Public Transport (London)

Prayers – in the House of Commons at 1:29 pm on 27th May 1993.

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Photo of Simon Hughes Simon Hughes Opposition Deputy Chief Whip (Commons), Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) 1:29 pm, 27th May 1993

I am grateful for this opportunity to initiate a short but important debate on public transport in London. I understand that not many yards from here, a Whitehall shuffle is going on. Ministers are going to Downing street with one job and coming out with another. This debate is about shuffling the people of London around, and I venture to suggest that the same principles apply in both cases.

It is no use shuffling people around if the policies are not right and unless everyone ends up going in the same direction, on the right track. I hope that today we shall touch base across the Floor of the House and identify the breadth and common nature of concern felt by those of us who represent not just London constituents but those who visit and work in London that we must get a grip on the way London's public transport is organised and run.

My first point is not a new song for me. We must end the uncertainty about the Jubilee line and at last get that line and its extension going ahead. Earlier today, I was briefly optimistic that an announcement might be made in the midst of all the other activity over the road. Yesterday, an unstarred question was tabled by the hon. Member for Battersea (Mr. Bowis), asking the Prime Minister if he will make a further statement on the Government's commitment to making a contribution to the Jubilee line extension. I telephoned the Department of Transport, but someone there said, "The reply will not come from us—that question is to be answered by the Prime Minister." For a moment, I thought that the Prime Minister would say, "Done—you've got it today." Sadly, that was not the case. The Prime Minister's reply, given just a matter of minutes ago, was: The Government, and I personally, remain committed to the Jubilee line extension as a major addition to the infrastructure of docklands and of London's transport. We have earmarked public funds for the line. As soon as negotiations with the companies involved in the financing of Canary Wharf have been concluded satisfactorily my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport"—whoever he or she may be now—will authorise the start of construction and the first tranche of those funds will be made available. The line will then be built within an estimated 53 months. I pause, because this last sentence is important: The draft funding agreement specifies that swingeing penalty payments will come into force if the line is not completed seven months after that. We are very near, but not quite there—and it is about time that we were. I hope that the Minister can say how many centimetres from the line we are, and how we are to get from here to there without tripping again.

My second point is really a response to events since the last general election. I welcome the appointment of a Minister for Transport in London and that there is a Cabinet Committee for London. However, London does not have a co-ordinating forum in which to discuss transport issues. I will not argue today—because I know that I would not receive a response—for a regionally elected, democratic body, but that is what I want and it is something for which my party argues. The Government do not endorse that proposal. I argue instead for an alternative which I hope that the Government will find acceptable, and which I believe all right hon. and hon. Members will consider something better than we have now.

My suggestion picks up on a request made only this week by business leaders in the capital. I refer to the establishment by the Minister of a body that I shall call for the sake of today's debate the capital transport forum, which would meet regularly to bring together representatives of both Houses, local government, statutory undertakings, users and the business community.

I hope that we start to discuss the strategic development of the transport service, rather than relying on announcements about crossrail one week, about the Jubilee line the next week, about travelcard the week after that and about potential British Rail changes the following week. With the best will in the world, I do not believe that that is the way to run a system. The railways, the buses, the tubes, the river and the roads are all part of the whole, and should be seen as such.

I know that others want to speak about specific issues; let me make some general points. I believe that the future of London's transport has reached a crucial and critical point, and that there is a danger of a crisis of confidence in the system and its continuation, because of the projected reduction in capital from the public purse owing to public expenditure restraint. That, by definition, will inhibit investment. In 1991, the Monopolies and Mergers Commission stated that, if the capital was to have the decent, modern metro system that it needed, we should have to spend about £750 million a year. We are nowhere near that level of commitment.

I do not dissent dogmatically from the idea that it is possible to seek partnership funding for certain projects, but I do not believe that it is possible to plan on the basis of partnership funding that is not secure. We cannot announce project X, Y or Z as agreed, firm and secure when there is no guarantee that the money will be forthcoming. The Jubilee line was the best and, indeed, the first example of that—an example that has prompted the concern that some of us feel about private money coming into crossrail and other parts of British Rail. At present, there is no guarantee of funds.

