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Sustainable Local Transport

Volume 724: debated on Wednesday 19 January 2011


My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall now repeat a Statement made by my honourable friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport in the other place. The Statement is as follows:

“With permission I should like to make a Statement to accompany the publication today of the coalition Government’s White Paper on local transport and the simultaneous publication of bidding guidance to accompany our new local sustainable transport fund. Both documents are available to colleagues in the Vote Office and have been placed in the Library of the House.

This Government’s vision is for a transport system that helps create growth in the economy and tackles climate change by cutting our carbon emissions. The launch of this White Paper and the associated local sustainable transport fund represents a significant step towards meeting these two government objectives. In both the Budget and the spending review the Chancellor pledged to make the tough choices that will allow us to maintain investment in new and existing infrastructure to support a growing economy while eliminating the structural deficit over the lifetime of the Parliament. The spending review reflected transport’s vital role in this. I am pleased that we were able to secure significant investment to allow us to go ahead with important transport initiatives. The investment we have committed to in rail, low-carbon vehicles and public and sustainable transport reflects the determination to secure growth while cutting carbon.

In the medium term, our transport decarbonisation strategy centres around the progressive electrification of the passenger car fleet, supported by policies to increase generation capacity and decarbonise the grid. By also prioritising spending on key rail projects such as high-speed rail and rail electrification, we will be providing travellers with attractive new options instead of the plane and the car. In the immediate term, addressing shorter, local trips offers huge potential in helping to grow the economy and tackle climate change. Shorter trips are important—two-thirds of all journeys are under five miles. Walking, cycling and public transport are all real, greener alternatives for such trips.

What is more, we know that people who travel to the shops on foot, by bicycle or by public transport can spend more per head than those who travel by car and research shows that improvements to the public realm can increase turnover in the high street by 5 to 15 per cent. Increased sustainable travel also helps tackle congestion, which is a drag on business and causes excess delays in urban areas at a cost of around £11 billion per annum. And let us not forget the further benefits that follow a shift to more sustainable transport—benefits to the air we breathe, to our levels of fitness and to the money in our pockets. Investment in sustainable transport helps make our towns and cities healthier and more attractive places to live, work and shop.

This White Paper sets out how we can encourage the uptake of more sustainable modes at local level, and the unprecedented £560 million we have allocated in our new local sustainable transport fund will support this. Our commitment to helping local authorities with this vital agenda is reaffirmed by the amount of money we are making available. The local sustainable transport fund forms part of a wider picture of more streamlined and simplified funding to local authorities. This will give local authorities more power and flexibility to meet local transport needs.

Across the Government we have demonstrated our commitment to ending the top-down decision-making and the tendency in Whitehall to develop one-size-fits-all solutions that ignore the specific needs and behaviour patterns of local communities. The Government have already taken significant steps to hand back power to local communities. These include replacing regional development agencies with local enterprise partnerships, giving communities a much greater say over planning decisions and ending the top-down imposition of housing targets.

Today’s White Paper is about extending the decentralisation of power to local transport, putting into context what this means for local authorities. We are particularly keen to receive bids for the local sustainable transport fund from local authorities who are in partnership with the voluntary, community and social enterprise sector and have the support of local businesses. We believe that by encouraging bids in this way we will be able to capture innovative solutions to local transport needs in all areas, rural and urban. Wheels to Work schemes provide transport to people who are unable to access training, employment or education due to a lack of suitable public or private transport. Schemes can, therefore, particularly benefit people living in isolated rural communities and can play an important part in helping people to come off benefits and regain their independence. These are real examples that are happening right now, and we want to enable similar stories to unfold in other areas across the country.

In addition, we also recognise that some initiatives benefit from a single national approach. These include: providing £11 million for Bikeability cycle training next year to allow 275,000 10 to 11 year-olds to benefit from on-road cycle training and a commitment to support Bikeability for the duration of this Parliament, which will allow as many children as possible to undertake high-quality training; improving end-to-end journeys by encouraging transport operators, and those involved in promoting cycling and car clubs or sharing, to work together to provide better information and to integrate tickets and timetables; and delivering, with operators and public sector bodies, the infrastructure to enable most local public transport journeys to be undertaken using smart ticketing by December 2014.

