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House of Commons

Tuesday 18 December 2001

The House met at half-past Two o'clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]


Greenham and Crookham Commons Bill

Order for Third Reading read.

Read the Third time, and passed.

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked—

Cable Companies (Road Disruption)

1. Ms Julia Drown (South Swindon): What steps he is taking to minimise the disruption to road users by cable companies. [21556]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions (Ms Sally Keeble): We are taking various measures to reduce unnecessary disruption from works carried out by utilities, including cable companies. Since April this year local authorities can charge utilities when their works overrun an agreed deadline. We are also launching pilot schemes early in the new year in Camden and Middlesbrough under which utilities will have to pay lane rental, which is a daily charge each time they dig up the roads.

Ms Drown: I thank the Minister for that reply and I appreciate that the fine and charging system will give an incentive to companies to stop dilly-dallying while they are on the roads. However, it will not stop the farcical situation that we have seen in Swindon and elsewhere in which one cable company digs up the roads, causing major disruption, and finishes, only for another company to start again 10 days later. Will the Minister agree to meet me and local government representatives to discuss how to insist on co-operation between companies, so that road disruption is minimised for our constituents?

Ms Keeble: I would be happy to meet my hon. Friend and her local authority representatives to take up the problems that she has had with cable companies and their works in Swindon, which she has highlighted repeatedly. Local authorities already have a duty under the New Road and Street Works Act 1991 to co-ordinate their street

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works, and the Government recognise the real problems caused by repeated digging up of the roads. Our proposals are intended exactly to address that problem.

Michael Fabricant (Lichfield): The hon. Member for South Swindon (Ms Drown) is right to raise that important point about street works. In fact, I had just commented to my colleagues on the Opposition Front Bench that Constitution hill seems to be being dug up for the third time this year. While we would welcome the institution of charges on cable companies or anybody else who decides to dig up the roads, does the Minister agree that under current rules nothing would prevent the companies from forwarding those charges on to their customers? Therefore, it would be no penalty and it would be the poor customers who would suffer. Will she consider changing the rules so that the penalties are real penalties for the companies, not for those using the companies' services?

Ms Keeble: At present, the main mechanism that local authorities use is charging for overrunning the deadline—109 local authorities opt for that method. The pilot schemes have not started yet and we will have to see how they work. Even if the lane rental scheme were introduced nationally immediately, the estimated cost across the country would be £109 million or more, and the regulator would wish to consider that. We also must consider the £2.5 billion—a much bigger sum—that congestion problems caused by street works cost the country.

John Cryer (Hornchurch): Such activities by utility and cable companies cause chaos in my constituency, in the borough that I represent and across London. One has only to drive into London to see that happening, day in and day out. I welcome the system of charging that the Government have introduced, but—as my hon. Friend the Member for South Swindon (Ms Drown) said—the problem is that one company digging up the street is followed by another and then another. We need new powers so that local authorities can say to those companies, "No, you cannot dig up that section of street." Is there any possibility that the Government could introduce such powers?

Ms Keeble: Under the 1991 Act, local authorities already have a duty to co-ordinate street works and we have issued best practice guidelines to encourage that to happen. It is a real issue, and the charging scheme to be introduced in Camden and Middlesbrough will help to ensure that utilities are more economic in the way in which they dig up the roads.

Cambrian Coast Line

2. Hywel Williams (Caernarfon): If he will make a statement on future investment on the Cambrian coast line. [21557]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions (Mr. David Jamieson): The Strategic Rail Authority's strategic plan will set out its plans for investment across the network to deliver the key rail targets in the 10-year plan. The strategic plan will be published on 14 January.

Hywel Williams: I thank the Minister for that reply. I suspected that he might refer to the SRA. Can he assure

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me that spending on the Cambrian line is not being held back by priority being given to spending on other parts of the rail network?

Mr. Jamieson: I fully understand the hon. Gentleman's frustration and many of my hon. Friends have made representations to me on that important matter. The project was put on hold by Railtrack, before it went into administration. I know that the case for the importance of the line to the local economy and the university at Aberystwyth has been made very strongly. He will be aware that one of the reasons for the delay was the shortage of skilled signalling designers. To tackle that problem, the SRA is considering establishing a national rail academy to cover a wide range of training needs. I assure him that the scheme that he has in mind will be given due priority in the plans that we have afoot.

