§ The Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. Alistair Darling)
With permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a short statement on new measures to encourage better use of our roads and on the M6 between Birmingham and Manchester.
Decades of under-investment and a growing economy have put our roads under severe pressure. Two steps are necessary if we are to reduce congestion, especially at peak times. First, we need to make better use of our existing roads and, secondly, we must provide additional capacity on key strategic routes. I have two proposals to tackle congestion and provide more reliable journey times, including a scheme to make better use of the existing capacity on the road network by encouraging people to share vehicles at peak times.
Car pool lanes have been used to great effect, both in America and Australia, and if it works in other parts of the world there is no reason in principle why it should not work here. Car pool lanes could play an important role in reducing congestion on key commuter routes. I have therefore asked the Highways Agency to carry out a feasibility study of four sites on the motorway network for trialling high occupancy vehicle or car pool lanes, which could be created by widening the road to create an additional lane or in some cases by using the hard shoulder as a running lane. They would be reserved for the use of vehicles carrying two or more people, and would offer faster, more reliable journey times.
The Highways Agency will consider a 6-mile stretch of the M62 between junctions 25 and 27 from Brighouse to Leeds; a 7-mile stretch of the M3 between junctions 3 and 2 from Bagshot to Thorpe; a 20-mile stretch of the M1 between junctions 13 and 7 from south Milton Keynes to St. Albans; and a 7-mile stretch of the M61 between junctions 6 to 3 north-west of Manchester. In general, the Government favour the provision of extra capacity for car pool lanes, but in the case of the M61 it may be possible to use one of the existing lanes, so I have asked the Highways Agency to consider that. An assessment of each site will be carried out over the coming months that will consider operational suitability as well as safety and environmental implications. The proposal extends the measures that we are already putting in place to make better use of our existing roads, including piloting hard-shoulder running on the M42 and, since April this year, introducing traffic officers on motorways to help clear up incidents and get traffic flowing as quickly as possible.
I come to the need for additional capacity on one of the most heavily used road arteries in the country—the M6. We need more capacity on road and rail, which is why, for example, we are investing over £7 billion in the west coast main line. When the first stage of work is complete in September it will cut half an hour from Manchester to London train times. We also need more road capacity, however, on that key route. The House will be aware that the new M6 toll motorway opened in December last year. Today, the Highways Agency has published an analysis of the first three months of traffic on the M6 toll and the existing M6. Copies of that report have been placed in the Library.
690 The report shows that the M6 toll regularly carries about one fifth of all traffic flowing through the west midlands conurbation every day, with vehicles saving up to half an hour on a journey that can take more than an hour during peak times on the existing M6. Drivers who choose not to pay the toll are benefiting from reduced congestion. Since the M6 toll opened, traffic on the existing non-tolled M6 has decreased by 10 per cent. Friday afternoons have seen a significant improvement in journey times, and there have also been improvements on roads as far afield as Stoke-on-Trent. All this has been widely welcomed by businesses, in particular across the west midlands, and by the AA and RAC.
The M6 links two of the country's most important economic centres, Birmingham and Manchester. It is one of the busiest roads in the country, and drivers regularly suffer heavy congestion. That is why on 10 December 2002 I told the House that I would support the widening of a number of key strategic roads, including widening the M6 between junction 11A near Cannock and junction 19 near Knutsford to four lanes in each direction.
Given the success of the M6 toll in alleviating congestion, it is now right to consider extending the tolled motorway and building a new expressway to run parallel with the M6 between Birmingham and Manchester, as an alternative to widening the existing road. This 51-mile stretch of the M6 between junctions 11A and 19 is being considered as a tolled expressway because of its importance to business and its link to the M6 toll, and because a significant percentage of its traffic travels 20 miles or more.
There are a number of advantages to an expressway. First, it would provide motorists and businesses with a choice of using the existing M6 or paying for a faster, more reliable journey on the new road. An expressway could be designed to suit long-distance journeys with fewer junctions, and could also improve conditions on the original road, freeing up space there. Secondly, an expressway would provide double the extra capacity at a lower cost than widening the existing road by one lane. Thirdly, construction of an expressway would not cause disruption to road-users while it was being built. In comparison, widening the existing M6, which obviously would need to be done in a phased way, would cause disruption for five to six years.
