Traffic Congestion (Manchester, Withington)

– in Westminster Hall at 4:00 pm on 25th January 2006.

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Photo of John Leech John Leech Liberal Democrat, Manchester, Withington 4:00 pm, 25th January 2006

I thank Mr. Speaker for giving me the opportunity to raise the important issue of traffic congestion in my constituency. I also thank the Minister's office for contacting my office before the debate, so that the Minister could get a feel of what I wanted to say and respond to the issues that I shall raise. I accept that some of my points will be outside her area of responsibility, but I ask her to pass on my comments on issues beyond the subject of traffic.

For the benefit of the Minister, it is worth my explaining briefly the geography of Manchester, Withington—I could not tell the Minister the geography of her constituency, and I doubt whether she could tell me the geography of mine. The River Mersey forms a boundary to the south of Withington. That means that commuter traffic coming through my constituency towards central Manchester is channelled along a number of heavily congested roads throughout the constituency. One of those is Princess road, some stretches of which are also known as Princess parkway. It runs from the M56 all the way into the city centre. I have never seen this proved, but I am told that it is the busiest road outside the M25.

All the main routes through my constituency to Manchester are heavily congested with cars, which has resulted in significant displacement of traffic from those major routes on to the more minor roads, such as Parrs Wood road in Didsbury. That has had a major effect on the safety of those roads, including for pedestrians and schoolchildren, because the roads simply were not designed to take the level of traffic that they now do.

The problem is not confined to north to south routes, from the constituency to the city centre; there is also a major problem with traffic flow across the constituency. Many people not only live in south Manchester but work there, and they travel from east to west, to places such as Salford Quays, Stockport or Cheadle. That has resulted in a major strain on traffic flow, especially from Didsbury to Chorlton along Wilmslow road and Barlow Moor road. That has created gridlock through the district centre of Chorlton.

The congestion has had a knock-on effect on the reliability of bus services, as they struggle to stick to timetables. That has dented public confidence in bus services in the constituency, so people have stopped using buses. It has also had a worrying effect on Chorlton district centre. Shop owners complain about losing business as shoppers actively avoid going through the district centre because of the congestion. That has quickened the decline of local shops, which are being replaced by evening trade businesses, such as bars, restaurants and takeaways, because traffic congestion does not have the same impact at night, and they can make money.

It would be easy for me to argue that poor public transport and lack of investment is responsible for too many cars being on our roads, and all the congestion. The situation is not as straightforward as that, however. Deregulation of buses has certainly had a negative effect by creating more congestion, as gaps in the bus network have to be filled by people using cars, but it is also true that deregulation has increased bus services in parts of the constituency—for instance, the Wilmslow road corridor, where people can get a bus every 10 seconds. That is an example of deregulation working. Unfortunately, the bus companies are not prepared to run decent bus services across the constituency, because it is far more cost-effective just to pile all their buses on to the routes that make them money. They expect to receive significant subsidies from the Greater Manchester passenger transport authority before running services east to west, and the PTA just does not have the funds available.

I shall give a couple of examples of deregulation clearly not working. The No. 46/47 circular service that runs through my constituency and into the city centre was profitable during the day, but in the end the bus company decided to cut the evening part of the service because it was not making any money. Of course, the knock-on effect of that is that people using the bus service in the morning to get across the constituency cannot get the bus back, so they have to make alternative arrangements for both journeys, which makes the bus less profitable in the morning as well. That has had an impact on passenger numbers, and the knock-on effect is that more people use cars.

The other example is the No. 86 bus service, which ran from one of the most deprived estates in the whole of my constituency, through Chorlton and into the city centre. The section of the service from the estate to the centre of Chorlton was not profitable, because congestion meant that it was not running to time, so fewer people used it. That meant that over time the bus company just decided to reduce the level of service and run the vast majority of the services from the bus station, which meant that the few people who still wanted to use the bus from Arrowfield road—from the estate—lost confidence in the bus service. Rather than arriving every five or six minutes, the buses were supposed to arrive every 20 minutes; in fact, it was every half an hour, if people were lucky.

