Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—(Norman Baker.)
I am grateful to Mr Speaker for granting this debate. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Roger. I genuinely welcome the interest shown by my fellow Essex MPs in the debate, which is timely. As constituency MPs, we all face many serious challenges and have strong views about the future of our infrastructure.
The coalition Government are halfway through their five-year mission to restore economic growth to Britain while dealing with the deficit, and I welcome the initiatives that Ministers have introduced to highlight infrastructure and investment—in particular the £50 billion provided through the Infrastructure (Financial Assistance) Bill, and the Growth and Infrastructure Bill as well, partly because their provisions are important to economic growth and job creation across the country.
The Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Lewes (Norman Baker), and his Department are in the process of changing how transport infrastructure is delivered, to ensure that it meets demand, supports growth and provides value for money, which I also welcome. In recent weeks, reforms to rail franchises have been debated at length, and I wish the Minister and his Department well in the vital work being undertaken to resolve the problems with the west coast main line in particular, but also, from an Essex point of view, with the tendering process for the Greater Anglia franchise. We are keen to ensure that that franchise is not delayed, but we feel that it can go ahead only when the specification is ready, and not before; I was in discussion with Abellio last night about that very point.
Air travel and airport capacity remain high on the political agenda, with the launch of the Davies commission last month. New delivery models for investment in our roads are being examined, through the introduction of route-based strategies, all of which I welcome. Yesterday evening, I hosted an event in Parliament with representatives of Stansted airport. It was attended by some of my colleagues. From an Essex point of view, we feel that this is an exciting time for those interested in infrastructure. Essex has been neglected for far too long. The purpose of today’s debate is not just to make a plea to the Minister and his Department, but to make the case for investment. For far too long, we have not come together enough to make a collective case to Government about why we need it.
All my colleagues know that Essex has suffered from a chronic lack of infrastructure investment over the years, and during the good times Essex was overlooked while money was ploughed into projects elsewhere. That neglect has had serious consequences for a county that is growing and growing. Over time, our roads have become more congested and dangerous, and our rail services have become far from ideal, despite the fact that our commuters contribute approximately £110 million to the Treasury annually.
In my constituency, vital plans to improve road safety on the A120, one of the 10 most dangerous roads in the country, have been dropped, and countless other infrastructure projects have been ignored. Although we appreciate that the nation’s finances are in a delicate and precarious position right now, that should be no excuse to overlook Essex for investment in transport infrastructure.
Does my hon. Friend agree that if the infrastructure in Essex does not improve greatly, the burden of people driving to my constituency, which although in Essex is also in the London borough of Redbridge, and leaving their vehicles there so that they can travel on the underground, will just increase and become a bigger problem for my constituents?
Absolutely. That highlights the fact that we are at breaking point where our roads are concerned. Congestion is extreme. Although we have not had the infrastructure investment—money is tight—Essex is best placed to maximise the benefits of any public money that comes into our infrastructure. If the Minister chooses to come to Essex—that is an open invitation from us all, I think—he will understand and get to see at first hand that Essex is the engine of economic growth.
Even in these challenging economic circumstances, there are about 6,000 new enterprise start-ups every year, the equivalent of one new business being created for every 300 people in the county. In 2011, there were 52,000 entrepreneurs in Essex, supporting a county-wide economy with gross value added estimated at over £28 billion. Few parts of Britain can boast that kind of culture of entrepreneurship, and with so many entrepreneurs and business people across the county it is hardly surprising how diverse the businesses are.
I mentioned earlier that we had a function last night. It was attended by many businesses as well as by representatives from Stansted airport. In my constituency, we have a pioneering and world-leading firm, Crittall Windows, which has won the Queen’s award for enterprise; the world famous Wilkin and Sons jam makers, the finest jam makers in the world; and Simarco International, a worldwide logistics company, to name but a few.
There are thousands more such outward-looking businesses. They want easier access to global markets and trading opportunities but are let down by our poor infrastructure across the county. They are frustrated by that, and also by the fact that the voice of the private sector has not been listened to enough—not just across Government but in other bodies as well, which is why this discussion is vital. We must start to listen to that voice.
Our outdated infrastructure is a considerable barrier to economic growth, and that costs firms millions of pounds. This quote from Ian Thurgood, from Wilkin and Sons, is telling:
“A well planned and maintained road network is critical for the success of Essex businesses. Food producers such as Wilkin and Sons have to meet strict delivery deadlines for most retailers and failure to deliver on time can mean products being out of stock and ultimately delisted from sale.”
Such issues are vital for that industry, and Ian Thurgood’s sentiments are echoed across the board. Essex has a 21st-century private sector but a creaking infrastructure that is simply out of date. That is the business perspective, but of course the problem has a knock-on effect on families across the county.
Our population in Essex is approximately 1.7 million, and it is set to grow by 20% over the next 20 years. I have three local planning authorities covering just my constituency, and with Braintree district, Maldon district and Colchester borough they plan to build 60,000 new dwellings between 2011 and 2031. All those new dwellings will put more pressure on our roads—more cars—and there will be a greater demand for rail services and international air travel. There will also, quite rightly, be more people setting up their own businesses, which we support.
Essex is an attractive county. It is very close to London, and its potential is limitless. We have a world-class airport at Stansted, which serves 18 million passengers and is the fourth most used airport in the country. Some £8 million of cargo goes out of the airport, and about 200,000 tonnes are flown out to 200 destinations. The airport supports 10,000 jobs across the county and contributes £400 million to the local economy. But there is not just the airport; we have seaports as well. We have Harwich, and Felixstowe is close by, while London Gateway will come on stream soon.
Along with all my colleagues, I am passionate about the potential for Essex as a county. I want to see our businesses not just grow but do even more for UK plc. Frankly, Essex could get moving even more with greater infrastructure. Having given some background, I now want to highlight some of the key areas, particularly in my constituency, in which we have major problems and bottlenecks.
I would welcome the Minister’s thoughts on the future of rail in the county. He will be aware that colleagues in Essex and across the region have come together to develop a rail prospectus covering a range of services for the Greater Anglia franchise. I believe his Department is now familiar with that document. We recently went to present the document to the Secretary of State—and, of course, my right hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford (Mr Burns), a Transport Minister, is a signatory.
Many of my constituents are paying upwards of £4,000 a year to commute to London, and they are subject to the worst delays and a lack of seating, which forces them to stand in horrible conditions. Even though we are a business-oriented county, those people do not have access to wi-fi connections. As I have already highlighted, a significant proportion of their fares already goes to the Treasury. We are a significant net contributor to the Treasury, and my constituents and all rail users across Essex are concerned that they are simply not getting value for money.
It seems obvious that if a modest proportion of the fees paid to the Government by the train operators were reinvested in track infrastructure and new rolling stock, everyone would benefit and the service would be more attractive to others. Such investment is needed because, since the mid-1990s, there has been a 34% increase in passenger numbers on the Great Eastern route, which places huge demand on current services.
The introduction of a passing loop on the Witham to Braintree branch line would be a crucial investment. The branch line is currently a single track, and the Minister is familiar with our representations on that. The branch line restricts the number of journeys and the number of passengers who can be connected to Witham and the wider rail network, both to London and Norwich. A passing loop would be beneficial to constituents across the district and, of course, could unlock new capacity on the route.