I do not object to the range and number of initiatives that are currently in hand, but they do not add up to a coherent whole. Too many appear to be the result of dithering or muddle: certainly that is the impression gained by many Londoners, including constituents who have written to me on the subject. In the past year, I have received more letters from constituents about transport issues than I received in my previous nine years in the House.

The Government say that they intend to introduce legislation in the next Queen's Speech to deregulate buses in London. There are serious and justified doubts about the benefits of deregulation, based on evidence. I was present during Transport questions on Monday, when Ministers tried to rebut that suggestion; their arguments do not stand up. Since 1982, bus patronage outside London has declined by 25 per cent. in the metropolitan areas and by 18 per cent. in the shires. In London, it has increased by 10 per cent. During that period, bus deregulation applied in the areas outside London, but not in London. In 1991–92—the last full year for which figures are available—bus patronage in the country fell by a further 4·5 per cent., and it has fallen by 10 per cent. over the past two years. In London, it has fallen by only 2·5 per cent. over the past year, and by 3·3 per cent. over the past two years. Again, deregulation has applied only outside London.

The Government will say that people are using public transport less, but that is generally true both inside and outside the capital. I believe that deregulation poses the risk of a substantial reduction in the number of people who travel on London's buses.

Interesting cost-analysis comparisons can be made between deregulation and the continuation of tendering. Let me stick my neck out: I accept that tendering has cut costs significantly. I believe that, to date, the figure is 15 per cent.; that has been confirmed by the Department of Transport, although I gather that, according to London Regional Transport, it may be nearer 30 per cent. Its prediction—it is important to separate the two—is that by 1998, without the distraction of deregulation but with 100 per cent. tendering, we could go from a £30 million deficit to a £10 million surplus. If it is possible to achieve that, we should seize the opportunity with both hands. Our bus network could break even without deregulation, and surely that should be our aim.

I beseech the Government to change course on deregulation now, and that is different from privatising and selling off bus companies in London. Serious concerns have been expressed about the continuation of loss-making services and overcrowding on profitable routes.

I agree with the hon. Member for Hendon, South (Mr. Marshall) and other hon. Members that we need to upgrade our underground system, and some lines more than others. The Northern line from Barnet to Southwark is such an example. In its present state, people will not be encouraged to use the underground.

During the Easter recess, I went to speak to a conference in Mexico. I had never visited Latin America previously, but the underground system in Mexico City was a delight. It was clean, efficient, well lit and fast. We need such a system.

I want to allude to the controversy about concessionary fares and travelcards. There is a genuine and valid fear that the present concessionary fares schemes will not continue after deregulation or privatisation of British Rail because it is a matter for negotiation with London boroughs. At the very least, it will be extremely difficult because of the additional number of operators who will be part of the negotiating process. There is a severe risk, although it has not been alluded to as such, that we shall lose half fares for children, which form an important part of the system. Yes, it could be imposed on the boroughs, but unless we are clear that that principle is accepted by the Government we are at risk. In the week when the Government did a U-turn —or gave clarification, to be more generous to them—about the railcard, I hope that a similar guarantee will be given about the future of the travelcard. We must not have continued wranglings between British Rail, London Transport and the Government. We must have a guarantee that the travelcard and concessionary fares, including children's fares, will continue.

Photo of Mr Nigel Spearing Mr Nigel Spearing , Newham South

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way. It is his debate, but it is on London's transport. I have a letter that was signed by the Minister only yesterday on the issue of travelcards. He says: In the forthcoming legislation … all operators in London—rail and tube as well as bus—have the right to participate on fair terms in any multi-modal or multi-operator ticketing scheme. That sounds okay, but it offers only the opportunity for many of the operators to participate and denies present owners the right to issue such a ticket, which may not exist in future. He goes on about stored value tickets, which are a different thing and would be a step backwards.

