Transport (Eastern Region)

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Jamieson.]

Photo of Kelvin Hopkins Kelvin Hopkins Labour, Luton North 9:33 am, 24th March 1999

I am pleased to have the opportunity to raise in the House the substantial subject of transport in the eastern region. I have lived in the eastern region of England for the past 30 years, and have travelled its length and breadth many times by a variety of transport modes. I have also been a rail commuter for all those 30 years. Moreover, I have a long-standing interest in transport policy.

Between 1973 and 1977, I was employed in the Trades Union Congress's economic department, working primarily on transport policy. My immediate predecessor in that post was my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Attercliffe (Mr. Betts), and my immediate successor in the post was my right hon. Friend the Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Mandelson). My immediate superior at that time is now a Member of the other place and the Minister for Roads and Road Safety, with whom I now meet and correspond to discuss transport and specifically roads policies. It was pleasing to renew old acquaintances on entering the House.

After the TUC, I was employed by the National and Local Government Officers Association and Unison as a policy research officer working on transport policy, among other things. I wrote a number of papers on transport policy and the unions' response to the previous Government's deregulation of bus services. I opposed deregulation then and still believe that it was a profoundly misguided policy. I am pleased with the publication this week of the Deputy Prime Minister's bus statement.

A few weeks ago, I was one of a number of Labour Members from eastern region constituencies who undertook an experiment to test public transport services in the region. We all travelled from our constituencies by public transport, meeting up at Stevenage on a Friday afternoon. Some of my hon. Friends may refer to their experiences later in the debate. The experiment demonstrated both the possibilities and the difficulties of using public transport. Some journeys were relatively simple; others were time consuming and tortuous.

North-south journeys on routes radiating from London are relatively straightforward, whereas east-west, cross-country routes are difficult. Indeed, the coherence of the eastern region is weakened by poor east-west transport links, and by a sense of relative isolation between the eastern coastal counties and Hertfordshire and Bedfordshire in the west of the region. With the increasing importance of regionalism in our constitution, good transport links across the region are essential to the development of a sense of unity and a strong identity.

More important still is the need to ensure that transport links are sufficient for the regional economy to develop and prosper. The eastern region as a whole is one of the more prosperous in the country, but within the region, there are areas of deprivation and unemployment, notably in the coastal towns of East Anglia and parts of my town, Luton. Both areas require improved transport communications to assist their economic development. The region as a whole must keep improving its communications network if it is to develop its full economic potential.

A recent Confederation of British Industry survey in the region recorded a high proportion of local economic development officers stating that transport links of all kinds needed to be improved. In particular, almost 100 per cent. of them thought that rail provision needed to be upgraded.

The eastern region is well served by mainline and commuter services fanning out from London, with Euston, St. Pancras, King's Cross, Liverpool Street and Fenchurch Street all serving parts of the region, but all those services require new investment and upgrading to enable them to carry more passengers and take pressure off the roads.

In that context, I shall raise the more parochial matter of Thameslink 2000. I travel to and from Luton by rail every day, and during my two years in the House, have never yet driven to Westminster. I am fortunate that Thameslink is one of the better commuter services, at least on the north side of the Thames. I know that, on the south side, overcrowding is horrendous. I recently had a long meeting with Euan Cameron, the managing director of Thameslink. There is clear concern that even Thameslink's relatively good performance has begun to deteriorate, and investment in track and in new additional train sets is urgent.

The multi-million pound Thameslink 2000 investment programme has been badly delayed. The original intention was to complete the project by 2000. It then slipped to a start date in the year 2000. Now the project will not start until some time after 2000–2006 seems to be the earliest likely start date. Cash has been allocated—Railtrack has the cash to do the work—but no start date has yet been agreed.

Thameslink wishes to purchase a considerable number of new train sets to increase the length and frequency of its trains, and to take many more passengers to and from London each day. I ask Ministers to do everything they can to ensure that the Thameslink modernisation programme goes ahead at the earliest opportunity, and that steps are taken to ensure that Thameslink is upgraded before 2006. That could perhaps be a first task for Alastair Morton and the new Strategic Rail Authority.

I shall touch on roads, specifically the M1 motorway, which passes through the heart of my constituency. Last July, I welcomed the roads review and the decision by my right hon. Friend the Minister of Transport to abandon plans to widen the M1 north of junction 10 through Luton. However, that decision made the need to upgrade commuter rail services, especially Thameslink, still more crucial. Car commuters cannot be expected to abandon their cars and travel by train if they cannot find a seat in peak hours, if services are not reliable, and if fares are too high.

May I say in passing that the privatisation and fragmentation of the railway system inflicted on the country by the previous Government have done nothing to help. I welcome the establishment of the Strategic Rail Authority, which I am confident will restore some coherence and rationality to the development of rail services.

Another matter of great local concern in my constituency is the environmental impact of the Ml motorway. Between London and the north, my constituency contains the only stretch of the motorway that passes within feet of homes and schools. The noise and airborne pollution, together with the recently lifted threat of motorway widening, have caused considerable blight in the area.

I have raised the matter with my noble Friend the Minister for Roads and Road Safety, and have had meetings with the Highways Agency and the local authority. I am hopeful that noise reduction measures, including barriers along stretches of the M1 through my constituency, are a real prospect. I have also asked the Highways Agency to investigate whether noise reduction barriers combined with appropriate foliage can help to reduce airborne pollution in the immediate vicinity of the Ml, and the agency is looking into the matter.

During the debate on the roads review, which my right hon. Friend the Minister of Transport announced in July, I was much encouraged by his positive answer to my question about possible measures to counter the environmental problems caused by the M1 in my constituency. I shall continue to pursue that matter and will not let it go.

Luton needs other transport infrastructure improvements if economic development and the number of jobs in the conurbation are to be maximised. On the positive side, Luton airport is expanding with large investment in new terminal buildings and aircraft handling capacity. The new Luton Parkway station will soon open, and airport passengers will be able to check in for their flights directly off the rail platform.

The translink corridor project could provide an important new passenger traffic route between Dunstable and Luton, on the route of the old railway line. That would require money, and people at every level of government must ensure that such investment opportunities are not let slip. In the best of all worlds, the venture would be a matter for public enterprise and Government investment. I cannot imagine such a project in France being delayed for years by shortage of funds.

Finally, I must refer to the motor car. The car is a boon to modern living and, for most of us, essential for certain journeys, but inappropriate car usage, not car ownership, has been the problem. I recently spoke to shop stewards at the Vauxhall Motors plant in Luton and drew attention to the situation on the continent of Europe, where motor car ownership is generally higher than in Britain, but motor car usage is lower.

However, exhorting motorists not to use their cars for inappropriate journeys must go hand in hand with the provision of first-class public transport services. We must accept, too, that public transport, in economists' terms, can never be a perfect substitute for the motor car. Each has a role to play, but there is a crucial balance to be struck between public transport and driving one's car. The car remains vital for most people who travel around the eastern region. I am sure that other hon. Members will raise matters of concern for their own areas and I hope that the House will forgive the parochial elements of my contribution.