Braintree district council recently conducted a study to demonstrate that, if the loop were constructed, it would deliver a cost-benefit ratio of 2.0 or more. From his work in the Department, the Minister may know that scores of that level and above are regarded as delivering high value for money; a score between 1.5 and 2.0 represents medium value for money. I hope he will give a positive indication about the issue.
I thank all my colleagues for their contributions to the rail prospectus. For many of us, the prospectus has been a labour of love that has brought us together. I pay tribute to Essex county council and the local enterprise partnership, because we have all come together for the first time to forge the prospectus and we intend to continue being strong advocates and strong voices for rail investment.
I now turn to the problems of the Dartford crossing. Just as commuters have become thoroughly dejected by the quality of rail services, businesses are gobsmacked, astounded and appalled, to put it politely, by the state of the roads and the congestion near the Dartford crossing. The crossing, of course, is important not only to Essex but to the south-east, Greater London and Kent.
As regular users of the crossing know—I declare an interest as a DART-Tag holder—the toll booths cause atrocious congestion. Journey time reliability figures, the measure that the Highways Agency uses to monitor delays, show that performance in the year to May 2012 was just 57% for southbound journeys and 60% for northbound journeys, compared with a national average of 83.5% across the motorway and trunk road network. More than 50 million crossings are made each year, and it is unacceptable that half of those journeys should face such considerable delays.
As the representative of the constituency at the north end of the Dartford crossing, I should say that my constituents probably suffer the burden of the congestion more than anyone else. My hon. Friend refers to the congestion caused by the toll booths. We are advised that, once they are removed, the crossing’s capacity will grow by 20%. Installing free-flow tolling will cost some £100 million. Do her constituents agree with mine that, instead of spending that £100 million, we should just remove the tolls?
Given the delays caused by the tolls and how much those delays cost our economy, the answer is yes. My constituents would welcome that—they really would.
The Highways Agency has estimated that the economic cost of the delays is some £40 million, which is astronomical. That money is being taken away from creating jobs and growth in our economy.
I want to get this on the record. When the first tunnel was built by Essex and Kent county councils, and subsequently when the second tunnel was built, it was announced that, once the capital costs had been paid for by the toll, the tunnels would be free. Does my hon. Friend agree that perhaps it is time to honour that pledge?
I absolutely do. There is a real issue here, because that is what the public were told. The public feel cheated not only because they have to continue paying the current tolls, but because the tolls are going up. The tolls went up this month, and they will go up again in two years’ time. The public are getting an appalling service and, as I said, the cost to the economy is significant.
We have another concern about the Dartford crossing. The proceeds received by the Department for Transport have effectively fallen over the past eight years. In 2003-04, revenues from users totalled £68 million and expenditure was £14 million, which left £54 million in proceeds for the Department. By 2010-11, however, although revenues had risen to £73 million, expenditure had increased by 250% to £36.3 million, leaving just £36.7 million in proceeds for the Department. Most of the increased revenues—I hope the Minister and the Department will look into this—appear to have been swallowed up by the managing agent contractor’s costs, which have more than doubled from £12.7 million to £27.5 million. All colleagues would think that that is completely unrealistic and unreasonable. For those of us who are paying the high tolls—and our constituents are—that is simply unacceptable. Although the money raised from drivers using the crossing rose by 7% in eight years, the amount going back to the Department fell.
I recognise that the Department is working on the free flow, as my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Jackie Doyle-Price) highlighted, but drivers are paying increased costs year on year. Given the compelling evidence demonstrating that the crossing is now failing to deliver value for money, and given the economic costs of the delays, we must review the entire operation of the crossing. I hope the Minister can explain where the extra tolls being paid by drivers, both this month and in two years’ time, will be going.
How will the Department spend the money and on what projects? I urge the Minister to consider the contractor costs, which I have highlighted. He may not be able to give me a full response right now, but the tolls are a physical and metaphorical barrier to growth, and the sooner traffic is able to flow freely, and the sooner costs are brought down, the better—not just for all our constituents, but for the economy of the south-east.
My constituents, and road users throughout Essex, are fed up with both the A120 and the A12. Those two roads run through my constituency, and my postbag and inbox are inundated daily with all their failures. The roads are vital economic links, but they have not been upgraded and are costing the economy huge sums of money.
John Devall, the managing director of Essex and Suffolk Water, has commented that the
“A12 generally…is the subject of the travel news in the morning—taking over from J28 to 27 on M25, since upgrades there.”
His workers going to east London now regularly travel between 6 am and 7 am to avoid the worst traffic. Essex chambers of commerce has highlighted that the road needs to be widened and improved.
The 12-mile stretch of the A120 between Braintree and Marks Tey is one of the 10 most dangerous roads in the country and needs urgent attention. We have had fatality after fatality. The A120 is a single-carriageway road that carries approximately 25,000 vehicles each day, projected to rise to 30,000 by 2027. As a single-carriageway road carrying many freight vehicles and heavy goods lorries, that section of road is simply no longer fit for purpose.
I emphasise that the A120 is part of the trans-European road network between Dublin and Brussels, which means it is used by freight vehicles and is congested. Although 6% of traffic on the county’s roads is attributable to HGVs, they make up about 14% of traffic on that part of the A120 and parts of the A12. The dangers speak volumes; I have highlighted the fact that there have been fatalities. Local residents and parish councils have campaigned tirelessly for improvements, but have been systematically let down by authorities, including regional development agencies and previous Governments. A £50 million plan to dual the road was abandoned. I implore the Minister to consider the case for investment. Privately led schemes exist already. In an era of little Government money, we appreciate that investment must be led by the private sector and business, but lots of people are working locally. We must listen to businesses’ voices.
I thank the Minister and the Department for Transport for the announcement two weeks ago committing £300,000 to Galleys Corner in Braintree, but I emphasise the dangerous nature of the road. I look to the Department and the Minister for their support in working with the county council, the chambers of commerce and the local enterprise partnerships to consider using regional growth fund money to deal with the problems on that road. I press the Government to consider how we can access European funds.
I cannot emphasise enough that, for too long, Essex’s innovative private sector has been held back by the failures of our infrastructure, frustrating businesses and preventing more jobs from being created. I hope that the Minister will take on board the points that I have raised and the areas of the constituency that I have mentioned. This is all about getting Essex moving and bringing greater prosperity and more jobs and growth to the county and, ultimately, to the United Kingdom, as well as bringing more Treasury receipts to the Government.
I am grateful for this opportunity to contribute to the debate initiated by my hon. Friend the Member for Witham (Priti Patel). Infrastructure is probably too grand a word for the transport arrangements in our county. We enjoy relative prosperity, yet we have, varyingly, either no transport infrastructure worthy of the name or totally inadequate infrastructure. She said that we are halfway through this Government, and it is to this Government that we direct our pleas, but the situation goes back many years. Sometimes, I think that the inadequacies of the transport system in our county can be traced back to Roman times. We therefore have a great deal of catching up to do. Things are London-centric: everything goes away from London. Therefore, even counties near London have difficulty connecting places in the way required by modern business, as my hon. Friend so eloquently said.
