Examination of Witnesses (Questions 280
WEDNESDAY 30 OCTOBER 2002
MP, MR MIKE
280. So you are going to make that transparent
in your review so we can all judge what has happened in relation
to the previous plan?
(Mr Darling) Yes, you will be able to judge, not just
at the review stage; when we publish our progress report, you
will be able to say, "Where are they now? Are they on track
or are they not?" and certainly when it comes to the review,
because of its very nature, what I will want to do then is to
take stock of where we are, look at what is happening in the economy,
look at what is happening generally, and then draw conclusions
as to what is necessary. That is in the context, of course, of
the next Spending Review. That is what drives my timing there.
281. I am surprised that earlier on in your
statement, Secretary of State, you said that local authorities
were waiting with bated breaththose were not your exact
wordsfor the result of the London congestion scheme, because
they would look at that, and if it worked, they would take it
on. What comparisons do you think there are between London and
any other cities in the country? Do you not think that London
is unique, and is not easily comparable to other cities?
(Mr Darling) Patently, London is unique by its sheer
size and the fact that within 100 miles of it a very large number
of people live. That is incomparable, and neither the West Midlands
nor the Greater Manchester conurbation compares with it. You are
absolutely right about that. What I said was in reply to a point
Mr Stevenson was making. He was asking me whether I expect the
same number of people would be coming forward. What I said was
that those councils who are considering whether or not to adopt
congestion charges will be looking to see what happens in London.
We do know that, for example, Bristol are considering it, Edinburgh
is, Nottingham is the only workplace plan, and the Durham one
is on a much smaller scale. There are other councils as well.
What I said to Mr Stevenson was I suspect they will look, not
unreasonably, at what happens in London. Clearly, you cannot simply
say, "If this does or does not work in London it must or
must not work in Manchester or Edinburgh" or anywhere else
for that matter. Obviously, they would want to see, and it would
be surprising if they did not, what the experience shows.
282. Do you think it would be helpful if you
did what other, previous Secretaries of State have said that they
believed in, which is to re-regulate the buses, so that if cities
bring in congestion charging, the space on the roads is not taken
up by deregulated, empty buses?
(Mr Darling) No, I do not agree with that. Rather
like the railways, I believe that the last thing the buses need,
whether it is industry or passengers, is another period of uncertainty
while the Government considers fresh legislation, implements it
and puts it in place, because I think that would lead to three
to four years of blight. What I would rather do is to build on
what works, because there are areas in the country where there
has been increased bus usage, where, mainly due to a combination
of bus companies and local authorities working well, they have
substantially increased the amount of patronage. Leeds is an example.
I am not attracted to further legislation. I also think that there
are already provisions in the statute book which perhaps we could
look at operating a little bit more effectively. The other thing
I would say is that I am quite convincedand I hope to say
something about this in the not too distant futurethat
with the legislation we have, with the resources we have, with
the right political determination, frankly, we could give the
use of buses a much needed kick up the backside. I think there
are far too many places where local authorities have not used
the powers they have available, and not done the things they could
do which could increase bus patronage, and given that buses are
so important, especially outside London, it would be better to
do that rather than embark on a three- or four-year period of
passing legislation when I do not think very much would happen
283. You have said a number of times that it
is up to local authorities whether or not they introduce congestion
charging. Do I take it from that that you will not punish them
financially if they do not decide to introduce them?
(Mr Darling) No. You can hardly say, "You have
got a free choice but if you don't do what we tell you, we will
clobber you." that would not be very fair.
284. That is the logical position. I was just
confirming that that is the case.
(Mr Darling) If you look at the genesis of this, it
was local authorities coming to government and saying, "We
want this option." There was a lot of discussion in government
at the time. I remember it. I was not directly involved in it.
