HC Deb 09 July 2003 vol 408 cc1175-95 1.15 pm
The Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. Alistair Darling)

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a statement about the next stage in implementing our transport investment programme. I also want to set out how we are planning ahead to meet the pressures that we know we will face on our roads in 20 to 30 years' time.

The pressures now on road and rail are well known. We are dealing with the consequences of decades of under-investment, coupled with the pressures of rising prosperity. We are one of the largest economies in the world. People are better off, and they are travelling more. Our future prosperity depends on us helping people and goods to move around as efficiently as possible, but we must do so in a way that is consistent with our environmental and social objectives.

The Government are committed to sustained, high levels of investment in transport, with £180 billion of public and private investment over 10 years—a 45 per cent. increase in real terms, compared with the previous decade. Last December, I announced major investment in roads, light rail and local transport in the light of recommendations from studies of five strategic routes. Today, I am announcing the next stage: my decisions in relation to a further 11 studies, covering the south coast, west midlands, Tyneside, south and west Yorkshire, Hull, the Thames valley, the M25, the M60 around Manchester, and the corridors between London to Ipswich, Norwich to Peterborough and London to the south midlands.

Full details of all my decisions will be available in the Vote Office, but I want now to set out the approach we are taking. First, we are making better use of existing infrastructure, by improving its management and dealing with bottlenecks. Secondly, we are improving public transport, so that it provides a better choice. Thirdly, we are investing in new capacity where it is needed to tackle congestion and improve safety. Fourthly, we are planning ahead for the pressures that we know that we will face in 20 to 30 years' time. I will deal with each of those in turn.

The first stage must be to make better use of the road capacity that we have already. That is why we are giving the Highways Agency new powers to manage traffic, and why the agency will establish a regional control centre in the west midlands next year to monitor trunk roads and provide up-to-date, reliable information to motorists.

Not all roads are congested all the time, but sections of many roads are under pressure during at least part of the day. That is why, from next year, on the M42 at peak hours, we will see controlled use by cars of the hard shoulder, operating under stringent safety conditions. That, combined with variable speed limits and other measures, will ease congestion and help keep traffic flowing. Today, I have asked the agency to assess the results of that pilot scheme before I consider the case for widening the M42.

Following study recommendations, I shall ask the agency to examine improved traffic management to tackle congestion on other routes, including in the Thames valley, parts of the M60 in Manchester and sections of the M1, M62 and M18 in south and west Yorkshire, including the possibility of hard shoulder running at peak hours there as well. We shall be consulting motoring organisations and others to make sure that we get the detail right.

We also need to continue with road improvements to tackle bottlenecks to improve safety and reliability. So I shall ask the Highways Agency to work up proposals to tackle bottlenecks, including improvements to a number of junctions on A19 in Tyneside; improvements to junctions and limited widening on the M27 around Southampton; and improvements at the Brook Street interchange between the M25 and A12.

The second element of our strategy is to invest in improvements to rail and other public transport to provide a better choice for travellers. Work is already under way to improve the main rail arteries—for example, the £9 billion upgrade of the west coast main line, plans to enhance the capacity of the east coast main line, a strategy to make better use of capacity for the midland main line, as well as a £1 billion investment in a new power supply south of the Thames and the biggest replacement programme for rolling stock ever seen in this country.

Against that background, those studies made a number of further recommendations. Some of their objectives are already being taken forward by the Strategic Rail Authority, including a new hourly service between Ashford and Brighton, to be introduced with the new franchise in 2005, and a proposed hourly service from London to Leeds through Nottingham. The SRA is examining the business case for reopening the east-west rail link between Bedford and Oxford. In Kent, the SRA is also examining how to integrate new and existing domestic services to make better use of the channel tunnel rail link.

The Thames study also recommended better public transport links between the Thames valley and Heathrow. The SRA and the BAA are developing a new service to Heathrow, which it aims to start late next year, enabling more people to travel to the airport by public transport, from both the Thames valley and west London. Over 10 years, we will invest £33 billion of direct public expenditure in rail. By 2005, we will be spending double what we did in 2001. I am asking the SRA to look at how it can meet other study objectives through its work to make better use of the network and the refranchising process.

Most journeys, however, are local trips of fewer than five miles. Within our 10-year investment programme, therefore, we have already included £19 billion worth of capital spending to improve local transport across the country, and last December I announced substantial investment in local public transport. Today, the west midlands study specifically looked at local transport in the largest conurbation outside London. It recommended major improvements, including extensions to the light rail system and substantial investment in better bus routes. In the light of that, I have decided to make up to a £1 billion available for further improvements to local transport in the west midlands over the next seven years, dependent on the passenger transport authority bringing forward realistic plans.

By next year, we will be giving local authorities three times more money for local transport as they had in 1997. Today, I am asking authorities to work up proposals for a range of improvements recommended in the studies. I also support recommendations for local authorities and bus operators to develop an extended network of bus and coach services to make that a more attractive option.

We are therefore making better use of existing capacity and investing in improvements to public transport. Even after doing that, however, pressures will still be on the road network. On any view, existing capacity is not enough to cope with today's demands let alone the pressures that we will face. As the 10-year plan made clear, we need to widen and improve trunk roads to tackle congestion and improve safety and make journeys more reliable. That brings me to the third element of our approach.

Today, I am endorsing recommendations for improvements to some trunk roads of regional importance: for example, widening to three lanes the Al2 from Colchester to the M25; widening the Mll to three lanes between junctions 8 and 9; a northern bypass for Dunstable; and dualling the A421 from Bedford to the M1. We also need to invest in improvements to capacity on key arterial routes, however. Last December, I announced proposals to widen to four lanes both the M6 between Manchester and Birmingham and the M1 through the east midlands, as well as other major improvements. The studies that we are dealing with today recommended further improvements to strategic road arteries, including further stretches of the M1 and the M25.

