European Transport Policy

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Mr. Pickles: May I refer to a point about aviation on page 16 of the fifth report of 200102 of the Select Committee on Transport, Local Government and the Regions? It says that the Commission is

    ''failing to reflect the commercial, environmental and economic needs of Member States.''

Does the Minister think that that is a little harsh or that it is a fair reflection of the White Paper?

Mr. Spellar: I am sorry; could the hon. Gentleman identify the paragraph?

Mr. Pickles: Of course. It is paragraph (e) on page 16, relating to aviation.

Mr. Spellar: I think that the Select Committee is drawing attention to the issue of airport capacityan area that we will tackle in the various regional airport studies to be published in the next few months and, subsequently, following consultation on the White Paper, towards the end of the year. We will certainly address that because it is the major constraint facing us. The Select Committee rightly addresses the fact that much work is being done, especially under the single European sky initiative, to manage airspace more effectively. However, that should not be seen as a significant constraint because runway capacity is the

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difficulty, especially in major hub airports. Other European countries are also facing that problem.

Mrs. Janet Dean (Burton): I want to ask the Minister for clarification of the United Kingdom outline network plan for the railways. The plan shows some but not all existing conventional lines on British rail. In particular, it does not show two in the Cumbria areathe coastal route, and the Crewe to Derby line that passes through my constituency, which could form a major cross-country route for freight and passenger services, linking west and east and increasing the capacity of rail in this country. I should be grateful for the Minister's view on the matter and for some reassurance.

Mr. Spellar: Certainly, with regard to our domestic lines, we are undertaking a rigorous examination to see where existing routes or routes that have been extinguished can be brought into operation to provide flexibility and additional capacity in the system. As my hon. Friend will know, in the West Midlands the Strategic Rail Authority recently announced the reopening of the Stourbridge to Walsall line for freight.

I am also aware that there are proposals from several district councils to reopen the Ivanhoe line to provide passenger linkage and take into account two phenomena taking place in that area: the considerable number of new estates that are being built and the increasing need to commute following the decline of some local industries. The work pattern is increasingly one of commuting to hubs of work, and the opportunity to do so greatly enhances communities. MPs and councils in the area have already raised the matter with me, and I know that my hon. Friend takes a keen interest.

We are alert to that issue. Although we do not regard it as part of the core European network, it is an important part of our commitment to provide alternative forms of public transport and to achieve our objective of a 50 per cent. increase in passenger traffic and an 80 per cent. increase in freight traffic.

Mr. Mark Francois (Rayleigh): May I also welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Hurst? It is a pleasure to be in a Committee chaired by a fellow Essex Member of Parliament.

My hon. Friend the Member for Fareham (Mr. Hoban) made a point about infrastructure charges. If there is going to be some long-term harmonisation of infrastructure charging throughout the EU, will the Minister say whether the revenue from those charges will go to member states or to the Commission?

Mr. Spellar: I will make the position clear so that there is no room for doubt. Harmonisation is about the desirability of the interoperability of technical systems. In other words, there would be a need for only one transponder and one technical system, not four or five different transponders. In the same way, there is a desire to have interoperable systems for toll tunnels so that there can be one account.

There is an understandable and proper desire to assess the extent to which we can have technical compatibility, so that a heavy goods vehicle, which is

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so often part of international trade, can operate in several countries using one technical system. That is different from the question of the level of taxation, and it is not an unknown phenomenon. After all, most of us have credit cards that operate under international systems in many countries, but have bank accounts in national banks that work under national regimes and are separate companies. There are advantages to having degrees of technical compatibility.

The same is true of industry standards throughout the entertainment industry with regard to DVDs, videotapes and audio tapes. It is possible to have individual national regimes. Part of the question is whether one charges according to time on the road or distance travelled. Different countries may have different answers, depending on their geography. Holland has roughly the same density of population as England, and has many similar transport problems, although it is fairly flat. Other countries have different problems to tackle. Some countries have many vehicles that just transit, and that will increasingly be the case as more countries to the east accede to the EU. I must make it clear to the hon. Gentleman that we are not talking about the harmonisation of the charge, but about the charge being revenue-neutral to provide a level playing field for the British haulage industry.

Jim Dobbin (Heywood and Middleton): I also congratulate you on your elevation, Mr. Hurst, and look forward to your chairmanship.

My constituency is split by the M60, which runs through the middle of it, and is midway between the ports of Liverpool and Hull and the M6 and M1 motorways. Distribution parks are either side of the motorway. As heavy goods vehicles cause many problems, what plans do the Government have to emulate some of the railfreight terminals throughout Europe?

Mr. Spellar: We are considering expanding railfreight and developing railfreight terminals. That is one reason why we were especially concerned about the events at Fréthun in France and the suspension of services. Last night, SNCF and various parts of the French Government held emergency talks, and I understand that the French Government announced that they would send more police to the site. That is enormously welcome, as there was a serious danger of operators, understandably, shifting back to operating by road freight. Several operators have already done so. That was a matter of concern mainly to the railfreight companies and their employees, and for Government policy. We have been actively engaged with our French counterparts to try to bring about an improvement.

It is not just our intention, but our objective to increase the amount of freight going by rail. As my hon. Friend rightly said, that requires the construction of appropriate freight terminals, and we are engaged in discussions on the subject. Off the top of my head, I cannot remember where discussions have reached regarding his constituency, but if he contacts me later, we can examine the position. We are engaged in such discussions in other areas of the country as well.

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Norman Lamb: The White Paper deals with road safety from page 64 onwards and talks about issues such as differences in signage, speed limits and legal blood alcohol levels throughout the European Union. Does the Minister regard those matters as appropriate for European-level action or does he consider that they should be tackled on the basis of subsidiarity, at member state level?

Mr. Spellar: We believe that those issues are most appropriately dealt with by member states.

Lawrie Quinn: Will the Minister outline the Government's position on a European pedestrian safety directive? The European Union has competence in that matter, so are the Government pressing for a change in the European White Paper so that it takes account of pedestrians? Walking is not only an important mode of transport but a fundamental part of getting about from vehicle to vehicle.

Mr. Spellar: There is more than that. The United Kingdom, with Sweden, has the safest roads in Europe. That is a record of which we should be proud, and several measures that we have taken provide good examples for the rest of Europe, particularly the way in which there has been a systematic approach taken by Governments of both parties during the years. However, we must admit that we are not as good on pedestrian safety, particularly child safety, so Department officials are working with officials in other European countries to try to establish the key differences and discover whether they include road design and vehicle speed or, more generally, lifestyle, urban design and patterns of play. We must get to the underlying data to enable us to have a clearer view of the problems of, especially, child pedestrian safety but also broader pedestrian safety.

The interaction between vehicles and pedestrians is of considerable concern. The agreement between the European motor industry and the Commission will enable much faster changes in design and earlier incorporation of pedestrian-friendly features to vehicles. That should effect a reduction in pedestrian accidents and is the right way to go.

Mr. Pickles: It occurs to me that the Minister could use his experience at the Ministry of Defence to give some views on the relationship between military and commercial airlines, and therefore the Commission's proposals. A degree of controversy seems to surround the issue, particularly in relation to northern France, so what does the Minister think about priority for military aircraft? Northern France is part of a busy and congested part of European skyway.

Mr. Spellar: We do not favour the incorporation of military into civilian airspace. There should be considerable co-operation between air traffic control in both spheres, as there is in this country, but we do not believe that one should be incorporated into the other.

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Prepared 13 March 2002