Examination of Witnesses (Questions 120-139)|
MP AND DR
THURSDAY 22 NOVEMBER 2001
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
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
(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
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
(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.
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.
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
(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
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.
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.
132. I am sure the Deputy Prime Minister anticipated
(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.
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
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
139. Point taken.
(Dr Whitehead) There will be ridges and dips.