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

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 260 - 279)



  260. So you are saying you cannot give any time?
  (Mr Darling) No. If you ask me, "Is it two months? Is it three months? Is it four months?" No, you cannot do that.


  261. Could you do it the other way round and say two months might be difficult?
  (Mr Darling) I would think in two months it would be difficult to come to a concluded view unless there were some very significant event that was causing so much difficulty that it caused you to come to a quicker judgment, but in terms of proper evaluation of any transport scheme, two months is on the short-ish side.

Mrs Ellman

  262. What about the definition of congestion itself? Is there more work going on in the Department on the definition of congestion?
  (Mr Darling) Yes. Amongst other things, you as a Committee said, I think, your position was that you accepted the measure the Government has is a measure, but you thought there were other and better measures we ought to look at, and we are looking at a range of measures. One of the things I feel quite strongly about—and stop me if I am going on too long—is that having a measure is important, because otherwise people will not know whether you are succeeding or not, but I really think we also need to break down the whole problem of congestion into its constituent parts. Not all Britain's roads are congested all of the time. We know where the pinch-points are on the motorways and the trunk system. We need to take specific action there. We know there are particular problems in particular cities. London is a classic example. We need to concentrate more on particular localised problems in relation to congestion far more than we are doing at the moment. At the moment we tend to be concentrating on the very big picture, and in so doing we might be missing some of the key points that we need to tackle.

  263. Are you saying then that the Department is looking at different measures of success for road charging schemes?
  (Mr Darling) No. We are looking and we will continue to look at a range of measures for looking at congestion and of evaluating the progress we are making, and I suspect in congestion, rather like measuring poverty, there is no one measure that captures everything that you want to look at. It makes sense therefore for us to look at a range of measures, and when we have come to a conclusion, of course we will tell Parliament. That is what we have to do.

  264. When the review is published, will that contain new definitions or new figures on congestion?
  (Mr Darling) I cannot say at this stage. We are at a fairly early stage. What I can say is that the Government said at the start of this ten-year process that we would be judged on, amongst other things, our ability to reduce congestion. Reducing congestion remains the key objective. If we look at other measures and evaluate them—and remember, there is a number of measures that have been put to us, not least by your Committee, where we have to do further work to see whether or not you can actually do a proper measurement and so on. So it is really too early at the moment to come to a view on that.

  265. But in principle will the measures established by the Department be consistent with the measures in the local transport plans?
  (Mr Darling) They have to be consistent with each other, otherwise you would end up distorting policy, apart from anything else.

  266. Is the answer yes?
  (Mr Darling) You ask me are we looking at these things. You are now asking whether I have reached a conclusion, and I have not reached a conclusion.

  267. No. I am asking you about principle of things at the moment. If the Department decide to establish different measures for success, will those measures also be used in the local transport plans?
  (Mr Darling) I see. You are asking would it be consistent as between local and national. Yes, of course they have to be consistent between local and national, because what happens locally builds up to the national picture, but we have reached no decision on that.

Tom Brake

  268. Secretary of State, firstly, if your Department had been keen and enthusiastic about congestion charges from 1997 onwards, would you have saved the Deputy Prime Minister's bacon? You will recall he said five years ago that if he had not reduced road traffic within five years, he should be held to account. Of course, he has failed in that promise. Secondly, if the Department for Transport is now a keen advocate of congestion charges, and that is not entirely clear to me yet, why is there no government guidance for local authorities on congestion charging, and why is there no action plan, as you have confirmed today, to promote the advantages of congestion charging?
  (Mr Darling) Let me deal with these points. Firstly, my recollection is congestion charging was not raised with the Government by local authorities until 1998. That is the first time I recall discussions about it. It took some time to work it up. Secondly, you ask about whether congestion charging would have been brought in any earlier. We have consistently said it must be up to the local authorities concerned as to whether or not they introduce it. It is only one of a number of measures that might be appropriate. It is not a uniform, across-the-board solution. It can be appropriate in some areas; it may not be in others. In relation to your guidelines point, here you do have a point, if I may say so. I have been reflecting on this over the last few weeks, and I think there is something to be said for the Department producing guidelines for the benefit of local authorities. If you press me and say, "When are you going to do it?" I think the answer is that I would like to have the benefit of seeing what happens in London in February, because it would be a bit daft to produce guidelines, say, a month before London introduced its scheme, only to have to say, "Here is the second edition" in March, and given the fact that we are not exactly being pressed by lots of local authorities before that time, it would be sensible to do the guidelines, but make sure they are right.