Our principal roads are the A11, the A12, the A13 and the A127, which all go outwards from London. Only one, the M11, has been upgraded to motorway status, although the A11 still runs separately. I understand that when this country’s motorway system was first mooted back in the 1930s, the original plan was that the M11 would be a London-Norwich motorway. If that was so, the county of Norfolk has grounds for grieving that there is still no adequate connection from London to that important city in the east of England. The M11 only happened because people saw it as a way to go faster to an airport at Stansted, if one was developed.
As for cross-county roads, I can add to my hon. Friend’s story about the A120. When I first became Member for Saffron Walden, the constituency included, apart from the district of Uttlesford, the northern part of the district of Braintree, through which ran the A604, the Cambridge-Colchester road. The road was under heavy pressure, and when I tried to argue for bypasses for villages and so on, I was told, “No, no, you must understand the strategy.” On this matter, Essex county council, the highway authority and the Department for Transport were as one. The roads communicating with the east coast ports would be the A12 and then, when constructed, the Orwell bridge on to the A14. The other was the A120, connecting with the M11. That road has still not been completed, as my hon. Friend said. It is the most extraordinary situation. That was the great strategy for a cross-county route, from which everything else was directed, yet it has still not been completed.
Parts of the A130 have been improved, but in my constituency, despite the downgrading of a section to the B1008, heavy transport still ploughs through the villages of Barnston and Ford End and the parish of Great Waltham. Satellite navigation tells lorry drivers the route, rather than the signposts on the road. The road in that part of the county is totally inadequate. We do not have a complete approach to the A130, which would help communications across the county. The trouble is that schemes get mooted, talked about, designed and left to fester, leaving only blight and a great deal of heartache.
On rail services, I will not say anything about the Fenchurch-Shoeburyness line, but it appears to be the only one that has been significantly upgraded in the past 20 or 30 years. The great eastern line is certainly below its capacity needs, and the west Anglia line is the most extraordinary story of all. Successive Governments over 20 or 30 years have designated Stansted as an airport to be developed in varying degrees and have also decided that the M11 corridor is one for development. Despite that fact, one of the most inadequate railway lines of all still serves our county and beyond, running to Cambridge, Ely and King’s Lynn. It has the shortest stretch of four-tracking of any London terminal, not measured in inches but by a considerable degree.
Our commuters have had a rotten deal. Now, belatedly, the owners of Stansted airport have woken up to the fact that the Stansted express is not as express as it was originally and are at last demanding a 30-minute journey time, equal to the time from Victoria to Gatwick airport. Indeed, that is how it should be. We have an airport—it is not approved with enthusiasm by all my constituents, but we are realists—whose capacity can double, but our railway system serves neither the airport and the businesses related to it, nor the vast number of commuters who come from the constituencies of many of my neighbours, including my hon. Friends the Members for Harlow (Robert Halfon), for Hertford and Stortford (Mr Prisk) and for Broxbourne (Mr Walker).
Even stations further south are suffering from the inadequacy of the line. It might be argued, “Come on, you’ve got Crossrail coming along.” Crossrail might make some contribution as far as passengers from Shenfield and other stations are concerned, but the idea that it will be the complete answer to Essex’s rail needs is nonsense, and the idea that £3 billion might be spent on it or on an extension to an enlarged Stansted airport is for the birds.
Cross-county, we have nothing. In the wake of the decision to develop Stansted airport, people would like a line reinstated from Braintree towards the airport and Bishop’s Stortford, but why would one think of spending more money to restore a line when we cannot even find the money to make existing principal lines work effectively? To the extent that we have some cross-county rail operations out of Stansted airport that could be developed, the single-bore tunnel restricts the number of trains and is currently working at capacity. How stupid is that? We need a second-bore tunnel, so that extra trains can serve from Stansted and through. Indeed, we could have more trains going to the northern parts of the east of England.
On air, I am afraid the county is deeply divided, although we speak with unity on most other things. We have two airports: London, Southend and London, Stansted. Those names tell their own story. Stansted has never been Essex’s airport. Perhaps Southend has more of a claim to be an Essex airport, but Stansted airport was never treated by its owners, BAA, as an Essex airport; it was a London airport, part of its system. Fortunately, that is about to change soon, but it is still seen—speculation has started—as part of the London airport solution. I do not believe that it can be, unless one is prepared to say that the Essex countryside should be devastated to the extent of having four runways.
Even our most ambitious business people would not believe that an airport on that scale is necessary, yet we are faced with the fact that, once again, we could be bearing the burden of solving London’s problems without any of the real benefits that might flow from it—an improved railway line and an improved road system. We are bad in this country in that when we have major developments that can be necessary in the wider national interest, we do not give people a commensurate benefit that flows from them, or even adequate compensation.
I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Witham. We fail to obtain the amount of moneys required to deal with the backlog of problems that we have, so the quality of our transport system is inadequate. We do not have anything that could remotely be called an integrated transport system. Overall, what has happened over the years is that there has been nothing much in it for us. Frankly, there needs to be a lot more.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Witham (Priti Patel) on setting the scene, pan-Essex, and endorse the points raised by my right hon. Friend the Member for Saffron Walden (Sir Alan Haselhurst) regarding the west of the county. My hon. Friend the Member for Witham made a powerful case for the economic benefit of investment in the transport infrastructure for Essex as a whole. Essex is indeed an economic power base for the British economy, and more could be done if we were given support in greater transport infrastructure.
The rail manifesto for the east of England united every single MP in the east of England—no mean achievement. As far as my constituents are concerned, and as has been pointed out, they are paying way over the odds in rail fares for the service they receive. We need greater investment on the Anglia line—Norwich, Ipswich, Colchester and Chelmsford to London, Liverpool Street—but I seek the Minister’s confirmation that the “Norwich in 90” campaign will not mean fewer inter-city trains stopping at the Essex stations of Manningtree and Colchester.
On occasion, we in Essex feel that we have been neglected and forgotten by the Department for Transport. I endorse the case that has been made for improvements to the A12 and the A120. The A120 is not in my constituency at either end, but a section of it runs along the A12, as it were, and it certainly brings A120 traffic in and out of Colchester. If my hon. Friend the Member for Harwich and North Essex (Mr Jenkin) were here, he would make a powerful case for improvements to the A120 through the Tendring peninsula to the international port of Harwich, in the same way as my hon. Friend the Member for Witham, and, indeed, as my hon. Friend the Member for Braintree (Mr Newmark) would for the A120, so far as it goes through that part of Essex.
We have to look at Essex as a whole. On the Thurrock crossing—I am going to say the Thurrock crossing, not the Dartford crossing, because we need to promote Essex on these occasions—it was a great disappointment that when the Queen Elizabeth II bridge was opened it was not called the Thurrock bridge. I do not see why Kent should get all the mentions.
Bad planning means, I am afraid, that Essex, and my constituency of Colchester in particular, is set to suffer even more road congestion. I draw the Minister’s attention to a proposed development on the fields of west Mile End, which the highways experts think will be okay, even though 1,600 houses will be served by the longest cul-de-sac in Britain—a one-mile cul-de-sac serving this massive estate on land of a quality that, if only John Constable had painted it, would be considered an area of outstanding natural beauty. We need new housing, of course we do. We need new sites for jobs, of course we do. However, they have to be in the right place.