I have taken to heart one of the messages from my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister. I have rediscovered walking as a mode of transport and it is not only cheap and non-polluting, but beneficial to my health. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will take note of the points that I have made and do what she can to promote improvements in transport in the eastern region as a whole and in my constituency in particular.

Photo of Malcolm Moss Malcolm Moss Conservative, North East Cambridgeshire 9:42 am, 24th March 1999

I shall address the House on the A47 Thorney bypass, which was one of the casualties of the Government's decision to slash their road building programme from 160 schemes to about 37. The White Paper "A New Deal for Transport: Better for Everyone" proposed massive changes to the road building programme. That proposal certainly did not make things better for my constituents in Thorney and the community is extremely angry.

I attended a public meeting last November, which was packed to the gunwales. There are about 2,000 souls in the village and I should think that every one was present. They are determined that the long-promised bypass will go ahead in the near future—and as soon as possible. The villagers set up the Bypass Thorney campaign and, such has been the strength of feeling, they have already held two rallies on the A47 in the village in which traffic was held up for a considerable time. They of course have the full co-operation of the police and the local authority.

The campaign for a Thorney bypass has a long and chequered history. The villagers have been campaigning for their bypass for 67 years. A campaign started in 1932, and a great Isle of Ely route was proposed to improve the A47 across the fens from Peterborough to King's Lynn, and on to Norwich. Plans were resurrected in the 1960s and published in 1962. A start date was confirmed in 1968. In the 1980s, a public consultation determined that a single carriageway should be routed north of the village and a start was planned for 1986.

In June 1987, the bypass was again confirmed, on environmental grounds, by the then Under-Secretary of State for Transport with a planned start date of 1989–91. The plan for a bypass was changed to one for a dual carriageway in 1990 and a start date of within two years was confirmed. In 1994, the Department inexplicably decided to test Thorney for trunk road traffic calming measures. I think that Thorney was one of three projects on which the Government decided at that stage, and I shall discuss traffic calming a little later.

The fear at that time, which I shared, was that traffic calming measures in the village were a way round going ahead with the bypass, and an attempt to alleviate some of the problems of delay and the high accident rate. In 1996, the programme was changed and the bypass was put into the second phase, but the real body blow came in 1998, when the present Government dropped the Thorney bypass from the road development programme.

Thorney is a heritage village. Its centre is a conservation area with 167 listed buildings, 116 of which front on to the A47. The road bisects the village, which is linear, right the way through. Most residents are affected by the heavy traffic. The village is built on fenland soil, which is part peat and part silt, and the vibrations from the increasing traffic cause significant problems for buildings.

The village's terrific tourist potential is not in any way realised because of the problems of pollution and traffic. The traffic problem is essentially that 16,000-plus vehicles a day go through this small fenland village, and 19 per cent. of those are heavy goods vehicles. They cause severance to the village, because the road bisects the built-up area, and create noise and pollution. Even though traffic calming measures have been taken, delays are caused.

Traffic does not go through the village only during the day. The campaign team recently carried out a survey which found that a massive number of HGVs go through all night and, between midnight and 6 am, the HGV count was much higher, at 57 per cent. The village also suffers from traffic going through its centre seven days a week. There is additional holiday traffic at weekends as people go from the midlands to the north Norfolk coast.

The village is bisected by the road. There are two zebra crossings—one at each end of the village—but, during peak times, no one in his right mind would risk crossing that road. It is so dangerous that parents invariably take their children to the school, which is on the road by one of the zebra crossings. However, they take their children to school by car, because there have been accidents involving children, particularly those on bicycles, over the past 10 years or so.

Traffic calming measures are causing more problems for residents. The clatter of HGVs going over the humps and bumps and round the chicanes has exacerbated the noise and pollution problem that they were designed to solve. Those measures have caused delays, which add to the problems of the environment and cost.

Even the Government office of the east, which is based in Cambridge, has concluded that there are great merits in the 1996 scheme for a dual carriageway of 4.3 km, which would have cost about £15 million at that time. The Government office has also concluded that the accident rates in Thorney are higher than average, with clusters on bends in the road and at minor junctions, and that the traffic calming measures, which were installed in 1994 at a cost of almost £500,000, have not overcome the basic problems. Thorney's rural location means that public transport is not only unlikely to be provided, but would not in any way provide a solution to the problems.

The figure obtained by the cost benefit analysis is comparatively low at 2.3, but that is for a dual carriageway. The figure would probably double if the Government pursued their proposals for a single carriageway. Along with the villagers, I shall press for the road to become a single carriageway, in which event the figure would probably be nearer 5.

The villagers of Thorney would want me to put another point to the Government. I believe that every other village on the A47 has been bypassed, all the way from the midlands around Peterborough, across the fens and around Wisbech, King's Lynn and the stretch leading to Norfolk. Why, after all this time, is Thorney the only community that has to suffer such heavy traffic at its heart?

The GOE believes that an improvement in the road—even a bypass for Thorney—would help to regenerate the northern fens area. Wisbech currently enjoys assisted area status, as it has since 1993—although that is being reviewed—and is at the heart of an objective 5b area, while much of the northern fens region has rural development status.

What is the way forward? The Bypass Thorney campaign submitted its proposals to the panel at the public examination of the draft regional planning guidance for East Anglia earlier this year. I am told by Lord Whitty, the Minister responsible for trunk roads, that the panel's report is due in mid-May. At that point, the Secretary of State will have the power either to accept the report or to modify its conclusions, but, in any event, he will have to consult those involved.

My constituents and I want the go-ahead to be given for the reintroduction of this much-needed bypass into the programme as a single carriageway. For all the reasons that I have given, we believe that the community needs and deserves the bypass. Other communities may not want improved roads—although I suspect that they are far fewer that the Government would have us believe—but this community does. The campaign will not go away: these people are serious, and they will continue to blockade the A47 for as long as it takes to make the Government see reason.

Photo of Bob Blizzard Bob Blizzard Labour, Waveney 9:53 am, 24th March 1999

In any transport debate, our first task is to strip away the ideology. Nowadays, too much of the argument is taken up by certain groups. There are those who see transport only in environmental terms, as an inconvenience or an obstacle to the pious business of saving the planet, having no regard for our economic and industrial needs. Some of those "interest groups" have no realistic economic policy; they are at heart anti-car, indeed anti-motor vehicle. Then there are those who ignore the issues of pollution and climate change. They are typified by the right hon. Member for Wokingham (Redwood), whom I heard speaking to the annual dinner of the Institute of Petroleum. His rallying call to an audience whom he expected to be friendly was, "What we need are lower taxes and more motoring". He did not impress the institute, however, because most of the companies involved have signed up to the Kyoto agreement.

