Commons Gate

Departmental Annual Report 2005 (HC 684-i)

Transport Committee 16 Nov 2005

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Evidence given by Rt. Hon Alistair Darling, a Member of the House, Secretary of State for Transport, and Mr David Rowlands, Permanent Secretary, Department for Transport.

Q57 Mr. David Clelland: Secretary of State, I am not sure I am going to be able to live up to that as well. Secretary of State, you mentioned before the question of the need for financial probity - and obviously that is right - and the difficulty of raising finances for public projects cannot be underestimated. This is maybe a bit of a chicken-and-egg argument but we in the North East and particularly in Gateshead have been banging on for years now about the congestion on the A1 Western Bypass. I have raised it with you several times. Precious little notice seems to have been taken of what the local authority has advised over those years and the situation has got worse and worse, to such an extent that now we find the galling situation where the Highways Agency are to use their powers to prevent the local authority from developing areas of land around the Western Bypass on the basis that it will cause more congestion. I said this may be a bit of a chicken-and-egg situation but how could that help? Without economic regeneration and improvements to the area how are we going raise the money to pay for the public projects we want to improve the congestion?

Mr Darling: I will try to be brief here but this is a complex matter. Firstly the Highways Agency has not blocked this. Two applications were turned down on safety grounds and I understand that the promoters are looking at these and they may be coming back with amended plans. The Highways Agency has asked for information in relation to a further five or six developments which are industrial developments and they do this as standard practice, as does any highways authority, because it wants to know what are the traffic implications. What we want to avoid is a situation where you grant planning consent, the traffic pours onto to the A1 which is already crowded and the thing just grinds to a halt. You are absolutely right, what you want to do is make sure you have got sufficient capacity in your transport system to support economic development, particularly in the North East where it is much needed. Tyne & Wear have submitted a bid to the Transport Innovation Fund which includes a range of measures to help manage local demand because a lot of the traffic on the A1 around Gateshead and Newcastle, as you know, is locally generated traffic and I have always said you need to look at that as well as the other stuff. The Highways Agency is also looking at measures that might help in relation to the A1. I am acutely aware of the problems and indeed I will be in Newcastle tomorrow afternoon to discuss that with various of the councillors. They have put in a bid and I just want to discuss some of these things. I hope that was brief enough.


Q94 Mr. David Clelland: Secretary of State, does the fact that buses are so successful in London have anything to do with the fact that they are regulated as opposed to where they are unregulated and in decline?

Mr Darling: I think there is a whole range of factors. Public transport in London generally has been more developed than is the case in most other parts of the country. The reason that bus use has gone up is because the Mayor has spent quite substantial sums on putting on additional buses, particularly at peak times, and he has been prepared to spend a lot of money on that, part of which comes from central government.

Q95 Mr. David Clelland: Are you saying that actually buying more buses means more people use them?

Mr Darling: If you have got a lot of people coming in in the rush-hour in the morning and you provide a lot more buses, which he had to do when he introduced the Congestion Charge, yes, of course more people use them. We had a discussion earlier in relation to the regulation, if you like, of buses. The system in London is more expensive, but I think there is a variety of reasons for that, but, as I said earlier, what I do not want to lose is some of the increased patronage we have got under the present system in areas where it is working well. What I have said is, provided it comes with other measures of the type I described of demand management, I am prepared to look at changing the regime. Bear in mind that the Mayor's acquisition and purchase of a lot more buses came in at the same time as he introduced London's Congestion Charge and of course London has a long history of other controls to encourage people to use public transport, so you cannot look at the two things in isolation. If other authorities in other parts of the country are prepared to take the same approach, then, as I think I said to Mr Stringer in his question to me, I am prepared to look at the powers that we have to try and improve bus services outside of London as well. What I do not want to do though, and I know you are not arguing this, but there are people around who say, "Well, actually I would like to go back to the world of 1986 and before that", but that is not the right thing to do.

Q96 Mr. David Clelland: Will the patronage targets be revised upwards to take account of the new free concessionary fare scheme coming in next year?

Mr Darling: The targets will not be revised until the next Spending Review.

