Select Committee on Transport, Local Government and the Regions Minutes of Evidence


Examination of Witnesses (Questions 480 - 499)

WEDNESDAY 12 DECEMBER 2001

THE RT HON JOHN SPELLAR, MP, MR DENNIS ROBERTS AND MR BOB LINNARD

  480.  I can recognise that. We are not here to speak on behalf of local authorities but I am sure that those local authorities would say that, if there are additional funds being made available, good; it will make up for the years, or begin to make up for the years, when we suffered year on year costs and our ability to make the step change to provide alternative transport facilities so that people can hopefully move from their cars to public transport we need additional funds for. The point is still relevant, I think. Is the Department considering seriously the possibility of funds being made available so that a step change can take place in those authorities that want it on the basis of future income streams from workplace charging and congestion charging? Is the answer yes or no?
  (Mr Roberts) The Department considers all of the proposals in the local transport plans. Where they put forward proposals for big investments in public transport, such as light railway schemes, the assessment will take account of other proposals concerned with charging for workplace parking or congestion charging.

Chairman

  481.  That means you will take account of their plans or you will not?
  (Mr Roberts) We do take account of all of their proposals in determining the amounts made available under local transport plans.

Mr Stevenson

  482.  If a local transport plan had a particular objective for a public transport scheme that was going to come into operation in three years' time and that local authority wanted to implement workplace and or congestion charging to help pay for that but the facility does not come into operation in three years' time, would your Department be prepared to say, "All right. We agree with that. We will make the money available now on the basis of that income stream in three years' time"?
  (Mr Spellar) One of the key questions that we have to address in that regard is who would bear the risk in that. I think you are right to say that we have not yet resolved that particular issue.

Andrew Bennett

  483.  When do you expect to resolve it?
  (Mr Spellar) I do not have a timescale on that. The key underlying point is, in the event that an expenditure on local transport was predicated on an income stream, who bears the risk if that income stream does not materialise? That is a difficult question and one for which there is not a resolution.

Mr Stevenson

  484.  Are you considering this important issue urgently?
  (Mr Spellar) This is a matter that has been raised with me, although not in any formal sense, by at least one of the authorities. We are looking at that question but the timescale I am not entirely clear on.

Chairman

  485.  The trouble with that is that if you have entered this major caveat you have rather kicked the guts out of your ten year plan figures, have you not? You are saying, in effect, "Yes, we will look at the scheme if it is predicated on this assumption. However, we cannot go ahead with it unless we know who is going to take the risk." That must have been clear to you before you included these figures in the ten year plan.
  (Mr Spellar) These are two different areas. One is the question of whether there is up front money. The first question is whether a local authority will be able to introduce workplace charging or congestion charging or to make an application to introduce such a scheme and then to dedicate the moneys generated by that towards other forms of transport. The second question is essentially whether the Department would pump prime that scheme so that those other forms of transport were available at the same time or before the scheme of congestion charging or workplace charging came in. The plan dealt with the first one but I do not think that the plan was definitive when it came out before my time as to the second one.

Chris Grayling

  486.  I would like to press you slightly on your comments about your powers in relation to London. One of my concerns has been that decisions taken in London can have a significant knock-on effect on the surrounding area. I am sure that is something you will be taking into account in judging London schemes but do you actually have the powers? You said you have authority over the financial aspects of the scheme, but do those powers give you the ability to block a London based congestion charging scheme from taking place or do they not?
  (Mr Spellar) They give the Department the ability to not agree the scheme but only on the basis of the use of the funds that are generated. That makes the London position different from that in other local authorities.

  487.  In your view, based on what you have seen so far, is the Department likely to be in a position where it could take the decision one way or the other or are the schemes that are likely to come forward from London going to be in such a form that you do not have jurisdiction?
  (Mr Spellar) We do have jurisdiction and that is in terms of the use of the finance that is generated by the scheme. It is a more limited power than is available to a minister in respect of local authorities elsewhere in the country.

  488.  Would it be realistic to say that, when the full proposal finally lands on your desk, you clearly will consider whether or not it is appropriate for you to give it the go ahead and you will have the power to say no if you are not happy with the scheme in front of you?
  (Mr Spellar) The minister has the power not to agree the scheme if he believes it does not fit the requirements of the London government legislation.

Mrs Ellman

  489.  In the annual report, we are told that environment and transport are linked so that we can connect up interrelated policies and realise the synergies between them. That link has now been broken. What has been lost?
  (Mr Spellar) You mean in terms of their now being in two different departments?

  490.  That is right.
  (Mr Spellar) As a result of that, a lot of work has been done in order to maintain necessary linkages between the two departments at official level. They have always been in separate buildings; it is just that they have moved to another departmental building. There was concern at the time. I think officials were fairly sensitive to that and have been working to ensure that they maintain those aspects so that they are incorporating environmental considerations into the work that we are undertaking, both within modes and also between modes of transport.

  491.  Are you telling us that nothing has been lost and there was no particular advantage in doing this?
  (Mr Spellar) No. As always with departmental structures, it is a case of balancing advantages in different areas. Obviously, DEFRA would have to speak for themselves as to the advantages that they have obtained particularly in linking up the very considerable area of concern of the rural environment with agriculture. At the same time, we did recognise that certainly there would be a perception of a loss of linkage and that is precisely why officials have addressed themselves to their work, always recalling that there will have been strong linkages previously and obviously they are working to maintain those. I do accept that it is an area where there can well be a perception of a loss but a benefit on the rural environment side.