Those 1,600 houses will pile even more traffic on to the road congestion around the Colchester mainline station and North Station road, which is absolutely ludicrous. I hope that people in the Department and in Essex county highways, and wherever else these theorists sit, will realise that in the real world it is impossible—science has proved it—to get a quart into a pint pot. To suggest that, somehow, vehicles can do the equivalent of getting a quart into a pint pot is not on.
Something that I am sure will appeal to the Minister is the fact that we have had the case made for improvements to road and rail infrastructure, but I am going to make a special plea for buses, whether they be local buses serving a community or bus networks serving surrounding villages and people across Essex. I should not forget the express coach services and the services for Britain’s first city—our tourism industry. Of course, we were a city in 49 AD, when Chelmsford was the Roman equivalent of the Little Chef on the way to London. We need to have greater interest in and promotion of our bus services. A decent bus service and all that goes with it means a proper bus station. That is for local consumption. Before Christmas, Colchester’s bus station will be shutting. That is a retrograde move in a time when we should be promoting public transport.
Cycleway provision is important and relatively low cost. One only has to go to Denmark and Holland to see how investment in cycleway provision encourages people out of their cars and on to cycles. The more we can encourage people on to safe cycle routes, the more we will ease congestion.
I shall conclude with something that I failed to interest the previous Government in, and in which I suspect this Government and Department for Transport have an equal lack of interest. The Victorians were successful, as can be seen in many of our European towns and cities and in a few parts of the United Kingdom, in producing urban tram systems, or light railways. A tram system or light railway would move us a long way forward, because far more people can be carried, in an urban environment, on trams or light railway than by continually putting more and more cars on to the roads.
I again congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Witham on putting a powerful case for Essex. I hope that some good will come from it.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Roger. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Witham (Priti Patel), who is a fantastic champion not only for transport, but for business, in Essex.
In Harlow, we face three major challenges: reputation, skills and infrastructure. We are dealing with the first two. We now have the highest business growth in the UK, as Experian has shown. An enterprise zone is opening next year, a new university technical college is opening in 2014, and 600 more people are in work in the town, compared with January, but transport infrastructure is holding us back in three ways. First, as my hon. Friend the Member for Witham and my right hon. Friend the Member for Saffron Walden (Sir Alan Haselhurst) highlighted so well, we are not getting enough investment in trains in the east of England. Secondly, Harlow lacks proper motorway entrances. Thirdly, a sense of unfairness has built up over decades, due to only a fifth of fuel duty receipts being spent on our roads. I shall consider those points in turn.
I welcome what the Government have done to limit train fare rises. Many people in Harlow are on below-average earnings and commute into London, and could not afford some of the bigger rises that were initially mentioned. Of course, expensive rail fares have not happened overnight. Simon Carter, a Harlow resident who is also a councillor, has the ticket stubs to prove that a season ticket from Harlow to London went up by some 40% over the past 13 to 15 years, but Harlow commuters still suffer from the worst overcrowding in the country.
I recognise and welcome what the Government have done to invest in new rolling stock and to negotiate with Abellio to run a short franchise when National Express dropped out. I appreciate that Abellio has hired 100 extra security staff on the west coast main line, protected all Harlow services from cuts and smartened up our train stations, but Essex is a major engine of the English economy and our train fares are still too high, compared with the inward investment in the network. That is why I, along with my hon. and right hon. Friends, urge the Minister to consider the East Anglian rail prospectus, with targeted schemes, such as a third line in the Lea valley, and line improvements along the Stansted Express route, so that trains can get up to speeds of 100 mph. Improvements in infrastructure in the Roydon and Sawbridgeworth stations would be welcome.
On my hon. Friend’s point about increased rail capacity through the Lea valley, we do not want to be sold short on just a third rail. For that job to be done properly, we need four rails, ideally, as far as Broxbourne. That would separate the more localised traffic from the traffic to more distant destinations, such as his constituency and mine.
Of course, my right hon. Friend is correct. He is an incredible champion for commuters across Essex.
Crossrail is estimated to have raised property prices along its line of route by about £5.5 billion, meaning that one third of the scheme’s cost has already been recouped by local home owners. This is the value that major transport projects can unlock.
I urge the Minister to expand the Oyster and other smart card systems to include Harlow commuters, because most people who commute to London from there use the London underground or London buses.
The Minister is aware, from a previous debate, that I have long campaigned for an additional junction on the M11. A new junction is critical if Harlow is to continue to grow and attract new businesses. Harlow town alone has a population of some 81,000 or 82,000, in addition to that of the villages in my constituency, but we have only one entrance to the town, which is crazy for a huge employment hub close to London. The industry is located at the opposite end of the town, meaning that lorries must trundle back and forth, almost through the town centre. Almost every day, our town faces gridlock because we do not have the extra junction.
I welcome work done by the local council on a £500,000 study into building a new M11 junction 7a, which will report in November—in a few weeks. I urge the Minister to consider that report. The case for a new M11 junction is simple: it would cost only around £15 million, would create jobs and growth, cut congestion and the cost of traffic, and would generally make Harlow a much better place to live. Our local enterprise partnership has secured a small amount of funding for road improvements, and I welcome some things that the Government have announced, but this is a sticking plaster. We will not solve our transport problems in Harlow until we get the extra junction.
I want to talk briefly about how our infrastructure is funded. My hon. Friend the Member for Ipswich (Ben Gummer) has brilliantly highlighted how, unfortunately, money raised for the railways by commuters through fares is not spent in the east of England; most of it goes to other parts of the country. We must move to a situation where money raised in the region by commuters paying high rail fares is spent in the region. The same thing has happened with fuel duty. Through the 1920s, the road fund was repeatedly raided to prop up the Treasury, and from 1937 it was treated as a general tax. By 1966, just one third of the revenue was spent on roads, and by 2008 the figure was just one fifth. The proportion of fuel duty being spent on roads has shrunk hugely, but at the same time that duty has risen. Motorists regard that as unfair because they do not see any benefit from the huge sums in fuel duty tax that they pay. The same is true of train ticket price rises. How can we justify those without proper investment in our local road and rail networks?
The cost of living is the No. 1 issue in my constituency. People want cheaper travel and they want every penny that the Government take from them to be recycled back into the community. I urge the Minister to refocus the Department on extra infrastructure investment in the east of England, in our trains, motorways and road networks—a cause that is close to our hearts. We need more radical transparency, so that people can see whether fare increases are genuinely being ploughed back into their area.
I am glad that the Government have fulfilled their election pledge and stopped a second runway at Stansted airport. The answer to infrastructure spending is not to spend millions on an extra runway, but to spend that money, if it is ever available, on our roads, rail and other transport infrastructure. Stansted is running at only 50% of full capacity, so there is no economic case for a second runway. Some say that people in Harlow would benefit, but Stansted has some 10,000 employees, of whom only a few hundred come from Harlow. I am yet to be convinced that Harlow people would benefit if there were an extra runway.
