Examination of Witnesses (Questions 240
WEDNESDAY 30 OCTOBER 2002
MP, MR MIKE
240. Can I say how delighted we are to see you
at this, your first but I hope not your last appearance before
us. You are most warmly welcome. Did you want to make any general
opening remarks or may we go straight to questions?
(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
241. Can I bring you to one of those objectives:
we would like to know whether you think the public understands
the debate around road charging.
(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 away. 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.
242. Do you think that the Government has a
responsibility to make that debate universal, to make sure everybody
understands not just the workings of particular schemes but why
they are necessary and what the alternatives might be?
(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 criticaland I strongly agree with this pointthat
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.
243. So the Department has a specific, targeted
plan to do a high-profile campaign to try and win that argument?
(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.
244. You say that we need to get the argument
across about the imperative to reduce congestion, and I am a general
supporter of that contention, but there seems to be some discrepancy
in the effect that urban charging schemes may have between those
figures in the ten-year plan and the figures produced by the Commission
for Integrated Transport. For example, the figure that urban charging
schemes may reduce congestion by in the ten-year plan is about
7 per cent, and the Commission for Integrated Transport's figure,
using the same model, we are advised, is 20-25 per cent. How do
you account for that discrepancy?
(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.
245. We would all accept the complexity of this
exercise, but if we are to win over public opinion, we need to
be as clear as we can be about the objectives. I think we can
agree on that. According to Professor Begg, it is not a matter
of assumptions and different models; he claims to have used the
same model as your Department used, and has come up with a figure
that is three and a half times greater. That is the first point.
The second point is that the 7 per cent figure was included in
the Transport Plan so you must have done some work, you or your
predecessor, to come to that conclusion.
(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
246. Can I put to you two further questions,
again, I am afraid, referring to the plan, because it is the only
thing we have to work on.
(Mr Darling) I have no difficulty referring to the
247. I have referred to it and the 7 per cent
is in the plan. It is not something I have thought up.
(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 indeedand I am sure
if David told you he used the same model, he undoubtedly didyou
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.
248. I am about to do it again. In the plan
there are schemes for charging, road user and workplace, and there
were 20 such schemes envisaged in the plan period to 2010. Again,
Professor Begg has argued in oral and written evidence to us that
with a fair wind, his assessment is that we shall finish up with
three road user charging schemes and one workplace charging scheme
in the plan period. What is your reaction to that scenario?
(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 generallyand this is something
the Committee will no doubt want to come back towe 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.
249. You talk about winning broad public support
for urban charging schemes. Again, I do not think there will be
any disagreement on that. One of the arguments that comes across
very clearly from a wide range of evidence we have taken is that
improvement in alternatives, namely public transport, is a requirement
if we are to win that support, and that should happen at the same
time, ideally, as urban charges are brought in. Is there not a
case therefore for the Government agreeing with those authorities
that have such plans and intend to introduce them to provide resources
at that time to improve public transport based on future income
(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.
250. As you have said, the plan envisages raising
£2.7 billion a year by 2010, which is part of the overall
financial package for the ten-year plan, but given the evidence
of Professor Begg and given what you yourself have just said about
the number of workplace parking charges, there must be a very
substantial question-mark as to whether those funds can be generated.
(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.
251. But it is money that is contained within
the overall figures that you used for the amount of investment
to take place in the ten-year plan.
(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.
252. You say it does not affect the overall
spending across the whole country. You are saying to government
that you will preside over a scheme to spend £180 billion
over ten years of the ten-year plan period. The £2.7 billion
to be raised by the congestion charges is included in that figure.
If these schemes do not work, the amount of money spent during
the ten-year plan period around the country will be less.
(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 apocalyptic view that I think you might be
taking in relation to this.
253. You talk about being one year into the
ten-year plan. There is considerable evidence now to suggest that
the projects set out within the ten-year plan are running late.
You yourself admitted as much in the chamber a couple of weeks
(Mr Darling) In relation to rail projects.
254. If those projects do not happen according
to the timetable that has been previously envisaged, do you accept
that it will make it much more difficult for many councils to
introduce urban charging schemes simply because the public transport
alternatives will not be there?
(Mr Darling) No, I do not think I would draw that
conclusion. When we publish the progress reportand 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.
255. You give the impression that the Government
has gone cool on congestion charging. Is that a correct impression?
(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 saidand this is patently obviousthe 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.
256. What do you think would be a reasonable
amount of time to assess whether a scheme was successful or not?
(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.
257. Can you give me a time?
(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.
258. I do not think any of us misunderstand
what has happened. The question is simpler than that.
(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.
259. Can you give any timenot just for
that one scheme, but is there any given amount of time that is
reasonable to make an assessment in?
(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.