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The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions (Dr. Alan Whitehead): The Government expect county, district and parish councils to work in partnership with one another, with local communities and other public, private and voluntary sector organisations, to provide the best quality services for local people. We are taking a number of steps to foster that work, including the promotion of local strategic partnerships to bring those groups together.
Under the duty of best value, we also expect local councils to explore new ways to deliver public services. That is why we have just launched a new taskforce on strategic service delivery further to encourage partnership working with the private sector.
I understand that there is effective joint working between the public, private, community and voluntary sectors in Dorset. My hon. Friend has been active in promoting those partnerships, and I commend him for that.
Jim Knight: I am grateful to the Minister for that reply. Is he aware that, in my constituency, Dorset county council is keen to pilot new strategic partnering arrangements with the private sector, as an alternative to using the private finance initiative to deliver important transport infrastructure improvementsin particular, the Weymouth relief road? Will he comment on how such strategic partnering arrangements might work and give me an update on them?
Dr. Whitehead: My hon. Friend will be aware that the Weymouth relief road scheme has been provisionally accepted, subject to the successful completion of the planning and statutory processes, and that the Government have asked Dorset county council to explore the opportunities for a private finance initiative, possibly to provide an increase in the scheme's value for money. However, if Dorset wishes to engage in a longer-term statutory service delivery partnership, which might include schemes such as the Weymouth relief road, we have, as I have said, recently established a strategic partnering taskforce. That taskforce will, in particular,
Mr. David Heathcoat-Amory (Wells): Before we have a partnership in local communities, could we have a partnership between Departments? Is the Minister aware of a daft anomaly whereby, when a care home upgrades its facilities in line with Government guidelines for higher standards, the local authority valuation office assesses each resident for full council tax? That has happened in the home run by the Royal National Institute for the Blind at Burnham-on-Sea in my constituency. It is a clear example of his Department not talking to other Departments and the Treasury, and it is causing great distress for elderly and blind residents. Will he sort it out?
Dr. Whitehead: The right hon. Gentleman will understand that I cannot reply to an individual case at the moment, but if he cares to write to me, I will look into it. He should be aware, however, that the Government's forthcoming White Paper on local government will, among other things, emphasise how important partnership between central Government and local government is to ensuring that local government works well.
The Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions (Mr. Stephen Byers): The Government, through their 10-year plan, remain committed to delivering a better, safer and more reliable railway network that is fit for the 21st century. We plan to spend £30 billion over the next 10 years to achieve substantial improvements and are confident that some £34 billion will come from the private sector.
Lawrie Quinn: I thank my right hon. Friend for that reply. He will recognise that the future of the east coast main line and of the trans-Pennine route is absolutely crucial to the regeneration and future economic prosperity of the key areas of the north-east and Yorkshire. Will he put his mind to the fact that there is a potential skills shortage in the railway industry? That might prevent the investment profile coming forward, thereby stymieing that investment and doing lots of damage to the future economy of those areas?
Mr. Byers: My hon. Friend is right to point out the current skills deficiency in the railway network. That is partly a result of decades of under-investment in the railway system. We now need to move away from a short-term approach to the industry, which leads to a lack of investment in skills, to a situation where through long-term investment, the 10-year plan and the investment of £30 billion of public money, we can, once again, begin to invest in the people at the heart of the railway system. The people who operate the signals, drive the trains and maintain the track must be the real priority for the future
Mr. Alex Salmond (Banff and Buchan): Can the Secretary of State confirm that, when he told me in the Chamber on 3 July that structural change would simply introduce paralysis into the system, he was just kidding? Will he remind the House of the date that he decided that structural change was necessary to avoid, as opposed to produce, paralysis and of the date that he informed his close friend and colleague, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, of that desirable objective?
Mr. Byers: I am pleased to see the hon. Gentleman in the Chamber. Had he been here slightly more often, he would have been aware of the fact that the dates have been debated on several occasions. He will know that it was not until 25 July that the chairman of Railtrack came to me and said that it had problems in terms of the company's financial future. That obviously changed the whole nature of our response. As I have said to the House on more than one occasion, the decision about not providing additional funds for Railtrack was taken by me on behalf of the Government on 5 October.
Mr. Byers: The fact that the Rail Regulator has, in the past two or three weeks, announced a 50 per cent. reduction in the charges for freight on the railway network will lead to increased demand for freight to be carried by rail. That will make a significant contribution not just towards helping the freight industry use the railways but towards achieving our objective in the 10-year plan of seeing up to an 80 per cent. increase in freight on the railway system. That is one of a number of measures that we shall introduce over the next few months. It will send the clear message that we believe the railway system is a very good way of transporting freight in the United Kingdom.
Mrs. Theresa May (Maidenhead): The Secretary of State referred to the Strategic Rail Authority, but its chairman has said that the right hon. Gentleman's action on Railtrack has caused tremendous damage. Will he now confirm that it could take up to a year to put the replacement company in place and more than a year to get the first special purpose vehicle for investment up and running; that public investment is guaranteed for only two years, not 10; that there is no guarantee of private sector investment; and that his changes to the franchising regime could deter investment in the long term by the train operating companies? Will he confirm that all passengers can look forward to is more delays caused by Byers on the line?
Mr. Byers: That fell a bit flat. [Hon. Members: "Answer."] I will answer the question. It is clear that the Conservatives' approach to Railtrack is to muddle through and do nothing. That is the implication of everything they say.
Mr. Byers: I take the view, on the Government's behalf, that decisions have to be made if we are to create a railway system fit for the 21st century that reflects the fact that we are the fourth biggest economy in the world. Conservative Members may be prepared to accept the present situation, but we in government are not.
In terms of special purpose vehicles, we are confident that they will succeed, and not in the time scale identified by the hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May). Public investment will come through. We are confident of that. In terms of franchises, the hon. Lady has to recognise that the present franchise system was failing to deliver. We are changing it because we want to deliver on behalf of passengers, and that is what we will do.
I have met train operating companies two or three times in the past few weeks and they tell me that our decision on Railtrack provides a golden opportunity to create a railway system for the future. That is what the industry says. I do not know how often the hon. Lady speaks to it, but next time she comes to the Dispatch Box let us get the figures and the names of people who are saying such things because it would be informative for the House to find out what the situation is.
Conservative Members may not like it, but the reality is that we will take the necessary difficult decisions, which they will oppose, to ensure that we improve the railway system. Muddle is not good enough. That is what the Tories want. We are taking decisive action in the interests of the travelling public.
Mrs. Betty Williams (Conwy): My right hon. Friend will be aware of the deplorable service provided by Virgin Trains between London and north Wales. Is he also aware of the suggestion that Virgin West Coast will be transferred to Virgin CrossCountry, which might mean that routes are diverted, so causing great inconvenience to passengers, and that it might be sold to another company?
Mr. Byers: These are matters that can be dealt with by the Strategic Rail Authority as part of the franchising regime. The important point is that train operating companies have responsibilities to deliver on the franchise they have entered into. I will ensure that my hon. Friend's concerns are drawn to the attention not just of Virgin, as the train operating company, but of the SRA, the body with responsibility for ensuring that the conditions and terms attached to a franchise are delivered by the relevant operating company.