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

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 240 - 259)




  240. Can I say how delighted we are to see you at this, your first but I hope not your last appearance before us. You are most warmly welcome. Did you want to make any general opening remarks or may we go straight to questions?

  (Mr Darling) Perhaps I could just make one or two general remarks. Firstly, thank you for your own introductory remarks. I have not the slightest doubt that I will be here again and again to answer for what the Department is doing, and I look forward to that. In relation to congestion charging, I thought I would just make a preliminary observation. Congestion charging is just one of a number of measures that are available to local authorities, and, of course, London, in order to deal with congestion. They are one of a number of measures, including public transport, better use of existing road space, dealing with road works, and so on and a range of measures that are available to local authorities. The legislation has made clear that local authorities have an essential role in combatting especially local congestion, and it is entirely appropriate therefore that they decide whether or not to bring forward a scheme and to be responsible for the implementation of it. If they do that, I believe that the local authorities ought to bear three things in mind. Firstly, it has to be part of an overall strategy with very clear objectives. It has to be effective and workable, and the consequences of it need to be worked through. The final point is that I believe it does need to command broad public support. With anything you do in relation to transport, particularly those areas that are new and controversial, anyone introducing them does need to be sure that they win the argument for taking whatever measures they think appropriate and then seeing them through. Those are my preliminary comments. Obviously, I am at your disposal in relation to that or any other matter that you or your Committee members want to raise.

  241. Can I bring you to one of those objectives: we would like to know whether you think the public understands the debate around road charging.
  (Mr Darling) It depends who you speak to. Clearly, in London, for example, there will be a greater awareness that a congestion charging scheme is going to be introduced in February next year. If you go to Edinburgh, there is probably a greater understanding, even though that scheme there is at least four or five years away. But I dare say if you go to other parts of the country where it has not been a live issue and raise it with the man or woman in the street, people will say, "What's all this about?" It varies largely according to who you are talking to, but certainly in London there cannot be many people who are not aware of the issue.

  242. Do you think that the Government has a responsibility to make that debate universal, to make sure everybody understands not just the workings of particular schemes but why they are necessary and what the alternatives might be?
  (Mr Darling) I start with the second point you make. I think it is absolutely critical that the government, whether national or local, engages with people about the central argument, and that is the need to reduce congestion, not just because congestion affects the ease of being able to move around, but because it also causes pollution and it affects quality of life. It has an economic and social effect as well. I strongly believe that before you do anything here, you have to win the argument that some action needs to be taken. If you can win that argument, you go on to the second stage and advance the argument for parking controls or the need to spend more money on buses or trains or congestion charging or better control over road works or whatever it is. But it is critical—and I strongly agree with this point—that you win the argument that action needs to be taken, otherwise we will reach a situation where many parts of the country, towns and cities in particular, will grind to a halt. If you ask me are we doing enough, the answer is clearly we could be doing a lot more, because the level of debate varies as between town and city, but I do say this: if you cannot convince people there is a problem, you will have a hell of a job trying to convince them there is a solution.

  243. So the Department has a specific, targeted plan to do a high-profile campaign to try and win that argument?
  (Mr Darling) No, it does not at the moment. I am advancing my belief, and it is one of the things that while I am Secretary of State I intend to do. I cannot refer you to a plan within the Department, an action plan saying we are doing this, that and the next thing and the specific dates, but if you ask me do we need to get across to people that there is a problem, then yes, we do. It is not just in towns and cities, of course. When I announced a number of schemes two or three weeks ago for tackling bottlenecks and pinch-points on the motorway and trunk road network, part of my argument is that we know there are these points within the system that need to be tackled; that is why we are spending that money dealing with them. The first point in dealing with this whole question is you have to get across to people that there is a problem, and that that problem affects each and every one of us individually. To be blunt about it, as I said, I think people's state of awareness about these things varies tremendously up and down the country, but if you cannot convince people there is a problem, or if government itself denies there is a problem, we are simply storing up problems for the future, and it would be grossly irresponsible of any government not to show a lead here and say there are problems with congestion, there is a variety of ways and means by which you can deal with it, there is not a uniform solution to all these things, but the problems that congestion will cause us economically, environmentally and socially are such that we have a strong duty.

Mr Stevenson

  244. You say that we need to get the argument across about the imperative to reduce congestion, and I am a general supporter of that contention, but there seems to be some discrepancy in the effect that urban charging schemes may have between those figures in the ten-year plan and the figures produced by the Commission for Integrated Transport. For example, the figure that urban charging schemes may reduce congestion by in the ten-year plan is about 7 per cent, and the Commission for Integrated Transport's figure, using the same model, we are advised, is 20-25 per cent. How do you account for that discrepancy?
  (Mr Darling) I cannot offhand account for it. All I would say to you is that inevitably, in an area like this, where frankly we are in something of virgin territory, we cannot be sure what the effect of a congestion charging scheme would be in any particular city because there are so many unknowns. For example, it would depend on what public transport alternatives you had. Would people simply decide they are going to pay anyway? What would be the knock-on effects? It really depends on what particular models are used. If the Committee wanted to explore the methodology our Department used as opposed to the Commission's methodology, I would be happy to do that. Frankly, we are in an area where there is certainly nowhere in Britain, apart from Durham, which is a very small-scale project which has just started, and indeed there are very few areas in the rest of the world, where large-scale congestion charging is being tried out. Inevitably, you can make projections, but they are based on assumptions that may not prove to be the case.