Mr. John Smith (Vale of Glamorgan): My hon. Friend is responsible for regional airport development, so what plans does he have to ensure that the Welsh rail network, including the Cambrian line, is linked directly to Cardiff international airport by a spur from the Vale of Glamorgan coastal line? That line will open to passengers next year.

Mr. Jamieson: My hon. Friend raises an important matter in connection with integrated transport, and I assure him that that is the type of issue that the SRA will consider in due course.

Integrated Transport Network

3. Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West): If he will make a statement on progress in implementing his integrated transport network. [21558]

The Minister for Transport (Mr. John Spellar): We are making good progress in implementing our integrated transport strategy, through our 10-year plan for transport. We are already delivering: for example, £8.4 billion is pledged over five years to fund local transport plans, nine light rail lines are under development, and we have our targeted programme of road improvements to the trunk road network. There will be much more to follow.

Mr. Swayne: The 10-year plan calls for £34 billion for the rail network alone from private sources. How will the Minister guarantee that, given that the plug was pulled on Railtrack despite its ambitious investment record and plans?

Mr. Spellar: Unfortunately, Railtrack's investment record is that it bid £2.3 billion for the west coast main line and its cost overruns now amount to some £7 billion. Such a record might not give the necessary level of confidence. The hon. Gentleman will also know of the channel tunnel rail link, which is an enormously successful programme that is running to time and to budget. I initiated work on the second phase only a couple of months ago. To take that work forward, the Department is therefore looking at special purpose vehicles. Indeed, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I were

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recently out in east London to see the work being done on the east London line. The real progress being made with transport suggests real confidence in the future.

David Wright (Telford): Does my right hon. Friend agree that high-performing rail companies are central to a good integrated service? Is he aware that Central Trains, Wales and West Passenger Trains and the company serving the borders are failing to collect fares even on peak-time services, even though they complain about under-investment? Is not it time that they got their house in order?

Mr. Spellar: The new chairman of the SRA is looking fairly closely at the management of train operating companies across the network. We look forward to his strategic plan, which will be launched on 14 January.

Chris Grayling (Epsom and Ewell): The Government's 10-year plan for transport will depend heavily on the successful completion of the rail franchising process. Why is the process so delayed, and when is it likely to be completed?

Mr. Spellar: The announcement on the franchising process will be made very soon. The hon. Gentleman will not have to wait long, and I am sure that he will welcome the announcement when it is made.

Mr. David Clelland (Tyne Bridge): Will the plans include proposals to help relieve congestion on the Gateshead western bypass? Is my right hon. Friend aware that the Government office of the north-east recently announced proposals that revived the prospect of a bypass to the bypass—a proposal rejected under the previous Government, after a huge protest from local people, MPs and the council? Millions of pounds of public money were wasted when properties that had been bought had to be sold back to the sellers, or sold on. Will my right hon. Friend look at the matter urgently, and make it clear that the proposal will not receive the Government's support?

Mr. Spellar: I certainly undertake to look at the matter, and to take into account my hon. Friend's remarks, as well as the views of the local authorities involved, and of the local passenger transport executive.

Mr. Eric Pickles (Brentwood and Ongar): To return to the railways part of the 10-year plan, does the right hon. Gentleman believe that there are two principal lessons to be learned from Railtrack's interim profits, announced today? First, it is inconceivable that the chairman of Railtrack could have told him and his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State that the company was insolvent. Secondly, as my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, West (Mr. Swayne) has rightly pointed out, the level of investment in the railways has been £3 billion a year under Railtrack, while under British Rail it was just £750 million. Can the Minister give a better explanation than he gave my hon. Friend about where the bulk of the future investment will come from, given that it came from the private sector before? Will it involve a cut in railway

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investment or will there be a guarantee from the Treasury? Or, as is more likely, is the Government's indecisiveness still final?

Mr. Spellar: It was a guarantee from the Treasury—or, rather, the Government—that Railtrack was seeking. The hon. Gentleman must explain why Railtrack was, as it has admitted, asking for relief from the Rail Regulator or, at another stage, saying that it might have wanted to go to the regulator, in both cases because it claimed that it needed extra funding. Although he is right to draw attention to the paper profit made by Railtrack and announced today, it is surprising that he did not also draw attention to the £2 billion extra in debt carried by the company during the past year. He must also explain why, if Railtrack believed that its position was so sound, it did not, even though it was present in court, contest the petition that we put and which the judge decided required a declaration of insolvency and for the company to be put into administration.

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