The Government should look seriously at the case for a new airport, but my constituents ask me time and again for a new M11 junction and extra train capacity to London.
I associate myself with the comments made by all right hon. and hon. Members about the economic contribution that Essex makes to our economy. I say to the Minister that we mention such things only because we are entrepreneurial and people work hard in their businesses. It is incumbent on the Government to ensure that the conditions are right for people to take those risks and invest, and central to that is transport infrastructure. I am afraid to say that in recent years the wealth-creating capability of Essex has been rather taken for granted by Governments. I hope that this debate will kick-start a more engaged interest from Governments about what really needs to be done to help Essex be the best it can be.
Hon. Members have said that Essex is a powerhouse of the economy. I hope that my right hon. and hon. Friends forgive me for saying that Thurrock is a major powerhouse of the UK economy. My hon. Friend the Member for Witham (Priti Patel) mentioned the upcoming new port at London Gateway, which has the potential to create upwards of 36,000 jobs. We should remember that Thurrock already has massive port infrastructure, with the established port at Tilbury, a major roll-on/roll-off ferry operation at Purfleet and any number of manufacturing industries along the Thames, bringing in their supplies by river, including companies such as Unilever and Proctor and Gamble. As I have said before, Europe’s entire supply of Fairy liquid is manufactured in and exported from my constituency.
Although supplies come in by ship and along the Thames, manufactured products have to get out by road, and that is the real challenge. We talked about the Dartford crossing, but the wider road infrastructure in Thurrock is getting close to breaking point. Every winter, mainly because a lot of people do their Christmas shopping at the fantastic Lakeside shopping centre, we often find our roads in a state of severe gridlock.
The Minister will not be surprised that I have a little wish list of projects, as my hon. Friends do. Top of the list has to be improvement of junction 30 and 31 of the M25, which is a major source of gridlock. To set the scene, that is where the A13 meets the M25 and it is the last junction before reaching the Dartford crossing and so, necessarily, a pinch point. I highlight again the frankly incompetent decision making by the previous Government, in the sense that they invested billions of pounds in widening the M25 only to send everyone to a bottleneck at the Dartford crossing—failing to fix that junction or the capacity issues. The Department has plans to investigate and to develop proposals for an additional river crossing but, if we examine that expenditure, it was poor value for money and has made the existing problems so much worse.
With Dartford the bane of many motorists’ lives in Thurrock, the Department is looking at three proposals for a further crossing, all of which in some way, shape or form go through Thurrock. Motorists in my constituency, although they recognise the problems caused by congestion, are not happy at the prospect of absorbing yet more road infrastructure. We already have severe problems with air quality, which is caused in great part by the fact that traffic is not moving enough, and road infrastructure investment could deal with that, but we are particularly concerned that we will end up with more of Thurrock being dug up to create new motorways, which would be unacceptable to many of my constituents. We need to be sure that any new crossing will genuinely alleviate congestion at Dartford, so the location is important. The arguments for a new crossing have not been made effectively at all for my constituents.
As I mentioned in my intervention on my hon. Friend the Member for Witham, by removing the toll barriers, we will increase capacity at Dartford by 20%. We are making a significant investment by putting in the free-flow tolling, but motorists are finding the additional toll punitive, and increases will happen again. I need to ask whether those tolls need to be kept at all—that case needs to be made—particularly bearing in mind that, as the hon. Member for Colchester (Sir Bob Russell) said, the deal when the crossing was first created was that the tolls would be removed once the crossing was paid for.
My next point relates to level crossings. When London Gateway comes on stream, the commitment is that much of the freight coming into that port will be moved by rail. Obviously, there will be additional impacts on the road infrastructure as well, but there is a double whammy because we still have a number of level crossings in Thurrock, such as at Purfleet, on the London road and at Stanford-le-Hope, where the town is bisected. Some of those freight trains will be long, so when the barriers at the level crossings come down, they will slow down the traffic substantially, creating real potential for significant gridlock.
I have had a frustrating exchange of letters on level crossings with Network Rail, which seems to think that there will be no problem because the freight trains will not move at peak hours. When we are talking about road infrastructure that supports a logistics industry and heavy goods vehicle traffic, avoiding rush hour, frankly, will make no difference, because lorries already do that. We would be putting an additional significant strain on the road network, so I ask the Minister to look into the matter in considerable detail. Although, in principle, we want to move more freight by rail, we must still ensure the continuing operation of our road network.
Finally, we cannot have a debate on transport infrastructure without straying into the area of aviation. I hear clearly what some of my hon. Friends said. We seem to have got ourselves into the position of talking only about an airport that is a major international hub with four runways or nothing, but there is a good argument for the New York model of air capacity. I have some sympathy for what my hon. Friend the Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon) said, but the one point to make about proposals for expansion at Gatwick, Stansted and Heathrow is that they would all be privately funded, while the proposals for a four-runway airport in the Thames estuary would not be. We cannot, however, divorce aviation capacity from the other issues that face our county: rail capacity and road capacity. My final message to the Minister is about whether we can join all that up.
I should say that it is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Jackie Doyle-Price), but it is frustrating that my parents, having met her, think that she is the best Member of Parliament in the place. I keep pointing out to them that they ought to be a little more loyal and say second best, but they still do not take the point.
The debate has been absolutely fantastic, and I commend my hon. Friend the Member for Witham (Priti Patel), who not only represents her constituency superbly but the surrounding areas and the whole of Essex—greater Essex, with Thurrock, Southend and, it appears from earlier interventions, Ilford. Unfortunately, having said that the debate has been good, focusing on the whole of Essex, I would like not to follow her example; I shall be slightly more parochial, touching on rail, road and air issues as they affect my constituents directly.
I have always seen the rail line from Fenchurch Street into Shoebury as something of a pipeline of money—coming from the City, bringing money backwards and forwards, whether earned or spent in London, and encouraging businesses to come into the town. I am somewhat concerned about the tender for the c2c line. My right hon. Friend the Member for Saffron Walden (Sir Alan Haselhurst) says that it is one of the few places where money has been spent, which is entirely correct, but I am rather concerned that some of the excellent rolling stock will be removed as part of the franchising process. That process is flawed, and the Department should look at it again; it focuses too much on the numbers and not enough on service quality. Quite possibly, one and perhaps more of the four tenderers would remove some or all of the stock with air conditioning on that line. That would be bad for my constituents, bad for all the constituents down the line and bad for Essex. We have had some good news to do with rail, with the new station of Southend Airport opening, but I gently say to the Minister that to open a railway station seems to be the most difficult thing in the world to do—liaising with Network Rail and the various agencies—and it was far harder than it should have been to open that station and to help to generate growth.
Turning to roads, industrial estates in the west of my constituency can charge about 25% more than those in the east. That is not only about the time it takes to get from A to B, across Southend and out on to the various roads going into London, but about the predictability of time it takes. We have seen benefits such as at Sadlers Farm, where the work has taken far too long to deliver but is almost complete now, shaving several minutes off the time and, crucially, improving predictability. Also Southend council worked to improve Cuckoo Corner as an alternative to dualling and that has proved to operate incredibly well. Broadly speaking, we would like an outer relief road, from Shoebury, by-passing Southend; but in all candour, all alternatives at the moment would involve housing all along the side of the road, which would put congestion back into the system.
