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Topical Questions

Volume 478: debated on Tuesday 8 July 2008

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.