Select Committee on Environmental Audit Minutes of Evidence


Examination of Witnesses (Questions 120-139)

RT HON STEPHEN BYERS, MP AND DR ALAN WHITEHEAD, MP

THURSDAY 22 NOVEMBER 2001

Chairman

  120. Very pleasant I am sure. I hope it is effective.
  (Mr Byers) A nice sort of concordat to have. As you know, Chairman, it is often the best way of doing business. It is making sure ministers meet on a regular basis to discuss issues of common concern, that we consult each other on potential candidates for relevant public appointments where it is appropriate for ministers to be involved. We obviously are together jointly on some significant outside bodies like the Central Local Partnership where we talk with local governments about issues, and DEFRA is a member of that. We are the lead Department but DEFRA are on it. There are joint meetings of management boards between the two Departments. Working together in areas where, for example, if there is a major decision coming up then we will consult DEFRA, sometimes formally, sometimes informally, about the way in which our decision making process is going. The one exception to that, because of the quasi-judicial role that I play as Secretary of State, is in planning matters we cannot formally involve DEFRA. We receive advice and representations from them but we have to treat them like any other organisation in terms of the representations that they make. The concordat covers a range of very practical approaches to make sure that we continue to talk to each other. Certainly from early days we have put that in place informally, the concordat is now there and is working well.

  Chairman: We will be very glad to have sight of that.

Mr Savidge

  121. Some people will say that the splitting of environment from transport that we have been talking about might be taken as a symbol that the Government might be moving away from the commitment to try to reduce road building, might be moving back to 1990s policies of road building. Could you say something about how far you feel we can satisfy the increasing need for transport without reverting to a heavy road building programme?
  (Mr Byers) I think the way in which we can address this is to provide people with a genuine choice as far as the mode of travel is concerned. If you have a poor railway system, if you have a London Underground which is not really fit for the 21st Century then you find people will be more likely to be driven to use their cars. What we need to do is to ensure that people have a choice and do not feel that they have no option but to use their cars, so the challenge is to invest and to see improvements, whether it is in railways, in buses, in the London Underground and so on. That is something we have got to do and if we do that and get good public transport in place then I think we can begin to see a reversal in terms of people having the option available to them.

  122. Although the rate of growth of traffic has reduced, the volume has still increased. One recognises if one is taking a comparison between the third quarter of last year and the third quarter of this year one has to make allowances for the fact that the fuel tax protest would have had an effect, but even if one makes that allowance I think it is correct to say that it has risen by one per cent. Do you regard that as an acceptable trend?
  (Mr Byers) I think it is true to say that road traffic has grown steadily in the United Kingdom not just in the last couple of years but for decades and that is a trend which, in fact, can be seen in all other developed countries and it is something which takes place. I am not someone who wants to set out as an objective to try to stop people using their cars if that is their preferred mode of travel. The challenge for me, and it is a challenge, is to actually provide people with a decent public transport system so they do not feel compelled to use their cars and that, in a sense, is more difficult I think.

Mr Barker

  123. Do you think that the Government has actually been effective in doing that over the last five years?
  (Mr Byers) I think there is room for improvement and that is the message I get from the electorate, that they want to see improvement. We have got to take some pretty tough and difficult decisions, and take them quickly, if we are to see the improvements in railways, improvements in the London Underground, that people want to see. I would be the first to accept, and I have said this publicly many times before, I do not feel we have either a railway system or a London Underground system which is appropriate for the fourth largest economy in the world, which is what we are.

Mr Francois

  124. Just staying with Railtrack for a moment. You have said yourself that you do not think that people should be forced not to use their cars, and I suspect we would agree with that, but it is a fact that the volume of road traffic is one of the Government's 15 headline indicators that they use to measure whether or not they are making progress in their sustainable development objectives. Whatever you set is a Government target and the fact is you have set this target and road traffic is going up whereas you have targeted it to go down. What do you have to say about the fact that you are not meeting a target which you yourself established?
  (Mr Byers) The challenge is to meet the target. The point I am trying to make is I do not feel that the right way to meet the target is by somehow penalising and punishing the motorist.

Chairman

  125. How are you going to do it?
  (Mr Byers) You do it by actually looking at it the other way, and this is more difficult for Government, I think, because there are ways in which you can penalise and punish the motorist, but the better way in my view is to give them a genuine alternative which is a decent public transport system. I know from my brief time in this job as Secretary of State that being able to provide a decent public transport system is going to be quite a challenge but that, in my view, has to be the way that you do it.

