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Heavy Freight

2. Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome): What plans he has to reduce the level of heavy freight transport using unsuitable roads in rural areas. [54358]

The Minister of Transport (Dr. John Reid): Heavy lorries should not travel on unsuitable roads when an alternative route exists for collection or delivery. When drawing up their local transport plans, we shall expect local authorities to bring forward strategies to ensure that heavy lorries are routed away from unsuitable roads. We are examining ways of streamlining the use of local traffic authority powers to specify through routes for heavy lorries or to prohibit or restrict heavy lorry movements on particular roads.

Mr. Heath: I welcome the opportunity to ask the right hon. Gentleman a question about roads rather than aircraft carriers. Does he agree that many rural roads in small communities were not designed for heavy lorry traffic and cannot, and should not, take it? Rather than spending Government and local authority money strengthening bridges so that they can take heavy lorries, surely the time has come to say that lorries should not use rural minor roads.

Dr. Reid: Yes. The Government share the concerns that the hon. Gentleman outlined. That is why we are taking positive action, together with local authorities through their local transport plans; with industry, by designing a sustainable distribution and logistics policy; by means of the subsidies that we have given to rural transport--£50 million extra for rural buses--and by means of the freeze that we imposed on vehicle excise duty last year. A range of measures have therefore been taken. We share the concerns and appreciate the problems of rural areas, which is why there are now so many Labour Members representing rural areas.

Mr. David Hinchliffe (Wakefield): I welcome my right hon. Friend to his position. Does he agree that one way of tackling the problem of road freight is to shift freight, wherever possible, on to inland waterways? Will he consider an example from my constituency? Sand and gravel are being extracted adjacent to the River Calder in Wakefield for use on the A1-M1 link near Leeds, and the company concerned cannot move the material by waterway simply because of the size of one lock. May we bang some heads together and get such freight off roads and on to waterways once again?

Dr. Reid: Yes. As my hon. Friend says, we should all be keen to transfer or encourage the transfer of freight from road to waterways or rail wherever possible. On the specific case that he mentions, I believe that there are many examples throughout Europe where low-cost, high-volume goods are transferred very efficiently by waterways, so we would be keen to do anything that we can to support such transport.

The other alternative is rail. As my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister pointed out earlier, we have been extremely successful in getting freight off roads and on to rail. Last year there was a 5 per cent. increase in rail freight, which I believe is a bigger increase than the Conservative party managed in 18 years. I am pleased that

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that trend continues. Yesterday, Rover announced that it would put one third of its deliveries on to rail; I am sure that we all welcome that.

Mr. Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield): I fully accept the need for an integrated transport strategy and I welcome the additional funds that the Government are directing to rural transport, but does the Minister accept that in some areas, such as my village of Poynton in the Macclesfield constituency, such expenditure and such an integrated transport strategy will not really help, and new roads will be required? Does he accept that the Poynton bypass, which feeds through the Manchester airport eastern link road to Manchester international airport, is a vital strategic road, and that it is no good merely reducing it from a trunk road to a county road to fob off responsibility? Will the Minister meet me to discuss that matter, which is so vital to my constituents?

Dr. Reid: Of course I will give full consideration to that road, which is either, as the hon. Gentleman points out, vital in our strategic national interest--the Poynton bypass--or, perhaps more relevantly, vital in his future political interests. However, I shall examine it seriously. I merely point out that, in the roads announcement some months ago, I announced 15 bypasses, which I believe is three times more than the previous Government announced in five years.

Ms Joan Walley (Stoke-on-Trent, North): I welcome my right hon. Friend to his post. In his efforts to encourage the switching of more heavy freight from road to rail, will he do all that he can to take the wonderful opportunity that we now have to get piggyback on to the west coast main line? Will he give the House an assurance that he will do all that he can to bring about that switch from road to rail?

Dr. Reid: My hon. Friend knows that we have made our views known on that. Those matters are being considered at present by Railtrack. Although I read in the newspapers speculation on the matter, no proposals have been received by our Department. I shall of course consider them sympathetically when they come in.

Rural Motorists

3. Mr. Howard Flight (Arundel and South Downs): If he will make a statement on the impact on motorists in rural areas of the proposals in the transport White Paper. [54359]

The Minister of Transport (Dr. John Reid): The measures in the White Paper will produce a transport system that increases choice for all, including those who live in rural areas. As part of our strategy, my right hon. Friend the Chancellor announced in March an additional £50 million a year to improve the public transport alternative in rural areas.

Mr. Flight: I am sure that the Minister would agree that the substantial rise in petrol taxes falls disproportionately on people in rural areas when they take children to school or go to the shops, and particularly when they travel to work. Will the Government ensure that the new taxing powers in the White Paper are used

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to mitigate that, and will they consider tax incentives for businesses in rural areas to bus people into work, which under the present tax arrangements is taxed as a benefit in kind?

Dr. Reid: The hon. Gentleman will know that the Government fully appreciate the benefits of car ownership, especially in rural areas. The point that we have always made is that the benefits of car ownership that have been gained by previous generations will not be gained by future generations unless we change car use. We accept that for many people in rural areas a car is a necessity. The Chancellor's announcement in the last Budget that vehicle excise duty rates would be frozen and a graduated scheme introduced for cars should help to offset higher fuel costs, especially for rural motorists with smaller, cleaner cars.

The hon. Gentleman should remember, however, that a significant proportion of people in rural areas--upwards of 20 per cent. in rural households--have no access whatever to a car. That is why we are equally committed to providing decent, safe, reliable public transport. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will welcome the £50 million extra that this Government have allocated, over and above any plans that his Government had.

Mr. Lawrie Quinn (Scarborough and Whitby): Will my right hon. Friend confirm that he understands that, in my constituency, only 57 per cent. of rural dwellers have access to a private vehicle? The initiative taken forward with the county council to introduce community transport and improvements in rural bus services will play an important part in dealing with the problems of social exclusion that manifest themselves in the north-east of England.

Dr. Reid: Yes, indeed. My hon. Friend gives a prime example of the difficulties faced by many people in rural areas. That is why I am extremely pleased and proud that this Government have taken measures, as I mentioned earlier, to allocate an additional £50 million towards public transport in the rural areas. He will also know that the Chancellor announced an increase in bus fuel duty rebate worth £40 million to protect bus operators from the increases in diesel duty over the next 12 months. My hon. Friend can be sure that we shall continue to bear in mind the particular circumstances of people in rural areas.

Mrs. Gillian Shephard (South-West Norfolk): Earlier this afternoon, the Minister for Local Government and Housing seemed not to have understood the consequences of this Government's deliberate switch of £100 million of council funding from shire to urban areas this year. Does the Minister at least understand that that switch of funding--which is his Government's policy and nothing to do with the previous Government--has had a devastating effect on minor roads, roads maintenance and transport packages in rural areas? What does he intend to do to correct that imbalance?

Dr. Reid: The right hon. Lady would do well to reflect on the fact that it was the destruction, division and devastating effects of 18 years of her party's government that resulted in the rural areas being so well represented on the Labour Benches.

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As my hon. Friend pointed out earlier, the statistics and methodology that are being used to allocate that money are based on sparsity and density of population--precisely the criteria used by the previous Government. As I have pointed out, we shall provide extra finance for local transport in the rural areas. As my hon. Friend the Minister for the Regions, Regeneration and Planning stated earlier, rural areas will be an essential part of our regional development plans throughout the country. In all three respects, we are initiating plans for progress in the rural areas the like of which was never seen under the previous Government.

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