We will work with the transport industry to support the development of e-purses and other technology related to smart ticketing and to support the infrastructure to make this happen: reviewing the way in which transport investment decisions are made to ensure that the carbon implications are fully recognised; transferring responsibility for local roads classification to local authorities, giving them the flexibility to adjust the status of their roads better to match the real-life priorities of their communities; setting out in a strategic framework for road safety, by spring 2011, how to ensure that Britain’s roads are among the world’s safest; and modernising traffic signs policy to provide more flexibility and reduced costs and bureaucracy for local authorities to enable them to develop innovative traffic management solutions.

We want to build a transport system that is an engine for economic growth, that is greener and that creates growth and cuts carbon. By improving the links that move goods and people around, encouraging people to travel sustainably, and targeting investment in new projects that promote green growth, we can help to build the balanced, dynamic low-carbon economy that is essential for our future prosperity. This White Paper, with the associated local sustainable transport fund, demonstrates our commitment to taking this agenda forward. I commend it to the House”.

My Lords, I suppose I ought to congratulate the Minister on the good intentions expressed in the White Paper. After all, good intentions are better than nothing, although we all know where the path of good intentions can lead. A White Paper that is not backed by any bank directives or papers is not worth a great deal. This is full of good intentions and objectives on sustainable local transport to which the Opposition also subscribe. The problem is that the Statement takes no account of the fact that the Government are neither able nor prepared to will the means, thereby rendering the Statement almost valueless.

The Minister talks of a new £560 million local sustainable transport fund, but he knows that it is just a sticking plaster to cover the 28 per cent cut to local government transport spending. He knows that his own White Paper says that local transport is largely subsidised by local authorities, as indeed it is. However, the local authorities do not have the wherewithal to maintain what they have—they are engaged and will be engaged in extensive cuts—let alone to begin to approach the noble ambitions of the White Paper’s good intentions. Will the Minister confirm that the cuts have been front-loaded, which means that local government transport was cut by £309 million this year, and that he is giving £80 million back next year? No wonder his objectives cannot be realised.

I have some sympathy for the Minister. After all, his burden is to repeat the Statement that has already been presented in the other place. He is all too well aware of the bad hand he has been dealt. However, he must realise that the 20 per cent cut to the bus service operators’ grant is having a devastating effect on local bus services. With fuel prices at record levels, he must surely understand the impact of cutting this fuel cost subsidy on bus operators. How will they be able to sustain unprofitable services when the subsidy of which the White Paper boasts for the role of the local authorities is being savagely reduced? Has he not seen that, up and down the country today, councils are withdrawing services? Half of subsidised services are being axed in Somerset. More than 70 rural services are being scrapped or reduced in Durham. Nearly 30 services are threatened in North Yorkshire and 60 are being reviewed in Suffolk, while Kent, which is often significant, has warned that all unprofitable routes will be axed.

Does the Minister appreciate the social consequences of that? Is he aware that 94 per cent of colleges believe that scrapping the EMA—the educational maintenance allowance—and cutting local transport will see students unable to get to college and unable to complete their courses? We should, I suppose, praise this more recent coalition Government for not saying that those without jobs should “get on their bikes”. They have progressed to saying that they should take the bus. Which bus—the bus that is subject to being cut entirely, or the bus whose punctuality cannot be guaranteed because of the reduction in resources?

This White Paper points out, accurately, that two out of five jobseekers need to use public transport to try to find jobs and put that as the key priority in their ability to make themselves available to prospective employers. How will they look for these jobs when the services on which they depend are being cut? Is the Minister aware that his own department’s figures show that without the grant we will see a 6.5 per cent increase in fares and, consequently, a likely 6.7 per cent fall in bus use? Who are the people who will reduce bus use? They are those who either cannot get a bus or will not be able to afford the fares because they are jobless and were using the bus to try to find a job.

The Government emphasise the green agenda and the improvement in the carbon count. Is that why rail fares are to go up by 30 per cent over the four-year spending period before us? Does the Minister accept that the consequence of hiking up the cost of using public transport will be to force people to use cars more intensively? Where is the green agenda when we force people to use private transport, as opposed to what we all know are the advantages of public transport in those terms?

Finally, I note that the noble Earl indicated that he was looking forward to bids for the local sustainable transport grant. To judge those bids, the Government will have a little panel. Will it be a little quango?

My Lords, I am grateful for the noble Lord’s response to my Statement, although it was a little gloomy. I am surprised he did not cover some of the good news. For instance, the child fatality rate was quite high by European standards. Over recent years, for which the noble Lord was responsible, our child fatality rate has fallen. I am not sure that it is the lowest in Europe, but it has been driven down so that it is nearly the lowest. That is seriously good news.