Then there are those who rage on with arguments about public versus private. There is the champion of public transport, who refuses on principle to own a car and who, witnessing a traffic jam, repeats in a sort of Orwellian duck-speak his long-cherished belief that Soviet-style buses always were better than the decadent private motor car. On the other hand, there is the car-lover who prides himself on the fact that he would never deign to ride in a lowly bus or train. Sometimes those hollow, stale arguments are dressed up, but we hear too much of them.

An oft-used maxim of the present Government is, "What counts is what works", and I think that that maxim should be applied to transport. A practical approach is needed, and I hope that such an approach will be reflected in the composition of the new integrated transport commission. I hope that it will consist of practical people with real interests, rather than experts with ideological interests. We need a bold approach, but an approach that is, above all, practical.

It follows that there should not be just one approach to transport throughout the United Kingdom and in every type of community. We cannot have a one-stroke policy to be applied everywhere. We need to get that message across. My rural constituents write to me expressing the fear that they may have to pay a congestion charge to drive into the local small market town. Of course such policies have to be considered in the case of cities, but there is no prospect of their being introduced in small market towns.

Let me make three general observations. First, I do not think that people will accept less mobility than they have grown accustomed to. Secondly, whatever we do about transport, it must continue to operate for the benefit of our industry as well as our environment. It is an engine of the economy, and, in the context of costs and journey times, it is important to maintaining our competitive position in Europe.

The overwhelming picture of our transport system, however, is of a poor-quality infrastructure suffering from chronic underinvestment in all modes of transport. As we near the end of the century and look back, we see that the Labour party has been in government for only 23 years of this century. It is fairly clear which party we can pin the blame on. Our railways have been decimated and, unlike cities elsewhere in Europe, we have seen our trams being wiped out. Buses have disappeared from rural communities, and a sporadic convoy system has been introduced in towns. We have the fourth lowest number of miles of motorway per 1,000 sq km in the European Union: only Portugal, the Irish Republic and Greece have fewer.

That brings me conveniently to the subject of East Anglia. I am afraid that I do not know enough about the more western parts of the eastern region to talk about them.

Photo of Bob Blizzard Bob Blizzard Labour, Waveney

Thorney will do; I can follow Thorney.

We have a poorer transport infrastructure than any other English region, and transport is now the dominant issue in our part of the country. Most visitors comment on the lack of modern roads in East Anglia. The traveller has history before his eyes as he travels. Footpaths between fields were widened and became bridleways, the bridleways were widened into lanes and the lanes were widened into roads, but, unfortunately, our roads still wind between the fields of East Anglia, through—and here we come to Thorney—ancient villages and historic market towns. That is even true of trunk roads. It is possible to travel up the A12 and to see tiny cottages below the road level, looking up at the huge trucks that rumble past. The further north and east one ventures into East Anglia, the worse the road links become, until eventually one reaches Lowestoft, Britain's most easterly point, which is in my constituency.

Our rail links are no better. Train services are infrequent, expensive and slow, and the lines are few and far between.

I firmly believe that we need an integrated transport policy. Lowestoft is simply not integrated into the national transport network. It is a port, whose function is to integrate land and sea, but it is difficult for it to perform that function when there are such poor links on the landward side. Lowestoft is further from the continuous dual network system of roads than anywhere else in the country. Ministers past and present have often arrived late in my constituency, and have always been surprised by the journey time.

It is not so much that our roads in East Anglia are congested by traffic; it is just that the pace is so slow. The winding single carriageway is clogged with tractors, lorries and, in the summer, caravans. It is not only an inconvenience for the leisure-time motorist; it is taking its economic toll. Lowestoft has lost its traditional industries and it finds it difficult to attract new ones. What company will locate at the end of such poor links? They also make it tough for existing businesses—it is hard for them to expand. All the businesses in my constituency are unanimous in their view that we must have better road links. Poor transport links cost time and are key factors in business competitiveness and inward investment.

Some people sometimes question whether the link between transport and economic prosperity is proven. I mention just the figures for East Anglia. Along the A14 corridor, unemployment is currently 2.4 per cent. in Huntingdon, 2.2 per cent. in Cambridge, 2.1 per cent. in Bury St. Edmunds and 3.6 per cent. in Ipswich, but, further north and east, it is 9 per cent. in Lowestoft, and 10 per cent. in Great Yarmouth. There has to be a link. People know that there is a link.

My constituents are frustrated and angry about that point. However, they are delighted at yesterday's announcement that work is to start soon on studies of the trunk road between Norwich and Great Yarmouth, the A47. We are convinced that they will show it has to be improved and dualled, which is what we have been after.

Should we look for improvements not to the roads, but to the railways? I hope that the railways can be improved. Again, we have to look at practice, rather than theory. Unfortunately, towns in my constituency are linked by single track lines, with lots of small lanes and farm tracks crossing them. A slow speed limit has to be invoked for safety reasons. The only way in which those lines can be improved is by grade separation of all crossings—road bridges over or under the railway. That would be very expensive and time consuming, and I doubt whether it is viable. I hope that we can improve rail to a degree, but it cannot be a substitute for road improvement.

I mentioned the problem of heavy lorries rumbling through the narrow streets of ancient villages and market towns. I raised the matter because I am not clear where we were with village bypasses. Of course, we must examine all the alternatives before we approve plans for a village bypass, but, in Bungay in my constituency, a study has been done. There is no alternative, yet there are no plans for a north-south bypass. It has not even been put on the list by the county council, even though the company that is the main source of the lorries is willing to contribute to the construction of such a road. People in Bungay are asking whether the lorries are to rumble through Bungay for ever more. Again, we need a practical solution, not an ideological one.

In the most general sense, what should be the transport policy for the rural part of East Anglia? We definitely need rural buses because there are people living in villages who do not have access to a car at all. Therefore, we welcome the rural bus fund, over £1 million of which has already come Suffolk's way in the first year of its operation. That is welcomed by people who live in the villages, but will more buses encourage a modal shift to buses by those who have a car? Let us examine the practicality of that.

People will not shift unless there is a regular service. If there are only a couple of buses a day, they will not wait three hours to avoid their car journey. Let us suppose that they would wait half an hour. What would it take to institute a half-hour bus service to shuttle around all the villages in East Anglia? The cost would be phenomenal. Existing services are disappearing or under threat, propped up by the county council. Therefore, although I welcome more buses, I do not envisage that buses will be an alternative to the car in rural areas and produce any real modal shift.

That leads me to the fuel duty escalator. People in my constituency, particularly those in the rural part, find it hard to grasp the measure. It is a blunt instrument in that respect. It is not a progressive tax; there is not much social equity in it. People question whether it can have the desired environmental effect in rural areas, where there is no practical alternative. Therefore, I hope that we will look at where we are going with the fuel duty escalator and its effect on rural areas.