Today, therefore, I am asking the Highways Agency to develop proposals to widen the M1 from the M25 to Milton Keynes to four lanes and also to widen parts of the M1, M62, Al(M) and M18 in south and west Yorkshire. That, in conjunction with the measures that I announced earlier, will significantly expand capacity of the M1 from London to Yorkshire. A third of the M25 already has four lanes. Today, I am also asking the agency to take forward the study recommendation to widen most of the remaining three-lane sections of the M25 to four lanes, and, as recommended by the west midlands study, to develop a strategic link between the new M6 toll road and the M54. Many of these improvements support the Government's plans for the growth areas in the Thames gateway, between London and Cambridge and in the Milton Keynes-south midlands area.

We have to bear in mind that our central objective is to enable people to travel in a way that is consistent with our environmental and social objectives. There are therefore some recommendations in these studies that I cannot accept. As I said before, unless there is an overriding public interest in a scheme, there should be a strong presumption against building roads through areas of outstanding natural beauty or other sensitive sites. We have a clear duty to do everything that we can to preserve the environment. On regeneration grounds, the west midlands study recommended dual carriageways around Stourbridge and Wolverhampton. The justification, however, as the local planning inquiry recognised, was doubtful. These roads would cut through an area of remarkable unspoilt countryside. I believe that we can find better ways of achieving regeneration of the west midlands. That is why I reject those proposals and instead support the case for the regional assembly's study of regeneration in the black country.

Similarly, on the south coast, the Arundel bypass would cut across water meadows damaging an area of outstanding beauty. I am rejecting that proposal, as well as proposals to expand junctions with flyovers on the Chichester bypass and the proposal for a tunnel at Worthing. Each, in my view, has environmental consequences that are unacceptable and avoidable. In addition, at an estimated cost of more than £500 million, there are question marks over the Worthing tunnel's affordability. There are problems on these roads, however, and I am therefore asking the Highways Agency to identify alternative solutions, recognising the need to support planned economic growth. In addition, on environmental grounds, I am asking the agency to take a hard look at other recommendations to see if there are less damaging alternatives. For example, I accept the need for safety improvements to the level crossing on the A27 at Beddingham. The road already runs through an area of outstanding natural beauty, however, and I am asking the agency to redesign the scheme to reduce its impact on the surrounding landscape.

I have set out today how we have adopted a measured and balanced approach: targeting action where it is most needed, making better use of existing capacity, investing in public transport and strategic increases in capacity. However, I believe that we now need to go further, which brings me to the fourth element of our approach.

Looking ahead, as the economy grows and people become better-off, we know that we will face increasing pressures on road space. As I have said previously, looking 20 to 30 years ahead, we cannot build our way out of all the pressures that we face. Now is the right time to examine how making use of modern technology could make better use of road space in the future. As we do that, we will do it in a new context. In the next four years, we will introduce charging for all lorries using UK roads based on the distance that they travel. Accompanied by a reduction in fuel duty, overall, the UK haulage industry will not pay more. That will allow us in future, for example, by varying charges, to encourage lorries to use motorways at off-peak times.

Clearly, however, there is a world of difference between a scheme for 430,000 lorries and one for 26 million cars. No country in the world has done anything on such a scale before. Technically, that is an entirely different proposition to congestion charging in London, for example, where a charge is paid to drive within a boundary. There are many issues that need to be addressed, such as the protection of privacy and whether such a scheme could work technically. That is why the time has come to set up a feasibility study to investigate these issues in detail. Last month, my Department held a seminar for motoring, business and environmental groups and others to look at these issues. It was clear that for a scheme to be sustainable in the long term there needs to be a consensus—not just politically but a consensus across the country.

Today, therefore, I am publishing a discussion paper looking at managing roads to get the best out of the road space that we have, the possibilities opened up by new technology, and getting the balance right between additional capacity and measures that ensure that benefits are locked in, whether through physical measures or pricing. Copies of this discussion paper will be available from the Vote Office. Our objective must be to provide a better deal for the motorist. Road pricing would be a radically different approach, but it could have huge potential to reduce congestion to allow faster, more reliable journeys, giving motorists a better choice about how and when they travel. We would be failing future generations if we did not test its feasibility and examine the gains that could come from it.

We are investing in major improvements to our transport infrastructure—both road and rail. We are putting right decades of neglect and underinvestment. We are facing up to the pressures that we know that we will face in the future. I commend this statement to the House.

Mr. Tim Collins (Westmorland and Lonsdale)

I thank the Secretary of State for his customary courtesy in providing me with a copy of his statement. Let me begin by declaring both an interest and a direct personal experience. In the 1960s and early 1970s the farm on which I grew up was surrounded by peaceful countryside. Then it was decided to put the M11 through a field to one side of the house. Later, the M25 was put through a field directly behind the house. After that, we had to get used to bright lights throughout the night and a constant roar of traffic 24 hours a day. Quick checks indicate that what the Secretary of State has announced—widening motorways largely within the present embankments—seems unlikely to have much effect on that family home or the businesses on those parts of the surrounding land owned by my family, but it may make things a little noisier.

Given that personal background, I have every sympathy with those who are concerned about the impact on themselves and their environment from road projects. However, like the vast majority of those living near motorways, I use them myself; and like absolutely everyone else in this country I rely on goods and services almost entirely carried by road. Whatever the personal inconvenience to some of us, and however close to home it gets, the fact remains that Britain urgently needs an upgraded road network. Whatever other accusations may be levelled at me, I therefore hope that I can be acquitted of nimbyism—my family's back yard is already more than playing its part.

Does the Secretary of State accept that his announcements today on widening several motorways and dealing with a number of bottlenecks are hugely welcome but also hugely belated?

I will not ask the Secretary of State to apologise for the shocking blind alley down which the Government went after 1997 when they seemed to believe that, if they stuck their head in the sand and refused to build any new roads at all, the needs of business and motorists would simply go away. I will not ask him for an apology, because it was not his decision. However, will he please get an apology from the man who got it all so catastrophically wrong throughout the last Parliament—the Deputy Prime Minister?

