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4.19 pm

Mr. John Cryer (Hornchurch): Returning to planet earth, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I want briefly to raise some transport issues that relate to my constituency. The first is the local railway--the London, Tilbury and Southend railway--which has been in the area for a long time and was one of the first lines to be privatised.

Since privatisation, we have been promised new trains and, for the past three years, class 357 trains. We have been told that their arrival was imminent. A few months ago, the trains began to be put into service and promptly broke down. Unfortunately, the parent company of London Tilbury and Southend Rail, c2c--known as carriages too crowded--had scrapped much of its old slam-door stock, which was about 40 years old, so when the new class 357s were taken out of service old stock had to be reintroduced. As there are not enough trains, there is further diminution of a service that has become steadily worse over many years.

As an illustration of how the railways are seen by people in outer London and Essex, it will come as no surprise to hon. Members to hear that, a few years ago, when one of the Essex radio stations organised a poll to find the most unpopular person in the county, the then managing director of LTS finished second--just behind Saddam Hussein. It would be interesting to take another poll to see whether the present managing director could shove Saddam Hussein into second place.

The railway crosses my constituency at Rainham and I was a founder member of the Rainham rail users group--superb campaigners who put pressure on c2c and LTS, unfortunately without much effect. Rail users have shown immense patience and forbearance. One member of the

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group informed me recently that she had taken to travelling in the guard's van because the carriages are so crowded. On one occasion, she counted 36 people who were crammed into the guard's van of a four-car train when there should have been at least eight cars.

Trains are becoming dangerously overcrowded, yet the directors of the parent company, Prism Rail, recently made tens of millions of pounds by selling the company to National Express--money that should have been invested in the railway. Meanwhile, my constituents--like those of other hon. Members--continue to suffer overcrowding, delays and late and cancelled trains. That is the result of the privatisation process planned by the previous Conservative Government.

We all know that the whole London tube system has suffered a long history of under-investment and has been deteriorating for a long time, but recently the District line has become much worse. The line runs through three stations in my constituency--Elm Park, Hornchurch and Upminster Bridge. Recently, delays and cancellations have increased. There has also been a tendency to indicate that trains are going to Upminster--the end of the line--when in fact they are being stopped at Barking. That is becoming quite dangerous. Many people, especially women travelling home alone late at night, are abandoned on the platform at Barking for lengthy periods waiting for an Upminster train. Some of the women who work in the Palace have had that experience.

We all know the problem--underfunding during a long period--as the managing director of the underground network, Derek Smith, and the Mayor, the hon. Member for Brent, East (Mr. Livingstone), have made clear. My objection to the current situation is that we should be getting on with investing in the underground. Everyone knows that the fault lies with the previous Conservative Administration, but we have been in government for three years and we are still talking about how to make that investment--we should be doing it now.

The 324 bus--on a former Green Line route that runs from east London into Essex--serves Wennington, a hamlet in my constituency and Rainham itself. The bus service was run by Town and Country Buses, which was taken over by Arriva. The problem is that Arriva does not have enough buses or drivers to service the route, so it drafts in buses from other parts of the country. There is a Heinz 57 varieties bus livery--with no correct signs on the front of the buses.

That is dangerous. There are many elderly people in Wennington and Rainham. When an unnumbered bus with the Aylesbury and The Vale livery arrives at a stop in Essex, it is slightly confusing--especially for people with poor eyesight.

Mr. Malcolm Bruce (Gordon): If the bus is wrongly numbered, it would be better if people could not read the number.

Mr. Cryer: There are also fewer buses on the route--if one can see them.

London Transport has been pretty appalling. During the summer, I made it clear that I wanted a new timetable published and that I wanted to get my hands on it so that I could distribute it around Wennington and the south of

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Rainham. I asked by letter, by telephone and again by letter, but so far I have had nothing from London Transport. It simply is not good enough for it to fail my constituents in Wennington and Rainham, many of whom are elderly and many of whom are in a very difficult position because of the decline of the service.

I ask the Minister to relay to Ministers in the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions the points that I have made about the transport service in my constituency.

4.25 pm

Mr. Patrick Nicholls (Teignbridge): As time is short, I shall keep my remarks as brief as I can.

I have a great deal of respect for the Minister, with whom I have debated on many occasions. He has always treated my remarks with great courtesy and I am grateful to him for it. However, the speech by my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Mr. Baldry) struck a chord with me.

This debate is important. It is, after all, an occasion when many of us could be doing other things, and we come to the Chamber for one specific reason this late in the day--because we believe that something matters sufficiently to our constituents to cause us to go through the fiction, and it is a fiction, of postponing the moment when the House of Commons adjourns for the recess.

I cannot imagine that any Member of the House, other than in a dire emergency, would allow his constituency surgery to be conducted by anyone other than himself. A researcher could do that work, but it would not look or feel right. The constituent would not understand it. In previous years, and certainly under the previous Administration, I could always say that I knew that when I raised a matter on the Christmas Adjournment a member of the Cabinet--the Leader of the House, the President of the Council--would be there, listening carefully to all the deliberations. That may be a fiction, but it is a necessary fiction and a courteous fiction. I believe that the Leader of the House should have been present today. Although I have not the slightest doubt that the Minister will do an excellent job in her place, appearances do matter.

Today, I want to bring before the House the subject of the Kingskerswell bypass. It is not the first time that I have raised the subject in the House of Commons; I should like to think that it might be the last time, but I fear that it will not.