Photo of Bob Blizzard Bob Blizzard Labour, Waveney

No, because I am winding up my speech. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will make his contribution later and I want to allow other hon. Members to get into the debate.

I hope that the Government will take measures to reduce congestion, and that they will focus on the parts of the country where congestion and pollution are serious problems. I hope that they will manage to avoid any suspicion of a broad one-stroke policy, which would seriously worry those in my constituency and in rural parts of East Anglia.

Photo of Norman Baker Norman Baker Shadow Spokesperson (Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform), Shadow Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport), Shadow Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport) 10:05 am, 24th March 1999

I shall be brief as I am conscious that there are local Members who want to speak in the debate.

From my knowledge of the region and from the representations that I have received, it seems that some of the problems in the region are common to the rest of the country, whether they be congestion, pollution, overdependence on the road network or the reduction in rail lines. Unfortunately, many lines were closed under Beeching. In many towns with which I am familiar, such as in Hadleigh in Suffolk, the rail network seems to have been taken away. Sadly, sizeable communities now depend on road transport.

Of course, for the rail transport that is there, rail fares increased by 74.8 per cent. above inflation between 1974 and 1996, whereas road transport costs have decreased by 3.5 per cent. Those who complain about the fuel duty escalator should bear those figures in mind.

The Government accept that the region is less well served by east-west rail connections; the point was made by the hon. Member for Luton, North (Hopkins). All roads seem to lead to London, as do rail lines. If we are to regionalise our country, as we should, we need to deal with that fundamental point.

I want to suggest one or two areas that the Minister might pursue. I should be grateful for an indication on whether the channel tunnel will benefit the eastern region in any way. Will there be connections to the eastern region from the channel tunnel?

Photo of Norman Baker Norman Baker Shadow Spokesperson (Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform), Shadow Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport), Shadow Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport)

Yes, but, to take the point of the hon. Gentleman, who has rudely interrupted me, we want connections to the eastern region north of Stratford. We also want to ensure that rail connections to Felixstowe are maximised to ensure maximum movement of freight transport by rail.

It has also been drawn to my attention that there is a problem with public transport links north of Stansted to Stansted airport. From London, the links to the airport are quite good, but north of Stansted, the links are a problem.

I draw to the Minister's attention one or two excellent examples of transport in the eastern region, particularly cycling schemes, which are an important part of the Government's strategy. Many towns in the region contain the highest levels of cycling. They include Cambridge, Peterborough and King's Lynn, although not, to my knowledge, Luton.

Photo of Norman Baker Norman Baker Shadow Spokesperson (Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform), Shadow Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport), Shadow Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport)

Or Colchester.

I draw to the Minister's attention Kesgrave high school near Ipswich. I understand that nearly 60 per cent. of journeys to the school are by bicycle, compared with the national average of 2 per cent. That success has been achieved by developers incorporating cycle routes into their town planning. Routes to the school from the entire catchment area were built. The result is that more than half the students cycle to school. Some people say that we can never shift transport away from the private motor car, but there are examples in the region and elsewhere to demonstrate that that can happen.

I regularly ask about road traffic reduction measures and the Minister gives me slightly different answers on each occasion. I do not wish to be churlish. I am happy with the direction in which the Government are going, but I should like some clarification.

The Minister has said in written answers to me that, in certain parts of the country, an actual reduction in road traffic will be achieved. Can she tell us whether any part of the eastern region will be one of the areas where there will be a real reduction—as opposed to a reduction in growth—in road traffic? Can she quantify when that might be achieved? When will road traffic levels throughout the country be less than in the previous year for the first time?

Photo of Miss Melanie Johnson Miss Melanie Johnson Labour, Welwyn Hatfield 10:09 am, 24th March 1999

As it is very easy to misunderstand the issues, I should like to offer a perspective from the southern part of the eastern region, particularly Hertfordshire, which contains my constituency, and to sketch some of the characteristics of Hertfordshire. I also agree with the comments made by my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney (Mr. Blizzard) on the need, in debating and considering transport needs, to consider the needs of individual areas—which vary considerably, even across the eastern region.

Hertfordshire is the United Kingdom's third most densely populated county, with a million people and 19 urban areas. It therefore has very high car usage. Nationally, Hertfordshire has the third highest level of car ownership. Sadly, it also has the United Kingdom's second highest road casualty rate per head of population. Last year, it had 6,826 road injuries and 58 road deaths.

One of Hertfordshire's main characteristics is that primarily radial routes pass through it, from London, up to the north and east. However, there are few links in Hertfordshire between east and west. I should like to return to that theme later in my speech.

My hon. Friend the Member for Luton, North (Mr. Hopkins) mentioned Luton and Stansted airports. Over the next four years, Stansted expects a rise of more than 3 million passengers. We are looking forward to airport forums improving passenger transport in and out of the airport.

The A1(M) provides an important link through Hertfordshire, which also has a substantial road maintenance backlog.

I have raised these issues because they are important in considering transport in my part of the eastern region. The issues were very different 20 years ago. In the past 20 years, we have lost time in which we could have done much to address issues both of infrastructure and of people increasingly using private, rather than public, transport. It has been a missed opportunity, which the current Government must now try to salvage.

Photo of Ian Gibson Ian Gibson Labour, Norwich North

Does my hon. Friend agree that the most recent occasion on which a debate on transport in the eastern region was held was in 1977—when, in an all-night sitting, some of the problems that she is dealing with were mentioned? After that debate, an Opposition Member—who is not in the Chamber—emerged bleary-eyed, asking for dual carriageways and for all the issues that my hon. Friend has raised to be addressed. He became a Minister and did some work on the issues, but not enough. I agree with my hon. Friend that not enough has been done in the past 20 years. Why does she think that is?

Photo of Miss Melanie Johnson Miss Melanie Johnson Labour, Welwyn Hatfield

I can only put it down to the policies of the previous Government. I thank my hon. Friend for his comments on the lack of debate since 1977. What a tragic waste of all those years, in which—with investment and public transport—we could have dealt with the growth in transport need and population growth in counties in the eastern region, such as Hertfordshire. Until the current Government started to address the issues of bus deregulation and rail privatisation, those policies, too, were the source of more problems than answers.

Rail transport is a substantial concern to people in my constituency, many of whom commute to work in London and expect to be able to use rail services to get about. I receive in my office many complaints about trains that are too frequently over-crowded, and about the lack of services and punctuality. Often, commuters suffer the most, as they travel at times of day when trains are likely to be crowded. I therefore particularly welcomed the Deputy Prime Minister's comments on the subject, when he said that he was "switching the points" on the privatised rail industry and clamping down on issues such as standing, train schedules and punctuality, which are all crucial to people in Hertfordshire.

Billions of pounds could have been invested in rail transport had the British Rail sell-off been done at a more realistic market price. It is very disappointing that that opportunity was lost. That lost opportunity is a shocking public scandal, from which people in my constituency trying to travel by rail to London or elsewhere suffer daily.