I was at the Treasury, I suppose. The idea was that local authorities
said, "We want this power,"and we said, "OK, but
you have to decide whether it is appropriate and you have to be
responsible for the implementation of it." It was never seen
as the Government's national strategy. There is a whole range
of other things you can do to help reduce congestion. This was
simply one part of it, and it was always seen as something that
we suspected, if you took the totality of local authorities in
the country, probably a small number would implement, at least
in the first period.
285. Finally, we have had written evidence and
heard oral evidence earlier on about what we all know to be true,
that there is a potential loss of jobs if you drive traffic out
of city centres to out-of-town shopping centres or competitor
towns. Of the 30 or so urban centres that you mentioned, the major
urban centres in the United Kingdom, do you think any of them
are completely unsuitable for congestion charging because of potential
damage done by out-of-town shopping centres or nearby towns or
(Mr Darling) I would not want to answer that and quote
an example without having at least discussed it with the example
concerned to see whether my impression was borne out. I presume
what you mean is examples of where jobs have gone from city centres
to out of town. I would question the assumption that net unemployment
has increased as a result of this. There has undoubtedly been
movement from city centres to out of town.
286. Inner city poverty might have increased.
(Mr Darling) I think the causes of inner city poverty
are very complex. I am not saying that changes to shopping and
employment levels in city centres do not have a bearingof
course they do, but I would question whether or not the underlying
causes of poverty in inner cities are as a result of changing
shopping policies. They are fundamentally to do with lack of work
and lack of education, both of which, as you know, the Government
attaches considerable importance to.
287. I was pleased to hear you say you may publish
guidelines for local authorities. Are you likely also to publish
within those guidelines some kind of measurement of what you consider
a successful scheme? In this age of joined-up government, although
one could focus purely on congestion and air quality, congestion
charging may have other perverse effects. We heard from Kate Hoey
that she had done a survey about teachers or nurses perhaps switching
jobs from outside the area because of cost, and the impact on
provision of other public services. Is it your intention when
you review these schemes not only to look at the transport aspects
but to look at the impact on business and indeed on public services?
(Mr Darling) I think in any review of any scheme you
would look at its total effects. It would be a deficient review
if you did not take into account everything that had happened.
I am bound to say I suspect even at this stage no doubt things
will be claimed both in favour and against that may be difficult
to verify, but of course you would want to look and see what the
total effect is, just as, in relation to the point that Mr Stringer
was making on out-of-town shopping, you want to look at the broader
effect as well as the narrow, transport effect.
288. Are you not concerned that if this big
idea of the Government's is going to work, you may have to push
marginal motorists, those who are rather poorer, off the road?
If somebody is well-to-do, they might well welcome congestion
charging. Is that something that concerns you?
(Mr Darling) Somebody who relied on public transportand
indeed, an awful lot of people in London dowould also,
I think, welcome any measures, and I have said to you congestion
charging is one of a large number of measures. It is not the be-all
and end-all of transport policy; far from it. They would welcome
the fact that their bus moved more quickly because it was not
being held up. If there is more public transport, that benefits
an awful lot of people, not just people on low incomes and benefits
but public transport users generally. I think you have to look
at these things in the round. The other thing is, put another
way, a congested town or city centre damages everybody. It is
not just the transport user; it is the economy, it is the air
that we breathe, it is a whole range of things, so I do think
we need to look at these things in the round.
289. Can I look at one or two things in the
round very briefly? Are you going to extend the ten-year period
for the use of hypothecated funds that is in the GLA Act?
(Mr Darling) I do not know. That is the answer. That
is something I will look at. My view is though, if you raise money,
whether it is congestion charging or anything to do with the use
of transport in that way, I think you need to put it back into
290. So you can promise us, because of your
good Treasury training, you will not suggest that if local authorities
raise money, you will somehow or other compensate the Treasury
by quietly slicing some other amount of money off transport?
(Mr Darling) I know better than to ever anticipate
what the Treasury might do. Your general proposition is, if you
have something like congestion, and you are saying to a road user,
"You are going to be paying X pounds to come in here,"
you have to be able to say that X pounds is going in to improve
the transport system.