Photo of Simon Hughes Simon Hughes Opposition Deputy Chief Whip (Commons), Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

I hope that the Minister will deal with the hon. Gentleman's valid point. There is no doubt that concern is being expressed across London. For example, I was with pensioner groups yesterday and I know that it is not a party or borough-based matter. It is a London-wide matter.

I wish quickly to talk about rail and tube and the two projects that have hit the headlines. I have made the point about the need for the Jubilee line extension to go ahead. We have been plagued by uncertainty and businesses are going under because of the blight of not knowing whether the extension will go ahead. Having got so far, however, it would be madness not to ensure that all the people concerned deliver the goods so that we can get on with it. Not only is it holding up interests such as development of the parliamentary buildings but it is affecting the link between Waterloo and London Bridge, the link to docklands, the east Thames strategic plan and the link to Stratford. Many strategic objectives will be attained, and if docklands is not to be the white elephant that it could still be, the sooner the Jubilee line extension is announced the better. We must be at a minute to midnight, but we must get over the line. I sincerely hope that we will not back off that.

In declaring their support for crossrail, the Government have not thought through the way in which it links with the channel tunel rail link. It affects east London and is a good example of how the strategic view of the Paddington-Heathrow line, crossrail and the channel tunnel rail link need to be co-ordinated, otherwise we risk finding a simplistic or wrong solution even if we pay a great deal for it.

I shall conclude because I wish to leave the Minister plenty of time to respond positively. I hope that we shall receive reaffirmation of the Government's support for a riverbus, eventually—as I have heard the Minister say in private—as an integrated part of London's transport system. At the moment, the scheme is guaranteed only until the end of the year, and then only because of the private sector. We need to move quickly to decongest our roads through the schemes that the Government have now accepted, such as road pricing and other systems being piloted in the boroughs.

We need a fair decision on taxis and minicabs. The issue, which I know presents some difficulty, has been sitting on the Minister's desk for months. I hope that we can reconcile the different interests for the benefit of the passengers.

Lastly, we need a cordon sanitaire—a phrase used in a letter to me—around London to protect the centre from helicopter flights other than for the emergency services. That is preferable to having each application dealt with separately and then knocked on the head. It cannot be good for the quality of life in the capital to have helicopters flying in and out and overhead.

Transport could be the issue which determines what happens in next year's local elections in London. If the Government score own goals, they will be in worse trouble because of their policies. I hope that the Minister's experience since the general election will mean, first, that he will keep his job when the reshuffle is sorted out later today, whoever his Secretary of State may be, and, secondly, that he will give all those who share his interest in getting it right the opportunity to sit around a table regularly to put their arguments, to win the case and make London a city in which we do not shuffle around but move around with a common objective—the prosperity of our city.

Madam Deputy Speaker:

Order. Before the hon. Gentleman begins, may I ask whether he has received the assent of the hon. Member for Southwark and Bermonsey (Mr. Hughes) and the Minister?

Photo of Mr John Marshall Mr John Marshall , Hendon South

Both have agreed that I may speak because both will hear words with which they can agree.

As a Member of Parliament representing a London constituency, I welcome the Government's commitment to the deregulation and privatisation of London's buses which, I believe, will lead to greater investment and innovation, both of which are needed in our capital city.

My main reason for speaking is that I represent Hendon and many of my constituents use the Northern line daily. The line is celebrating its centenary, but its passengers are not celebrating. The trains are frequently ancient, frequently graffiti-ridden and, all too often, they are less frequent than they should be. The stations are uninviting, security is inadequate and there is a clear need for massive investment if the line is to be adequate for the 21st century. I hope that the Minister for Transport in London will assure the House that the Government are strongly committed to modernising the Northern line and providing an adequate system for my constituents and the many others who travel on it.

Photo of Mr Steven Norris Mr Steven Norris , Epping Forest 1:48 pm, 27th May 1993

I congratulate the hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes)—

Madam Deputy Speaker:

Order. The Minister will need the leave of the House.