There are serious issues of accountability and competition in rail service. We need exactly the type of action now being taken by Ministers at the rail summit. We have to be persistent, and to support investment in rail.

There is some scepticism about some of the action being taken to deal with matters such as train overcrowding. The action proposed on overcrowding seems to be based on very old standards of what constitutes overcrowding. People who live in areas in which journey times to destinations are perhaps only 13 minutes are concerned about how lateness is measured, as trains must be at least 30 minutes late before compensation is paid. The relative lateness of trains is crucial to such travellers.

I particularly welcome the Government's initiative on the Strategic Rail Authority, which will make a substantial difference in addressing many of the issues that I have raised.

Rail issues are connected to the future of the east-west transport link that Hertfordshire requires. The central Herts passenger transport scheme is expected to create a transportation link between Watford—through St. Albans—and Hatfield, in my constituency. Establishing an east-west link is the No. 1 priority for the southern part of the region, as it would help to integrate public transport and provide modal links—which Conservative Members seemed to find so amusing when mentioned earlier in the debate. Modal links are one of the ways in which we shall tackle the crucial difficulties of transport.

An east-west link would provide integrated and sustainable transport, and the necessary links for regeneration in my constituency—particularly after closure of the massive British Aerospace site at Hatfield. The site may now be developed for housing and for use by the university of Hertfordshire, and by retail and other business. However, that opportunity will be fully realised only if action such as the central Herts passenger transport scheme is implemented. The scheme would reduce traffic reduction, and links with the university would help both local education and the local economy.

Those are long-term issues. Even if agreement is given soon to start planning the central Herts passenger transport scheme, it will not operate until 2006. It is another example of the long-term work that the previous Government neglected to do on behalf of passengers in the eastern region. If the scheme is agreed, by 2015, 9 million passengers will be using it. I therefore hope that, in October, Ministers will approve the scheme when the outline case is submitted to them.

As my hon. Friend the Minister has visited us on at least twice since the general election and seen what Hertfordshire county council is doing, she will be well aware that the county council is in the vanguard of addressing transport issues. The council has pioneered Travelwise to develop sustainable transport; gained European Union support for a business Travelwise scheme; increased its partnerships to reduce child casualties and to increase journeys to school by means other than car, which is the source of much traffic congestion on roads—the issue of car transport to private schools should perhaps also be examined; and developed safer routes to schools and the Walking Bus project.

Hertfordshire has taken all those actions to tackle the transport issues facing us. I believe that, with the setting provided by the Government, we now have the mechanisms necessary to drive forward transport—by rail, bus and road—and thereby to ensure that the economic future of the southern part of the region is secured.

Photo of Keith Simpson Keith Simpson Shadow Spokesperson (Defence) 10:19 am, 24th March 1999

I welcome this opportunity to contribute to this important debate on transport in the eastern region. I do not have to remind the House that transport is a crucial issue in the region, particularly for Norfolk and my constituency. I welcome the speech of the hon. Member for Lewes (Mr. Baker), although it is a pity that no other Liberal Democrat Member is able to contribute to the debate.

Traditionally, Norfolk has felt geographically isolated. It is somewhere that people travel to rather than pass through. Indeed, our national hero, Horatio Nelson, used to write about going into and coming out of Norfolk as though it were some strange foreign country. Malcolm Bradbury, the distinguished professor at the University of East Anglia described Norfolk as being cut off on three sides. He said some 20 years ago that it was cut off on two sides by the sea and on the third side by British Rail. Unfortunately, very little has changed since then.

I wish to raise two specific points. The first, the dualling of the A47, was mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Moss). It is a crucial issue for everyone in Norfolk, but particularly for people in my constituency where two large stretches remain to be dualled. The Brundall-Lingwood stretch, east of Norwich is a death trap for many local people and for visitors.

Photo of Anthony D Wright Anthony D Wright Labour, Great Yarmouth

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that, under the previous Administration, no fewer than 23 Ministers with a roads portfolio visited the area and agreed that urgent work was necessary on the A47 east of Norwich, including the Acle straight linking Norwich and Great Yarmouth? In 1996, the then roads Minister took the project out of the scheme, but the present Government have put it back and are conducting a study. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the study will produce a way forward for that stretch of road?

Photo of Keith Simpson Keith Simpson Shadow Spokesperson (Defence)

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising that unpartisan point as he has enabled me to comment in an unpartisan way that, before the general election, he and his hon. Friends promised the people of Norfolk the earth and told them that the A47 would be dualled. In fact, it has not been dualled. The Government have failed to keep their promises, and he and his hon. Friends now have to answer difficult questions in their constituencies.

Photo of Keith Simpson Keith Simpson Shadow Spokesperson (Defence)

I am sorry, but I want to allow other hon. Members to speak.

The A47 has not been dualled. It is a killing zone on the eastern side of Norwich. There are also two dangerous stretches in the Dereham area.

The A47 is vital for two reasons. First, at the strategic level, it provides communications that are vital to all people in Norfolk, whatever their political views. Secondly, there is the matter of safety. My constituents of all political parties are disappointed by the Government's decision, after many promises in opposition that they would carry out yet more studies on the A47. Indeed, the hon. Member for Waveney (Mr. Blizzard) referred to that.

Under the previous Government—and under the present Administration—the A47 has been studied to death. We want action and the A47 to be dualled. There can be no more excuses.

My second point has been touched on several times, mainly by Labour Members who consider it an embarrassment. The continued increase in fuel costs penalises motorists in rural areas, particularly in my constituency of Mid-Norfolk where a car is not a luxury; it is a necessity for many of the poorest families who are penalised time and again. The proposed cut in road licence tax for cars with smaller engines is irrelevant to poor families with large cars. Are they expected to sell their cars and buy new ones?

Transport should be about offering people a choice. In most of Mid-Norfolk the geography of the area creates a major problem in respect of providing an integrated public transport system. Cars are vital in Norfolk, and it must be the Government's duty to provide every opportunity to support people's ability to use their cars. So let us keep the fuel costs down and make certain that our main trunk road—the A47—is dualled. Let us deliver on the promises that Labour made in opposition and has so far failed to deliver.

Photo of Mrs Anne Campbell Mrs Anne Campbell Labour, Cambridge 10:24 am, 24th March 1999

I begin by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Luton, North (Mr. Hopkins) on securing today's debate on an important issue which affects us all. I also welcome yesterday's announcement by the Government on the multi-modal studies, particularly that relating to the A14, which runs from Cambridge to Huntingdon, and which is designated to start in 1999–2000. It is most welcome. The Cambridge Evening News conducted a great campaign and collected 10,000 signatures. The Government's approach looks at the whole area around the A14. It involves not simply building a four-lane highway through the middle of Cambridgeshire, but looking at other modes of transport—including public transport and the Cambridge-St Ives railway line, for which many of us have campaigned for many years—and provides an opportunity to get those issues onto the agenda and consider them in a sensible way, with land use planning, public transport and road transport all playing a role in the economic development of Cambridgeshire.