291. You will make that clear to them?
(Mr Darling) I have no difficulty in that. That happens
to be a view that I held even when these things were being discussed
some time ago. On a subject like congestion charging, if you are
going to take people with you, they will say, "Where is the
money going?" and if you say, "I am not really very
sure," you are in difficulties.
292. Are you therefore going to make it very
clear to local authorities who launch forth on congesting charging
schemes that the Government is giving them total backing, that
it gave them this power, and where they have decided to use it,
the Government will support them?
(Mr Darling) Yes. As I said to you, in principle,
we gave them the power. I know what you are going to say.
293. In actuality you gave them the power, Secretary
of State, not in principle.
(Mr Darling) Yes, but it is the principle that is
underpinned by the actuality, you are absolutely right. Whether
or not a scheme would be approved, which we have to do for the
non-London local authorities
294. I am not asking you about approval. Nobody
is seeking to limit the action of the Secretary of State. What
I am asking you for is something different. It is very clear that
the general public are not on board, and we want to know if, using
the machinery that you have given them as a Department, if local
authorities come to you and say, "This is one way in which
we can raise money in order to improve transport systems within
our own area," are you going to make it very clear, both
to the general public and to the local authorities, that you do
accept this is a workable way of looking at raising money and
you support the idea?
(Mr Darling) Yes, because me having approved it, it
would be perverse if I then did not think it was a good idea.
If a council comes to me with a scheme worked up and we say, "Yes,
that is fine," then of course they will get that 100 per
cent backing for doing it.
295. You are going to lead a campaign to make
those arguments quite clear, that you will persuade the motorists
that actually they are not hard done by?
(Mr Darling) You are going from a particular to a
very general point here, Mrs Dunwoody.
296. Come now, Secretary of State. Would I go
from the particular to the general?
(Mr Darling) Yes, I think you would.
297. I think what this Committee will say to
you is, within a certain period of time, we would assume these
arguments must become public, and that the Government's position
must be that they want to lead the argument about the alternatives
in transport, whatever position you determine. Can you give us
an undertaking that following not only the ten-year plan but also
the decision on congestion charging and the suggestion from local
authorities that they are going to come forward with schemes,
you will be prepared to lead a campaign to make these arguments
(Mr Darling) The first argument that not only has
to be won but which is one that I intend to pursue with some vigour
is that we have to tackle the problem of congestion. How we actually
do it will depend whether it is an inter-urban problem or whether
it is an urban one, on the particulars of each, individual case.
You asked me about councils coming forward with particular schemes.
If I have approved it, it follows that I must support it. Otherwise,
I would not have approved it.
298. Will they come forward if they are not
sure whether you think it is a good idea?
(Mr Darling) I do not think that is what is holding
back local authorities. As I said right at the start, the impression
we haveand our officials talk to a range of councils, and
about 30-odd expressed an interestwas that they are looking
to see what happens in London next February.
299. You just told us London is not necessarily
an exact example.
(Mr Darling) It is not an exact example, but I cannot
believe that any councillor that is sitting on a council that
is considering these schemes will not be looking to see what happens.
The particulars may not be extractable to every part of the country,
but of course they are going to ask themselves, "How did
it go? How was it received? How did they deal with the various
problems?" Coming back to your more general point, there
is no doubt that congestion is a major problem to us, both economic
and social, and it has got to be dealt with. That is the first
part of the argument we have got to win. How it is dealt with
will depend on the particular circumstances and it will vary from
place to place. As I said to you right at the start, congestion
charging is only one of a number of measures. There are many other
measures, which obviously we will no doubt cover on other occasions,
like the better management of the road system, better management
of road works, investment in public transport. All these things
are critically important. There is not one magic thing that we
can produce that will solve what is quite a complicated problem
and which varies in its manifestations from place to place.
Chairman: We are delighted to have your assurance
it is a complicated problem, Secretary of State. We are very grateful
to you. Thank you very much for giving evidence to us.