Does the Secretary of State understand the genuine anger of many businesses, large and small, at the fact that their competitiveness has been steadily eroded by the growing gap between the quality of the British road network and that in the rest of Europe? Will he confirm that, even with today's announcements, we will still have a smaller road building programme than in many other European Union member states and that, after its completion, we will still have significantly fewer miles of motorway per head of population than any other major EU country? Will he also confirm that, even with these projects, he does not think he has a prayer of hitting the targets in the 10-year transport plan for cutting congestion?

On rail, will the Secretary of State confirm that, while he boasts that he will double the amount spent by the taxpayer between 2001 and 2005, it will be 2010 before train punctuality returns to the levels of 2000. On buses and coaches, why has he specifically rejected the recommendation of the M25 orbit multi-modal study for a strategic authority to create a high-quality orbital coach network?

The Secretary of State indicated today that he wants to toy with the idea of road pricing in order, presumably, to appease the environmentalist lobby. But, characteristically, he does not actually want to commit himself, lest he antagonise motorists. Should he not stop playing a game of tease, and admit his real intentions? Was not his silence on several key points about road pricing immensely instructive? Who would pay for the installation of the necessary hi-tech equipment in each and every car on our roads—the Government or the driver?

What about the confidentiality of the records kept by the road pricing computers? This Government used medical records to smear a little old lady who complained about her hospital treatment, so how could they remotely be trusted not to abuse computer records giving information about where every driver in the country drives for every minute of the day or night?

With Ministers having already exempted themselves from paying the congestion charge, why was there no pledge that they would themselves pay any road pricing charges that they introduce? Does the Secretary of State not see that it would be absolutely scandalous if, yet again, the Government introduced one law for themselves and a different law for everyone else? Above all, why was there no categorical assurance—indeed, no assurance at all—that road pricing charges would not be additional to the sky-high motoring taxes that we already have? Does not that show that the Chancellor of the Exchequer would simply use road pricing as yet another stealth tax—this one a particularly punitive, regressive and vicious stealth tax—on top of all the other tax rises the Government promised not to bring in but then slapped on the British people?

How can the Secretary of State possibly believe that charging motorists for driving on any road, at the eye-watering figure of up to 50p a mile, can remotely be justified when we already have the highest fuel taxes in the western world? When will the Government learn that they should stop seeking to penalise, persecute, harass and overtax the British motorist? When will they accept that driving is not a sin?

All that the Secretary of State has promised us today on the roads is what last month he promised us on the railways. If the nation gives the Government billions of pounds in extra taxes and waits patiently for 10 years or so, things might just get back to being only as bad in 2010 or 2013 as they were in 2000. Does he not recognise how utterly unacceptable that is? Is it not now clear that motorists and businesses will never get a fair deal from this Government?

Mr. Darling

Let me deal with the hon. Gentleman's final point, which was all too predictable. As I know from experience, it can sometimes be difficult for Opposition spokesmen to look ahead and consider the bigger picture, but the hon. Gentleman clearly failed to do that. I shall return to that point shortly.

I shall deal with some of the points that the hon. Gentleman raised. The road studies are all entirely consistent with what we said in the 10-year plan, namely, that existing roads would have to be widened and improved. It was all clearly set out. I caution the hon. Gentleman about suggesting that somehow we have been neglectful of road building. It is common ground in many parts of the House that successive Governments have been guilty over the years of stop-go funding for transport. I remind him in the nicest possible way that, in 1990, the then Conservative Government announced plans to build 500 routes. By 1997, only 150 were left on that list; the rest had to be cut because of the public expenditure difficulties that they had got themselves into. He should be careful about suggesting that somehow his Government were not guilty, as other Governments have been, of stop-go funding. With the £180 billion of public and private expenditure that is available, we are now ensuring that we are putting money steadily into our transport infrastructure.

In relation to the railways, spending is doubling and reliability will improve. One thing is certain: if spending were to be cut by 20 per cent., reliability would get worse and worse, and we would go back to the problems that we inherited.

Given everything that the hon. Gentleman said about bureaucracy, I am astonished that his one new policy announcement is that he wants a strategic authority for coaches. I should have thought that running buses and coaches was best left to existing organisations, rather than to a new quango set up to do it.

That brings me to the points that the hon. Gentleman made about road pricing. Let me plead guilty to the fact that road pricing is not something that the Government dreamt up. Indeed, I am sure that some Conservative Members will recall that, in 1993, an excellent document called "Paying for Better Motorways" was published by the Conservative Government under the signatures of the Secretaries of State for Transport, for Wales and for Scotland. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Mr. Collins) says that he rejected it, but perhaps he should take a good look at Hansard of 1993 and 1994. On 2 December 1993, the now Lord MacGregor set out what the then Government were going to do, including taking forward plans for pricing and legislation. Guess who asked the question? The treat of putting a planted question is usually given to a loyal, trusted Back Bencher—someone who is going places and who agrees with the Government's policy. I see that the question was asked by the current Leader of the Opposition.

To claim that the Tories know nothing about road pricing and would have nothing to do with it is slightly disingenuous. I understand that the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale once had a job as a researcher in Conservative party central office. He should go back and start doing his research.

We are about to introduce, with the complete support of the road haulage industry, lorry road user charging from 2006. It will be accompanied by a reduction in fuel and other duties so that the industry will not pay more overall. The advantage to the industry, which it recognises, is that the charge will be based on the distance that the lorries actually travel. That also gives us the potential to ensure that, if people travel at off-peak times when the roads are less crowded, they will pay less. All that I am saying at this stage is, for goodness sake, let us have the courage to see whether it is feasible to do this for cars.

The hon. Gentleman is in substantial difficulty. If he says no to that suggestion and will not think about it, he has two alternatives. The first is to try to build one's way out of the congestion problems with more and more concreting over of the country. That would be astronomically expensive, as well as environmentally disastrous. Even worse would be to consign motorists to unlimited congestion with no relief in sight. I suggest that we as a Government—perhaps with some degree of cross-party consensus—should at least ask ourselves whether road pricing could provide a better deal for motorists. We are looking a long time ahead but, if we do not have the courage to do that, future generations will rightly condemn us for not doing so.

Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich)

Everyone who travels by road or public transport will welcome this balanced statement. However, will my right hon. Friend assure me that he does not accept the idea that putting more money into roads will automatically improve the situation for the average motorist or for business? He and I both know that that will simply put the gridlock off until a future date. The important thing is for him to assure the public that the rail and road improvements will march hand in hand. Will he tell me that the Strategic Rail Authority is taking serious notice of the plans that have been produced and will make sure that its improvements will come on line in time?

Will right hon. Friend also assure me that, before we have hard shoulder running on motorways, the emergency services will be consulted very carefully, because they will be unhappy about that?

I sat for many years in the House when all that happened was that public transport lost the support of Governments, so will my right hon. Friend accept that, at long last, it is a great relief to hear someone who is genuinely committed to improving transport throughout the United Kingdom?

Mr. Darling

I thank my hon. Friend. As I said, there are four strands to the strategy that we are adopting. The first must be to make better use of the road network, and I assure her that motoring organisations will be consulted on hard shoulder running. That scheme would be new to this country, although it is used in countries such as Holland. It would have to be accompanied by stringent safety conditions, but it could ease some of this country's bottlenecks.

The second strand is to ensure that we invest in public transport. My hon. Friend is right that consistent large investment in public transport—both road and rail—is necessary, and we are committed to that. The third element is that there must be investment in new capacity at specific pinch points. The problem is that that should have been done over decades. My announcements today and last December outline a programme that will steadily improve capacity but that must be accompanied by the fourth strand of the strategy: we must look ahead to the next 20 to 30 years and ask how we can better manage demand and give motorists better choice. There is a growing interest in examining that across the political spectrum—if not in the House—and we need to take it seriously.

Tom Brake (Carshalton and Wallington)

May I thank the Secretary of State for giving me an advance copy of his statement? We welcome the measures that he announced to improve public transport, create expressways and deal with bottlenecks. We also welcome the fact that several proposals were rejected on environmental grounds.

Will the Secretary of State confirm the balance of spending on roads versus public transport schemes that arises from his statement? He will recall that the Government's transport White Paper in 1998 stated that the Government recognised the need to "reduce dependence on cars". It said: The priority will be maintaining existing roads rather than building new ones". It also said: Simply building more and more roads is not the answer to traffic growth. Does he think that his statement is consistent with that approach?

The Secretary of State will also be aware that since 1997, the cost of rail travel has increased by 8 per cent., the cost of bus travel has increased by 5 per cent. and the cost of motoring has gone down by 1 per cent. Will any measure in his statement close that gap?

We welcome road congestion charging. Will the Secretary of State clarify which body will lead the discussions on that? Will it be the Commission for Integrated Transport, which led with the first report on the issue entitled "Paying for road use", and will the commission be asked to continue in its role of advising the Government and monitoring their progress on transport? Will he confirm that the lorry technology that is being introduced has the potential to be used for cars? If a congestion charging scheme were introduced more widely or nationally, would road tax be abolished and might petrol taxes be reduced?

Finally, does the Secretary of State believe that the 10-year transport plan now contains so many flaws and omissions that it is time to conduct a full review with the aim of setting out a plan with a more forward-looking framework for 2015 and beyond?

Mr. Darling

The hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster), who usually speaks for the Liberals, explained that he unavoidably had to be away today, so I understand why the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake) is speaking.

The balance of spending is broadly as set out in the 10-year plan. We are currently spending approximately twice as much on railways as we are on strategic roads, but my announcement, which will stretch over a longer period, will mean that spending will be broadly in line with what we anticipated. The study on road pricing that I am announcing will be conducted by the Department for Transport. It is an important matter and the study will not be farmed out.

The hon. Gentleman referred to congestion charging, but I think that it is commonly understood that that is a different technology—it is currently applied in London and there is a small scheme in Durham. He asked about lorry road user charging. The technology is similar, but there is a world of difference between a scheme for 430,000 lorries, many of which are already fitted with the necessary equipment—it is used for logistical purposes by most of the main operators in this country—and a scheme for 26 million cars. "Managing our roads", which I am publishing today, points out that rapid technological advances are being made. It would be foolish to assume that we could implement a scheme with no difficulties, or to take the other option of not even thinking about it, as is the view of several Conservative Members. The issue deserves a long hard look, but I would not underestimate the difficulties that must be overcome.

Several hon. Members


Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord)

Order. Before I call the next hon. Member, let me tell the House that it is obvious that many Members are seeking to catch my eye. I ask for just one—and I mean one—supplementary question from each hon. Member. May I ask the Secretary of State to be reasonably brief when he replies?

Mr. David Clelland (Tyne Bridge)

I welcome my right hon. Friend's statement and especially his references to managing existing infrastructure and dealing with bottlenecks. Although he mentioned improvements to the Al(M) through Yorkshire, he made no reference to improvements to that road in Durham and Tyneside, and specifically to the notorious bottleneck on the Al western bypass. What are the Government's proposals to deal with those problems?

Mr. Darling

The details of all my announcements are in the Vote Office. Some 400 hon. Members should have received a letter setting out detailed proposals. There are difficulties with the western side of the A1. There was a suggestion that the stretch of road should be tolled, which would be the first time that a through road had been tolled to sort out a local problem. I am aware of the pressures on the road—I have driven along it often enough—and I have asked the Highways Agency and the local authority to consider what can be done to stop local traffic spilling out on to the improved Al. Otherwise, the problem might be sorted for five years before building up again. The study did not come up with an especially satisfactory solution for that stretch of road and I acknowledge that further work is required.

