‘(c) to have regard to any relevant plans and strategies published by any relevant rail infrastructure manager.’.
The Committee will have noticed that amendment No. 36 and amendments Nos. 38 and 39 in clause 9, which I think we will have a chance to discuss later on, are very similar.
Just prior to lunch, the Minister was asking exactly how we formulated the amendments and how much outside help we had received. I have to acknowledge that here we are grateful for the briefing from Network Rail. Only on these amendments and on one other group have we received significant help and not managed to formulate the proposals ourselves. The purpose of these measures is to ensure that when developing transport plans and policies, local authorities have regard to the policies and plans of those charged with operating the rail network.
The concept is fairly simple. A significant proportion of travelling is done by rail—people and goods, travelling in and out and through local areas, and within local areas, by train. The rail network transcends local authority borders and in a number of examples is not operated and managed by local transport authorities. However, at the beginning and end of train journeys, users obviously rely on transport services put on within and by the local authority. Those services are partially governed by plans, so that represents integration. The new integrated transport authorities, which I will come on to, will have an obligation to consider integration across all modes of transport. It makes sense, therefore, that local transport authorities should consider that as well.
The amendment would ensure that local transport authorities had “regard to” the plans and strategies provided by any rail infrastructure manager. My understanding and reading is that “rail infrastructure manager” also covers operators. The amendment would place an obligation to consult or have regard; no duty would be placed in respect of developing the whole plan or policy, or to put into the plan what the rail network told them to include. I do not see the duty to consult and to have regard as an onerous burden on local authorities; it is a question of consultation.
I believe that “relevant rail infrastructure manager” is the right definition. It is defined in statutory instrument No. 599—the Railways and Other Guided Transport Systems (Safety) Regulations 2006—which covers Network Rail, train operating companies, both passengers and freight.
The amendment refers to “relevant plans and strategies”. I mean that and I think that most people’s common understanding of it means Network Rail’s route plans and utilisation strategy. Those set out current capacity, passenger and freight demand, passenger and freight demand trends, operational performance cost and projections as to how the future requirements of rail users and funders should be met. Therefore, those rail utilisation strategies should inform the thinking and the consultation process.
I am listening to the hon. Gentleman and I would be grateful if he explained further what “have regard to” means. I am not playing games with the previous questions to the Minister. The hon. Gentleman seems to be saying that, in all circumstances, Network Rail’s policies will have priority over local integrated transport authorities. If that is what he is saying and that is the definition he is using, I would be grateful if was explicit.
No, that is not the definition, nor do I understand the normal legal definition of “have regard to” to imply that either. As I said a moment ago, there is an obligation in the Bill on integrated transport authorities to consider integration across all modes of transport, but the amendment provides for an obligation on local transport authorities as well.
I am happy to accept the Minister’s correction as to exactly what “have regard to” means—my understanding and, I guess, the common parlance and common-sense version is that, after consulting, those involved must at least listen to what was said. If they then choose to ignore what was said to them, that is satisfactory, because they have consulted and had regard to it. I understand that to be the normal meaning of what is put in Bills, but I am happy to be corrected.
Before taking that intervention, I said that rail utilisation strategies are the basis on which Network Rail operates its consultation with local authorities and stakeholders—a formal review process. The amendment would make that process work both ways: just as Network Rail consults local authorities on rail utilisation strategies, so the authorities, when they put their local transport policy plans together, should consult Network Rail.
I understand why I am in the wrong, but I also understand that the Government might intend to produce some guidance to local authorities on whom exactly they should consult in the formulation of their local transport plans. I am looking for the Minister to update us on that and to give us more guidance.
It seems to me that local authorities and local people know their areas better, although some local decisions have to be taken in a national and regional context. It is the rail network that needs such context. My amendment would put the appropriate requirement on local authorities—they should consult and “have regard to” the response that they receive from the “rail infrastructure manager”, which covers both Network Rail and the operators, as well as the demands of both freight and passengers.
I shall be brief. I rise to support the amendment. We have the renaming of passenger transport executives as integrated transport authorities. We have bus strategies being abolished. Quite clearly, the intention of the Government—sensibly—is to integrate rail and bus. How could it be anything other than sensible to accept the amendment tabled by the hon. Member for Wimbledon?