We have also to consider carefully the wider social and environmental impacts, including the effect on landscape, biodiversity and heritage, as well as air quality and climate change. We will need to assess what impact an expressway would have on traffic levels generally and the scope for high quality measures to combat any adverse effects. Sometimes new roads can have a positive impact on the environment. A new route, with good environmental mitigation plus environmental improvements to the existing M6, might overall be better in environmental terms than simply widening the existing M6. That will need to be looked at carefully.
I am therefore publishing today a consultation on a proposal for an expressway to run parallel with the M6 between Birmingham and Manchester, as an alternative to widening the existing road, so that all these issues can be looked at thoroughly. Our approach is to tackle congestion through a range of measures, both road and rail. The proposals that I am announcing today are 691 intended to give motorists more choice and allow far more reliable journeys. I commend this statement to the House.
§ Mr. Tim Yeo (South Suffolk) (Con)
I am grateful to the Secretary of State for an advance copy of the statement, the context for which is an increase in the burden of taxes paid by motorists from £31 billion a year in 1997 to £44 billion a year now, a smaller proportion of which is spent on roads in Britain than in most other countries.
Despite such a huge burden of tax, congestion on our road network has got so bad that not only do millions of drivers face frustration and delay every day, but the congestion crisis is damaging Britain's economic prospects by weakening our competitive position compared with that of other countries. Our motorway network is poorer than that of all our main international competitors. If only it were expanding as fast as the staff of the Highways Agency, which is set to increase by three quarters, motorists could look forward to a better future.
For years to come, Britain will suffer the consequences of Labour's war on the motorist declared by the Deputy Prime Minister in 1997, and the consequences of the Government's refusal to acknowledge what we, the CBI, the British Chambers of Commerce, the Freight Transport Association, the AA, the RAC Foundation and many others have all agreed is needed—an increase in our motorway capacity. Nevertheless, not for the first time the hype that preceded the statement enormously exceeds its substance.
The statement is another attempt to con the media and the public into believing that decisions have been taken. It does not contain a commitment to build new roads, widen the M6 or introduce car pool lanes—all it contains is a commitment to start more consultations. The Secretary of State's reputation for indecision is the only thing enhanced by today's statement. The question that is on everyone's lips remains the same: when will car pool lanes be introduced, and when will the four new lanes on the M6 actually be built?
I shall deal with the issues in the order in which the Secretary of State mentioned them. We have already expressed our support for the principle of car pool lanes, which can contribute to reducing congestion, although they will never be the complete answer. Car pool lanes should be introduced only where capacity is increased, and existing road capacity should not be closed to motorists who have paid for it many times over—for example, some motorists cannot find other travellers with whom to share vehicles because of their patterns of shift work. I also hope that the Secretary of State will publish his assessment of the safety implications of using hard shoulders on motorways as soon as possible.
Turning to the possible new lanes on the M6, a proposal that Conservative Members strongly support in principle, I remind the Secretary of State that the contract for the existing midlands expressway was signed under the previous Government in 1992, more than a decade before vehicles travelled on the route. Given that today's statement concerns starting a 692 consultation process, will the Secretary of State confirm that it is extremely unlikely that any vehicle will travel on any new lanes on the M6 before 2020?
Given that the environmental impact of the new lanes will be felt all the way along the route, does the Secretary of State's statement mean that access to the new lanes will not be available at all the same points as access to the existing M6, in which case the communities affected by the environmental impact will not have the chance to share the benefits? What implications does today's statement carry for other improvements to the motorway network, which are desperately needed on motorways such as the M1 and M62? Have those proposals been postponed indefinitely?