  492.  Why have you not retained responsibility for national air quality controls? You keep referring to the rural environment but surely that is important for the urban one, given the importance of traffic in polluting the atmosphere?
  (Mr Spellar) If you are talking about who retains lead authority, that is quite different from whether we incorporate that into the work that we are undertaking. We engage very much obviously in discussions not just here but on a Europe wide basis on levels of fuel efficiency, engine efficiency, and the ongoing negotiations as we move between different generations of vehicles and the very substantial reductions in pollutants and emissions from cars but also heavy goods vehicles in the way that I was describing with the developments of truck technology. One of the key driving forces, quite apart from congestion, although linked with congestion, for looking at night time delivery in urban areas is precisely to try and avoid that peak of pollution at the time when we have the rush hour. Therefore, you get a very real spike, particularly when there are a lot of people, including youngsters, out walking on the streets and therefore being particularly affected. With regard to our road programme, tomorrow when I announce local transport plans, you are looking at considerations either of improving the environment or of mitigating the projects that we have undertaken. That is very much at the core, in the same way with bypasses. Some bypasses, we believe, contribute to the environment by reducing congestion and therefore the build up of traffic and a reduction of air quality. Others, such as for example the Hastings bypass, which was an early decision to reject that certainly created some contention locally in Hastings, this was one where we believed that the balance of environmental issues outweighed the proposed but we believe not so substantial economic benefits. We deal with these matters very much at the core of our business.

  493.  How do you assess the cost effectiveness of traffic management in relation to air quality?
  (Mr Spellar) Traffic management is much broader than air quality although it has an impact on that because stationary vehicles, particularly vehicles that are stopping and starting at fairly regular intervals, are a major contributor to worsening of air quality. Therefore, something that ensures that traffic moves smoothly, both on an inter-urban basis and also within towns, is extremely important. Again with the local transport plans, you will see that there will be a very considerable number of schemes which are improvements at junctions, improvements of traffic lighting systems and so on. I think, in terms of looking at this in the broader context, there are a whole number of measures which are relatively minor in themselves although, for example, on the M42 round the Midlands conurbation about £40 million worth of active traffic management, which has a whole number of advantages in predictability of journey time but also we believe has significant advantage in terms of smoothing traffic flow which has a considerable advantage in fuel efficiency, CO2 emissions and also in air quality as well.

  494.  How does your Department ensure that transport addresses issues of social exclusion?
  (Mr Spellar) One of the key areas for dealing with that is in an area that is not particularly well covered by the media and that is to do with buses. If you look at patterns of travel, the use of buses, this is part of the problem of bus travel; it is perceived as being a service that primarily relates to those in lower economic groups and as a result of that it makes it slightly more difficult to achieve modal shift from cars. In order to enable people to get to facilities, shops, hospitals or other facilities or indeed to get to work, buses are enormously important. One of the great difficulties we are having at the moment is, while we are doing well with showcase routes going on main routes into city centres and getting quite significant increases in traffic there, we are seeing—and it is a regular source of complaint from Members of Parliament—the trimming or even elimination of some peripheral routes, which is having an impact on a particular number of urban estates. It is also an issue in rural communities. It is one of the reasons why my colleague, Sally Keeble, announced a move for enabling greater flexibility between quality partnerships with buses and quality contracts, in order to provide a tighter framework. We are in discussions with local authorities and transport authorities precisely in order to monitor this because we believe there has been a deterioration around the country in peripheral routes, with an effect on social exclusion.

  495.  What is it that your Department is doing to ensure that those peripheral routes are covered?
  (Mr Spellar) That is with the powers that we are giving to local authorities. That is why I described the quality contracts which are more route specific.

  496.  How are you going to ensure that this happens?
  (Mr Spellar) With difficulty, but we will then be monitoring that to see if that has an impact. If that does, fine; if it does not, we will have to engage in discussion with local authorities as to what further measures may be required in order to ensure that we have a fairly comprehensive coverage although, in rural areas, we do have to look at the balance between a scheduled bus service and possibly an organised taxi service which may be more effective.

  497.  Let us look at urban regeneration programmes and programmes pursued within the Department. When programmes for neighbourhood renewal are being pursued, such as New Deal for Communities, what specific involvement does your Department have to ensure that transport is addressed as part of the regeneration? I am not talking about monitoring; I am talking about ensuring that something happens.
  (Mr Spellar) On the detail, that would be done at official level.
  (Mr Roberts) The urban renewal unit and the neighbourhood renewal unit are part of the Department and deal with us on a regular basis on these matters. The main funding mechanism from the transport end is through local transport plans. That is where the local authorities would eventually bring forward their proposals, but the working up of the proposals would be carried out throughout the year with the officials in those units.

  498.  When you assess those proposals, do you ensure that transport issues are addressed and that transport is made available to people in those communities?
  (Mr Roberts) Yes. The main work on these proposals, the assessment of the proposals, is done within the government offices which is where all of the Department's work is brought together, as well as the interests of other government departments, so that the officials within the government offices will be looking across the whole range of issues for those areas and adding their local knowledge of the areas.

Chairman

  499.    That is not an answer. Let us take the fact that outside London, with two exceptions, bus patronage is still falling. Does that concern your Department?
  (Mr Roberts) Yes, because we have a PSA target on bus patronage.


 
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