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


Examination of Witnesses (Questions 520 - 539)

WEDNESDAY 12 DECEMBER 2001

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

  520.  In the plan for the ten year transport investment in expenditure, there is big chunk of that particularly for the railways and London as well but there is big investment expected from the private sector. Out of a total £63 billion, the government is hoping for £33 billion. How confident are you that the private sector will still be on target to make up that amount?
  (Mr Spellar) We already have the Channel Tunnel Rail Link which is an extremely successful public/private partnership. We are looking with regard to major new schemes on the railways with special purpose vehicles which are fairly similar, using the model of the Channel Tunnel Rail Link precisely in order to benefit not only from bringing in private sector capital but also from bringing in private sector expertise in the running of these major projects. That is exactly what is happening with the Channel Tunnel Rail Link which is both on time and to price and moving very rapidly across the Kent countryside.

  521.  Yesterday, I received representations from EWS that they are gravely concerned—I wondered if you had the figures in the Department—about the new security arrangements that the French authorities have introduced. Basically, they will only check between nine o'clock at night and three o'clock in the morning. This has reduced enormously the amount of rail freight that is able to travel through the Channel Tunnel. Have you also received representations? Are you looking into them and do you have evidence that there is now more freight going by road as a result of this, which I gather is a very recent development?
  (Mr Spellar) It is undoubtedly a major problem. I have had representations not only from EWS but also from a number of other freight handlers and those who are running freight depots in this country. There is a very real concern at the impact that this is having on their business. I was at the European Transport Ministers' Council last Friday and raised this directly with the French Minister again, as I have done at previous meetings. There are further discussions this week at official level. There are other mechanisms, quite apart from increasing the levels of security at Sangatte and Fréhun—for example, running trains straight through, assembling at Lille and running straight through and therefore not sitting in the yards, vulnerable to these mass attacks of groups of refugees trying to get onto the trains. We are exploring that with the French authorities as well.

  522.  You have probably also received representations from people in my constituency. How confident are you against the background of this recent hiccup that you can reach the 80 per cent increase in rail freight over the ten year period and the 50 per cent increase in passengers travelling by rail which you have set out as the Department's ambition?
  (Mr Spellar) Two separate issues there, obviously with regard to passengers and to freight. I in no way disguise that the difficulties in cross-Channel are giving us some concerns with regard to freight levels. In other areas, there are some quite encouraging developments of shift of even goods which have traditionally gone by road. Quite a number of motor manufacturing companies are using rail to take their goods to and from Felixstowe, Southampton and so on and I think we are working well with them. Also, there are proposals for increasing that capability.
  (Mr Linnard) Given that we are only a few months into the ten year plan, we are on track for hitting the targets of 50 per cent passenger growth and up to 80 per cent freight growth. The detail of the schemes that are going to be put in place to realise those targets will be set out in the Strategic Rail Authority's strategic plan which is coming out on 14 January. That will contain a lot more detail than is in the ten year plan about exactly what needs to be done, what the priorities are and where the investment is going to be going.

  523.  How do you justify the underspend by your Department in last year's annual report. As a personal hobby-horse of mine, I am delighted to see in your response to this Committee's report on walking in towns and cities that you are minded to no longer approve staggered crossings. Would you go further and request that they be removed, where they do exist?
  (Mr Spellar) With regard to walking and the report on walking, there is further work to be done on that. As you know, we already have a consultative group on cycling. I had a meeting with the various pedestrian organisations quite recently. We are looking at how we can take that on further. In cycling, we have appointed Steve Norris as the chairman. After all, he was the Minister who set the targets so we thought it was a good idea to get him to lead the campaign to achieve them. We are looking at how we can engage further, always trying to get away from the inevitable tag of Monty Python sketches, to address a serious issue and get some positive work on that. We are looking at the broad guidelines for local authorities to see how those can best be updated but leaving them reasonable discretion in order to run their local schemes. With regard to spending levels, contrary to press reports, there is not an underspend on the roads programme, either locally or nationally.

  524.  It was Lord Falconer, not a press report.
  (Mr Spellar) There are two quite different issues here. One is on departmental spending across the board. In some areas that are ring fenced, for example on regeneration money, there is year end flexibility under three year spending plans. Answering on the transport side, we are not facing an underspend on roads, as I indicated. Contrary to reports, there is not an underspend either locally or nationally.

Mr O'Brien

  525.  260 miles of road widening, 18 major new routes, a number of new bypasses on trunk roads, the ten year plan. Are we going to meet that target?
  (Mr Spellar) Yes. We are only a few months into the ten year plan and for the first time local authorities and the construction companies and others are able to work on a fairly steady ordering programme. We see no reason why we would not meet that target.

  526.  Having regard to the fact that the two bypasses in Hastings have been refused, is this not offering an opportunity for opposition to road building to protest more on the environment grounds?
  (Mr Spellar) I think it is quite reasonable that people raise issues surrounding any form of transport undertaking because any development requires a balanced judgment and that is partly about congestion, economic viability, being part of a national transport system and the impact locally. There will also be effects on households, whether noise, air quality levels or visual intrusion and also the impact on the habitat, whether animals, birds or plants and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty. It is a case of getting that balance. My judgment on Hastings was that the proposed economic benefits of the question of the number of people who were from the areas of high deprivation in Hastings, which undoubtedly there are areas of high deprivation in Hastings, that whether the bypass would have a sufficiently favourable impact on them or on the economic activity in the area, balanced against the environmental considerations.