The noble Lord made much about the bus service operators’ grant—the BSOG. Yes, it has been reduced. However, my honourable friend Mr Baker has fought long and hard, and successfully retained 80 per cent of the BSOG when some in the other place were suggesting that it might be removed altogether. It has not; it has been retained.

The noble Lord mentioned several alterations to services and made some fairly detailed points. I was surprised because I very rarely sign Answers to Written Parliamentary Questions from the noble Lord on these points. However, I will look forward to future Questions from the noble Lord on these issues.

My Lords, in other circumstances, this would be a Statement of intentions that one could welcome, but its credibility, at a time when local authorities are having to make considerable cuts, as my noble friend Lord Davies of Oldham pointed out so eloquently, means that the most vulnerable in society cannot use public transport—which ostensibly is what the Government want them to do—and these vulnerable people will therefore not add to the green economy at all. My question arises from our disappointment that the aspirations of the White Paper cannot be met. I was chairman of a government inquiry into sustainable journeys to work. Does not the Statement add up to less opportunity for the most vulnerable? Can the noble Earl enlighten me as to whether there is anything about bus services being the alternative to the school run and one person in a 4x4? Is that sustainable? Finally—this is the heart of the contradiction—will the Government revisit the financial settlement? Without doing that, none of this will be possible.

My Lords, the noble Lord suggested that the aspirations cannot be met. They can be met if one is determined enough. The noble Lord said that we have not got the money. Any money problems we have arise from the deficit, and I will not say where that came from.

I always wait for that groan. The noble Lord talked about the school run. That is precisely an issue we want to address. I mentioned Bikeability in the Statement, which will receive £11 million a year to encourage children to take up bicycling, and to encourage adults to take it up for short journeys which would otherwise produce disproportionate emissions. The White Paper deals with precisely the issues that the noble Lord raises.

My noble friend will know that I have transport interests in my curriculum in this place, which may help to explain why I am the only Conservative Back-Bencher present for the Statement. He will appreciate that because we have been busy in the Chamber, I have not had a chance to read the White Paper, so my question may be a little simplistic. I hope he will forgive me. He talked about a fund for local authorities. I was not clear—it is my fault and I apologise—as to whether that fund would be given to local authorities or be centrally administered on the basis of local authority bids. Whichever it is, as a former Secretary of State, I am sure that there will be rules, regulations and guidance applied to the dispensing of funds. Will my noble friend be kind enough to place in the Library, if it is not in the White Paper, the list of rules, regulations and guidance against which local authority bids will be measured?

My noble friend makes an extremely important point. I confess that, like him, I have not yet read the White Paper in full. Whether I will ever read every page is doubtful. Local authorities will bid directly to the Department for Transport, but we have devised a system which is as simple as possible. There will initially be two tranches, and guidance about the application process is in the Printed Paper Office and online.

My Lords, I very much look forward to reading the White Paper. I am a resident of Scotland, and I have a particular worry relating to my part of Scotland, which I know does not come under the noble Earl’s jurisdiction. In northern England, a number of local authority-funded coaches travelling from X to Y and A to B are nearly always empty. I hope that the White Paper will look at this most carefully to make certain that we have a really good public transport system which will actually have people travelling on these buses.

My Lords, the noble Lord makes an interesting and important point. I have started to use a bus service from Alton to Bordon in Hampshire, and it always surprises me how very few people are in the bus, despite it being quite large. However, part of the policy is to allow more suitable vehicles to be used by a variety of schemes.

My Lords, like the noble Lord, Lord Mawhinney, I have not had time to read the entire White Paper, but I thank the Minister for including a section at the back on heritage railways, which is a subject close to my heart. I hope it is an indication that we shall have a satisfactory outcome to the debate on the future of the Railway Heritage Committee when we finally return to consideration of the Public Bodies Bill. I have a particular question about sustainable transport. I was going to ask about the school run, to which my noble friend Lord Lea referred. However, does the Minister believe that the Mayor of London’s decision to cut the congestion charge area is a helpful contribution towards sustainable transport in London? Is any consideration being given to road pricing, which is a further way in which more people could be encouraged to use sustainable transport and public transport, rather than get into their cars?