Clive Efford

  269. What steps is your Department taking to enforce the congestion charging, particularly in London, to support what the mayor is attempting to achieve? How confident, for instance, are you that the information held by the DVLA is accurate enough for enforcement?
  (Mr Darling) Firstly, we do not enforce it. The operation and the rest of it is for the Mayor and his people.

  270. But it relies on information supplied by your Department.
  (Mr Darling) In relation to DVLA, that is our responsibility, and whilst the vast majority of car records are up to date, it is well-known that the DVLA needs to do an awful lot better. That is something that is in process separately and we do in any event.


  271. It has been for some time now, Secretary of State.
  (Mr Darling) I do not shrink from that at all. There are an awful lot of things in the Department that have been around for some time that it would be nice to arrive and find they had all been done.

  272. Not the Secretaries of State; just the systems.
  (Mr Darling) I think some of the systems have been around a lot longer than the secretaries of state. I am reasonably optimistic I may be here for a wee while, and the DVLA and the state of its records is one of the things that I fully intend to see if we cannot improve.

Clive Efford

  273. If you were inputting "Michael Mouse" to a computer, would you not think all was not well with the registration of a vehicle? I am reliably informed by enforcement officers that they frequently come across vehicles registered in names of that kind.
  (Mr Darling) Yes, I think there is a number of things we can do and we ought to be doing to make sure that we can verify the identity of someone registering a vehicle. In fact, as you may be aware, a few weeks ago we announced a number of measures to tighten up verification of people, especially in private sales, with people buying and selling, to make sure that you can better identify the person. But there is a lot more to do. The DVLA clearly has a huge number of cars, and it gets a lot of things right, but there is a problem with a minority of cars where we are not satisfied that the records are right. Yes, it should have been done years ago, but it was not, and it is something that needs to be attended to.

  274. Is your Department going to issue any guidelines regarding the technology for any future schemes? I have concerns about the technology involved in enforcement, and monitoring the scheme that the Mayor is proposing. Any future schemes would need to be part of a national network if we were moving towards widespread use of congestion charging.
  (Mr Darling) Clearly, my Department will be monitoring the development and the working of the London scheme, and in so doing one of the things it will monitor is the effectiveness of the IT and the other equipment that is being installed. Will we issue guidelines? I think the first thing to do is to see what happens, draw our conclusions, and I would think it is more likely than not we would publish something in the light of experience. It would go with the point that Mr Brake made in relation to the more general guidelines. That may be a bit further down the line. To evaluate the effectiveness of the IT would take longer than a couple of months.

  275. Can I ask about targets in the ten-year plan? How integral to meeting those targets are congestion charging schemes and parking place schemes? Will you have to revise the targets for increased use of rail, buses and traffic reduction?
  (Mr Darling) As I said to you right at the start, congestion charging and workplace levy schemes are one of a wide range of measures that can be adopted. If you look in the ten-year plan, for example, it suggested there might be eight congestion charging schemes. There are about 30 large towns and cities in this country. It was only a small number. It was always seen as something that local authorities might want to do; it was never seen as a central part of our strategy.


  276. Forgive me, Secretary of State. I always hesitate to argue with someone of your quality, but congestion charging was actually one of the two key objectives in the ten-year plan.
  (Mr Darling) Congestion charging was only one of a number of other measures that also were directed towards reducing congestion.

  277. So you have an action plan which will deal with the situation if the congestion charging schemes are not producing the amount of money that you need to progress the ten-year plan.
  (Mr Darling) There are two things there. One is that I do not see congestion charging as being a means of raising money to finance the ten-year plan.

  278. This is an interesting discussion but actually it was written into the ten-year plan.
  (Mr Darling) Yes, but this is the conversation I was having with Mr Grayling a short while ago.

  279. I hope you are not going to go back over that because we understand the problems.
  (Mr Darling) No, I will not repeat it, since when you consider your findings, you will have my evidence there. I will not repeat that point, but what I can say to you is that as I review the ten-year plan, as I have said I am going to do in the context of the 2004 Spending Review, clearly I will consider everything in that plan, and obviously I will ask myself, "Are we on track? Do we need to do more? Has everything worked in the way it was intended, or do we need to make changes?" I repeat the point that I am not in the business of tearing up everything we have done so far, because that would be absolute madness, but of course you have to look at this plan. It is an evolving plan; it is not something that is fixed in 2000 and it never changes.

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