I want to mention the Dartford crossing. I accept the reprimand from the hon. Member for Colchester (Sir Bob Russell), and perhaps we should start calling it the Thurrock crossing, branding it the Essex crossing only when we have sorted it out.
I turn to air transport. London Southend airport is in my constituency, which borders on two others. My right hon. Friend the Member for Saffron Walden (Sir Alan Haselhurst) asked whether they are Essex airports or London airports. I and the majority of my constituents were pleased when we were able to call it London Southend airport. Essex people still get to use it, because it is not just for Londoners, but someone travelling to Canary Wharf can fly into London Southend airport, get on a train within 15 minutes and be in Canary Wharf within 40 minutes, which is much quicker than going via London Gatwick or London Heathrow. People travelling into the City from international destinations should use London Southend airport. They can clear customs all the way through to New York via Ireland. They can nip across to Amsterdam, which is a hub airport, and go anywhere in the world. London Southend is a real alternative to other London airports.
It would be wrong not to mention the various proposals for a larger airport in the estuary. There are many arguments against that, but if it happens, we must ensure that we get the right infrastructure and benefits, not only in Essex, but in Kent and the surrounding areas. We must go in with our eyes wide open. There are opportunities, but at the moment I cannot see a way through all the objections; if others can see a way through, we must ensure that we have the right infrastructure for Essex and Kent.
I thank the hon. Member for Witham (Priti Patel) for securing this debate, which comes at an important time when difficult decisions are being made on transport spending, both locally and nationally. She made a persuasive case for investment in Essex’s transport system, and it is important that all hon. Members make the call to support vital spending on infrastructure.
In July, we debated “Once in a generation—A rail prospectus for East Anglia”, and I, with several hon. Members here today, spoke in praise of that important document. It made a serious, positive case for investment in rail services in East Anglia, and I am glad that some of those issues have been revisited today. There is no doubt that Essex has complex transport needs, and a strong rail network is vital if they are to be met, not just to improve the experience for passengers—many hon. Members described why that is necessary—but to enable greater use of rail and to help relieve the pressure on roads, as hon. Members have so powerfully described.
Essex is a vibrant county, and it makes a vital contribution to the national economy, but that contribution is dependent on a transport system that is already under enormous pressure. Passengers face unsatisfactory services, with too much congestion on the roads, and trains at or above capacity during peak times. Passengers should not have to stand day in, day out when they are paying £4,000 or more for a season ticket. The county’s population is due to grow by 10% by 2018 and 20% by 2025, so investment is needed just to keep pace with that demographic change. However, still more investment is needed to enable regeneration and to help Essex to realise its full potential.
Some specific projects have been mentioned, and I will return to future investment. We must make sure that we do not lose what we already have. Under the Government’s plans, capital infrastructure spending on transport will fall by 11% over the course of this Parliament, and future infrastructure spending has been threatened by the uncertainty arising from the botched franchising of the west coast main line, throwing the future of the Essex Thameside franchise into doubt.
In a county that contains pronounced contrasts between rural and urban communities, as well as affluence alongside pockets of deprivation, bus services are particularly important. In Basildon, which is part of the Thames Gateway regeneration project, a quarter of households do not own a car. Essex county council’s own transport strategy acknowledges that bus services connecting Harlow and Basildon to other towns and cities are inadequate. The 28% cut to local transport funding and the 20% reduction to the bus service operators grant are putting the bus network under strain, with at least 18 services being reduced or withdrawn in Essex since 2010.
Although this is a debate on infrastructure, as the hon. Member for Colchester (Sir Bob Russell) recognised, we must not lose sight of the importance of bus subsidy, which is vital for sustaining a true transport network. Bus services are under pressure, but commuters are also feeling the impact of fare rises. We have heard from the Government that rail fares are set to rise by up to 4.2% in January, but that is not the whole story. The decision to reintroduce flex could lead to fare increases of up to 9.2% at a time when household budgets are being squeezed on all sides.
Passengers reasonably ask when they will see service improvements, but under the guise of the McNulty report, the Department is pushing ahead with ticket office closures, which could lead to the withdrawal of staff from Alresford, Colchester Town, Dovercourt, Frinton-on-Sea, Great Bentley and Harwich International, among other Essex stations. Those closures will hit women and those on the wrong side of the digital divide, including many pensioners.
A spokesperson from Ontrack, a passenger group in Tendring, said:
“We've already had letters from some women who travel on their own, so we know it's a real concern not to have staff at the stations”
“in a coastal area like this there”
“a high proportion of elderly people who prefer to go to a ticket office and talk to someone rather than use a complicated machine. This will put people off using the trains.”
Those threats to public transport provision should not be allowed to threaten the good progress that has been made.
The hon. Member for Witham and other hon. Members have spoken about the vital role of Stansted airport, and we should celebrate the fact that 49% of Stansted passengers arrive by public transport—the highest proportion of any major UK airport. The East Anglia rail prospectus called for public transport links to Stansted to be strengthened, and I hope that that call is listened to as we enter cross-party talks on aviation capacity. Whatever the conclusion of those talks, I hope that the decline in passenger numbers at Stansted can be reversed, because both Stansted and the growing London Southend airport have an important role to play in alleviating pressure in the capital.
Improvements to infrastructure will play an important role. We need better integration between transport modes, especially between aviation and rail. The 45 minutes that it takes to travel 35 miles from Liverpool street to Stansted is, as the hon. Member for South Basildon and East Thurrock (Stephen Metcalfe) said, far from express. I hope that the means and the funding can be found to reduce that journey time.
In some respects, the problems encountered at Stansted are representative of those of the county as a whole. Existing transport links have enabled Essex to emerge as an important driver of national economic growth, yet those same transport links are clearly in need of improvement. To strengthen the transport network, we must look at both funding levels and the mechanisms through which that funding is delivered.
We want to devolve transport spending decisions but, unlike the Government, we would devolve that spending to democratically accountable regional transport partnerships based on elected local authorities. That would allow Essex or East Anglia to decide their own priorities, whether improvements to congested and dangerous roads or junctions, development of tram systems or better cycling infrastructure.
The current review of the franchising process should be allowed to consider alternative models for the rail industry, including the proposal to allow local transport authorities a greater say in how services are run. In Essex, where overcrowding is the norm and passenger satisfaction rates are low, that could allow the development of services that are more responsive to passengers’ needs. Above all, it would give local transport authorities the oversight they need to lead the integration of different modes of transport.
Lilian Greenwood: Of course I am not saying that all the problems commenced then. I am saying that many hon. Members have spoken about what the priorities should be. I believe that the people of Essex should have a greater say in deciding what those priorities are and how spending is directed to help to tackle them.
As the hon. Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon) said, rail commuters in the region return substantial amounts to the Treasury, but see little return on the investment, while millions are lost each year due to the fragmentation of the industry. If the Government were serious about improving efficiency in the railways, they would look at alternative models for delivering services, instead of closing ticket offices in Essex.
The current uncertainty over the franchising model has been compounded by needless distractions that have beset the Department. It must be a source of frustration for Members here today that Government time is being taken up by the franchise fiasco, wrangles over High Speed 2 and fantasy islands in the middle of the Thames, when the time could be used to drive forward the improvements that their constituents require.