Moving on from buses, I do not think that I could discuss congestion in my constituency without briefly mentioning the delays to phase 3 of Metrolink. In the past few years, lots of people have moved to Manchester, Withington because they genuinely believe that they are moving to an area where they will be close to a Metrolink station in the near future. Indeed, developers have been actively promoting property for sale on that basis. However, due to the recent uncertainty about funding and how long it is likely to be before we see Metrolink running through the constituency, one particular developer, as an alternative to promoting Metrolink as a reason to buy a property, is now offering a free car as part of the package when someone buys a flat in that development. Clearly, that will increase congestion.

My final point on the causes of congestion is about overdevelopment in south Manchester. I accept that that is not within the Minister's area of responsibility, but my constituency has become a victim of its own success. People quite rightly want to live in south Manchester, because it is a great place to live and work. As the Member of Parliament for the area, I do not think that you would expect me to say anything else, Mr. Gale, but it really is a great place to live. Unfortunately, because it has become so popular, every developer wants to build a block of flats on a postage stamp of land.

Both the Government and the local council must bear some of the responsibility. For example, the council, in its wisdom, decided to sell a piece of land on Beech road, a heavily congested local road with serious parking problems. The council decided to sell off a car park and allow an additional block of flats to be built on a road that was already suffering from congestion and traffic problems. Similarly, the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister recently approved the council's decision to redevelop an old school playing field and build yet more houses and flats.

The problem is not just about the council selling off land, and the situation is not just the council's fault. It is also about developers taking advantage of weak planning laws that do not really protect local communities. In the Parrs Wood area of my constituency, a new entertainment complex was built a few years ago. That new development was undertaken in an already congested area, without first devising any sort of plan to deal with the traffic implications. When the council finally brought forward a scheme, we were told by the traffic officers that they could not come up with a scheme that solved the problem, but that the one that they had come up with was about as near as they could get. So it was a half-baked measure that annoyed all the local residents and did not deal with the traffic problem. More recently, just across the road from that same development, two further blocks of flats have been approved. The council's traffic office has already said that it cannot deal with the congestion problem in that area, yet two further blocks of flats and houses have been approved there, and they will cause extra traffic.

Those developments have been approved despite massive opposition locally. The planners argued that there was no justification for refusal, because the extra traffic would not significantly increase the amount of traffic already on the road. If traffic is at a standstill, however, any increase in traffic is unacceptable.

Photo of Mark Hunter Mark Hunter Shadow Minister (Office of the Deputy Prime Minister)

I thank my hon. Friend for giving way, and I apologise for not being in my place when he started his speech. Does he accept that the knock-on effect of traffic congestion in surrounding constituencies such as my own also has a negative impact on the traffic problems suffered by constituents in his constituency of Manchester, Withington? Does he further accept that the completion of the A555 relief road, which heavily impacts on the neighbouring Cheadle and Hazel Grove constituencies, would help residents not only in those areas but in his area?

Photo of John Leech John Leech Liberal Democrat, Manchester, Withington

I agree with my hon. Friend, and it would have been useful if that link road had been completed one or two months ago when I was spending time travelling to Cheadle during the recent by-election there. I am not sure whether my hon. Friend heard my remarks about a number of people who live in south Manchester and travel to Stockport and Cheadle and back again. The relief road would have a significant impact on the traffic that goes along the residential streets between Cheadle and Didsbury.

What is the solution? That is the million dollar question. The response to traffic congestion in my constituency has been the QBC—the quality bus corridor. In theory, it is a good idea: encouraging bus companies to improve services and local people to use them by improving bus reliability and prioritising buses along Wilmslow road and Barlow Moor road. Unfortunately, the QBC alterations have resulted in more congestion on minor roads, where cars have been forced on to alternative routes. At Chorlton Cross, for instance, cars have been banned from turning right on to Barlow Moor road from Wilbraham road, to make it easier for buses to turn right. That has resulted in additional traffic on High lane, as cars use it as the alternative route.