My Lords, a heritage railway could bid for a scheme. Although it might not be able to bid for its operating costs, it might be able to bid for certain facilities. The noble Lord will have to look closely at the criteria, given that some things cannot be bid for under the LTSF, because they relate to other types of grant. I very much hope that the noble Lord is successful in finding an alternative location for the legislative powers associated with the Railway Heritage Committee. We will have to see how that unfolds; it is a matter for my noble friend Lord Taylor of Holbeach. I think I am correct in saying that we have no plans at all for road pricing in this Parliament. We have made more detailed statements elsewhere, but it is not on the cards. However, the noble Lord will be aware that it is possible to have a local scheme, such as the mayor’s congestion charge scheme.

I thank the Minister for what he has said. It puts me in mind of a period about 13 years ago when I attended several presentations by the noble Lord, Lord Prescott, who is not here. He provided documents like this White Paper, although his had more photographs, but in nearly every case they did not produce what was set out in them. Therefore, I ask the Government to think very hard about whether the promises will be delivered and how they can be delivered.

I particularly want to know about the assessment criteria, which I have read. This document strikes me as more or less the usual stuff that we get served up by the Department for Transport because although there are a lot of warm words about saving carbon, for example, at the end it mentions the method of assessment that the department will use and—surprise, surprise—there is a reference to it being in line with the DfT’s appraisal framework, NATA. We all know that that is used to measure small time savings, which are then put together. There may be lots of people—say, 10,000—who save half a minute each, and the department has some magic way of turning these into money. However, it is fool’s gold because no one can predict whether they are going to save half a minute or a minute on a journey. People need to get to wherever they are going and they allow time to get there. Therefore, I ask the Minister to read the assessment criteria very carefully and to impress on his colleagues in the department the need to include achievable things and common-sense ways of measuring the benefits of these many initiatives. If they are all delivered, they will be useful, but I am afraid that here we have a blueprint for a great deal of bureaucracy.

My Lords, I did not manage to write down the noble Lord’s last point, so I shall answer it first. This is not a blueprint for bureaucracy; it is a blueprint for doing things more efficiently. The noble Lord initially said that it would not be productive. However, it is for local authorities to deliver the scheme and it is for the department to assess the scheme and fund it. The noble Lord talked about this being the usual stuff that is served up. I am a little disappointed about that but I say to him that every scheme has to meet two criteria: it has to provide for both growth and carbon reduction. A scheme may provide for carbon reduction indirectly but it has to show carbon reduction as well as growth. As for the noble Lord’s point about NATA and the detailed assessment, he has been on at this Government and the previous Government for some time about this but I assure him that my department is working on it.

My Lords, will the Minister look again at the passage in the Statement which says that the local sustainable transport fund,

“forms part of a wider picture of more streamlined and simplified funding”?

Does he not agree that it would be more honest to include the word “reduced” in that sentence? Although I welcome extending the decentralisation of power to local transport, which the Statement also mentions, does the noble Lord not agree that there is a regional dimension to transport and transport infrastructure which the abolition of the regional development agencies will make more difficult to realise than otherwise? Will he indicate whether the Government have any intention of making the Highways Agency more accountable, and, in particular, will he indicate how, under the system of very localised transport, authorities in the north-east will be able to put pressure on the Government or the Highways Agency for the dualling of the A1 north of Newcastle, which appears to have been shelved for a very long period? Finally, does the noble Earl recall that his very distinguished grandfather, the first Earl, in an interview in later life identified transport as one of the major priorities for the future? Does he agree that this White Paper does not bring that future very much nearer?

It is my turn! The noble Lord initially asked whether I would look again at a part of the Statement, and he said that funding for transport is reduced. It is, although I shall not generate a groan from your Lordships by saying why. He talked about the abolition of the RDAs but he will also be aware of the local enterprise partnerships. They are not primarily a funding vehicle but they are a means of putting together stakeholders, who can then get on to the local transport authority and bid for money. The noble Lord talked about the Highways Agency and, in particular, the A1 in the north-east. That is a very important point. We have made a start, in that the A1 is now on the strategic route network and is therefore managed by the Highways Agency, although it will still be a long time before it is dualled.