The Kingskerswell bypass, as anyone who knows my part of the world knows, is the four to four-and-a-half mile stretch of road that runs between Newton Abbott and Torquay. It is the last remaining link--the missing link, if you will--in the M5. Indeed, if one was giving a person in the west of Scotland directions to Newton Abbott, one would say, "drive south until you come to a roundabout, and if it is the summer, wait there for half an hour and turn right." That is the problem with that part of the world. There is a missing link.

My research has shown me that there has been a Kingskerswell bypass in prospect in Devon since at least 1951 and it was probably mooted some 15 years before that. Once upon a time, it would have been a bypass to bypass the old village of Kingskerswell. Now, because of the increase in housing, that stretch of road virtually cuts the village in two. It produces huge traffic flows. In 1998

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I gave the House the figures; I shall not quote them in detail today. I was able to say on that occasion that some 35,000 vehicles a day used that road.

Usually, when one mentions the need for a bypass, the figures for traffic flows increase in the summer and drop off for the rest of the year. Interestingly, in this case there is at most a differential of only 10 per cent. This is such a logjam that it is there all the year round. It condemns the people who live in the area to having their community subjected to extreme traffic pollution. It produces extreme inconvenience for people travelling to and from work, shopping or school.

The logjam causes more than inconvenience in every sense of the word. It also affects the potential for economic regeneration. Whereas most bypasses merely squeeze the paste down the toothpaste tube, as it were, and push the bottleneck on, if this bypass was built the whole of south Devon would be opened to economic regeneration, because it really is the last link.

No less an authority than Edward Chorlton, who is the county environment director for Devon and a national figure, said:

He concludes:

In no sense can that be said to be disputed, let alone to be a matter of party political dispute. When I raised the issue at far greater length in April 1998, the then Minister, the hon. Member for Hampstead and Highgate (Ms Jackson), said:

What could have been done, and what can be done?

For many years--in what was, frankly, a fiction--the Kingskerswell bypass was reasonably high up the programme, but was never going to be achieved. In 1995, I think, the Government said that that was nonsense and that only bypasses that stood a chance of success in competing with other projects should be included and, therefore, the Kingskerswell bypass was taken out of the programme. However, the outcry and the strength of the case was such that my right hon. Friend the Member for Skipton and Ripon (Mr. Curry), the then Minister with responsibility for the west country, specifically had the rules on the private finance initiative altered so that a local authority could use them. He did so with all-party support, and Devon county council was entirely in favour of it. The council was legitimately concerned about how the funding for the necessary work could be secured, but there was a consensus.

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In 1996, when my right hon. Friend visited Kingskerswell, there was every prospect that work on the bypass would begin by the beginning of 2001. As I speak, even if matters were expedited far more efficiently than some people think they might be, it would be five, six or even seven years before work could start. After the Government's moratorium on any form of road building, they now say that any schemes under the private finance initiative can proceed only when every other avenue has been explored. In short, the PFI route, if it is used, will take a long time.

The infuriating fact is that almost everyone locally agrees that the bypass is needed. Usually, on such occasions, the lesser crested aphid springs out of the undergrowth, saying "It may be tarmac to you, my son, but it means extinction for me and my species." Nothing like that has happened in Kingskerswell, where there is a complete unanimity of view. Time and again, local people ask what they can do.

On one occasion, it seemed as though the PFI represented the only way forward. It is grinding its way slowly forward, but we find that the Government--as a sinner who repents at least in part--now realise that sometimes bypasses are not an environmental blot, but an environmental necessity; they improve the quality of life. We hear that, after all, the money is available to build bypasses. So it may be, but there is not much money available to build them in Devon, except in north Devon, where a small bypass will be built near Barnstaple according to the recent local transport capital expenditure announcement.

Once upon a time, the Kingskerswell bypass was the premier scheme in Devon, but the other one is now at the top of the queue. Of course, even a long time in politics has not yet made me a cynic, and I say that with all the insincerity at my command. I accept, therefore, that it is entirely a coincidence that that bypass is in the seat of a Liberal Member of Parliament and that the leader of Devon county council, which is controlled by the Liberals, also lives in that part of the world. Perhaps other hon. Members will have something to say about that. I do not accuse the Minister of being part of that chicanery, but I want the Government to tell me what they think my constituents should do. How long will it be before there is some prospect of the project being expedited?

As I understand it, there is some hope to be found, buried deep in a letter written to the chief executive of Torbay borough council, announcing the 2001-02 local transport capital expenditure settlement. It states:

An addendum to the letter goes on to state:

I do not quite know what that means. It might be a realistic formula expressed in Whitehall jargon, saying that relief is on the way, or it might be the most shameless

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pack of waffle. If hon. Members want to know what is going on, they can read the debates that have taken place in the House over the years, or take a day off some time and go down there, sit in a traffic jam and see for themselves.

I shall tell the Minister what I want him to do today. It would be churlish in the extreme for me to ask him to tell me now what is happening. It is not his job to know that. However, the reason that I am here now when I could be elsewhere is to ask him for an assurance that he will write to the relevant Minister--I assume that that is the noble Lord Whitty--to ask him to write to me and tell me what the Government think should happen. At the moment, many people think that nothing is happening. The case for this bypass is overwhelming on every ground possible, not only for my constituency and neighbouring constituencies, but for the economic regeneration of south Devon. What do the Government think about that? I ask for only one assurance from the Minister--but I do ask for it.

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