When drawing up integrated transport plans, which is what we want authorities to do, I know how important it is to look across the different modes of transport in an area. One of the points made by many of us as to why we want to take greater powers for local authorities is that people get infuriated when they arrive by train only to find that the bus left five minutes previously. I am sure that, for many of us, that is a constant refrain from our constituencies. We certainly believe that it is important to take a truly integrated approach in local transport plans.
The amendment tabled by the hon. Member for Wimbledon would put in place specific statutory requirements for transport authorities to consider future relevant rail schemes in their transport policies and plans. Consultation is already an integral part of the development of the local transport plan process. Local transport authorities consult bodies, including Network Rail. That level of detailed consultation is seen as vital in developing future transport policies. Similarly, Network Rail consults local authorities extensively in the development of its route utilisation strategies—as the hon. Gentleman mentioned.
Clause 9 requires local transport authorities to consult about local transport plans, but the only consultees specified are certain other local authorities and the Secretary of State. The clause also states that local transport authorities must consult “such other persons” as they consider appropriate. With a few exceptions, under the Bill local transport authorities themselves will decide on which individual organisations to consult and in many cases that will include rail infrastructure managers, as we call them. Indeed, many other important and relevant local, regional and national strategies could be produced by other organisations.
I am thinking of examples such as integrated regional strategies and, in some cases, local crime and disorder reduction strategies, which could be very relevant to local transport plans. When considering the amendment, it is important that consultation between local transport authorities and Network Rail works in both directions. A specific duty on local transport authorities to have regard to Network Rail’s plans and strategies without a corresponding duty on Network Rail would work in only one direction.
Rail utilisation strategies can be quite different from the future rail management schemes to which the hon. Gentleman referred. However, the Government intend to develop guidance for local transport authorities in the preparation of the next round of local transport plans. The matters that local transport authorities would need to consider when drawing up their plans, including rail strategy and proposals, could be covered by the guidance. Because of my point that there could be other people and authorities that it might be necessary to consult, we do not want to pick out in the Bill particular bodies such as Network Rail, as opposed to other integrated regional strategies or crime and disorder partnerships that might be equally relevant when drawing up a plan. I assure the hon. Member for Wimbledon that we shall be making sure that it is clear in guidance that that is exactly the sort of body that local authorities should consult. In the light of my reassurance, I hope that he will withdraw the amendment.
The Minister has defended her position, but she did not address some of the points raised by the amendment. One of the reasons why the amendment is important is that rail infrastructure is trans-local, regional and national in nature. As I explained in my opening remarks, a key point is that the amendment would place exactly the same burden on local authorities as National Rail has at present.
The Minister said that local transport plans will need to consider the future whereas route utilisation strategies do not, but that is exactly what they do. She also said that she expected that local authorities would include people in their consultation process. There was not a categorical “must”. To rehearse our arguments about consultation this morning during our debate on clause 3, if the right hon. Lady tells me that on Report she wants to add the other people to the statutory consultation, I should be relatively happy to leave things unambiguous, but I am not sure that the people whom she mentioned were in any way as relevant as the rail infrastructure manager or the rail operator. As she rightly said, local authorities will need to take some regard of such people when we want to integrate bus and rail services.
I have some difficulty with the hon. Gentleman’s point about other bodies not being as relevant as Network Rail. Many of the other bodies could be very relevant in drawing up transport plans. I am prepared to consider the other bodies that it might be necessary to bring in if a duty were introduced in terms of Network Rail. I shall not commit to bring anything back, but I am prepared to consider which other bodies might be brought in and whether it would be unrealistic to try to define them in legislation.
I am grateful to the Minister for saying that, but she is including only what she thinks is necessary. In essence, she is saying that she thinks those bodies are important—they may or may not be—but that they are already covered by provisions in the Bill. In that reassurance, she is telling me only that if I press the amendment to a vote, she may be prepared to put the things that she thinks are important into the Bill. That gives me no guarantee about the particular person whom I think needs to be consulted in order for there to be a proper consultation process, or that local authorities will get their transport plans by speaking to the rail infrastructure manager.