There has been no significant increase in bus services along the QBC route; in fact, later this week, the No. 46/47 Sunday service will be discontinued. The reality is that there is little incentive for bus companies to run services more frequently and to provide new routes, when those routes will never be as profitable as the north to south routes on the Wilmslow road corridor.

People and passenger transport authorities throughout the country require and support a level of regulatory control, so that transport authorities can decide what bus services will be provided. The current system of subsidised services is inadequate for the provision of a comprehensive bus network. In order to get more people on to buses, we must consider how to make bus travel more attractive.

I do not always agree with Brian Souter, the head of Stagecoach, but he rightly points out that we should consider bus park-and-ride schemes, which were very successful in my constituency during the Christmas period. However, outside that period there is not one single scheme. We must consider permanent park-and-ride schemes, so that people park outside Manchester and take the bus into the centre.

The Government must also acknowledge that the best solution for south Manchester is Metrolink. Although the start-up costs can be high, time and again such a scheme has proved to be the most successful way of bringing about a significant modal shift away from the car. The fact that people move to be near to the Metrolink is testament to that, and the success of the Altrincham to Bury line proves it.

Unfortunately, I have serious reservations about current Government policy, in that it will not deliver Metrolink through to Chorlton and out to Didsbury without a commitment to road-user pricing. I seek further assurance from the Minister that additional Government money would not be dependent on road-user pricing. Manchester cannot go down that route until a decent network is in place to begin with.

Finally, tighter regulation of buses and the investment of more money in Metrolink would help the situation but not completely solve the problem. The Government must accept that unless steps are taken to deal with the problem of overdevelopment and its effect on congestion, the problem will remain. Councils need to be given more powers to tackle areas of congestion, and I propose that local authorities should be given the option to introduce congestion zones in their development plans. Where congestion zones are set up, a developer would have to demonstrate that a proposed development would not significantly increase traffic congestion, either through increased volume of traffic or as a result of additional traffic measures required to facilitate the development.

I trust that the Minister will pass on my comments to the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister on that point, and I look forward to her response.

Photo of Karen Buck Karen Buck Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Transport) 4:16 pm, 25th January 2006

I congratulate Mr. Leech on securing the debate and on making some important points, a number of which I agree with, as I hope I shall make clear in my contribution. I shall raise with the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister any issues that he has flagged up today that do not fall within the remit of the Department for Transport.

My Department worked closely with Greater Manchester in the development of the Greater Manchester integrated transport strategy. The hon. Gentleman may be aware that his constituency is in one of four priority corridor partnerships, which are being developed through work on the strategy with the transport innovation fund and through the local transport plan process.

Since 1997, we have more than doubled spending on transport infrastructure and invested substantially in public transport to provide greater choice. Greater Manchester has received a total transport allocation of £823 million during this period and we need to ensure that this substantial investment is converted into real improvements that deliver real value for money. For 2006–07, Greater Manchester received total block funding of £68.62 million in the local transport capital settlement, with an additional £7.358 million for major schemes and £3.5 million through the transport infrastructure fund. That included £6.744 million for the south-east Manchester multi-modal study. That investment reflects our recognition of the important role played by the Greater Manchester authorities. We will work closely with them in supporting improvements in services for all those who live and work in Greater Manchester.

As the hon. Gentleman has said, in Manchester and in many towns and cities throughout the country, congestion is a growing problem. It is important that in developing strategies, whether they relate to public transport or the management of roads, we must consider not just the situation in 2006, but that of 10, 15 or 20 years in the future. The reliability of journeys in the context of increasingly congested roads is a growing problem. Manchester city suffers the second highest average delay time for drivers in the whole of the UK—second only to London.