  126. That is going to take some time and in the meantime your own indicators are moving in the wrong direction on road congestion, they are going up and they should be going down. You specifically said that if an indicator is moving in the wrong direction you would do something to reverse that trend but improving public transport, certainly the London Underground, will not kick in for several years, so is your policy in the immediate term not a recipe for more traffic congestion?
  (Mr Byers) I think not because we are seeing in the Ten Year Plan some significant developments. For example, we will see 25 light rail systems being developed over the ten year period. If one looks, say, at the success of Croydon, that is a good example of how with a good tram system, in that particular case, you can actually take people off the road and into public transport.

  127. Sadly, I have to tell you as someone who knows the Croydon system quite well because I am in Bromley, which is part of it, traffic congestion is worse despite the fact there are more people on public transport because more people are travelling around for all sorts of reasons.
  (Mr Byers) That is a sign of economic success, Chairman.
  (Dr Whitehead) Might I add, Chairman, that it is estimated that the effect of the Ten Year Transport Plan will be to reduce congestion overall by six per cent. If we compare that with a base line of—

  128. That is fine but what I am talking about is the medium term. I am talking about the next five year period when John Prescott said "I will have failed if there are not fewer journeys by car over the next five years". Clearly you are on a trend for more journeys by car and public transport improvements will not kick in for several years and you are talking about ten years, maybe something in five years. There is that gap, that hole, where I think the fact is we will probably get more and more congestion and more and more pollution and we will not see any benefits from public transport.
  (Dr Whitehead) The point about a Ten Year Transport Plan is it does take time to take up. It is the case that it is possible that congestion will get worse before it gets better.

  129. That is our worry.
  (Dr Whitehead) The point that I think is important is to make sure that there is a plan which is based on sustainability, which the Transport Plan is, which not only provides opportunities and facilities for people to switch to alternative modes of transport but also, for example, undertakes things which reduce the impact of the vehicle itself upon the environment as that plan unfolds. Indeed, for example, the Department will be consulting on alternative vehicle powering arrangements in the near future.

  Chairman: That is all long-term again.

Mr Francois

  130. Can I just amplify what the Chairman is saying because on one level you can say if it is a plan over a number of years it is going to take a number of years for that plan to take effect, and on one level that is a reasonable argument to make. That said, after a few years it is equally reasonable to ask "have you made any progress?" having given you a few years to go about it. To give you the complete quote that my Chairman was alluding to, in 1997 John Prescott said: "If in five years' time there are not more people using public transport and far fewer journeys by car, I will have failed. It is a tall order but I want you to hold me to it". We are four and a half years on, so what do you think you are going to accomplish in the last six months to make that quote come true?
  (Mr Byers) I am charged with delivering the Ten Year Plan which started in April of this year and the Ten Year Plan will be delivered. Can I say that if you are quoting from the Deputy Prime Minister, I think he is right in that there will be more people using public transport than was the case in 1997 but there are also more people using their cars. I have to say you said, Chairman, this is not a party political Committee but if you want to have a party political ding-dong then let us get the gloves off and we can have it. The reality is that because of the success that we have made of the economy a million more people are in work, which means they are not stuck at home doing nothing, they are actually travelling to work, and because some of them have now got a decent income because of the minimum wage they can afford a car and they are using that to get to work. That is what has happened and it is because of the economic success that we have delivered. Now, the Ten Year Plan, which is the important issue I thought the Committee might be interested in, which started in April, and we are now just six months into it, will make a very real difference. The reason why it will make a real difference is because whilst we are not going to penalise and punish motorists, we will be investing in good, decent public transport, that will make a difference, and we are also going to be developing road schemes, for example, which will help reduce congestion and we will be supporting innovation and developments which will reduce emissions from the motorcar. I think if the Committee looks at the Ten Year Plan in the round, and as I say we are only six, seven months into it, you will see that plan, very ambitious, the first time that any Government in this country has had a Ten Year Transport Plan, will make a real difference not just to benefit the travelling public but also to benefit the environment as well. When one looks at, for example, our proposals for Local Transport Plans, which we will be publishing before the turn of this year, I think the Committee will be pleased at the extent to which we have taken into account environmental concerns in arriving at the decisions in relation to those plans.