I know that the present Government, unlike the previous Administration, will produce not simply an empty, unfunded wish list, but proposals that will have a real chance of being implemented. The previous Administration did a real disservice to the people of Cambridgeshire by misleading them about what was in the roads programme and funded. Their wishes were extremely misleading.

Photo of Andrew Lansley Andrew Lansley Vice-Chair, Conservative Party

Further to the point that the hon. Lady is making, I hope that the Minister will be able to say not only that the study will take place sooner, which is welcome, but that if it concludes that the A 14 should be upgraded, that should happen quickly and, if necessary, be included in the Government's targeted programme of road improvements, even though it is within the seven-year limit that was set last July.

Photo of Mrs Anne Campbell Mrs Anne Campbell Labour, Cambridge

I acknowledge the work that the hon. Gentleman has done on this issue and I am sure that my hon. Friend the Minister will respond to the point that he has raised. I certainly hope that the work on the road will be completed as quickly as possible.

Let me spend a little time talking about my constituency in Cambridge, which is not rural but has a great problem that affects many people. I receive constant complaints from a variety of people—mainly school children—about the difficulty of walking to school because of the enormous amount of road traffic that affects my constituency more severely than most. Some 40,000 people commute into Cambridge every day—an excessive number given that only about 100,000 live in the city.

People in Cambridge have tried to solve the problem in their own way. The city has one of the highest proportions of people who travel to work by bicycle. The figure is around 20 per cent. in Cambridge—a higher percentage than for any other city in the UK, and which rivals some cities in Denmark and Scandinavia. I have to praise West Anglia Great Northern railways for making it easier for people to use bicycles as part of an integrated transport strategy. WAGN has provided extra parking space at Cambridge railway station and railway carriages that can carry bicycles without inconveniencing other passengers. It has provided secure cycle parking at Cambridge railway station. If one buys a season ticket to commute into Cambridge, it is possible to borrow a bicycle free of charge. Those facilities could be emulated elsewhere and are an extremely welcome development. Real efforts are being made to attract cyclists.

There are problems with taxis that need to be addressed. I understand that WAGN proposes to lease part of the station forecourt to an operator of O-licensed public service vehicles. I understand that the hon. Member for West Chelmsford (Mr. Burns) also has an O-licensed taxi problem in his constituency. The vehicles often appear to be identical to taxis. Some operators have been using O-licensed vehicles in the same way as taxis, but they are not subject to the regulation imposed on regular taxi cabs. Not unnaturally, taxi drivers in my constituency are outraged at the intrusion.

I know that my hon. Friend the Minister is taking the issue seriously and will introduce regulations so that the drivers of such vehicles have to undergo the same safety and criminal record checks as conventional taxi drivers. I welcome that. I hope that she will also consider the effect on taxi drivers, many of whom have paid many thousands of pounds for their licence plate and are worried that they will lose that investment and be driven out of business by the unregulated taxis.

I want to know what the Government have to say, but I also stress the importance of making the unregulated O-licensed vehicles stick within the strict confines of the law. I understand that there has been some laxity in its application in Chelmsford. Taxi drivers in my constituency are concerned about what has happened there. I hope that any infringement of the rules will be taken seriously and dealt with promptly.

The success of the Government's exhortations to people to use public transport has created problems. Many commuters are finding rail services unsatisfactory. The Cambridge to King's Cross commuter line has been subject to various delays in recent weeks, causing inconvenience and making people lose valuable time and resources.

Stagecoach Cambus took over the bus services in Cambridge some time ago. We have had several months of complete disaster with the bus services. I feel strongly about the issue, because it affects the most vulnerable people in my constituency—those who cannot afford a car and have to rely on public transport to get around. I have had letters from elderly people who wanted to go to hospital or into town to do some shopping and had to wait an hour or an hour and a half for a bus, when they should come at 10-minute intervals.

I have had several meetings with the directors of Stagecoach. They are taking the problem seriously now and are effecting some improvements, but there is still some way to go. Anything that my hon. Friend the Minister can do to encourage quality partnerships between county councils and local bus operators would be welcome.

The park-and-ride bus service works very well. Unfortunately, it does not help my constituents, although it may help the constituents of some Conservative Members. However, it reduces the amount of traffic coming into the city, because people are encouraged to leave their cars in the park-and-ride car parks, knowing that they can get a regular and reliable bus service into the city.

I congratulate the Government on the long-overdue measures that they have taken to encourage public transport. I hope that they will lead to traffic reduction in Cambridge city. I urge my hon. Friend the Minister to take every possible means to encourage public transport, the increased use of bicycles and better facilities for pedestrians, which will all help to achieve the reduction in traffic on our roads that she and I want.

Photo of Simon Burns Simon Burns Conservative, West Chelmsford 10:34 am, 24th March 1999

I shall be brief, because time is pressing. I should like to talk about the issue that the hon. Member for Cambridge (Mrs. Campbell) referred to—the definition of regulations as they affect authorised taxi drivers. I wrote to the Minister earlier in the week, because a delegation including my constituents and, I am sure, the hon. Lady's, came to lobby us on the issue.

The problem has arisen out of confusion in the drafting of the Transport Act 1985. We urgently need clarification of the legal meaning of the Act so that we can see whether it addresses the problem properly and can be enforced. If the law is so badly drafted that it is meaningless, I should be grateful if the Minister would advise the House of what the Government are prepared to do. The hon. Member for Cambridge said that the Government were committed to regulations. I was interested to hear that. I should like to hear more from the Minister about the background to that and whether she feels that we can move forward on that basis.

No one wants to restrict competition for customers and price competition that results in better value for customers, but it is important that everyone who provides a taxi-type service should operate on a level playing field. They should have the same safety checks for the protection of the public and of themselves. The same applies to pricing policy. In Chelmsford, prices for licensed taxi drivers are determined by the local council. Those who do not come within the ambit of the council can set prices off their own bat. When two groups of people provide the same service, it is unfair that one group is hamstrung by having to abide by rules and regulations—with implicit financial costs—and the other group is not. I urge the Minister to clarify the situation as far as she can and sort out an unintended muddle in the law so that we can ensure that our taxi services are efficient, first-rate, price-competitive and, above all, safe for passengers and for drivers.

Photo of James Paice James Paice Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) 10:37 am, 24th March 1999

I shall try to be very brief. I thank the Government for changing their plans and announcing yesterday that the A14 Cambridge to Huntingdon road would be brought into the first tranche of multi-modal studies, as the hon. Member for Cambridge (Mrs. Campbell) said, although she might have admitted that if the Labour Government had not taken the improvement out of the programme originally, the issue might have been more straightforward.

The stretch of the A14 from Girton, on the edge of Cambridge, to the Suffolk border is all in my constituency. Although the problems of traffic volume on that stretch are not as severe as those on the Cambridge to Huntingdon stretch, they are considerable and are causing significant problems of noise impact for those who live nearby.