It is a complex problem, varying from place to place, and with time of day. Although it is important that we increase capacity on some roads, we cannot solve the problem of congestion by simply building more and more roads. There is not the space to do it, especially in urban areas such as Manchester.

Photo of John Leech John Leech Liberal Democrat, Manchester, Withington

The Minister makes a valid point; in certain areas it is impossible to build extra roads, and I would not advocate the building of extra roads through my constituency. The difficulty with the current infrastructure is that money may be spent on the quality bus corridor, but it is physically impossible to implement a scheme and create a lane in which buses can travel at reasonable speed without bringing everything else to a standstill. Houses would have to be knocked down to put in extra lanes so that buses could run freely. Money has been spent on the quality bus corridor but it has been pretty ineffective because there is not the space to provide the sort of scheme that is necessary.

B

Which is why we should be spending the money on expansion of the Metrolink tram system instead. The tram system would be taking load off the road entirely - and probably having more impact than any road scheme or 'quality bus corridor' can ever do.

When will the government invest properly in Metrolink and ensure it is built?

Submitted by Bob Garland

Photo of Karen Buck Karen Buck Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Transport)

Without wishing to comment on the specific problem in that area, I accept that that can be the case. We are working in a very constrained space in Manchester as in other urban environments. That is why we need to look at these policies in the round.

We are looking at a range of measures to tackle the problem, including the introduction of new congestion targets for urban areas, including Manchester, and for strategic roads. The targets are about improving journey time reliability and managing the impact of growing demand. There are a number of different approaches. One is the investment in technology to improve road management, particularly on the strategic roads where we are investing £2 billion over the next three years. Technology can help to tackle congestion by increasing capacity during the times of day that it is most needed.

The Traffic Management Act 2004 has given local authorities powers to keep traffic flowing and to co-ordinate roadworks to minimise disruption on local roads. Since November, local authorities who have decriminalised parking powers, such as Manchester city council, have also been given powers to enforce bus lanes. That should give them a further incentive to provide bus priorities and ensure that they are working effectively.

As a medium to longer-term solution, we have started a debate on road pricing. We have established the transport innovation fund to develop and pioneer smarter, innovative, transport strategies. In order to support work on scheme development by local transport authorities, we have earmarked £18 million during the period 2005–06 to 2007–08. That is £3 million in the current year, £5 million next year and £10 million in the third.

We very much welcome the recent bid for TIF development funding from the Greater Manchester authorities and the recognition in Greater Manchester that bold approaches will be needed to tackle the future impacts of traffic congestion on the well-being of the city. They have been awarded £1.25 million funding over three years to support the development of an innovative package to tackle congestion in the conurbation through a combination of hard-edged demand management and investment in public transport.

In any package of measures to tackle congestion, improved public transport is absolutely essential. As the hon. Member for Manchester, Withington emphasised, buses are the most used public transport option. They make up nearly two thirds of all public transport journeys in England.

Photo of Mark Hunter Mark Hunter Shadow Minister (Office of the Deputy Prime Minister)

I am sure that the Minister recognises that although the continued investment in bus services, and quality bus corridors in particular, is more than useful, the magnitude of the problem in Manchester requires seismic change if we are to get people out of their cars and on to public transport. To many of us coming from and representing constituencies in that area, that means investment in the Metrolink expansion. I wondered whether the Minister, in her response to my hon. Friend Mr. Leech, was going to say something more about the funding for Metrolink, on which so many of these solutions depend.

Photo of Karen Buck Karen Buck Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Transport)

I will comment briefly on Metrolink, but let me concentrate for a moment on buses. Compared with rail and light rail, buses are a flexible, low-cost option. They can contribute to tackling congestion, especially in conjunction with policies to restrain car use. We recognise that some conurbations such as Greater Manchester and others are experiencing difficulties with bus services. There are issues of bus quality; standards of reliability, frequency and cleanliness are not always met by some providers. I accept completely that we need to get that right.

