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Delegated Legislation Committee Debates

Trunk Road Charging Schemes (Bridges and Tunnels)(England) Procedure Regulations 2001

Third Standing Committee on Delegated Legislation

Tuesday 5 November 2002

[Mr. Peter Pike in the Chair]

Trunk Road Charging Schemes

(Bridges and Tunnels) (England) Procedure Regulations 2001

10.30 am

Mr. Christopher Chope (Christchurch): I beg to move,

    That the Committee has considered the Trunk Road Charging Schemes (Bridges and Tunnels) (England) Procedure Regulations 2001 (S.I. 2001, No. 2303).

I see that the Minister is just arriving. I knew that he would have to burn the midnight oil over these regulations, because they concern a serious issue. The Opposition asked for this debate so that we could ask questions, because the Government policy on bridges and tunnels charging is very much up in the air, not least as a result of the attitude that they seem to be taking towards the Mersey Tunnels Bill. The Government have also failed to issue any response to the consultation carried out in 1995 on the regulation of tolls at statutory undertakings.

On the specific issue of toll roads and crossings on trunk roads, I understand that the crossings affected are the Dartford-Thurrock crossing, the Severn crossing and, prospectively, the Birmingham northern relief road, although I am not sure whether that has bridges and tunnels. I should be grateful if the Minister would explain current Government policy on those crossings, because the toll on the Queen Elizabeth II bridge, which will have paid for itself by April next year, is now set to continue. As a result, about £50 million a year will be generated for the Government, which is not an insignificant sum. Indeed, I think that the Secretary of State for Transport recently called in the media men to make an announcement about investing £160 million on the trunk road network over three years. However, from next April he will receive an extra £50 million just from the Dartford-Thurrock crossing tolls.

What procedures should there be for people to object to any proposals? There seems to be a difference between the Government proposals for procedure relating to trunk road charging schemes, and the arrangements for charging schemes that are introduced in, for example, London. As the Minister knows, there is great outrage in London because there has been no opportunity for people to express their views at a public inquiry. That is a significant shortcoming. Why does he feel that the mechanism of a public inquiry is appropriate in the case of trunk roads, but not in the case of congestion charging in the centre of the metropolis, which is likely to have an even bigger impact on the motoring public than charges on the Severn crossing, for example?

I hope that the Minister's answers will illuminate our discussion.

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10.33 am

Mr. Don Foster (Bath): I am delighted to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Pike, in what I suspect will be a brief sitting. I note with considerable interest that we are debating regulations that were laid well over 12 months ago. I confess that I find it rather strange that we are debating the matter only now. So old is the proposal that the Table Office had difficulty providing copies of the regulations to enable us to debate them. Nevertheless, the procedures are no doubt correct or we would not be here.

What is to happen to the moneys that will be raised under the scheme? The Minister is well aware that, in the lengthy debates during the passage of the Transport Act 2000, much was made of the possible use of revenues from other forms of charging on trunk roads and motorways, workplace parking schemes—if they are ever to be introduced—and especially congesting charging. Ministers gave clear assurances at that time that they were well aware that those revenues should be used for enhancing public transport in the relevant area. Can we have the same assurance in respect of the charges levied under the schemes covered in the regulations?

I agree with the hon. Member for Christchurch (Mr. Chope) about the importance of consultation, and I too will be fascinated to hear why the consultation arrangements for the proposed charges appear to be different from those for all other forms of charges.

The Government must give a clearer and stronger lead on charging schemes generally. The Committee is well aware of the controversy surrounding the congestion charges that will be levied in London in the relatively near future. We have yet to hear from the Government whether they support that scheme or are opposed to it. Greater Government clarity on the regulations would be enormously helpful, especially with regard to the Mersey Tunnels Bill, which is clearly covered by the proposal, although the Government still have not said clearly where they stand on it. There is considerable concern about growing congestion and pollution on the roads, so it is important that instead of saying that have they provided the opportunity in legislation for those powers to exist, the Government go further, stick their neck out and say where they stand on the various schemes that are proposed or are already in operation.