  131. Forgive me, but I heard what you said a moment ago about a party political ding-dong and I slightly resent that. I think it is perfectly appropriate for us, as parliamentarians, to ask whether a statement that was made by the Deputy Prime Minister four years ago, and a very punchy statement, if I can put it like that, no pun intended, has been upheld or not. Basically it has not been upheld because road traffic is rising and not falling. I do not think that is particularly party political. We are quite entitled to ask you, as Secretary of State with responsibility for these matters, why you have not met the target that your predecessor so grandly set four years ago.
  (Mr Byers) I am perfectly entitled to explain to you that the big change that we have seen since 1997 is a significant improvement in the economic situation of the United Kingdom.

Chairman

  132. I am sure the Deputy Prime Minister anticipated that.
  (Mr Byers) I am not sure. I know the Deputy Prime Minister always looks on the bright side of things and, to follow on the point that has been made, he does connect with the electorate like no-one else. I do not think even the Deputy Prime Minister could have foreseen that we would have more than a million more people in work and they have got to travel to work and that is bound to have an impact.

Mr Savidge

  133. Before we get too party political about things could I mention a problem that transcends party politics and affects all our parties, which is the Deputy Prime Minister's Department said that something like 23,000 people a year die because of environmental pollution from traffic. Because those are invisible traffic accidents I do not think there is a public recognition of that problem to the extent that there should be, and if there was we might not have a position where, let us face it, all our parties respond to fuel tax protests where we found every single party started shifting because the public respond more to short-term inconvenience than they do to either the invisible tragic effects or the long-term effects.
  (Mr Byers) I agree with that and I think it is a very important point on this question of emissions. My Department has been doing some very detailed work on emissions. We have just got some very new evidence to show where we are in terms of emissions in the United Kingdom which we would be more than happy to share with the Committee because it is very interesting. We will certainly make sure the Committee receives the evidence that we have now got which does show that we are beginning to be on a downward trend as far as emissions from cars are concerned. That is something we would be more than happy to share with the Committee because it is very new evidence we have just received as Ministers but I think the Committee would find it interesting to have that as well.

Chairman

  134. Just coming back to this point about the road traffic headline indicator. It is not there by accident, it is a very, very important part of the 15 sustainable development indicators and it is going the wrong way. John Prescott made this statement five years ago, and I accept the point that you are six months into your Ten Year Plan, but the fact is there does appear to us to be a hole in the middle of the plan and it is going to get worse, however successful you may be about public transport it is going to get worse in the next five years, as they have done in the last five years. You are committed to reversing that trend but it is difficult for the Committee to see how you are going to reverse it.
  (Dr Whitehead) I think in terms of how that trend is reversed over the life of the Ten Year Transport Plan, in my view we have to do two things. We firstly have to ask ourselves what would have happened without the Transport Plan being in place and certainly there is strong evidence to demonstrate that had the plan not been in place—

  135. It has only been in place for six months.
  (Dr Whitehead) The problem with a plan that has been in place for six months is that one still, to some extent, has to deal with what trends look like and what trends might look like. Certainly there is strong evidence to suggest that the level of congestion, for example, would increase by 15 per cent to the end of that period if the Transport Plan were not to exist.

  136. That is forecast.
  (Dr Whitehead) In a sense your starting point is are you going up or are you beginning to move down? Certainly the effect of the Transport Plan has to, as it were, get through that 15 per cent otherwise increase in the first instance. What I would emphasise is that there are a number of issues both concerning modal shift in transport and concerning shift within the use of motor vehicles that contribute to a decrease in congestion, to a decrease in emissions, and a general sustainability issue of how vehicles and public vehicles make life easier around cities and towns and between cities and towns.

  137. Would you expect those headline indicators to improve over the next two or three years?
  (Dr Whitehead) I expect the indicators to improve during the life of the Ten Year Plan in conjunction with a number of things. For example, one cannot always make a direct correlation between a decrease in congestion and a decrease in emissions—

  138. I accept that.
  (Dr Whitehead)—because a decrease in congestion, which I believe will happen quite strongly in towns and cities as a result of this plan, is not always a smooth decrease across the country.

  139. Point taken.
  (Dr Whitehead) There will be ridges and dips.


 
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