  527.  I agree it is a question of balancing the benefit of the roadway as to the inconvenience caused to residence. That is a matter you have to judge but putting roads near schools? Surely that is a different matter, when you have noise, environment, what is the attitude of the Department to that kind of thing? In my area, there is one 200 metres away from a new school, a new roadway being planned near a school. Surely, that is the kind of situation that would give these environmentalists the opportunity to complain?
  (Mr Spellar) Again, it is a question of balance. It is also a question of mitigation. It is a question of whether you have double glazing in order to cut out noise and also best estimates as to the impact on air quality. Traffic that is moving at a steady pace has less of an impact on air quality in the immediate area than traffic that is congested and stalled, stopping and starting. Again, it is evaluating the individual circumstances, taking the broad criteria, evaluating the data with regard to a particular project and, at the same time, making a judgment on where the balance of advantage lies for that scheme. That is partly local but it must also be on a regional and national basis.

  528.  The environment of a children's area, a playground and the pollution from the vehicles is surely a matter that has to be given serious consideration?
  (Mr Spellar) It certainly has to be a factor taken into account, yes.

  529.  How does building new roads in response to congestion levels differ from the old predict and provide policy? We used to predict the number of cars and then say, "We will build a road." How does the new policy on relieving congestion apply to the old predict and provide policy?
  (Mr Spellar) In many cases, we have the very real, current problem of congestion, from the representations not just from Members of Parliament and local authority members but also from communities, very much seeking to be relieved of the pressures in their area that have a very significant impact on their quality of life. This is true in many northern towns where the road system runs very much through residential areas that are very close to the highway. There is very real concern about being able to achieve a bypass in those areas.

  Mr Stevenson: Concern has been expressed that local authorities may not have the numbers or the expertise in their staff to effectively draw up local transport plans. Do you share that concern?

Chairman

  530.  Mr Roberts, do you share that concern?
  (Mr Roberts) Most authorities have the skills still within the authority or have access to them. Many have developed links with consultants who have those skills and they do rely on consultants for a lot of the work.

Mr Stevenson

  531.  If they have not got it in-house, they can get it out of house?
  (Mr Roberts) Yes.

  532.  That costs money. These concerns and possible solutions to these concerns have to be reflected in the resources available. How is your Department trying to reflect that in the resources available to local authorities?
  (Mr Roberts) It costs money whether it is done in-house or out-house. Using consultants who are skilled in the work does not necessarily cost any more than using in-house staff.

  533.  If there is now more responsibility on local authorities, which there is, if local transport plans are the kernel of what the government are about, and they are, if therefore local authorities are going to have more responsibility, wider responsibilities, in producing these local transport plans, how can you effectively say to local authorities, "We know you have this additional responsibility. We know how important it is, but we do not think it is going to cost anything"?
  (Mr Roberts) I thought you were still on the point of whether it was in-house or out-house.

  534.  I am.
  (Mr Roberts) Internal or external. I am saying that the cost of external is not necessarily greater than the cost of internal staff. That is the point I am making. The position overall on resources is covered in the Standard Spending Assessment which meets the general needs of administration, preparation of plans, as well as delivering the main in-house services.

  Mr Stevenson: Moving on to another area very quickly. Given that planning and planning guidance is critically important in developing transport plans and policies, why did the Government relax the maximum parking spaces available, for example, to food store developments in the final version of PPG13?

Chairman

  535.  Minister, I think that is your responsibility rather than Mr Roberts' responsibility.
  (Mr Spellar) I would have to write to the Committee on that.

  Chairman: We will accept a note on that.

  Mr Stevenson: Perhaps I can help the Minister because, as we understand it, for example, the maximum parking spaces available to food stores has been relaxed by no less than 30 per cent. The question is how is that consistent with integrating our transport provision and discouraging the use of cars?

Chairman

  536.  You will give us a note on that, Minister?
  (Mr Spellar) Yes, we will give you a note on that.

Mr Stevenson

  537.  Safety, particularly pedestrian safety in terms of motor vehicles. Why, as it appears to be the case, did the Government effectively downgrade the European Directive that would require motor manufacturers to incorporate pedestrian safety facilities in their motorcar designs? Why did the Government downgrade that to an agreement under pressure from the motor manufacturers?
  (Mr Spellar) I think basically because it was felt that most of the objectives could be achieved by agreement but also, more importantly, could be achieved in a much shorter timescale.

  538.  The timescale, I think, was the next few years leading up to 2010, if memory serves me correctly. What steps are Government, therefore, going to take to ensure that motor manufacturers deliver on their part of the agreement?
  (Mr Spellar) This will be very much at a European level because this is a European-wide issue. In other words, all the manufacturers are selling very heavily in each of the markets and that is why nearly all of these developments, whether on fuel efficiency or on pedestrian safety, are at a European level and, therefore, we will be working with the Commission on that.

  539.  Besides that, if the agreement is effectively implemented the protection for pedestrians that was envisaged under the Directive will be achieved?
  (Mr Spellar) We believe that we will get a satisfactory level of protection and we will get that sooner by the negotiation with the manufacturers.


 
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