The need for improvements in Essex is acute, as today’s debate is proving. The answer is investment in transport infrastructure, both for commuter travel and to meet local transport needs. This debate is important and I am sure that the case for investment has been heard in the Department. I hope that a way forward can be found, so that Essex can develop the infrastructure it needs for the 21st century.
I welcome the opportunity that the debate offers to discuss in detail the issues that my hon. Friend the Member for Witham (Priti Patel), her colleagues and others have raised today on transport in Essex. Those matters fall within my portfolio, as well as those of my right hon. Friend the Minister of State and my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary. I will do my best to respond to all the points in as much detail as I can.
As I am sure everybody will agree, transport is the artery of any economy. It gets people to work, children to school and food to the shops. Everyone depends on it. The coalition Government is in no doubt about the importance of transport infrastructure in supporting the economy, and we have already announced increased Government funding to deliver improvements targeted at supporting economic growth projects. By the way, I say to Hansard that the coalition Government “is” committed, because the Government is of one mind on this matter. It is a single-minded, cohesive unit on the need to deliver substantial and significant economic growth.
The Government believes that continuing to invest in the strategic road network in Essex through major upgrades to the M25 is important. Back in May, the £400 million widening between junctions 27 and 30 was completed ahead of schedule and in good time for the summer Olympics.
My hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Jackie Doyle-Price) referred to the M25, junction 30. As I hope she knows, we announced in May that the pre-construction development work of six Highways Agency major road schemes has been selected for funding, to maintain a future pipeline of major investment in the strategic road network. The pipeline included proposals for a M25 junction 30/A13 congestion relief scheme, and it means that that will be developed in this spending review period for potential delivery in the next spending review period.
Advancing the development work now does not, of course, guarantee that the delivery of those proposals will be funded. Decisions about which schemes are to be delivered in future periods will be taken at the next spending review by the Chancellor. In the meantime, however, some interim improvements to the junction are being funded by DP World as part of their planning obligations for phase 1 of the London Gateway port development off the A13 to the east at Corringham. Those works will be undertaken in 2013.
My hon. Friend the Member for Witham raised the issue of the A12 and the A120. Of course, given the financial situation that we inherited from the previous Government, funding has been limited, and we have had to prioritise plans for future investment. As everybody will be aware following the Government’s 2010 spending review, there are no proposals for major improvements to the A12 or A120 in the Highways Agency’s current road programme.
However, in May this year we published our response to Alan Cook’s independent review of the strategic road network. In that response, we fully accepted the recommendation to take forward and develop a series of route-based strategies for the network. I am pleased to say that the A12 in Essex has been selected as one of the first locations in which we are developing such a strategy. It will cover the A12 between its junctions with the M25 and the A14 and include the A120 between Colchester and Harwich.
The route-based strategies will seek to set out what may be needed in terms of the maintenance, operation and possible enhancement of routes to keep this country moving and help support economic growth. That will help us make informed future decisions on the need and timing of investment in infrastructure on the network. The Highways Agency is currently working closely with local enterprise partnerships and local authorities along the route to take forward the strategy, which will be completed in early 2013.
It should also be noted that the Highways Agency is undertaking a series of small-scale improvements along the A120 this year, and that earlier this month the agency confirmed, as my hon. Friend said, £0.3 million of funding through round two of the pinch point fund for the A120 Galleys corner roundabout improvement. That scheme should be completed in 2013 and will help to reduce congestion and improve safety by widening the roundabout to encourage A120 traffic to use both lanes. I will ensure that my hon. Friend’s other comments are fed back to my colleague, the Under-Secretary, who has the lead responsibility for that matter.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Saffron Walden (Sir Alan Haselhurst) referred to Norwich, and I put on the record that an A11 major road scheme is included in the programme. The massive improvement on the A11 between Fiveways and Thetford will be delivered by December 2014, so Norwich will finally get the road that it has perhaps been after for some time.
I noted that my right hon. Friend blamed the Romans for the state of the road network—I suppose that that is a bit different from blaming the previous Government—but he is right to say that we have had an historical problem with cross-country connections, going back a long way, whether on rail or road. I recall spending many an hour on the A414, as it was then, travelling from east to west across the country, prior to the M25 being built. We have seen some improvements, but I agree with the general thrust of my right hon. Friend’s comments, which was that cross-country connections are not as good as linear ones into London. The country needs to look at that as a concept.
The Thurrock and Dartford crossing was raised by Members from a number of constituencies. The Government recognises the importance of that crossing as a vital transport link for the both the national and south-east economies. The economic cost of delay is estimated to be around £40 million per annum, as my hon. Friend the Member for Witham said. We have been clear about the need to reduce the levels of congestion and delays at the crossing, which in themselves are barriers to economic growth.
The charge increases, introduced on 7 October, are part of a package of measures for the short, medium and long term to improve the performance of the crossing. The measures include: the suspension of charges at times of severe congestion, as introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mike Penning) when he was a transport Minister; the introduction of free-flow charging technology; and reviewing options for additional crossing capacity in the long term.
The charge increases provide benefits to businesses, commuters and other transport users in terms of improvements in travel time. The impact assessment showed that businesses are estimated to benefit by about £104 million, commuters by about £9.6 million and other transport users by about £34.4 million.
My hon. Friend the Member for Witham asked about contractors’ payments. I understand that the costs of operating and maintaining the crossing from 2009 were part of the M25 design, build, finance and operate contract. The costs are estimated and not separately paid for, and the estimates are based on methodology agreed by the National Audit Office, in which costs are evenly spread over 30-year contracts, so it is difficult to compare with historical costs prior to that date. Additionally, from September 2009, transferring the traffic officer service and meeting EU tunnel safety requirements have increased costs.
A number of colleagues raised the major issue of the tolls themselves. It is perfectly true that when a toll was envisaged, it was for the lifetime of the structure, as my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester (Sir Bob Russell) said. That was then changed to a charge related to congestion by the previous Government under the Transport Act 2000, and it was therefore, at that point, no longer connected to paying for the bridge.
As my hon. Friend will know, consideration is being given to the general capacity of the crossing. We face a strategic choice whether to enhance the strategic road network at the existing crossing or to add a new link into the network, with a crossing further downstream, and I noted the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock on that matter. That is why we are currently analysing the relative merits of the three potential locations for the new crossing, and the findings will inform public consultation in 2013. That is a way of saying that such issues will be wrapped up in consideration of the crossing in total, and it would be wrong to isolate one instance without looking at future plans for the crossing.
On rail and rail infrastructure, I am aware that my hon. Friend the Member for Witham has campaigned hard for improvements in rail services in the region and for increased investment to reflect the level of fares paid, particularly by commuters. I am grateful for the recognition that the Government has taken steps to ensure that the possible increase in rail fares of RPI plus 3% has been averted. We have worked very hard on that in the Department for Transport and in the Government generally, and therefore rail fares will increase by RPI plus 1% for the rest of this Parliament. That was the formula put in place by the last Labour Government in 2004.