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire)

While there will be great rejoicing in the west midlands and South Staffordshire about the right hon. Gentleman's sensible decision to drop the western orbital scheme and the bypasses for Wolverhampton and Stourbridge, there will be concern about the proposal for an M6-M54 link because of environmental factors. Will he assure me that those factors will be taken most carefully into account and that local people and their Member of Parliament will be properly consulted?

Mr. Darling

Yes, of course I can give that assurance because it is important to consult at every stage. It is also important that, when we consider improvements such as widening roads or building new roads, we do what is best environmentally. I am sure, however, that the hon. Gentleman acknowledges that it is important for traffic to be able to link into the new M6 toll road, because otherwise it will not work.

Jon Trickett (Hemsworth)

People in Yorkshire will especially welcome the enhancements to the motorway infrastructure in their vicinity. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that such building will not impede relief work in areas such as mine that suffer from social and economic regeneration problems? Will he assure me that proposals to build a relief road from Hemsworth to the A1(M) will not be impeded by his announcement, because that road will bring much-needed jobs to my patch?

Mr. Darling

The intention is that my announcement today will not get in the way of anything that is currently under way, because that would be a great pity. Some of the improvements to the motorway network will involve widening and some will introduce better management of existing flows, and I am sure that they will all help. In that particular study area, the amount going to local transport plans to be spent on transport by local authorities has increased from £49 million in 1999 to £104 million, so a lot of money is also available for local schemes.

Mr. Michael Fallon (Sevenoaks)

Given that the widening of the M25 that the Secretary of State announced sounds like it will turn London's green belt into an asphalt belt, what reassurance can he give my constituents in west Kent that their environment will be safeguarded? What extra noise protection and muffling measures will be considered to protect them against the additional capacity that he is proposing?

Mr. Darling

In relation to the M25, clearly it was a difficult decision. The hon. Gentleman will know that the study, which involved many people who are independent of the Government and consultation with local authorities, decided that it is necessary to expand the remaining sections from three lanes to four. However, he is right that where that is done, every possible step needs to be taken to reduce and mitigate the effects of that road. Because of the development that has taken place alongside the M25 over the past 20 years or so, it is increasingly used not just as a through road, but as a local road as well. I fear that if we do not do something about its capacity, there will be severe problems, which will adversely affect his constituents in Kent.

Mr. Martin Salter (Reading, West)

My right hon. Friend is to be commended on his statement and his acknowledgment for the case for investment in the Thames valley, as set out in the multi-modal study. However, are we to get the long-awaited upgrade of Reading railway station to clear up what is a public transport bottleneck for the whole of the Great Western region?

Mr. Darling

The Strategic Rail Authority and Reading council are considering proposals to do up Reading station for the benefit not just of the people of Reading, but of services to the west of England. My hon. Friend is aware that I know of the problem, which he has talked to me about. I have asked the SRA to work with the local authority to see what we can do to upgrade that station and to get additional capacity to it. A number of other things are also taking place on the Great Western line that will help people in Reading.

Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire)

Listening to the list of road schemes, I was overcome by nostalgia.

The Secretary of State reminded the House that the Department published a discussion paper on motorway charging more than 10 years ago, which dealt with all the issues that appear in his discussion paper. He will know that more than 10 years ago, his predecessor said: it would be feasible technologically to install motorway charging here within about five years."—[Official Report, 2 December 1993; Vol. 233, c. 648.] We commissioned trials and published a report on them in 1998, but since then there has been radio silence. He is now re-issuing a discussion paper that is more than 11 years old. Are those the bold decisions that we need on transport?

Mr. Darling

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for confirming that the then Conservative Government had at least an interest in the matter. His Front-Bench spokesmen appear to have overlooked that. However, there is a difference. The technology that that Government considered was different from today's technology. Lord MacGregor looked at the sort of roadside technology that is about to be used in Germany and Austria. We are considering the feasibility of using satellite tracking, which has been used for the lorry user charging scheme. Technology has moved on dramatically in the past 10 years.

In relation to motorways, there would be problems in applying a charging scheme only to motorways unless other measures are in place to stop the displacement of traffic on to accompanying trunk roads and quieter roads. The displacement factor needs to be considered and was not fully examined 10 years ago. However, I accept that the idea is not new. I think the first study on it was published when Sir Alec Douglas-Home was Prime Minister. We should have the collective courage to have a serious look at it, and that includes the Conservative Front-Bench spokesmen as well.

Mr. Ivan Henderson (Harwich)

My right hon. Friend knows about the Al20 in my constituency because he travelled on it earlier this year when he visited the major port of Harwich International. He is aware that it is a single-carriageway road that services a major port. There is the possibility that the port will expand greatly, hopefully in the near future. Will he give my constituents a clue when we can expect the dualling of the Al20?

Mr. Darling

The Al20 is being widened between Stansted and Braintree. I have announced that that will continue through to Marks Tey. My hon. Friend will be able to get the details on other roads because they are now available. I did travel along that road: there is room for improvement. However, as I think I said to him when I was in Harwich for the launch of a ship, there are many pressures in the area. There are things we can do on the Al2 and the Al20. Although improvements are possible, I cannot hold out the hope of dualling that road in the immediate future. We need to consider it, though.

Mr. David Wilshire (Spelthorne)

As the Member of Parliament with part of the busiest section of the M25 in my constituency—a section that more often looks like a car park than a motorway—why is it that the part-time Secretary of State has missed the obvious solution of including the Airtrack scheme in the proposals? That would link Heathrow to Staines in my constituency and achieve his objective of removing tens of thousands of local journeys off that busy part of the M25. A good rail link would also open up the airport to everyone to the south of the airport. The private sector is ready to build it, but the SRA appears disinterested in the funding that it would put in place. Has not the time come for the Secretary of State to tell the SRA to pull its finger out?

Mr. Darling

On the rail link, there is a scheme, but it is wrong to say that the funding is in place and nothing is happening. The SRA has many demands on it. Although we are doubling the amount of money available on the railways, the hon. Gentleman will be well aware of the existing pressures. I agree that it would be desirable to enable more people to travel by train or other public transport into Heathrow. I announced proposals that the SRA and the BAA are taking forward that will go some way to helping that situation by improving services on the Great Western line into Heathrow. I am aware of the other proposals and we will continue to consider them.