  245. We would all accept the complexity of this exercise, but if we are to win over public opinion, we need to be as clear as we can be about the objectives. I think we can agree on that. According to Professor Begg, it is not a matter of assumptions and different models; he claims to have used the same model as your Department used, and has come up with a figure that is three and a half times greater. That is the first point. The second point is that the 7 per cent figure was included in the Transport Plan so you must have done some work, you or your predecessor, to come to that conclusion.
  (Mr Darling) Yes, but it depends, does it not, on the assumptions made? I know David Begg was giving evidence to you a short while ago, and obviously I do not know what he said because I was not listening at the door, but it would really depend on the assumptions. To come back to the point you asked me about in relation to the objectives, the objectives must be to reduce congestion, whether it is urban congestion in relation to congestion charging or congestion generally. I do say to you I think it is beyond doubt that if you introduce a range of measures, there will be a reduction in congestion, if you do them in the right way, but inevitably we are in territory that is new to us in this country. I know there are examples in other parts of the country, but it is inevitable that people, even using the same model, but possibly taking different assumptions, will come to different conclusions.

  246. Can I put to you two further questions, again, I am afraid, referring to the plan, because it is the only thing we have to work on.
  (Mr Darling) I have no difficulty referring to the plan.

  247. I have referred to it and the 7 per cent is in the plan. It is not something I have thought up.
  (Mr Darling) Do not misunderstand me. I know it is in the plan because the Government when it drew up the plan made assumptions. You were asking me why are our conclusions different from David Begg's conclusions, and indeed—and I am sure if David told you he used the same model, he undoubtedly did—you can get different conclusions depending on the assumptions that you draw from it. You are quite entitled to refer me back to the Government's ten-year plan because that is the current statement of the Government's policy.

  248. I am about to do it again. In the plan there are schemes for charging, road user and workplace, and there were 20 such schemes envisaged in the plan period to 2010. Again, Professor Begg has argued in oral and written evidence to us that with a fair wind, his assessment is that we shall finish up with three road user charging schemes and one workplace charging scheme in the plan period. What is your reaction to that scenario?
  (Mr Darling) In 2000, when the plan was drawn up, it was envisaged there would be eight congestion charging schemes and I think 12 workplace parking levy schemes. I think the answer to your question depends to a very large extent on what happens in London next February. We know that there are many local authorities who are watching to see what happens in relation to London. If it works, I suspect you may get more local authorities saying, "OK, let's see what we can do." At this stage I think it would be premature for us to say we think there are going to be eight or more than that or less than that. A lot, as I say, depends on what happens. In relation to the workplace parking levy, Nottingham, as you know, is the only city which is actively considering it. I am not saying it is not being looked at, but in terms of schemes that are some way along the way, Nottingham is the only one. I think it would be surprising actually if in the ten years you got as many workplace schemes as the ten-year plan envisaged. I may say generally—and this is something the Committee will no doubt want to come back to—we plan to publish a progress report on the implementation of the ten-year plan within the next few months. No doubt you will want to come back to that. I have already said that I will be publishing a more general revision in 2004, which, of course, will take into account the progress that has been made in relation to both the matters you raise.

  249. You talk about winning broad public support for urban charging schemes. Again, I do not think there will be any disagreement on that. One of the arguments that comes across very clearly from a wide range of evidence we have taken is that improvement in alternatives, namely public transport, is a requirement if we are to win that support, and that should happen at the same time, ideally, as urban charges are brought in. Is there not a case therefore for the Government agreeing with those authorities that have such plans and intend to introduce them to provide resources at that time to improve public transport based on future income streams?
  (Mr Darling) In relation to English local authorities, which would, of course, have to obtain the Department's consent before introducing them, we have made available something like £9 billion through local transport plans, or will do rather during the course of the plan period, and the amount of money available for transport is increasing. How they choose to spend that, whether it is on large-scale plans or major investment in buses or whether they want to do lots of small things is a matter for them, but I agree with you; you have to have the public transport in place. I do not think I would agree with you that, before any specific plan came up in relation to a local authority, the Government would in advance have upped their grant over and above anything that anybody else was getting. Obviously, we consider all these things on their merits, but we are making available an awful lot more money to local authorities. I do agree with your central proposition though: if you are going to say to people "Use public transport", the whole argument would fall flat on its face if there is not public transport there in the first place.