Q97 Mr. David Clelland: What discussions have there been between the Department for Transport, the ODPM and the Treasury on this scheme which the Chancellor announced in the Budget. Is this going to be a bit of mess for you given the fact that you have got three departments dealing with it? Certainly the grant regime in itself is causing huge problems being based on population rather than on transport usage which is going to cause great problems in Tyne & Wear. Then there is the Treasury description on the actual use of the pass, that it can only be used in a local government area, when in actual fact in some shire areas, people have to travel from their shire area to the metropolitan area in order to go to work, et cetera, et cetera, so they will not actually be able to make much use of these passes. Then there is the whole question, as we have just been discussing, with the bus services anyway as to whether they are going to be adequate and up to the job.

Mr Darling: Firstly, it is not uncommon for there to be more than one government department involved in any decision. Indeed, I cannot think of any decision that government takes where the Treasury is not involved, for obvious reasons, and I think that has always been the case. In relation to this particular scheme, yes, we have confined it to local government areas, local transport, and that is because we decided we were prepared to spend £350 million and that is what we thought we could get.

Q98 Mr. David Clelland: So that was a decision of the Department for Transport, not the Treasury?

Mr Darling: Well, it was a decision we took jointly. We wanted to extend it and we have to decide and the Chancellor, quite rightly, decides how much money we have got around to decide anything in particular. In relation to the distribution scheme, and I understand the point you are making there, yes, we have had discussions with ODPM about that. There was a choice. We could either do it through the existing mechanisms which we are proposing to do, or the Department for Transport could have invented its own system which would have meant that if we had consulted on it, it would have probably raised as many anomalies as there are with the present system. I am aware though that there is a particular problem in relation to your own PTE and I think they have been in discussion with my colleague Phil Woolas in ODPM who is trying to ----

Q99 Chairman: Perhaps you would like to give us a note on that, on the complex bit of the Tyne & Wear situation.

Mr Darling: Yes, I am happy to do that.


Q113 Mr. David Clelland: How will it affect things in the future? How will it affect the hoped-for proposal for a development of a container port at Teesside if these developments go ahead?

Mr Darling: As far as I am aware, there has not been an application - there have been lots of discussions but the application has not come in. There is a risk that if we spend all our time reviewing policy and deciding what are going to do and nothing happens, in the meantime other ports in Europe are expanding rapidly. I do not want to put British ports at a disadvantage because of that. The fact is that we have a policy at the moment, people put in applications in good faith under that policy and they are entitled to have their applications determined under the current policy. Of course it is open to the Government to change it at any point, as I have indicated we intend to do, but I do not think as a matter of good public policy we should therefore say to people who are already well down the track, "Sorry, you have to start all over again." I think as a country we would lose out if we did that.

Q114 Mr. David Clelland: Is what you are saying that you are taking into consideration decisions on applications that are currently before you or before a planning authority? What about developments in the industry such as the size of the ships which are being built which can be accommodated, for instance, across the North Sea, where those ships will be likely to head if they cannot be catered for in British ports?

Mr Darling: The current applications are being determined by the planning inspectors who then make a recommendation to the Secretary of State. The planning inspector takes into account all the evidence that he has heard. That includes a whole variety of things. I am not in a position today to summarise all the evidence which has been submitted because there are hundreds and hundreds of pages of the stuff, but all the evidence which has been put before the inspector will be considered and that allows the inspector to make his recommendations.

Chairman: I think we will want to come back to that, Secretary of State, but not today.


Q121 Mr. David Clelland: Can I just come back to the point, which I have now found my note about, when we were talking about concessionary fares and the fact they are restricted to local authority boundaries? The Secretary of State said that they had looked at the possibility of extending this but it had been ruled out on cost grounds, could you tell us or let us have a note on what the proposed extensions were, whether they would be regional or national extensions, what the projected costs were and what the methodology was for calculating the projected costs?

Mr Darling: My recollection, and I will let you have a note on this, is that it would have been about £100 million more to do a national scheme, but I am happy to let you have a note as to how we calculate these things.

This is an uncorrected transcript of evidence taken in public and reported to the House. The transcript has been placed on the internet on the authority of the Committee. Neither witnesses nor Members have had the opportunity to correct the record. The transcript is not yet an approved formal record of these proceedings.

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