Even with the Minister’s assurances, I am not reassured, and I intend to test the will of the Committee.
‘(2ZD) Where, due to exceptional local circumstances, a local transport authority wishes to implement policies which are in whole or in part at variance with the duties mentioned in subsection (2ZB) they shall be entitled to proceed without regard to the guidelines after issuing a public statement of “special local circumstances” setting out the factors which the local transport authority regard as being of sufficient importance to override the duties mentioned in subsection (2ZB).’.
I am well aware of the political maxim, “The later the hour, you don’t win arguments, you lose friends,” so my remarks will be somewhat shorter than they would have been had I been called a couple of hours ago. The amendment is reasonable, and I hope that it appeals to reasonable opinion across the Committee. It almost speaks for itself but I shall make a number of points about why I think it should be added to the Bill.
In effect, the amendment would alter clause 8 by giving a local authority in exceptional local circumstances the right to deviate and not to abide by the duties in (2ZB). Clause 8 states:
“Each local transport authority whose area is in England must...in developing policies in accordance with subsection 1(a), and...in carrying out their functions in accordance with subsection (1)(b), comply with the duties set out in subsection in (2ZB).”
Those duties are to
“take into account any policies announced by Her Majesty’s Government with respect to the protection or improvement of the environment, and...to have regard to any guidance issued for the purposes of this paragraph by the Secretary of State”.
It is not a wrecking amendment. It says that in exceptional local circumstances, where the transport authority feels that there is a good reason to deviate from the national guidelines set out by the Secretary of State, it would be able to do so, but only after making a declaration in those terms. As I understand it, that declaration would be open to legal challenge if it was made frivolously. [Interruption.] Does the hon. Member for Derby, North wish me to give way, or was he just drinking water?
I thought that I was being hailed, Lady Winterton.
May I give the Committee an example? It is not beyond the realms of possibility that at some point the Government may say that each town and city should have a low emission zone, and that cars that cannot comply with a certain level of emissions should either be banned from entering the city centre or the owner should face a charge. Let me take the Committee back a few years when the town of Corby depended almost exclusively on its steelworks. When the steelworks collapsed, not only did the majority of employed people in that town lose their job, they also faced immediate negative equity. One could purchase a freehold house in Corby at the time of the collapse for £1,000. Imagine if a similar tragedy happened to a local community and the Government said that a low emission zone must come in and everyone who had an older car suddenly found that they could not go into the city centre or that they had to pay an additional fee. That would be a huge blow to people who had already been kicked in the teeth by losing their job and having negative equity in their property.
In those circumstances, the local council might say, “For the moment we have exceptional local circumstances and we do not wish to impose this particular policy.” I defy anyone to say that that would be an unreasonable decision in such circumstances. The key word in the amendment is “exceptional”. I hope that the Minister can see the sense of saying that where a local issue is so important that it is regarded as exceptional by the local transport authority, the authority should be allowed, in those circumstances, to deviate from guidance that would otherwise be regarded as quite acceptable and the norm. All my amendment seeks to do is to make that provision clear in the Bill.
The right hon. Gentleman’s amendment illustrates some of the controversial issues around environmental policies. I am not sure whether he is supported by his Front-Bench colleagues. The Government fear that the amendment would undermine the steps that we want local authorities to take to contribute towards improving our environment.
The amendment would enable a local authority to develop and implement policies that could ignore Government policy and guidance on the protection and improvement of the environment where it considers that “exceptional local circumstances” applied, without any real reference to what those circumstances might be. As a Government, we are aware of the need for individual local authorities to take local factors into account in drawing up and implementing their transport policies. That is at the heart of our approach, whether those policies concern tackling congestion, providing high quality bus services or addressing environmental issues.
There is absolutely no problem in saying that individual circumstances will prevail, but at the same time, we are all aware of the need to protect the environment and to address climate change. That is why the Bill allows the Secretary of State to issue guidance to local authorities on fulfilling the new environmental duty introduced by clause 8. Interestingly, the Committee has just divided, with the two opposition parties wanting a greater emphasis and direct reference to the environment in the Bill. The amendment would undermine what is happening in the Bill and what we are trying to do.