We have no plans to return to the regulatory regime of the 1980s. Current options available to local authorities include voluntary and statutory partnerships, and there are a number of examples of good partnership working across the country. However, if local authorities are prepared to propose a comprehensive system for managing traffic demand, such as road pricing, we are prepared to consider introducing further measures to control bus services.

The current statutory framework for bus services gives local authorities a number of options to suit their local circumstances. One option is quality partnerships. Those cover both the provision of facilities by the local authority, such as bus priority measures, and improved standards of service by the bus operators. In a PTE area such as Manchester, the involvement of the city or borough authorities that manage the highways is crucial to the success of a quality partnership. Their participation is essential if traffic regulation orders are needed.

The quality bus corridor, which both hon. Gentlemen mentioned, is the main thrust behind the Greater Manchester bus strategy, as improvements in bus journey times have been recognised. I understand that there is a commitment to address quality bus corridor enforcement in 2006. On the Chorlton and Didsbury bus corridor, there has been some local opposition to the scheme, which is part of the south Manchester scheme being rolled out across that part of the conurbation.

In recognition of recent newspaper coverage and some of the residential concerns that were raised with local councillors, Manchester city council has undertaken a full review of the scheme by a team independent of those involved in the design. The report of that study has been presented to Councillor Neil Swannick, who is the executive member for highways and transportation. The scheme has addressed a wide range of transport issues including improving pedestrian facilities, defining parking and loading bays, reducing the impact of congestion and introducing the bus lane. Those using sustainable modes of transport will be better served as a result.

Generally, non-statutory partnership agreements between operators and local authorities have proved successful in many areas, but there is room for improvement in bus services in other places. We are therefore discussing with bus operators and local authority representatives a range of options to make bus services more effective within the partnership framework.

A more radical option is the quality contracts scheme, which can be approved only if it is the only practicable way of implementing bus strategy policies and is economic, efficient, effective and in the public interest. We recognise that those are exacting tests, but they are not impossible to meet. A guidance document was published in February last year for English local authorities. The range of measures, including legislation and other options being considered as part of a broader package of demand-met management measures, will give PTEs such as Greater Manchester a range of tools with which to ensure that their bus services in particular, as one strand of the public transport model, are developed effectively and complement other measures that may be necessary to deal with demand management.

The Department and I recognise that buses are not the sole means of public transport to be promoted, and I echo the commitment of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to work with the Greater Manchester authority to ensure that light rail will continue to be a major part of the solution for Manchester, particularly for congestion. We recognise the achievements of Metrolink—which has played an important role in supporting Manchester's economic success, carrying more than 19 million passengers a year—and that it suffers from overcrowding. We have recently approved a scheme to renew and enhance the capacity of existing tram lines, and have committed £520 million of public sector funds to Greater Manchester, subject to the development of a satisfactory plan for the areas covered by Metrolink phase 3. We will continue to work with Manchester on the proposals for tram extensions, which could be a major part of the solution for Manchester as part of the overall package of transport improvements, which includes other measures recognised by the Greater Manchester transport authorities, such as better buses and trains and better management of traffic levels.

I hope that I have gone some way toward reassuring the hon. Member for Manchester, Withington that we recognise the seriousness of the issues that he has raised today, and that past, present and future investment, together with the innovative thinking that is going on at a national level, which we are encouraging local and passenger transport authorities to develop with the support of the innovation fund, give us a real opportunity to make what Mark Hunter rightly described as a seismic change.

We need a change in thinking and investment. We need investment to be supported by choices that are sometimes difficult and involve brave political leadership to ensure that demand management plays its part alongside investment in additional public transport. We are working closely with a range of stakeholders nationally and regionally to address the problems that the hon. Member for Manchester, Withington outlined and will continue to do so.