The public inquiry 26 or 27 years ago proposed the building of noise barriers alongside the villages of Histon and Impington. They are still not built. I hope that the Minister will examine the Highways Agency's argument that the requirement for noise attenuation measures applies only to new roads. Many existing roads now carry far more traffic than they were designed for and it should be possible to put in noise barriers in such cases.

The Government have proposed to detrunk the A10, but we do not know what that means, when it will happen and whether there will be any dowry to maintain or improve the road. That critical link from Cambridge to Ely and the fens could be used to push the development pressures further north, but that will not happen until the road is improved. I hope that the Minister will soon give Cambridgeshire county council the details of the detrunking plan so that the county council can give it the priority that local people attach to it.

The A142 connects the fens and Ely to the A 14 further east, and goes through to Felixstowe port, which is obviously important. There is only one village on the A142 that is not bypassed: the village of Fordham. I declare that that happens to be where I live, but the bypass is No. 1 on Cambridgeshire county council's list of road improvements.

Last year, I took a delegation, representing all tiers and all parties in government in the county, to see the Minister. She listened courteously, but was unable to put the money into Cambridgeshire. I hope that she will look again at what is a major requirement. A lot of industrial development is taking place in the area, and such improvements would make the world of difference to the community.

In the whole of the East Cambridgeshire district, atmospheric pollution levels are highest on the stretch of road where the A142 runs through Fordham. That is not what anyone would have expected, but all the tests demonstrate that that is the case. We are only talking about a £12 million bypass—not a large sum. However, the county cannot even begin the design or go through the necessary procedures until it has an undertaking that the money will be forthcoming.

I hope that the Minister will take on board those points, but particularly the need for clarification on the A10 and the need to look again at the Fordham bypass on the A142.

Photo of Bernard Jenkin Bernard Jenkin Shadow Minister (Transport) 10:41 am, 24th March 1999

I congratulate the hon. Member for Luton, North (Mr. Hopkins) on obtaining this debate. It is notable that debates on regional and local transport seem to be more common—perhaps reflecting frustration and disappointment with the delivery of the Government's much-vaunted integrated transport policy.

The hon. Member for Luton, North launched an attack on bus deregulation. Unfortunately, the Government broadly accepted the privatised framework of the bus industry in the recent White Paper. We welcome any measures to improve bus services, but the White Paper has a sting in the tail. The UK has some of the safest buses in the world, but the Deputy Prime Minister thinks that we need those corrupt EU officials to tell us to make them safer. The White Paper says that the bus industry will be brought under the EU working time directive, which will force up bus operators' costs and reduce the number of viable routes—another great triumph for the Deputy Prime Minister.

Otherwise, the White Paper is a glossy brochure with a requirement for yet more consultation, underlining that it is more publicity puff that lacks policy. The Government are still fumbling for something positive to do. The White Paper does not radically change Conservative bus policy, but builds on privatisation and competition. Local authorities will need to put aside outdated anti-privatisation attitudes, and will have to work more positively with commercial operators than many have in the past.

The hon. Member for Luton, North talked about delayed investment in Thameslink 2000. That is regrettable, but at least there is an investment programme—including new train sets. That is a big contrast to the much-vaunted public-private partnership on the tube, where nothing is happening because the Government are hidebound in their ideology about who should own the tube.

The hon. Member for Luton, North said that there was a great task for the Strategic Rail Authority—but where is it? We are two years into the life of a Government who promised immediate benefits to the travelling public, yet the Deputy Prime Minister has been unable to secure any transport legislation. We are still waiting for the SRA.

The hon. Member welcomed the roads review, and—extraordinarily—welcomed the abandonment of the widening of the MI. Does he honestly believe that it is a viable long-term option not to widen the MI? He said that he wanted to improve rail links, and certainly there has been improvement. Despite his opposition to privatisation, the privatised railways will announce tomorrow that they are increasing investment by another £10 billion.

That means that the Government have inherited a £30 billion investment programme in the railways. Where would that money have come from if the service had not been privatised? It would have been stuck in the same groove as the tube, with no investment at all. Who seriously believes that the railways can be built to take sufficient capacity to avoid the need for widening schemes such as the M1?

The hon. Member complained about the lack of money for investment in local transport infrastructure, yet Luton airport is owned by Luton council. There is a source of funds. If the council were not dedicated to the 100 per cent. ownership of the airport, it could get involved in a public-private partnership to raise capital for investment in the airport.

Photo of Kelvin Hopkins Kelvin Hopkins Labour, Luton North

Luton airport is a public-private partnership, and money is coming in from the private sector. However, the long-term ownership remains with the local authority.

Photo of Bernard Jenkin Bernard Jenkin Shadow Minister (Transport)

I put it to the hon. Gentleman that, by sticking to the outdated socialist ideology of public ownership and ultimate public control, he is cutting off his nose to spite his face. The council could raise far more money if it transferred the business to the private sector, as the Government are doing with National Air Traffic Services.

My hon. Friend the Member for North-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Moss) referred to old chestnut of the A47 Thorney bypass. I regret that the previous Government did not deal with that problem.

Photo of Bob Blizzard Bob Blizzard Labour, Waveney

They had only 18 years.

Photo of Bernard Jenkin Bernard Jenkin Shadow Minister (Transport)

The delay and dithering of which the hon. Gentleman is accusing us has been mimicked successfully by his own Government. We must move on. It is odd that Labour Members pick on policy failures of ours to justify policy failures of their own. The Government promised an integrated transport policy, and they are failing to deliver.

The way forward is not another study, and the real reason for a study is that the budget is being cut. There is no alternative to a bypass at Thorney. Friends of the Earth support bypasses in such circumstances because they are good for the environment. The only reason that it has been delayed again is because the budget has been cut.

The hon. Member for Waveney (Mr. Blizzard) made a sensible speech, and asked us to strip away the ideology—and he did so. However, the road improvements that he wants for his constituency to deal with unemployment are not within Government policy. Unless they change their attitude to the importance of roads to economic development, the hon. Gentleman will be a long way from getting those roads. Again, the studies on the A47 are just another excuse for inaction.

The hon. Member, rightly, said that rail in all circumstances cannot be a substitute for road improvement, and there is no substitute for the bypass round Bungay.

The hon. Member's comment on the fuel duty escalator was apposite. He said that it was a blunt instrument which lacked social equity, and road hauliers in his constituency are suffering badly because of it. We think that the point of an escalator is that when you get to the top, you get off. It is time that the Government reviewed the policy.

Photo of Bob Blizzard Bob Blizzard Labour, Waveney

Is the hon. Gentleman aware of the outcome of the roads review, which showed that the routes to my part of the region, the All and the A47, were deemed to be justified on the grounds of economy and integration? That was clearly marked on the map that encapsulated all the policies. What we have for the A47 is a step forward from the complete deletion of the scheme by the previous Government.