The statement is an admission that the Government's 10-year plan has completely failed, and that the targets for road building and cutting congestion will not be met. Will the Secretary of State admit that failure and say whether he will publish new and more realistic estimates of how bad congestion will get on Britain's roads? Are we to deduce from the timing of today's statement, less than one week before the announcement of the comprehensive spending review, that the Secretary of State hoped to persuade the Chancellor of the Exchequer to allow him to pay for the M6 improvements from his departmental budget, and that he failed in that endeavour?
Since motorists may now be asked to finance road improvements, will the Government cut the tax burden currently borne by motorists? Although it is right to finance some new roads through private sector investment and acceptable to ask motorists to contribute to costs through tolls, the extra costs should be directly related to new capacity, and should not be accompanied by further increases to the tax burden—the threatened 2p duty increase in the autumn is wholly unjustified at a time of high and volatile oil prices.
I welcome the Government's partial and belated adoption of more Conservative transport policies, although it is sad that it has taken them so long to realise what is needed and to start alleviating the substantial damage that they—in particular, the Deputy Prime Minister—have done to our transport system and our economy. It is a very long time since an incoming Government inherited such a strong economy as that inherited by this Government. One of the Government's first actions was to axe the Conservative road building programme. For the first time since the invention of tarmac, not a single foot of new road was built in 2001, and it has taken more than seven years for them to begin to acknowledge the scale of the problem.
Today's statement is a press release masquerading as a policy. Even after the announcement, Britain's motorists will continue to rue Labour's seven wasted years, during which congestion has increased, delays have lengthened, business costs have risen and pollution has worsened. When the needs of the nation demanded decisions and action, characteristically, all the Secretary of State could produce was more dither and delay, which we will pay for in years to come.
§ Mr. Darling
The hon. Gentleman is sounding more and more like a Liberal Democrat by giving the impression that he is both for and against the proposals. The hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter 693 Ross (John Thurso) must be wondering what he should say to distinguish his position from that of the Conservative party.
In relation to the M6, we have, as the hon. Gentleman acknowledged, already announced that in principle we support its widening: it is not as though we suddenly decided that its capacity was insufficient—[Interruption.] I will come on to the Tory position in a moment. That is why I agreed to its widening two years ago. In answer to the hon. Gentleman's specific question, today's announcement does not at all affect the position in relation to the M1, the M25 or any other road schemes that have been announced. They are in the process of being developed and taken forward.
On spending on roads, I think that there is common ground. The problem that we have on our road and rail networks is that successive Governments, both Labour and Conservative, did not spend as much money as they should have. The hon. Gentleman talks about the roads programme that we inherited, but he must remember, because he was a Minister at the time, that the Conservatives' road programme had virtually dried up by 1997 because of the mess that they had got the economy into. In contrast, we are due over the 10-year period to spend some £59 billion on roads. The Conservatives' present policy is to cut £600 million from the transport budget, and unless that changes nothing that he says will have any credibility whatever.
I am glad that the hon. Gentleman supports car pool lanes in principle. I, too, believe that where possible they should be built on new capacity. All the experience from other parts of the world shows that motorists accept that where new capacity is provided, priority should be given to motorists carrying passengers. Earlier this year, I visited the United States, where some 3 million people use car pool lanes; there is an entire network in the north-east and over in California. As they work there, there is no reason why they cannot work here. The best approach is to provide new capacity, but, as I said, in the case of one particular road north-west of Manchester existing carriageway could be involved if we decide that that is right.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned consultation. If we are to build an expressway of any sort, it is inconceivable that consultation will not take place. That is obvious, if for no other reason than that such projects take up time in the planning process.
The hon. Gentleman is right to recognise that the Government are determined to ensure that we improve capacity on our transport system, both road and rail. I believe that these measures represent a significant step forward and that in time people will recognise the advances that are being made in such provision.
§ John Thurso (Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross) (LD)
I thank the Secretary of State for his courtesy in sending me a copy of the statement. I congratulate him on his new tactic of damning Conservative Front Benchers with faint praise; if they wish to behave like Liberal Democrats, that is entirely up to them.