Photo of Mr Steven Norris Mr Steven Norris , Epping Forest

Indeed, Madam Deputy Speaker, I had forgotten the pleasure of speaking earlier this morning. How remiss of me. It was indeed a pleasure although not under your Chairmanship—perhaps that is what caused my momentary lapse of memory. With the leave of the House, I shall speak again. I know that the packed House is keen to make progress but I hope that the hundreds of hon. Members here will allow me to say a few words.

The hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey must be congratulated on securing the debate. He and I have had a number of discussions about transport in London. I recognise his genuine interest in the matter and, although we do not always agree, he sets out his arguments fairly. I am also pleased to acknowledge the interest of the hon. Member for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing), who is also an assiduous correspondent of mine on transport issues—and long may he continue to be so, provided that it is as a member of the Opposition while I am a Minister.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hendon, South (Mr. Marshall) also intervened. Before addressing the points made by the hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey, let me say that my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon, South is immensely assiduous in pressing the case for early improvement of the Northern line, and he has every reason to do so. I should draw his and the House's attention to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission report on the Underground, which specifically drew attention to the fact that, by management action, London Underground has been able substantially to improve the quality of service on the Northern line, which no longer deserves the tag of "the misery line" that it once had. That in no sense diminishes the importance of an eventual programme of improvement and refurbishment on the Northern line and I hope that, with London Transport, we can embark on that as soon as practicable.

My concern about the otherwise excellent speech of the hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey was that he covered so much ground. He managed to cover a new forum for London, the Jubilee line, crossrail, bus deregulation, river bus money, taxis and helicopters. That is my list and it seemed about enough.

Photo of Mr Nigel Spearing Mr Nigel Spearing , Newham South

What about travelcard?

Photo of Mr Steven Norris Mr Steven Norris , Epping Forest

I had travelcard under the context of bus deregulation. That is about enough to keep us going from now until about 10 o'clock this evening, Madam Deputy Speaker, but I know that you will allow me only another 10 minutes, so I will have to pick some large bones out of an extremely complex fish.

I believe that the hon. Gentleman needs and deserves some explanation, first on the Jubilee line. He quoted from the answer which my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister gave to a question literally a few minutes ago. There is no doubt, and that answer underlines it, of the Government's commitment to their contribution of what is essentially, and always has been, a joint venture. It is a developer contribution project in which the developer, originally Olympia and York, recognised that the extension of the Jubilee line linking Canary Wharf with somewhere that my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food knows too well—the Ritz, Green park and all stations thereafter—would substantially enhance the value of that development, not just by a few millions, but by hundreds of millions of pounds.

It was not an act of charity but one of sensible and careful negotiation when Olympia and York agreed to make a substantial developer contribution, in addition to that of the taxpayer, to the creation of the new line, which has real benefit for the hon. Gentleman's constituency and for all areas of docklands through which the new extension will pass.

I find it immensely frustrating that we are not already digging that line. However, I do not believe that I am alone in that. It is equally frustrating not only for London Transport, but for the creditors of Olympia and York and for the many peope of docklands who would welcome the arrival of this valuable amenity. I can say to the hon. Gentleman only that our negotiations are continuing, and that my own view is that good faith is crucial in these matters. If one can actually see expressions of good faith on all sides—and I do—I very much hope that we shall be able to bring the negotiations to a speedy conclusion.

I sought a metaphor which was neither sexist nor sizeist, but I am driven none the less to the old phrase that the opera is not over until the fat lady sings. What I believe is meant by that aphorism is that one can never say that something is done until it is done. I am sorry that that is unsatisfactory and recognise that it echoes words I spoke to the hon. Gentleman in the Chamber some months ago. Suffice it to say that, with good will, progress is being made.

I would make one more point and I hope that the hon. Gentleman will accept it. There is, of course, another way. I do not believe that he is counselling it on me as it would be a variation from his original position, but there are those who counsel on me abandoning the idea of a private sector contribution and going ahead with the line. They must understand that that is suggesting that we let the taxpayer pay an extra half a billion pounds—I ought not to overstate the case; it is £400 million—because we are not prepared to pursue the developer contribution which is a reflection of the development gain from which that project will benefit. I believe that it is my job, and the job of Her Majesty's Government, always to protect the interests of the taxpayers—the interests of those who can ill afford to find the taxes that they are currently charged. I see no merit whatever in simply and easily passing that extra burden on to them.

