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Topical Questions

Volume 489: debated on Tuesday 10 March 2009

Following my statement to the House on 15 January, work is now well under way on developing proposals for a second high-speed rail line in the United Kingdom, as I set out to the House earlier. On 12 February I announced a funding package for London that included an extension of the East London line to Clapham Junction. Transport for London has committed to completing the new line by 2012.

Last week, along with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, I announced that the independent Environment Agency will police the EU emissions trading scheme, which, by capping net carbon dioxide emissions from aviation, will cut carbon emissions substantially right across Europe and provide real incentives for airlines to play their part.

Yesterday, I published a consultation document on proposals to reform the economic regulation of airports. Those proposals are designed to put the interests of passengers at the heart of a new regulatory regime, ensuring that airports make the best use of existing capacity while also having regard for the environmental impact of their operations.

Will my right hon. Friend take it from me that the most popular thing that he has done as Secretary of State for Transport is to give the go-ahead to phase 2 of the East London line extension? That will fulfil our manifesto commitment, create a London orbital network and link Clapham Junction to the tube. Can he tell the House when it is expected that work will be completed on that project?

Another station at which I got out was Clapham Junction, where I was delighted to meet my hon. Friend, who has campaigned long and hard for the extension. I pay tribute to his determined efforts, which have now been rewarded. As I said, Transport for London is committed to completing the new line to Clapham by 2012.

T4. Under the Traffic Management Act 2004, the Secretary of State is meant to introduce plans to deal with the proliferation of street works. If he has had the privilege of driving from Croydon to Westminster in recent weeks, he will realise that the journey has been considerably slowed by an endless stream of roadworks—adding to congestion and pollution—and, in one case, traffic lights only 300 yd apart. When will he introduce the plans and stop dithering on that important issue? (261727)

We have been in consultation with several London authorities and, indeed, with Kent county council, about proposals for dealing with roadwork schemes. That consultation continues. The schemes have to be robust and meet the requirements, but I recognise motorists’ frustration about the major roadworks to replace some of our major utilities. We are well aware of that, and I am in dialogue with the national joint utilities group to ensure that we make progress.

T2. The statement about the High Speed 2 project is welcome, especially the commitment to take seriously a trans-Pennine link. However, National Grid has made it clear again today that it is not prepared to support continued funding to maintain the Victorian tunnels on the Woodhead line. Will a Minister from the Department meet me to discuss that worrying development? (261725)

First, may I pay tribute to my hon. Friend’s determination to maintain the availability of the Woodhead tunnel? She is right to ensure that that facility remains available in the long term, in case decisions are made that require its use. I am aware of the issue that she raises, and I would be delighted to meet her and any delegation that she would like to bring with her to discuss it.

T3. Northern rail services have been disrupted by the new timetable for the west coast main line, with many trains shortened and my Hazel Grove constituents left standing on the platform, unable to get on jam-packed trains. Will the Minister agree urgently to redeploy the trains on the Oldham loop, so that the hard-pressed commuters of Stockport can at least get to work? (261726)

I am aware of the consequential knock-on effects for the hon. Gentleman of the significant improvements on the west coast main line. We will carefully consider addressing those problems.

T5. Among the Secretary of State’s many visits to far-off stations, last week he attended the Omega project event, where there was an update from leading climatologists on the extent of aviation’s contribution to climate-changing emissions. How do officials in his Department and elsewhere in Government plan, in calculating the true environmental impact of that form of transport, to use the latest scientific evidence of aviation-induced cirrus cloud, which has four times the adverse impact of CO2 alone, as he knows? (261728)

I am tempted to respond by suggesting that I send a copy of the speech that I gave on that occasion to my hon. Friend, but I anticipate, in the light of his observations, that it might not persuade him. In it, I set out the importance of recognising that his constituents and mine continue to want to fly, and of ensuring that that ambition is matched by a genuine commitment to reducing carbon emissions. The practical measures that I outlined are designed to ensure that not only can people take the opportunity of visiting family and friends and travelling for business, as they increasingly wish to do, but that they are fully conscious of the consequences of their actions for our environment. I will send him a copy of the speech after all.

T6. Does the Minister have any message for my constituents in Cheadle Hulme, who have waited patiently for years for long-promised improvements to their railway station? Does he agree that commuter stations where the only current access is via a steep staircase should be given absolute priority in the improvement programme? (261729)

In earlier answers we indicated that there is a programme to work on our stations to improve accessibility. I understand the frustration that the hon. Gentleman may feel, but that programme costs money. The money must be found and the priorities—ensuring better and more reliable services, ensuring that they arrive on time and ensuring affordable fares—must be set. We continue to roll out the access for all programme, as well as the smaller schemes, to make stations more accessible to all concerned.

We did not quite get to Question 10 on the Order Paper, which was my question about which sections of the M4 and M5 around Bristol it would be possible for people to use the hard shoulder on. Can the Minister tell the House how the proposal squares with the Government’s environmental objectives? Some people would interpret it as encouraging road use, rather than tackling the problems of congestion in the Bristol area.

I can reassure my hon. Friend that the proposal meets the Government’s objectives on climate change and reducing emissions. First, using hard shoulder running will mean fewer emissions than there would be if we had to widen the motorway. Secondly, more consistent travel times will mean fewer emissions from vehicles, because there will be less congestion. More reliable journey times will also mean that vehicles will reach their destinations on time, which means better planning. The proposal will lead to a reduction in emissions, which is fully consistent with the Government’s climate change programme.

T8. Yesterday, Ministers floated in the press the idea of reducing the national speed limit to 50 mph on single carriageway roads. There is not a single stretch of dual carriageway road in my constituency, which is the eighth largest in England. Instead of introducing a blanket ban and causing frustration for all the drivers in my constituency, would it not make much more sense for the Government to target resources on known accident blackspots? (261731)

No decision has been taken—we will shortly be consulting on the post-2010 road safety strategy—and there will not be a blanket ban either. Currently, local authorities may exercise discretion to reduce or increase the speed at which vehicles can travel on a particular road, depending on the nature of that road. However, 62 per cent. of deaths occur on A roads that carry only 40 per cent. of traffic, so it would be wholly inappropriate for us not to examine whether the opportunity exists to save lives and reduce serious injuries. The information and the data from the Transport Research Laboratory show that if we make the speed adjustment, we can save 250 lives and prevent 1,000 serious injuries. We have to look at the proposal, but we have not made a decision yet, although it may be part of the consultation, which will be out shortly, on formulating our road strategy for 2010 onwards.

With regard to the new high-speed rail network, may I ask my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to be ambitious? Instead of looking at a single line serving Manchester and Leeds by a rather convoluted route, will he look at an alternative, which is to have two lines—one going to Manchester and the north-west and the other branching off at Rugby, serving Nottingham, Derby, Sheffield and Leeds, which are the major population centres of the east midlands, south Yorkshire and west Yorkshire? That option would have major economic advantages.

As my hon. Friend will be aware, I do not lack ambition in that respect. Personally, I am very attracted to what he has outlined, but it is for High Speed 2 to advise the Government on the practical steps that will be necessary, and we will draw its attention to his observations.