Protection of the environment is important. When I first read the amendment I thought that it was otiose. Whether it is necessary or not depends on how we define “taking into account” and “having regard”. I would be grateful if the Minister could expand on that, because the way in which she is developing her arguments seems to be to interpret “taking into account” and “having regard” as having to follow the Government’s policy, even if it is detrimental to the area.
What we mean by “have regard to” or to “take account of” an obligation is first, to give attention to the matter to which the duty applies; secondly, to consider the contents of that matter in relation to the proposal or plans under consideration; and thirdly, to adjust those proposals or plans to take into account the additional information provided or to determine that no such adjustment need be made.
In terms of the Bill allowing the Secretary of State to issue guidance to local authorities on fulfilling the new environmental duty introduced by clause 8, we want to see such guidance cover issues such as air quality, noise and climate change. Local authorities would need to address those in devising and implementing their transport policies and local transport plan and show how their local authorities will take local factors into account. That is a sensible approach and it gives authorities flexibility to reflect local circumstances without undermining the importance of addressing the sorts of environmental issues that I have already mentioned. In contrast, the amendment does not explain what exceptional local circumstances—something that the right hon. Member for East Yorkshire thinks could justify an authority taking a different approach—might be. We believe that it would leave a large loophole so that an authority could bury its head in the sand were it minded to do so, and implement policies that take little or no account of the importance of the environment or of addressing climate change.
Can we be very clear about this, before we decide on the merits or otherwise of the amendment? Is the Minister’s case that, in the circumstances described by my right hon. Friend the Member for East Yorkshire, which could be described as exceptional, it would be proper for a local authority to say that it has had regard to the Secretary of State’s guidance, but has decided not to implement it because of exceptional circumstances? If that is the Minister’s case, the amendment may not be necessary. However, following on from the remarks of the hon. Member for Manchester, Blackley, it would be helpful if the Minister could be clear that that is what she is saying.
The difficulty is that the amendment is not clear. We want to see local flexibility within the transport plans of local authorities, but we also want it to be clear that we expect local authorities to take action. The problem with the amendment is that it does not say what those exceptional local circumstances would be, so it is difficult for Parliament to send a message about that. The right hon. Member for East Yorkshire mentioned the closure of a steel plant. Such things are is difficult to anticipate. The right hon. Gentleman clearly wants to provide a way for local authorities not to have to implement some of these environmental policies. We believe that it is important that Government and Parliament send a message that such policies should be taken very seriously.
That is the problem with it being entirely within the legislation. Earlier we talked about the definition of “the economy”. When I looked at the lawyers’ interpretation, that is something that means what it would mean in normal parlance. However, something like “exceptional circumstances” is incredibly vague, and exceptional circumstances for one authority might be entirely different for another.
In support of my right hon. Friend’s case, that defining “exceptional circumstances” is very difficult and is not defined in the amendment, I refer to the example given by the right hon. Member for East Yorkshire. Sheffield suffered large job losses due to the closure of steel plants back in the early 1980s—no thanks, let me add, to the policies of the Conservative party when it was in power. In fact, the impact on car ownership would have been very low at that time because many of the steelworkers would not have owned cars. The lowest levels of car ownership in Sheffield were in the steelworking areas. The variations according to local circumstances would have benefited the citizens of the south-west of the city where levels of car ownership were high and where job losses were at a minimum. In fact, I do not think that the example works to justify the amendment.
My hon. Friend is right. One of the difficulties in interpreting the precise meaning of proposed new section (2ZD) is that it is incredibly ambiguous. It could either be interpreted as meaning that provisions or guidance can be ignored or that the guidance as a whole can be ignored. Frankly, neither of those would be desirable. We want local authorities to take into account the policies and have regard to the guidance, but we then want them to make up their own mind about how to take policies forward in terms of the actions that they would take.
