Public Transport (London)

Part of 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.