On car pool lanes, I welcome the principle of encouraging shared use of cars. Some 61 per cent. of car journeys are made by single occupancy cars, and figures show that a 10 per cent. increase in occupancy would result in a 9 per cent. reduction in traffic. I, too, have 694 seen the schemes that operate in America, although I did so courtesy of a visit with the Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport. In light of the American experience, how does the Secretary of State expect that the policy will be enforced? As he will know, enforcement has caused considerable problems in America, in Australia and in the pilot scheme in Leeds. Has he given any thought to permitting single occupants to use such lanes on payment of an additional fee, as happens in the United States?
The Secretary of State mentioned that the current proposal is to use car pool lanes only where it is possible to build additional capacity. What studies, if any, have been carried out to see whether car sharing might work on some of the less congested roads where extra capacity would not necessarily be required? Will he tell us what the Government will do to deliver any other measures to support car sharing? Will he also tell us how the Government intend to finance the new M6 toll road? Will it be undertaken on a private finance initiative, as was the existing toll road, or will it be funded by Government finance? What assessment has been made of the financial implications of the current scheme?
What environmental assessment has been made of the existing scheme? Have emissions increased or decreased? It is important to know, when considering the overall policy, whether schemes such as these play a positive or negative role in that regard. Given that the Secretary of State has previously recorded his opposition to such schemes, are the Government considering any others? Last year, in The Scotsman, the Secretary of State was quoted as saying:We can't build our way out of congestion … The idea that you can build lane after lane after lane is just bonkers.So, while this scheme may be welcome, is it not now the time to consider a proper national road-user charging scheme, rather than some form of piecemeal privatisation of the motorway network?
§ Mr. Darling
The hon. Gentleman asked about enforcement in regard to car pool lanes. The use of such lanes is enforced in the United States—and, I think, in Australia—by the police. I have travelled quite extensively in some of these car pool lanes, and it is remarkable how many people do not abuse the system. It seems to work, and I would envisage the police enforcing those rules. In relation to car sharing elsewhere, yes, of course that would be possible. It is always possible for the local authorities that control local roads to consider these options if they want to do so. That is not a matter for the Government.
The hon. Gentleman asked a number of questions about the M6 toll road. In relation to the environmental assessment, research is being carried out at the moment, but it obviously takes time. The M6 toll road opened only in December. In regard to the new road, the Government hope that it will be privately financed, as the existing toll road is.
On the hon. Gentleman's last point, yes, it is the case that we cannot build our way out of all the problems that we face. That is perfectly true, and I have said so time and again ever since I became Secretary of State. Three things are necessary. The first is to provide additional limited capacity where a problem exists, and 695 the M6 is a classic example of that. It was anticipated that that road would carry about 75,000 cars a day, but it now regularly carries 150,000 a day. The capacity there needs to be increased. Secondly, we need to make better use of the infrastructure that we have, and car pool lanes would be among a number of measures introduced to achieve that. Thirdly, as the hon. Gentleman says, we need to plan ahead. Over the next 20 to 30 years, new technology will be available. That is why I commissioned a study last year to examine the technical feasibility of a national road pricing scheme. However, I have to tell the hon. Gentleman that, on any view, that is 10 to 15 years away.
§ Mr. Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston) (Lab)
I am conscious of the number of colleagues from Staffordshire around me here. I strongly support my right hon. Friend's comments about the need for the M6 expressway. The existing toll road has undoubtedly proved a great success. Will he ensure, however, that businesses in the north-west, particularly manufacturing companies in constituencies such as mine, are consulted as part of the process, so that it is not just a geographical consultation in the immediate surrounding areas?
§ Mr. Darling
I shall be brief, so as to allow as many other hon. Members as possible to speak. Yes, I can give my hon. Friend that assurance. This will be a national consultation; it will not be confined to the route of the M6.
§ Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire) (Con)
In deploring the fact that the first part of this statement was leaked yesterday and the rest this morning, may I ask the Secretary of State whether he would please bear it in mind that my constituents, and those of many of my neighbours, have been devastated and blighted by the building of successive motorways over the past 30 years, including the M6, the M54, the toll road, the threatened link road from the toll road, and now this? What will the Secretary of State do to reassure those people? Can we have a detailed timetable and, above all, an assurance that the compensation claims of people suffering from such blight will be considered very quickly?