My Lords, perhaps I might ask the Minister a quick question about smart ticketing, which he mentioned. I declare an interest as a director of LASSeO, the Local Authority Smartcard Standards e-Organisation, which looks after and promotes SNAPI, the Special Needs Application Program Interface. This is a very useful thing that is underadopted. It tailors the terminals that people use to put credit on their cards, the gates that people go through and things like that, to the special needs that individuals might have when they use the system. In the transport system, gates may close too quickly if someone is a bit slow. People who are colour-blind also need special help. The system is useful but has been largely ignored. Will the Minister look at allocating a small amount of money—not a lot is needed—to encourage the take-up of this standard for smart ticketing systems that are introduced? If the Minister would like to look it up, the system was developed by Dr John Gill.

My Lords, the noble Earl makes an important point about smart ticketing. There is no doubt that better ticketing systems encourage the use of public transport. They encourage me, and I am sure that they encourage many others. He talked about better systems. We are aware that what technology can do for us will rapidly improve. Noble Lords will be aware that the power of laptop computers doubles every 18 months. I would appreciate it if he would brief me on these matters; I would find that very useful.

My Lords, the section on the scope of the fund in the guidance on the application process refers to making,

“public transport, walking and cycling the most attractive sustainable travel options. For journeys involving a variety of routes to and from suburban areas and rural hinterlands”.

To that I would add urban services. I live in Colne in Lancashire. If one wants to go to the centre of Colne—to a doctor or to the shops—it is called going up Colne. That is what people say, for the good reason that the town is built on a hill. Many people live on the other side of the valley. They have to go down and up. I am a councillor there, and in my ward we started the route 16 bus service, the Lenches and Bunkers Hill circular, in 1986 after bus deregulation. It has been quite successful. There are only five journeys a day. However, you cannot make it more sustainable if you take it away. Lancashire County Council has now decided that it will take away the service, which is much needed by old people, those with less mobility and so on, to get up Colne. Will the Government, as well as cutting money to local authorities, make some of this fund available for more innovative ways of providing services when current services are reduced for financial reasons?

My Lords, I have the same problem; I live on a hill. I am not sure that I would like to ride a bicycle up it, but I will try in the summer. The noble Lord will know that bus routes and bus provision are matters for the local transport authority. He talked about the need for innovative solutions. I agree with him, but it is for local transport authorities to develop these solutions. Our role is to encourage them, not to tell them exactly what to do by means of a long screwdriver.

My Lords, I have two questions for the Minister on the Statement. The first concerns the carbon implications of transport investment decisions. Does he not accept that one of the great successes of the previous Labour Government was the over-60s bus pass, which ensured that many pensioners either leave their cars at home or use them less frequently, and use buses a great deal more? Will he give a guarantee and a commitment that that bus pass is safe and will not be removed or reduced, or the terms altered to the detriment of the over-60s, to ensure that we keep people on buses and not in their cars?

Secondly, as a former Road Safety Minister in Northern Ireland, I take a great interest in road safety measures. The Minister was right to highlight the reduction in the number of young people and children who have been killed or seriously injured. One of my concerns is the reduction in the number of safety cameras across the country, which many in his party support. Does he feel that the number of young people—or people of any age—who are killed or seriously injured on the roads will increase as a result of the reduction in the number of safety cameras?

My Lords, the noble Baroness talked about carbon implications and the over-60s bus pass. She asked for an absolute commitment. I confess that I had not anticipated the question. Perhaps the best approach would be for her to ask a Written Question, whereupon she will get a categorical answer. She also talked about safety cameras. Speaking for Her Majesty's Government, I say that we will watch very carefully what happens and monitor the accident statistics. That is the only thing that we can do.

My Lords, perhaps I might press the Minister on the issue of the Highways Agency, and the powers on the classification of roads—particularly A-roads—that will be passed to local authorities. Trunk roads controlled by the Highways Agency run through urban areas but are treated in practice as local roads. I declare an interest as a member of Newcastle City Council, but I am talking in particular about our western bypass. Issues arise over the powers of the local authority, particularly where the council's roads dissect the Highways Agency's trunk roads. I would appreciate guidance from the Minister on what additional powers local councils might have over the Highways Agency in situations such as that.

I do not think local transport authorities will have powers over the Highways Agency. I do not think that there is any superiority issue with the Highways Agency or the local transport authority. We would expect them to consult each other, particularly when the local transport authority is reclassifying a road. Sometimes it may be considering reclassifying a road that is nowhere near a Highways Agency road, and I am not sure that it has to consult the Highways Agency. Clearly, when it could affect a Highways Agency route—routes on the strategic road network—I am sure it would consult.

Sitting suspended.