The only trouble with the argument of the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough is that my right hon. Friend the Member for East Yorkshire was talking about a circumstance in another city. Therefore, one cannot suddenly compare one with the other. If there is the lowest level of car ownership in an area, one could say that that would not be exceptional circumstances under the conventional meaning of the word “exceptional”. The Minister is wriggling around in relation to what is a common parlance view of the word “exceptional”. As the Minister said about the meaning of “economic”, most people would have little problem with the meaning of “exceptional”. The Minister is wriggling around on that point.
One thing that I would like my right hon. Friend to clarify relates to the Minister making the whole of the special local circumstances seem as if they would be used in a completely anti-environmental way. There is nothing in what my right hon. Friend has said that could be taken to be anti-environmental, unless one chooses to read it in that way.
The hon. Gentleman is being a bit naive in that respect because it is perfectly obvious from the amendment that the idea is to make it easier for local authorities to say that they do not want to implement the measure. Frankly, I see the amendment as a way of creating a loophole to enable local authorities to simply not carry out environmental policies, if they feel like being a bit difficult.
I hardly think that that is the point. We are talking about putting together “exceptional circumstances” without any definition of what that would be. If the hon. Gentleman were to try to draw up what all the exceptional circumstances could be, it would be impossible.
When we went through this whole argument less than an hour ago, the Minister tried to tell us that there was a common-sense definition of the word “economic” and I said clearly to her that there was not because there is a wide-ranging interpretation of the word. The Minister is now trying to tell me that there is a wide-ranging interpretation of the word “exceptional”. The Minister is trying to have it both ways; she cannot have it both ways. If she accepted the earlier proposition, she should accept my proposition.
I could say the same the other way around. If the hon. Gentleman does not think that there is an interpretation of the word “economy” that most people would understand, how on earth does he think that there is an accepted interpretation of “exceptional local circumstances”. As he has said, that is a whole phrase that covers a range of different circumstances. I believe that the Conservative party is coming out in its true colours. It does not want to see those environmental measures being taken, and that is the point of its amendment.
We all clearly understand the meaning of “exceptional”. The case of Corby that was cited by the right hon. Member for East Yorkshire was an exceptional set of circumstances. It was so exceptional, in fact, that I hope that it never occurs again. Let us look back slightly at its history. It was during a period of an extremely right-wing ideological Government. They were absolutely exceptional and I hope that they will not return again.
I take the point made by the hon. Member for Derby, North. I wish to say in passing that, at the time, I represented his seat and he was a member of the local council.
There is no intention in the amendment to allow any local authority—to quote the Minister—just to ignore Government policies on the environment. Had that been the intention, I would not have used the words “exceptional local circumstances”. I would have said something like, “where the local transport authority thinks fit”. In other words, no restriction would be placed on its judgment. The amendment makes it clear that exceptional local circumstances have to exist for a policy that deviates in part from what the right hon. Lady set out in national guidelines to be implemented. She is perhaps deliberately misrepresenting what the amendment seeks to do. [Interruption.] Okay, I will rephrase that. In my view, the right hon. Lady has not given an accurate description to the Committee of the effects of the amendment. It is circumscribed by the word “exceptional”.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that we could resolve the argument quickly if the Minister would say unequivocally that “having regard” to guidance may mean that a particular local authority can look at such guidance from the Secretary of State, but conclude that, in particular local circumstances, it should not be implemented? If that were the case, my right hon. Friend might consider that his amendment was not necessary.
I wholeheartedly accept what my hon. Friend says. I invite the Minister to intervene. If she is saying that, if the Bill becomes law, it would be possible for a local authority to deviate when it had grounds to do so, of course I would conclude that my amendment was probably otiose and not push it further.
Perhaps I could help the right hon. Gentleman by clarifying that matters would always depend on the circumstances of a particular case. It could be legitimate for an authority to “have regard to” as he suggests, but that is not the same as “must comply with”. An authority must always make up its own mind. To blindly follow guidance, whatever it was, would be for the authority unlawfully to fetter its discretion. Of course, it has discretion, but that is entirely different from setting out a whole range of vague exceptional local circumstances that an authority could just decide would apply to its situation. We have taken the exactly right approach. Of course, there is local discretion, but there is guidance to which we want authorities to have regard.