WEDNESDAY 30 OCTOBER 2002
Mrs Gwyneth Dunwoody, in the Chair
Examination of Witnesses
RT HON ALISTAIR DARLING, a Member of the House, Secretary of State for Transport; MR MIKE GOODWIN, Branch Head, Charging and Local Transport Division, Department for Transport; and MR TIM FAIRCLOUGH, Government Office for London, examined.
(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.
(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 ago. 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.
(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.
(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 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.
(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.
(Mr Darling) I have no difficulty referring to the plan.
(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.
(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.
(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.
(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.
(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.
(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 apoplectic view that I think you might be taking in relation to this.
(Mr Darling) In relation to rail projects.
(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.
(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.
(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.
(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.
(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.
(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.
(Mr Darling) No. If you ask me, "Is it two months? Is it three months? Is it four months?" no, you cannot do that.
(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.
(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.
(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.
(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.
(Mr Darling) They have to be consistent with each other, otherwise you would end up distorting policy, apart from anything else.
(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.
(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.
(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.
(Mr Darling) Firstly, we do not enforce it. The operation and the rest of it is for the Mayor and his people.
(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.
(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.
(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.
(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.
(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.
(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.
(Mr Darling) Congestion charging was only one of a number of other measures that also were directed towards reducing congestion.
(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.
(Mr Darling) Yes, but this is the conversation I was having with Mr Grayling a short while ago.
(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.
(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 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.
(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.
(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.
(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.
(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.
(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 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.
(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.
(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.
(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.
(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.
(Mr Darling) Yes. As I said to you, in principle, we gave them the power. I know what you are going to say.
(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 ----
(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.
(Mr Darling) You are going from a particular to a very general point here, Mrs Dunwoody.
(Mr Darling) Yes, I think you would.
(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.
(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.
(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.