§ Mr. Darling
When specific proposals are made, such claims are looked at fairly quickly, but I appreciate the point that the hon. Gentleman makes. Indeed, he came to see me a few months ago to discuss some of his concerns, and he was very frank about his position. There are always two sides to these arguments, and he recognises that additional road capacity is required. I appreciate, however, that people living alongside the route might be affected. Two years ago, I said that I thought that the road needed to be extended. That would involve five to six years of construction work, when it started. This is an alternative. In the light of what we now know about the M6 toll road, it would be daft not to ask ourselves whether this would not be a better way of providing the additional capacity up that corridor.
On the hon. Gentleman's first point, it is unfortunate that the more people we have to involve in making a decision, the greater the risk becomes that somebody 696 will talk. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that, when these things were broadcast on the radio this morning, I would have liked to have been there to argue my corner, rather than having to wait five hours to put my case, but that is life. Yes, of course the Government sometimes tell people what is going on and sometimes they do not; I appreciate the hon. Gentleman's point.
§ Tony Lloyd (Manchester, Central) (Lab)
I welcome my right hon. Friend's statement on the new capacity for the M6. There is no doubt that the present situation is unacceptable, in regard to both congestion and the environment. One of the problems involved in road building programmes is that the process of construction can often be as damaging, in congestion terms, as the existing problem, if the project is not handled well. That means that we must put a premium on speed in this process, and also on the project being extremely well managed. People want to know that this scheme will relieve congestion and not simply cause problems in the medium term. Will my right hon. Friend also give me a guarantee that this programme is sufficiently robust, so that, if it took some time to complete, the kind of cuts that a future Conservative Government might bring in would not put it in jeopardy?
§ Mr. Darling
My hon. Friend is right. A future Conservative Government who had pledged to cut spending would have to cut the roads programme along with just about everything else. He is also right to say that the construction can cause a lot of disruption. One of the attractions of building an expressway of the kind that I have proposed is that it can be built parallel to the existing road. It would not therefore cause five or six years' worth of additional congestion on the M6. I am sure that my hon. Friend would not look forward to the prospect of driving up and down the M6 for five or six years while it was being widened. Another general point is that the maintenance of roads—we are doing a lot at the moment—can be disruptive. I understand people's frustration in that regard, but—as with the railways, where there has been a lot of disruption on the west coast main line—once the work has been satisfactorily completed, journey time reliability will improve. That is something that we should all aspire to.
§ Mr. John Redwood (Wokingham) (Con)
I welcome the Secretary of State's statement and his commitment to more capacity. One easy thing that he could do would be to put a statutory instrument before the House to allow cars carrying more than one person to use the bus lane on the M4, a much under-used lane that is already demarked for special purposes. Such a proposal would make his statement even more popular.
§ Mr. Darling
I have considered that, because it seemed an obvious thing to do. However, the advice that I received was that, if we did that, that road would no longer have the capacity that it needs, because the bus lane is not an extra lane, as the right hon. Gentleman knows. It was taken from the existing third lane. There would therefore be a risk of adding to the congestion. I have looked at that proposal, however, and I would be happy to discuss it with the right hon. Gentleman or anyone else. I have also asked my officials to continue to look at it, because it was a very obvious candidate to me.
697 I am told, however, that if we did it, there would be a serious risk of the road becoming completely gummed up. Obviously, we need to work through those issues.
§ Ms Joan Walley (Stoke-on-Trent, North) (Lab)
I was very pleased to hear my right hon. Friend say that he accepted that we could not build our way out of congestion. I also welcome his proposals on car sharing. On the M6 proposals, I am disappointed that we are not really considering the full opportunities offered by the multi-modal studies that were carried out. On the timing of the proposals, will he give me an assurance that there will be full consultation with Advantage West Midlands on both sustainable development and economic regeneration? We already have consultants going ahead with surveys on transport, and we need to know now how this longer time scale will affect all that.