Claire Ward (Watford)

The proposals to widen the M1 and the M25, both of which border my constituency, will have a huge impact on the people of Watford, together with the current upgrading of the west coast main line, which runs through the town. My constituents, especially the pensioners who live on the Meriden estate, which backs on to the M1, will want to know what direct impact the proposals will have on them. What process and consultation will take place with the community and its Member of Parliament to ensure that we diminish, as much as possible, the inconvenience and disruption caused to them?

Mr. Darling

I agree that that is important. Earlier this year, we announced the replacement of some older road surfaces. That will reduce noise, which is a concern in areas such as Watford. It might help if I explain the process. I have said which recommendations I am accepting and rejecting. They will be worked up into detailed proposals. There will be extensive consultation at that stage and planning permission will need to be sought in many, if not most, cases. That will provide an ample opportunity for just about everyone to have their say. The planning process is one reason why it takes such a long time to build infrastructure in this country. Happily, my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister is working on proposals to speed that up—consistent, of course, with allowing people to have their fair say.

Norman Baker (Lewes)

May I welcome the decision to consider further the proposal for the A27 at Beddingham, which as the Secretary of State knows is a sensitive location? He made a good decision on that. What time scale will apply to that exercise and what public consultation arrangements are in place? Will serious consideration be given to the establishment of a single-carriageway road from Beddingham to Southerham, which is the optimum solution, for reasons that I think he knows?

Mr. Darling

The hon. Gentleman is aware that we are considering a single-carriageway option. I have seen that junction and know the area. The problems are patently obvious. The level crossing has to go if we want more trains to run and for safety reasons. The area is of significant environmental importance. Perhaps something more sensitive might fit the bill than the original proposal.

Lynne Jones (Birmingham, Selly Oak)

Three years ago at the Government rail summit, Birmingham New Street station was listed as the No. 1 bottleneck in the national rail network. What are the implications of my right hon. Friend's statement for dealing with that problem? He also mentioned the biggest ever replacement of rolling stock. Will he use his influence to bring that investment forward to ensure continuity of work for manufacturing companies such as Alstom, so that we can keep the Washwood Heath factory in Birmingham open and retain skilled jobs in this country?

Mr. Darling

On the latter point, my hon. Friend will know that about 40 per cent. of rolling stock is being replaced over a five-year period. My recollection is that Alstom has won a contract to build about 900 vehicles. Two other companies also won contracts. The Government have played their part in bringing forward investment, and there is an awful lot of investment because replacing 40 per cent. of rolling stock takes a long time. However, I cannot hold out any hope of bringing that investment further forward. Most of the contracts have been let, and although there is some additional work, most of the stock is in the process of being constructed.

I am aware of the problems at New Street, and I have asked the SRA to see what we can do to improve that station. Clearly that needs to be looked at. As my hon. Friend knows, it was built in the 1960s, and if we had our time over again it would probably not be built in the same way.

Mr. Eric Pickles (Brentwood and Ongar)

The Secretary of State will realise that many of my constituents will view the statement with a jaundiced eye, given that they have had two years of disruption on the Al2, and that newly constructed road will now be used as rubble for the foundation of a three-lane highway. Given that that will involve the demolition of properties near the centre of Brentwood, can the right hon. Gentleman give us an indication about the timing that will be involved, about the purchase of properties and about the minimisation of disruption? What is the status of the various railway improvements that were promised in the study?

Mr. Darling

On the railway improvements, I set out in my detailed response to each study the stage that each one has reached and the next steps. The hon. Gentleman will be able to get that response from the Vote Office shortly, if he has not already got it.

On the proposals that affect the hon. Gentleman's constituents, I can say, as I did a few moments ago, that where widening or new construction is proposed, a planning and consultation process must be followed which will allow him and his constituents to ensure that their interests are brought to the attention of the planners. We will do whatever we can to try to minimise the effect of any new construction, but when roads are built or widened, disruption is unavoidable; the alternative is to do nothing and just wait until the whole thing grinds to a halt.

Mr. Michael Jabez Foster (Hastings and Rye)

Following the decision two years ago not to proceed with the Hastings bypass, the south coast corridor multi-modal study has now recommended a link road through Hastings to give some relief to the A59. That road passes through St. Leonards, which has been declared an air quality management area. To avoid choking my constituents to death in the not-too-distant future, how soon will my right hon. Friend be able to proceed with that link road?

Mr. Darling

I have asked the local authority to develop proposals for that road, and I hope that it can do so in short order. I understand my hon. Friend's point about taking traffic away from Hastings and opening up part of the town for further development. I see no reason why the work cannot be done expeditiously, and we can then consider what has been proposed.

Mr. Keith Simpson (Mid-Norfolk)

The Secretary of State mentioned consensus in his statement. As he is probably aware, there is a consensus throughout Norfolk that the A47 needs dualling from the A1 to Great Yarmouth. He will have received from me a letter, backed by all the local MPs and local government representatives of all parties, rejecting the multi-modal study and its conclusions. That study was called in by Norfolk county council because it was so concerned about its assumptions. However, that call-in had to be dropped because of the short time available—we were told that the A47 would have had to be left out of the proposals.

Is the Secretary of State prepared to meet a delegation from Norfolk so that we can have some influence in the future? I accept what he said about the future. Great Yarmouth is likely to get an outer harbour in the next five years, and the A47 will barely have been dualled in its entirety.

Mr. Darling

I am aware of the pressures. As the hon. Gentleman will know, the study did not recommend dualling of the A47, at least not in the short to medium term. However, he will no doubt be aware that a number of upgrades and improvements are being carried out—bypassing smaller villages and tackling some of the safety concerns—and that work will continue. Also in East Anglia, the A11 and A14 are being significantly improved, which will help links to the region.