Chris Grayling

  250. As you have said, the plan envisages raising £2.7 billion a year by 2010, which is part of the overall financial package for the ten-year plan, but given the evidence of Professor Begg and given what you yourself have just said about the number of workplace parking charges, there must be a very substantial question-mark as to whether those funds can be generated.
  (Mr Darling) This is money that would have been raised locally and would have been spent locally. In some ways, it is similar to a council taking a decision in relation to Council Tax. If the councils decide for one reason or another not to have a charging scheme, it follows they will not have the extra money to spend in their area, but it is not money that would have come back to the Department or the Treasury and been available for the general spending. Clearly, the amount of money that is raised depends on there being a scheme in the first place, but it is local money, to be raised locally and then spent locally.

  251. But it is money that is contained within the overall figures that you used for the amount of investment to take place in the ten-year plan.
  (Mr Darling) It is set out in the ten-year plan. It is money over and above that money provided either by central government or raised through the private sector, but if a council decided not to proceed with a scheme, it follows therefore it will not have the income to spend on whatever it was that it had in mind in relation to transport. It does not affect our overall level of spending across the whole country. What it does mean though is if a council decides not to raise money in its own particular area through a charging scheme, it patently is the case it will not have it to spend.

  252. You say it does not affect the overall spending across the whole country. You are saying to government that you will preside over a scheme to spend £180 billion over ten years of the ten-year plan period. The £2.7 billion to be raised by the congestion charges is included in that figure. If these schemes do not work, the amount of money spent during the ten-year plan period around the country will be less.
  (Mr Darling) What I was indicating to you was that it is not as though that money would be raised in a particular locality and brought back to central government for spending in relation to the generality of transport spending. The whole concept behind congestion charging is that the council would raise the money and then spend it on local projects. What I am saying to you self-evidently is that if they decide not to do it, they do not have the money. The other thing I would say though for the sake of completeness is remember, the ten-year plan will be revised in 2004 at the next Spending Review, and again in 2007 at that Spending Review, and of course, there is also money unallocated, particularly in the second half of the spending. So at this stage, one year into the ten-year plan, you will understand why I perhaps do not take the same apocalyptic view that I think you might be taking in relation to this.

  253. You talk about being one year into the ten-year plan. There is considerable evidence now to suggest that the projects set out within the ten-year plan are running late. You yourself admitted as much in the chamber a couple of weeks ago.
  (Mr Darling) In relation to rail projects.

  254. If those projects do not happen according to the timetable that has been previously envisaged, do you accept that it will make it much more difficult for many councils to introduce urban charging schemes simply because the public transport alternatives will not be there?
  (Mr Darling) No, I do not think I would draw that conclusion. When we publish the progress report—and you will be able to see what we have done so far, then I think it would be useful to engage in a discussion, and you can then say at that stage, "When we look at all this, how much more do you think we need to do in order to keep on the general profile that you set out?" But in relation to congestion charging, as I said to Mr Stevenson earlier, at this stage I think it would be foolish to draw a concluded view, but clearly it is something the Government will keep under review.

Mrs Ellman

  255. You give the impression that the Government has gone cool on congestion charging. Is that a correct impression?
  (Mr Darling) No. What I did was I set out the principle, which is that I think congestion charging, along with a range of other measures, can be a very useful means of reducing congestion. I also said—and this is patently obvious—the devil is clearly in the detail. It has to be part of an overall strategy for reducing congestion in a particular area, it has to be workable, and as I said, it does need to command broad public support. If you had asked me about that in the year 2000, if I had had responsibility for transport then, I would have said exactly the same thing to you, and if you ask me about it in the year 2006, if I were still here, I would give you the same answer. Our position remains the same: in all these things, the devil is in the detail. You have to get the actual workings of these things right, because you have got to be able to take people with you and say, "OK, it is a reasonable thing to do". If you cannot do that, you are in difficulty.

  256. What do you think would be a reasonable amount of time to assess whether a scheme was successful or not?
  (Mr Darling) I know you had a lengthy questioning of the Mayor of London on this point. I think you can really only draw conclusions once you have a chance to assess whether or not a scheme is working. It may be in relation to London that something happens very quickly that points to remedial action being taken or that you need to do something quite radical quickly and you cannot wait for ages. There are other things. If you look at the long-term effect on reducing congestion or in displacing traffic along the line of the cordon, that may take longer.

  257. Can you give me a time?
  (Mr Darling) No, I cannot. It is the Mayor's scheme. It is Transport for London. It is his people that have put this thing together. He has to take a view. I cannot second-guess him. Parliament has decided to devolve responsibility for government of London and London transport to him. He has to decide.


  258. I do not think any of us misunderstand what has happened. The question is simpler than that.
  (Mr Darling) If you ask me could he assess his congestion charging scheme in more or less than two months, I am not in a position to say.

Mrs Ellman

  259. Can you give any time—not just for that one scheme, but is there any given amount of time that is reasonable to make an assessment in?
  (Mr Darling) Obviously, you would want to make an assessment as quickly as you reasonably could, but there are some things that could take several months before they bed in, before you can reach a concluded view.

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