10.37 am

The Minister for Transport (Mr. John Spellar): I was interested in the hon. Gentleman's peroration, not least because I recall that some months ago in the Chamber, given the powers for councils outside London to propose congestion charging, I asked whether any such council controlled by the Liberal Democrats, singly or in coalition, had actually made such a proposal. At that time—things may have changed in the meantime—not one Liberal Democrat council had chosen to avail itself of the opportunities given by Government statutes, so it is a bit rich for him to ask for clarity from everyone else but his own party. The hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake) seemed to be in favour of freight traffic

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going on to the railways, but certainly not in a Liberal Democrat-held constituency in the north-west—

Mr. Foster: Let me make it clear to the Minister that where there are existing or proposed schemes, the Liberal Democrats in those areas have made their position very clear. In London, for example, we have made it abundantly clear that we support congestion charging. I well recall the Prime Minister making it absolutely clear on the Floor of the House, relatively soon after the passage of the Transport Act 2000, that every Labour candidate standing for the Greater London Authority would oppose congestion charging. My local authority took very unpopular measures to reduce congestion in our city, for which it got into much hot water. We do not sit on the fence, so I ask the Minister where he stands on—

The Chairman: Order. We do not want too long an intervention, nor do we want to get on to wider transport policy and congestion charges. We are discussing a particular set of regulations. I have given the hon. Gentleman a chance to respond to the Minister.

Mr. Spellar: I can only conclude from the hon. Gentleman's remarks that the situation has not changed since our exchange in the Chamber some months ago. I accept your stricture, Mr. Pike, because this is a narrow set of regulations that deals with procedural matters.

The regulations—I stress that they came into force on 20 July 2001—play a role in ensuring that the process is properly accountable where road user charging schemes are proposed for trunk road bridges and tunnels. I add, in parenthesis, that the Mersey tunnel is not covered because it is not a trunk road.

I shall give a little background on the regulations to allow them to be seen in context. The Transport Act 2000 gave the Secretary of State a power to introduce road user charging schemes on trunk road bridges and tunnels of more than 600 m in length. The regulations

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ensure that the power is used correctly, fairly and transparently. Section 168(3) of the Transport Act 2000, under which they were made, states that the Secretary of State may make regulations about the charging orders that would need to be made to introduce the trunk road charging scheme, and also their variation and revocation. The section especially provides that the regulations should set out the format of such orders, and how proposals and final decisions about them should be publicised. In addition to the items mentioned in the Transport Act 2000, the regulations—I stress again that they came into force in July last year—set out a list of statutory consultees for such schemes, and minimum periods for public consultation. I am sure that we all find that broadly acceptable.

The regulations do not impose any burdens on anyone outside Government, but simply set down the procedures that must be followed when a charging scheme is proposed to ensure that there are proper democratic safeguards. A local authority is therefore somewhat different in that regard, especially outside London. A democratically elected local authority must properly take local opinion into account when it proposes any charges. A local authority outside London must, of course, get such an order agreed by the Secretary of State. Part of the consideration of such an agreement is that there has been adequate public support and proper public consultation. Where the Secretary of State makes such proposals, the regulations ensure that the proper procedures are followed so that there is accountability and transparency.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

    That the Committee has considered the Trunk Road Charging Schemes (Bridges and Tunnels) (England) Procedure Regulations 2001 (S.I. 2001, No. 2303).

Committee rose at seventeen minutes to Eleven o'clock.

The following Members attended the Committee:
Pike, Mr. Peter (Chairman)
Brake, Tom
Burgon, Colin
Chope, Mr.
Cohen, Harry
Cunningham, Tony
Foster, Mr. Don
Francis, Dr.
Osborne, Mr. George
Randall, Mr.
Ruddock, Joan
Ryan, Joan
Spellar, Mr.
Watts, Mr.

 
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Prepared 5 November 2002