In answer to the hon. Gentleman's request for a meeting, I have always made it clear that if hon. Members wish to meet a Minister in my Department, one of us will certainly be available. Although the study did not recommend the dualling of the A47, a number of things could be done that might improve it. There is also other significant investment going into East Anglia, as the hon. Gentleman will no doubt see when he looks at my full response to the study.

Linda Perham (Ilford, North)

On rail investment, may I ask my right hon. Friend about the future of Crossrail? The aim of the project is not just to secure transport improvements for the long-suffering passengers of east London and the regeneration of the area, but to maintain London's position as an international business centre and tourist destination. May I also tell him that a new all-party group on Crossrail, which I chair, was formed last night, and that I hope he will agree to meet us?

Mr. Darling

That was clearly a timely establishment of the all-party group. My colleagues and I will be more than happy to meet my hon. Friend and her colleagues. I have made clear my position on Crossrail on a number of occasions. If one considers the pressures on London over 20 or 30 years, the need for a rail link between east and west is pretty clear. At the moment, we are waiting for the final business case from the SRA and Transport for London. Once we have that, we need to see what it has to say. I hope, before the House rises for the recess, to set out how we intend to proceed, and that may help my hon. Friend. I cannot say anything today, not least because I still do not have the final business case. Some of the people who are busy pressurising us about it might be better employed finishing it, and then I can make a decision.

Mrs. Cheryl Gillan (Chesham and Amersham)

The Secretary of State may, during his consultation, like to visit my constituency and look at the problems caused by motorists using small villages as rat runs. Will he tell my constituents how he will protect those communities from the extra traffic that will no doubt flood through them because of road building and charging; and what extra resources he will give the county council so that it can repair the roads after the extra wear and tear?

Mr. Darling

On many of the local roads that the hon. Lady refers to, the council is responsible for traffic management and repairs. Sometimes we in this House would do well to remember that although national Government can do some things, the reason we give substantial sums to local authorities, which the hon. Lady's authority and others are getting, is to enable them to do something about these matters. They should not seek to blame others for their own shortcomings.

On road pricing, the hon. Lady makes a fair point. One of the things that we need to consider, in relation to feasibility, is how to make sure that we do not end up with traffic simply being displaced from one road to another. As I said to the former Secretary of State for Transport, the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young), the proposals made by the Conservative Government 10 years ago would have resulted in some displacement, and I am suggesting that we consider using different technology, which might avoid some of the problems raised by the hon. Lady.

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire)

The main arterial route linking the west and east midlands is the M42/A42, which is used by thousands of my constituents every day and is seriously congested at peak times. I note the Secretary of State's intention to allow controlled use by cars of the hard shoulder, operating under stringent safety conditions. Can I tell him that the route has an unfortunate history of multi-vehicle accidents, including multiple fatalities, the most recent of which involved a vehicle running into the back of a minibus that was going rather slowly, and killing several people? Will my right hon. Friend tell the House how he intends to evaluate the safety factors referred to in his statement, because many people in North-West Leicestershire would proceed warily on that particular innovation?

Mr. Darling

I understand my hon. Friend's point. When I first came across the proposal, I had similar concerns, so I went to Holland, 'where this scheme is used day in, day out. Of course, stringent safety procedures are necessary; the traffic must be running at a lower speed; there must be constant monitoring, and there must be additional lay-bys so that when vehicles get into trouble something can be done. The proposal has been tried out in Holland for a number of years, and it seems to be working.

If we took a different view, and said that we would build another one, two or three lanes on the M42, that would take time, and it would be controversial because it would involve taking land that is not currently taken up by roads. Of course, it would also be expensive. We should see whether or not the pilot works. It will involve detailed consultation of motoring organisations and local authorities, but if it works, it may solve the problems of severe congestion to which most of our motorway network is subject during the rush hour because it is used by local traffic rather than through traffic. Our roads are designed differently from continental roads, and tend to have more junctions so that people can come on and off them, so we need to look at that.

I understand people's concerns about safety. There are exactly the same concerns in Holland, but people seem to have been able to make the scheme work there. The point that my hon. Friend made about the contraflow system, which of course operates on roads throughout the country the whole time, reminds us that drivers should approach those areas with extreme care because of the inevitable consequences of a collision.

Mr. Archie Norman (Tunbridge Wells)

It is all very well widening the M25, but does the Secretary of State accept that many of the arterial routes running off it, such as the A21 to Hastings, are still clogged with traffic and unsafe, not least because the Government cancelled the widening programme in 1997? Can he confirm that decisions on the A21 at Castle Hill and South Pembury have been postponed yet again, and will he undertake to publish a clear time scale for improvements and final decisions so that we can put an end to this endless review and procrastination?

Mr. Darling

May I tell the hon. Gentleman in the nicest possible way that before he stood up to speak it would have been prudent to check the position, as the A21 Tunbridge to Pembury link is going into the implementation programme today?

Dr. Howard Stoate (Dartford)

Anybody using the M25 will know that one of the biggest bottlenecks is the Dartford river crossing, which serves my constituency. What effect will widening the M25 have on the Dartford crossing, and does my right hon. Friend intend to carry out any impact assessments? What will the effect on the environment be, and does he have any plans to increase the capacity of the Dartford crossing, as it already causes significant tailbacks in my constituency at peak times of the day and night?

Mr. Darling

My hon. Friend is right that that is clearly something that needs to be looked at. There has to be proper traffic management where the M25 connects with the Dartford crossing, and that important point will be taken into account.

Miss Julie Kirkbride (Bromsgrove)

I broadly welcome what the Secretary of State said about my part of the west midlands. I am delighted that he is not going ahead with the western orbital route, and welcome the £1 billion expenditure on public transport for the west midlands area. I hope that it will be of particular benefit to my part of Worcestershire, and I shall endeavour to see that it is.

