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

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 280 - 299)



  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.

Mr Stringer

  281. I am surprised that earlier on in your statement, Secretary of State, you said that local authorities were waiting with bated breath—those were not your exact words—for 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 convinced—and I hope to say something about this in the not too distant future—that 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 at all.

  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 cities?
  (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 bearing—of 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.

Mr Syms

  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 transport—and indeed, an awful lot of people in London do—would 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 transport.

  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 manifest?
  (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 have—and our officials talk to a range of councils, and about 30-odd expressed an interest—was 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.

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