On road haulage, is the hon. Gentleman aware of the KPMG report yesterday that showed that this country has the second-lowest road freight costs of all of the G7 countries?

Photo of Bernard Jenkin Bernard Jenkin Shadow Minister (Transport)

The hon. Gentleman should try telling that to his road hauliers—I would be interested to know what happens to him.

The hon. Member for Lewes (Mr. Baker) talked about the importance of cycling, and I agree. However, I wonder where the hon. Member for Colchester (Mr. Russell) is, because Colchester borough council has been criticised by cyclists for not providing sufficient cycling facilities.

The hon. Member for Welwyn Hatfield (Miss Johnson) complained about the roads maintenance backlog—which, I should point out, is getting worse under this Government.

My hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson) talked about the dualling of the A47—another broken promises, and another study as an excuse for a lack of money. He is right to say that the Government should be delivering choice, but that they have failed.

The hon. Member for Cambridge (Mrs. Campbell) also wants a new road. It is interesting how many participants in this debate want new roads, contrary to the Government's policy. The outcome of the study, as my hon. Friend the Member for South Cambridgeshire (Mr. Lansley) said, is bound to be the widening of the A14, and the Government are simply using that as an excuse.

My hon. Friend the Member for West Chelmsford (Mr. Burns) picked up on the need to clarify the Transport Act 1985. The official Opposition share that objective and will provide the Government any assistance for primary legislation on that score.

Transport taxation is rocketing, while spending on transport is falling under the comprehensive spending review. Vital investment programmes are being cut or are hidebound by ideology. The Government promised an integrated transport policy, but they delivered a standstill Britain, which is why more and more hon. Members are queueing to take part in these debates. They promised immediate benefits for the travelling public but they have failed to deliver.

The Government should put the environment first, put choice second and come up with real new ideas and fresh thinking to deal with our transport challenges.

Photo of Glenda Jackson Glenda Jackson Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department of Environment) 10:51 am, 24th March 1999

Every single contribution, other than that of the hon. Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin), has highlighted the vital importance of integrated transport infrastructures for the eastern region. Member after Member, both Conservative and Labour, underlined the total failure of the previous Administration to begin to address the issues of integrated transport and its impact on a sustainable economy. Member after Member highlighted the failure of previous Administrations to tackle the serious issues concerning rural communities and the peripherality of the region.

In a debate as short as this, the contribution of the hon. Member for North Essex was contemptible. He used it exclusively for empty party political purposes. It was as ill-informed as it was ill-structured. His total failure to acknowledge the Conservative Government's responsibilities with regard to the issues in the eastern region was lamentable.

The Labour Government have transformed the direction of transport in this country. We have put massive funding into the eastern region, via the local transport plans and investment in rural bus companies. Every single contribution, other than that of the hon. Member for North Essex, underlined the fact that our actions will bring the co-ordinated benefits that will begin to tackle the serious problems that have existed in the eastern region for far too long.

Photo of Keith Simpson Keith Simpson Shadow Spokesperson (Defence)

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I genuinely seek your advice. The Minister seems to be including me in that blanket approval of Government policy, but, as you know, I expressed no such sentiment.

Photo of Michael Martin Michael Martin Deputy Speaker (First Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

That is a matter of debate, not a point of order.

Photo of Glenda Jackson Glenda Jackson Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department of Environment)

Conservative Members may have approached in a somewhat more oblique way the lamentable failures of the previous Administration, but that is a problem more for their consciences than for this debate.

Themes have recurred in the debate. My hon. Friend the Member for Luton, North (Mr. Hopkins), whom I congratulate on securing this debate, and my hon. Friends the Members for Waveney (Mr. Blizzard), for Welwyn Hatfield (Miss Johnson) and for Cambridge (Mrs. Campbell) all spoke of the serious problems of east-west routes in the region. The difficulties concern both the strategic road corridors and the railways. Without exception, my hon. Friends welcomed the steps that the Government have taken in introducing a Strategic Rail Authority and the benefits that will stem from the rail summit.

We are delivering on the strategic routes, which hon. Members have identified as the All, A 14 and A47. Let me remind the hon. Members for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson) and for South-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Paice) that it was the previous Government who withdrew the then roads programme. There will be some disappointment that not all schemes and studies can be completed straight away, but we have to be realistic.

I regret the fact that the hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire (Mr. Lansley) is not present. He left me a note explaining why he could not be here. I am sure that he will be aware that future investment priorities are to be considered by the regional planning bodies as part of their regional transport strategies.

Most of the issues that have been touched on concern how we can begin to offer genuine choice for the transport of both individuals and freight in the eastern region. Clearly, integrated transport is the way in which that can be achieved. We have already begun the process by asking local authorities to produce integrated transport plans. Perhaps even more important are the responsibilities for regional transport forums and regional development agencies. Transport is a major player in issues such as reintegration, regeneration and breaking down the barriers of social injustice: burdens left to us by the previous Administration which we are tackling with great speed and concentration.

My hon. Friends highlighted the need to use, for example, pedestrian and cycling facilities, not only to offer us greater choice as individuals but, very importantly, to begin to reduce the need for children to be taken to school by car. My hon. Friend the Member for Welwyn Hatfield spoke of the extremely good work being done in her part of the region. I had the privilege of joining the Walking Bus when I last visited her part of the world, and a delight it was. Ensuring that routes are safe and reducing the need for children to be taken to school by car can make a contribution not only to reducing congestion and pollution but to our children's health.

My hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge and the hon. Member for West Chelmsford (Mr. Burns) spoke about O-licences. As my hon. Friend said, we are examining regulations, especially in relation to safety. I was aware of the lobby that took place, and I have given a commitment that I will meet representatives from the Transport and General Workers Union's taxi section to discuss the issue.

It is entirely appropriate to touch lightly on the issue of quality partnerships, as, only yesterday, my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister launched yet another daughter document to our White Paper, dealing with buses and the way in which we can ensure that local authorities and bus providers, working together, deliver buses that will transform that form of transport from the old workhorse to a steed of great parentage and blood.

Huge improvements can be made to people's lives by, for example, the introduction of accessible buses. We want the process to expand. There has been massive funding in the eastern region from our rural bus fund and the rural bus challenge. We look to local and regional authorities to build on those innovations to ensure that we can begin to break down the social isolation suffered in far too many parts of the eastern region.

The hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire mentioned detrunking and noise on roads. I am sure that he is aware of the announcement by my noble Friend the Minister for Roads and Road Safety on the criteria and funding that the Government will introduce to consider noise on roads that are currently outside the structures for additional noise barriers. On detrunking, negotiations are continuing between local authorities and the Department. It does not mean any loss of status for the roads concerned and we want to transfer a fair amount to local authorities to ensure the whole-life maintenance of such roads.

The hon. Member for—