Notwithstanding the Secretary of State's answer to the question about safety asked by the hon. Member for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor), I welcome the way in which he intends to proceed on the M42. Could he give me a few more details, and tell me when the hard shoulder will start to be used, and how long the experiment will last before a decision is taken on whether it should be extended?

Mr. Darling

On the M42, details are set out in the consultation document, which is available from the Vote Office. Further details are available on the Department's website and in other places. If the hon. Lady wants more information, I shall happily give it to her. The pilot study is due to start in April next year.

Clive Efford (Eltham)

I welcome the £1 billion for the upgrade of the electricity supply on the rail network south of the Thames, particularly on the north Kent lines. I remind my right hon. Friend that in south-east London we do not have direct access to the London underground, so the rail network is crucial if we are to increase capacity and reduce the growth in car use in the road network in that part of London. Some people would leave their cars behind if they could park conveniently and have direct access to decent public transport links. As part of the upgrade of the M25, can we look at ways of encouraging people to leave their cars behind and use public transport within the area bounded by the M25?

Mr. Darling

There are a lot of schemes that do that, but I agree that a lot more could be done. When I travel up and down the country, I am struck by the fact that in some areas the railway and local authorities work closely together and have very good park and ride schemes. I was looking at some yesterday morning offered by the Chiltern railway, for example, which runs out of north-west London. There is no reason why such schemes cannot operate in south-east London as well. I agree that it is important that we improve the reliability and quality of service, particularly on the north Kent lines. The power supply improvements will help, but so too will the new rolling stock, almost half of which will go on to the London commuter services.

Mr. John Wilkinson (Ruislip-Northwood)

On west London, will the Secretary of State bear in mind the importance not only of enhancing rail links to Heathrow, on which he has made a significant announcement today, but of improving rail access to the north-west rail link at Watford junction? In that regard, could he get the Strategic Rail Authority and Transport for London together to initiate the Croxley link from Northwood in my constituency to Watford junction, thus extending the Metropolitan line to the west coast main line?

Mr. Darling

That is one of a number of schemes that are worth looking at. At the risk of being partisan, however, I must tell the hon. Gentleman that the Opposition's calls for more railways never cease to amaze me, as they oppose nearly every single penny of additional investment that we are putting in.

Mr. Nigel Waterson (Eastbourne)

Given that the Secretary of State has recognised the powerful case for improvements to the A27, will he ensure that the redesign work that he talked about reflects the safety and economic cases for improvements as well as any environmental concerns? Will he also ensure that redesign is not used as another excuse for delay on that much needed project? He will recall that the multi-modal study concluded not only that improvements should go ahead but that that should be a priority.

Mr. Darling

I am aware of the economic need to improve public infrastructure. Indeed, the South East England Development Agency met my hon. Friend the Minister of State just a couple of days ago. Clearly, there is a balance to be struck—we must ensure that the environment along the south coast is preserved but we must also make sure that we deal with congestion and help to stimulate economic development. As the hon. Gentleman well knows, it is not always an easy balance to strike. Every one of his constituents probably wants both aims to be met, but it is not always possible.

Mr. Peter Ainsworth (East Surrey)

Today's announcement will be greeted with dismay by my constituents who live alongside the M25. They are already concerned about the impact on the green belt, noise, pollution and the incidence of asthma. The plans come on top of proposals for a huge increase in runway capacity locally and excessive house-building targets. The cumulative effect of all that is likely to be unsustainable, so when will the Government stop treating the south-east as a giant development zone?

Mr. Darling

I remind the hon. Gentleman that at the start of our exchanges, the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Mr. Collins) set his face against even the possibility of looking at any measures to curtail demand on the roads. Unless the hon. Member for East Surrey (Mr. Ainsworth) is in favour of end-to-end congestion he must, by definition, be in favour of more road construction. He cannot have it both ways. I am proposing a measured, balanced approach which avoids concreting over the south of England—I do not think that anybody wants that: neither he nor anyone else. I suggest that he has a word with his hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale, because if he pursues the logic of his beliefs, there will be more and more road building, which many of us would find unacceptable.

Mr. Michael Jack (Fylde)

While I welcome the Secretary of State's proposals to make the best use of our existing road space, one factor in Lancashire preventing that is weak bridges. Will he look again at the support given to county councils like Lancashire on that issue, and could he also say when we can expect a firm timetable for action on improvements to the M6 motorway north of Birmingham?

Mr. Darling

The right hon. Gentleman is probably aware that there have been huge increases in the amount of money going to local authorities, precisely so that they can deal with things for which they are responsible, including some of the bridges that he referred to. If he cares to let me or my hon. Friend the Minister of State know which roads he has in mind, I shall certainly look at the matter. However, he may find that the remedy is in the hands of the county council as opposed to the Government.

Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire)

In the spirit of joined-up government, can the Minister assure me that he has planned, or will plan, strategies to use modern technology to drive home working so that we can reduce congestion and pollution, and stimulate economic activity in rural areas?

Mr. Darling

We consider all these matters. The hon. Gentleman mentioned home working. It is interesting that the number of commuting trips to work has fallen, as was set out in the discussion document, while the distance that people travel has increased. In the past, people who got a new job tended to buy new houses in the area, but they are now staying put and travelling longer distances. We need to take account of all those matters in planning for the future, as well as the opportunities that new technology might provide.

Andrew Selous (South-West Bedfordshire)

Given that the documents in the Vote Office talk about implementation over the next 10 years, will the Secretary of State tell me when the Dunstable northern bypass will be built and whether the A5 through Dunstable will be de-trunked as a result and a through lorry ban imposed, as 25,000 of my constituents requested in a petition last year?

Mr. Darling

A number of detailed matters will still have to be considered. The hon. Gentleman is right that what I am announcing is inevitably a programme over a long period, as planning processes must be conducted and there must be design consultation. I am making an announcement that clears the way for some decisions. In the past five years, there have been long and detailed studies, but the time has now come when we need to get on and implement them, precisely to remove some of the inconvenience and congestion and to deliver the improved safety about which he is concerned.