The issue of flex, which the hon. Member for Nottingham South (Lilian Greenwood) referred to, was, I think, a little disingenuous, because flex was abolished for one year by the last Labour Transport Secretary. The intention, as shown by the paperwork in the Department for Transport, which I quoted in a previous debate, was to reinstate flex after the election. We are following the policy of the last Government in terms of both RPI plus 1% and the ability of companies to use flex while still maintaining the overall RPI plus 1% result.
To be clear and honest with the Essex constituents of the hon. Members here today, will the Minister confirm that the implication of the Government’s reintroducing flex is that some people could face increases in their rail fares of up to 9.2% in January 2013?
As I mentioned, we have followed the intention of the last Government. It is also true that, with flex, some people can face an increase of zero, because flex, by definition, has fares above RPI plus 1% and below RPI plus 1%. That is the purpose of flex. By the way, I say to the Opposition spokesperson that trying to use scare tactics about the future of rail services and ticket offices does not help. We are trying to get more people on to the railways and to provide a better service, not to frighten people off the railways, as she seemed to be intending to do.
I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Witham will agree with me that there have been some service improvements in the region—for example, the cleaning of trains and the programme of refreshing of stations that is under way. Greater Anglia is investing in improvements to ticket retailing, additional car parking and cycle storage facilities across the franchise. A closer working relationship with Network Rail is seeing improvements in how access for engineering works is approached. That is something within my portfolio and something I have been pushing very hard, because when people want a train, they want a train, not a replacement bus service. It is expected to lead to better provision of services at weekends where large-scale closures have been the norm for a number of years. Frankly, that has to end.
I recognise the valuable work done in putting together the rail prospectus to which my hon. Friend and other colleagues refer. It makes the case very powerfully for investment in rail services in the Greater Anglia region. I can confirm that due consideration will be given to those aspirations when the Department is in a position to go to the market for a new franchise proposition.
The point about access to Stansted airport by rail was well made. It has been raised by a number of stakeholders and hon. Members and is very much on the Department’s radar as well.
The issue was raised of the link between Witham and Braintree—the branch line there. We are working with local stakeholders, who are currently developing a business case for the work. Consistent with our approach in other areas, we are happy to consider including such proposals in future franchises if a positive financial case can be made.
The good news, if my hon. Friend looks at what is happening elsewhere in the country, is that the largest rail building and investment programme since Victorian times is now being undertaken in this country. That includes passing loops and redoubling of lines in some cases, such as between Swindon and Kemble. It even includes lines being reopened, such as that from Oxford across to Bedford. There is heavy investment in rail, and it has a good economic return. I encourage my hon. Friend to continue to argue in favour of investment in her area for such upgrades.
On aviation, it is pleasing to see Southend airport making great strides towards becoming a modern, 21st-century transport hub, with a new railway station and terminal, and the successful launch of commercial flights to a number of European destinations earlier this year.
Colleagues have referred to the future configuration of air capacity. Of course, that matter will be considered by the commission. We look forward to receiving its interim report at the Department for Transport. It is probably not sensible to spend very much time on aviation, speculating about the future. However, it is true, as I think one hon. Member said, that there is unused capacity at Stansted at the moment. That situation might be improved if there were an improved train service to the station, which I think was a case being made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Saffron Walden.
Let me pick up some other points that hon. Members raised. My hon. Friend the Member for Colchester referred to the “Norwich in 90” campaign and asked for an assurance that that would not affect his constituency. I can say that we all share the desire to improve services north to Norwich and the intention would not be adversely to affect existing services. In an ideal world, we would look at improved rolling stock, improved line capacity and so on. That is how we would ideally look at delivering a better service. It certainly seems to me that if we are robbing Peter to pay Paul, there is not much of a gain to be had.
My hon. Friend also raised, as did the hon. Member for Nottingham South, the issue of bus services. I put it on the record that we regard bus services as very important. The bus is a primary means of getting to work for most people. There was a recent, very healthy publication called “Greener Journeys”, which I recommend to colleagues. It identified the key link between employment and bus services—how they are two sides of the same coin. The number of people on buses has marginally increased recently, the latest figures show, and the commercial sector is holding up very well. There is an issue about subsidised services from local councils, but that is a matter for local authorities to deal with.
We are seeing a mixed picture across the country. Whereas some areas are making very few or no cuts, other areas are making swingeing cuts, but the consequence of localism is that there will be a different response from different local authorities. Therefore, bus services in Essex are really a matter to pursue with Essex county council, rather than with the Department for Transport.
I will not, if the hon. Lady does not mind, because points were raised by hon. Members that I want to cover.
My hon. Friend the Member for Colchester also raised the issue of cycleway provision, which was right. He will know, I hope, that the current Government has produced a brand-new sum of money, £600 million—the local sustainable transport fund—which, by encouraging match funding, has now produced more than £1 billion of funding for schemes on the ground, which are now being delivered. I have that rare pleasure as a Transport Minister of both approving the funding and still being there to open the schemes when they finally arrive. Many of those schemes involve cycleway provision. We are now seeing a commitment to cycling—a commitment right across England—that we did not see before. That is very good news. The number of people cycling is going up in this country.
My hon. Friend also mentioned light rail systems. I can assure him that we are doing a great deal to promote light rail. I refer him to the Department’s document “Green Light for Light Rail” and the fact that we have granted extensions to light rail systems in Manchester, Birmingham and Nottingham, as well as authorising a tram-train project between Sheffield and Rotherham. The current Government is very supportive of light rail.
Of course, these sorts of scheme, whether they involve light rail, bus or cycle provision or, indeed, local roads, will be handled in future to a large degree by local people through the devolution proposals that the Department is bringing forward and through the creation of local transport boards, which are accountable through local authorities. Therefore, to a large degree, these sorts of discussion in the future, I hope, will be held in Essex, rather than necessarily in this House.
Will my hon. Friend agree to meet me, the local council and the enterprise partnership, as well as the other Under-Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Wimbledon (Stephen Hammond), once the study by Essex council on the extra junction on the M11 has been completed, so that we can make the case to the Department?
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend’s tenacity on that matter. He has raised it before, when I responded to a debate that he introduced. I am very happy to make my hon. Friend the Member for Wimbledon (Stephen Hammond) aware of his continued interest in the matter. I am sure that the Under-Secretary will be looking at the report on junction 7a, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Harlow referred earlier, but I will pass on his request for a meeting and ensure that my hon. Friend the Member for Wimbledon replies to that accordingly.
My hon. Friend the Member for Harlow also raised the issue of smartcard delivery and how that can be rolled out. The Department is very keen on that and I lead on it for the Department. We believe that the availability of smartcard technology can transform public transport by making it far more attractive and easier to use, as has been proven to be the case in London. We are now seeing pilot schemes across the country.
For example, in the Southern train area, we will shortly be seeing three-day season tickets being piloted with smartcard technology. We are very committed to that. The local transport White Paper, which I launched last year, “Creating growth, cutting carbon: making sustainable local transport happen”, has an objective of the majority of public transport journeys being undertaken with smartcard technology by the end of 2014, and we are on target for that.
I hope that I have dealt with most points. If there are any outstanding points, one of my ministerial colleagues or I will write to hon. Members about them.