Photo of Mr Steven Norris Mr Steven Norris , Epping Forest

I hope that the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, but I have only six minutes left.

The hon. Gentleman raised the subject of bus deregulation. I am sorry that he and I are likely to disagree in the months to come about its merits or otherwise, but we may as well get some things clear now. If we consider the different rates of decline in bus patronage inside and outside London—those figures go back to the second world war—we see that there has been a consistent decline, related more than anything else to the development of the private car, and to its increased ownership in the population and the ease with which it can be used by commuters to travel to work. The figures are interesting because they show a fairly steady decline outside London where, with some notable exceptions, there is still no great difficulty in parking fairly close to work. People come in from outlying rural areas and they can park in the centre of town.

If people have the choice, they generally use their own private cars, even if that is marginally more expensive, because of the convenience, the safety and the ability to control one's own travelling temperature, noise level, type of music, and so on.

Significantly, in London the rate of decline in bus patronage has been lower, for no better reason than the fact that in London what matters is not what one pays for one's car, or who is paying for the petrol, or even the city congestion charge; as every Member of the House, including yourself, Madam Deputy Speaker, knows only too well, what really determines whether one uses a private car in central London is whether there is somewhere to park when one gets to the centre of London. Of course, in central London there is much less chance of that. It is no accident, therefore, that 86 per cent. of those who come into London to work every day do so by public transport.

When we consider what has happened under deregulation, let us first set entirely to one side the initial fares hike which resulted from a rapid reduction in subsidy by some local authorities faced with capping problems. That happened to coincide with deregulation. However, as the hon. Gentleman was kind enough to acknowledge, deregulation itself has produced a sharp reduction in operating costs and an increase in bus mileage. The effect on fares is arguable, because of the relationship between fares and local authority support, but it is interesting that over the past four years fares have gone up faster in London, where fares have been controlled by the state and by a nationalised industry, than outside London, where fare increases have been lower. That has been due in no small measure to competition in the marketplace, which has held fares down.

I have three minutes left in which to say some important things to the people of London, via the hon. Gentleman. I am sorry to have to say this, but if, for whatever reason, scare stories are put about, I must rebut them. First, we have committed ourselves to supporting unprofitable but socially desirable services, and that support is to be provided by the central bus authority, which is now sometimes referred to as the London bus executive. The body will subsidise those routes, as happens now with subsidy and support of unprofitable routes.

The concessionary fares arrangements will continue. Of course, there will be a new pattern for negotiation, but they will continue to be funded by the local authorities. As before, it will be for local authorities to determine what should be the rate and what should be the pattern, and who to include and who to exclude—children, elderly people, and so on.

The hon. Gentleman knows what my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said in relation to the travelcard during the passage of the Railways Bill about the franchising director's ability to direct appropriate franchisees to enter what would effectively be a travelcard scheme. I assure him that I am in no doubt whatever about the importance of travelcards in London. London is my city, as it is the hon. Gentleman's. I have used the travelcard for many years and I know that I shall continue to do so. I have no doubt that our arrangements will ensure that travelcards continue.

I am sorry not to have had the time to respond on other matters. On the point about a forum, we have a multiplicity of forums available to us. I hope that we shall not descend to the level of a talking shop. I shall consider the hon. Gentleman's suggestion.

Just for the record, expenditure in real terms was £249 million when the Government came into office. It was about £300 million in real terms in the last year of the Greater London council. This year, excluding the mega-projects, the figure is more than £500 million and that level of investment is continuing.

I am sorry not to have been able to answer more of the hon. Gentleman's questions. I shall, of course, write to him if he wants urgent answers. I look forward to more, inevitable debates on this important subject. I understand the importance of the issue.