but we do not have plans to make such schemes compulsory. As she has outlined, we have given guidance, and we hope that local authorities take up the opportunity to introduce 20 mph speed-limit zones, where they think it appropriate. That could involve nurseries or shopping precincts and not just schools. The matter is very much under local control, depending on the profile of road safety in that area.

To help with take-up, we plan to collect data from towns and cities where such schemes have been introduced. That project is now in hand. The preliminary evidence shows that where zones have been introduced with physical restrictions—be they road humps or chicanes—we have seen about a 60 per cent. reduction in crashes and a 67 per cent. reduction in crashes involving children. There is great value in the introduction of 20 mph zones. Local authorities throughout the country have shown great interest in them, and we hope that many more will take up the option.

Yet again this year, as in every year, the Government are pushing up train fares above the cost of inflation, with their flawed retail prices index-plus policy. At the same time, franchised train companies are having to pay a premium—a kind of stealth railway tax—for their franchises, which might account for the fact that the Government’s expenditure on railways is due to fall next year, according to their own figures. When are the Government going to get off the fare escalator, abandon the RPI formula and give fare-paying passengers a fair deal?

I certainly understand the pressure on people’s personal finances. I am determined that we shall restore passengers’ confidence in rail fares, and the hon. Gentleman raises the issue of regulating rail fares. We cap fare increases after inflation to protect passengers from unduly high fare increases. It is worth remembering for a moment that almost half of all rail journeys are made with regulated fares, which are no more expensive in real terms than they were at the time of privatisation, so clearly the regulatory cap is serving a purpose. It is important that we simplify the system and ensure that people are confident that they receive good value for money when they pay a rail fare. The Association of Train Operating Companies has promised to promote price simplification and, ultimately, bring in a price promise, but I think that we may need to go further. That is why I have asked Passenger Focus, the rail passenger representative group, to conduct a study to see what further changes are necessary.

My right hon. Friend issued a statement this morning that will delay the decision on Heathrow until the end of the year at least. For my constituents, that means continued blight. I have families with young children living in overcrowded accommodation in my constituency who cannot sell their properties. Lenders are no longer lending to people in my area, blighted by Heathrow, to enable them to purchase and sell properties. The solution is to drop the madcap scheme for expansion but, in the meantime, will my right hon. Friend meet a delegation of constituency MPs from the area and consider the introduction of an emergency blight package to compensate those people affected by the Government’s delay in their decision-making processes?

I appreciate my hon. Friend’s concern on behalf of his constituents. Whichever way the decision goes, he is clearly concerned about delay in the process and its impact locally. It is important, however, that we rigorously analyse the consultation responses. We have an independent process for doing that, which will be peer reviewed to ensure that all the responses are taken into account. I have promised the House that I will give an update later this year. We have to look, too, into the impact on the demographic groups and equalities in the boroughs likely to be affected by any change. However, I shall pass on my hon. Friend’s comments about the detriment that his constituents are facing to those involved in the consultation, so that they can think about how best to improve the situation locally.

Will the Secretary of State join me in welcoming today’s decision by the east of England regional planning panel to recommend prioritisation of the A11 upgrade from Thetford to Fiveways corner? Will she also assure me that the Government will take account of the East of England regional assembly’s advice and confirm funding without delay, thus bringing an end to years of waiting for a dual carriageway linked to Norfolk?

The Government have already pledged £8 billion to regional transport boards throughout England over a period of 10 years. We always accept and take seriously the advice of regional transport boards, and things will be no different in this case. However, it remains up to the regional transport board in the hon. Gentleman’s area to look into the priorities that it has already established, in the light of the refresh that will take place in the second half of this year.

T8. Given that the Secretary of State was led to believe by the Greater Manchester passenger transport authority and the Association of Greater Manchester Authorities that public consultation on the transport innovation fund bid and congestion charge would be in depth and extensive, does she share my concern and dismay that of the four roadshows planned for Tameside not one will be in Denton, the second largest town in the borough and a community directly affected by the M60 outer charging zone? Can she ensure that my constituents’ views will be sought by the powers-that-be in that process and use her good offices to ensure that we have a roadshow? (216851)

I take my hon. Friend’s points on board. Obviously the TIF bid presents an important opportunity for the people of Greater Manchester, but it also involves a very big decision, and it is vital for all those affected to be able to have their say. I am sure my hon. Friend will appreciate that it not for me to comment on each specific aspect of the consultation, but it is important for it to be full and thorough. I urge him to continue to pursue the matter with the Greater Manchester authorities.

Why do Network Rail’s plans for a western high-speed rail route end in Bristol rather than extending to Wales? Do the Government support that vision of a two-speed Britain?

I do not think anyone could honestly claim that the Government have done anything other than put their money where their mouth is in developing the railway network. The hon. Gentleman’s constituents are set to benefit from the upgrading and restructuring of Reading station, which is costing more than £400 million. It will relieve a crucial bottleneck on the Great Western line, which is also where I expect the new inter-city express programme trains to be piloted from 2015.