§ Mr. Darling
This consultation will run until the end of September, and there will be ample time for all interested parties to put their views. The multi-modal studies suggested that there is an economic case for widening the existing M6 to five lanes. Two years ago, I agreed to widen it to four lanes. The point that I made a few moments ago bears repetition: we are talking about either widening the road to four lanes or, as an alternative, having an expressway. There are arguments for and against, but I believe that the arguments for an expressway are pretty persuasive.
We are spending £7.5 billion on the west coast main line precisely because we want to ensure that there are good public transport alternatives. The M6 was designed to carry 75,000 cars a day; it is now carrying perhaps 150,000 at peak periods. That is unsustainable: it is not good for the environment, for business or for anybody, and that is why I want to sort it out.
§ Dr. John Pugh (Southport) (LD)
What studies have been conducted into the effect of the expressway parallel to the M6 on rail patronage, given that £7 billion has gone into the west coast main line?
§ Mr. Darling
The hon. Gentleman will be aware that the number of people using our railways is increasing, with more than 1 billion passengers being carried by the railways last year. Indeed, when the first phase of the west coast main line is completed in September, it will become a more attractive proposition. I cannot agree with what is implicit in his comments, which is that the way to get more people to use trains is to make it increasingly difficult to go up and down the M6—[Interruption.] The Liberal Democrats always give the distinct impression that that is what they are saying. We need to invest in road and rail capacity to give people a proper choice.
§ Mr. Colin Challen (Morley and Rothwell) (Lab)
If I understood correctly my right hon. Friend's answer to the right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood), he suggested that, were car sharing allowed on the M4 bus lane, it would lead to more congestion. Will extra capacity for such lanes elsewhere in the country be reserved for public transport, so that we can avoid the possibility that he mentioned in relation to the M4?
§ Mr. Darling
I do not want to over-complicate the proposal before it is too old. I propose additional capacity for cars containing two or more people: adding more and more people before the hour is out will lead to disaster. However, as my hon. Friend knows, there are many examples of bus lanes and other measures that give priority to public transport. This proposal is specifically about car pool lanes, however, and is very much modelled on what happens in parts of the United States. As I said, it works there, and I do not see why, in principle, it cannot work here.
§ Mrs. Angela Browning (Tiverton and Honiton) (Con)
What are the safety implications of turning existing hard shoulders into running lanes?
§ Mr. Darling
The hon. Lady is right that there are safety implications, which is why we are considering them carefully. She may recall that, a couple of years ago, I announced that we were going to consider the use of the hard shoulder on the M42 at peak times, to try to relieve congestion. Obviously, a lot of new technology is required to make sure that traffic speeds reduce and cars can run safely. Again, that works in continental Europe—for example, in Holland—and it is one way of making better use of existing capacity. The alternative is to build more lanes on the M42, which would have an environmental effect.
My strategy is clear: let us have additional capacity where it is required, but let us get the most out of the assets that we already have. I think that I heard the current Conservative spokesman say such a thing on a Sunday television programme a few weeks ago—[Interruption.] Perhaps I was listening to the wrong programme; it was someone who looked like the hon. Gentleman and who claimed to be the Conservative transport spokesman, but they are changing so fast now that we can never be sure. The hon. Lady's point in relation to safety is important, and we shall certainly consider it.
§ Tony Wright (Cannock Chase) (Lab)
The M6 toll road is a considerable achievement. There was quite a stir last year, however, when a director of one of the companies involved said that the terms of the contract, with the absence of Government regulation, meant that it was the best opportunity for monopoly pricing anywhere in the world. He was quoted in The Daily Telegraph as saying,"We won't see anything like this ever again." Will my right hon. Friend assure us that, in contract terms, we will not see anything like this ever again?
§ Mr. Darling
If I recall rightly, the gentleman in question was taken out and shot—metaphorically, at least. I was never sure whether he was shot because he said the wrong thing, or whether he was being remarkably candid about what his company thought. One of the features of the midland express contract, which was signed in 1992, is that the company has the absolute right to charge whatever it wants—within some constraints, but it has fairly free rein. Obviously, we need to examine that, because there is an issue of public policy. Hauliers are deeply unhappy about the £11 charge that they face at the moment.
§ Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (West Derbyshire) (Con)
The Secretary of State said that the benefits of the toll road had been spread as far as Stoke-on-Trent. I ask him to consider whether that might be partly due to the completion of the A50 link road. When will that concrete road be resurfaced with a better, less noisy surface? Will the scheme that the Secretary of State has announced fall under schemes of national importance as far as the Transport and Works Act 1992 is concerned?
§ Mr. Darling
I need to consider the latter point—it is certainly a pretty major scheme. In relation to concreting, I had better write to the hon. Gentleman and see what point the programme has reached. I am glad, however, that he recognises that the improvements to roads are beginning to bear fruit. He might want to reflect on the fact that if that programme were to be cut drastically, it would have an adverse effect.
§ Paul Farrelly (Newcastle-under-Lyme) (Lab)
The Secretary of State will be aware that my constituency is in the enviable position of stretching exactly between junctions 15 and 16 of the M6. There has already been much uncertainty about the impact of M6 widening, especially how we would fit just one lane on each side on the stretches between Seabridge, Keele, Audley and Betley in my constituency, and between Butterton and Madeley in the Stone constituency. He will be aware that there will be immense concern about how a four or six-lane expressway will run parallel with the M6. Will he therefore say a little more about how the national consultation will work, and what undertakings he can give to me and my constituents in the borough of Newcastle-under-Lyme that their voices will be heard and not drowned out?
§ Mr. Darling
Of course all voices will be heard. As I said earlier, the in-principle consultation will allow my hon. Friend and all his constituents ample opportunity to say what they think. In relation to the planning process, when a route is proposed, whether it is a widening or a new scheme, it is also subject to consultation, which is why I was at a loss to understand the criticism that was made earlier. People have every right to be consulted. I hope that we can avoid the situation that we had with the existing M6 toll: the contract was signed in 1992 and given the go-ahead in the mid-1980s, but I am told that it was first discussed when Harold Wilson was Prime Minister. That gives the House some idea of how long it takes to build anything in this country.
§ Bob Russell (Colchester) (LD)
Will the Secretary of State confirm that hard shoulders have been provided on motorways because highway engineers, road safety experts and the emergency services believe that they are a vital road safety measure that enable broken-down vehicles to avoid fast-moving traffic. In his calculations, how many crashes, injuries and deaths is he prepared to accept?
§ Mr. Darling
Not for the first time, the hon. Gentleman goes a little bit over the top. In relation to the M42, we are going to see whether hard shoulder running at peak times works, and considerable discussion, not just with highway operators but with the police, fire and 700 ambulance services and others, has taken place. This has worked successfully in the Netherlands, for example, which has very heavy road usage, and it is worth considering. He is right that safety is important, and we take it very seriously.
§ Mr. David Kidney (Stafford) (Lab)
In the 1990s, the Conservative Government published and then withdrew proposals to widen the M6 motorway by what was called the parallel widening method. Is it intended that the expressway would fill the route of those proposed parallel works?
Does my right hon. Friend accept that Stafford contains the greatest concentration of houses and environmentally sensitive sites on the entire route? Does the plan give Stafford a wide berth? If not, has he dusted off the part of the multi-modal study that suggested a brand-new road rather than a monster motorway through Staffordshire?
§ Mr. Darling
My hon. Friend is right to raise environmental concerns, and concerns for those whom he represents. The consultation is about whether, in principle, we should build a tolled expressway rather than widen the road. No specific route is included in the consultation; when we reach that stage we shall have to consult people, because they will want to know exactly where the road would be built, but that is the second stage rather than the first.
§ Mr. George Osborne (Tatton) (Con)
The Secretary of State said that the M6 linked Birmingham to Manchester, but in fact, as he knows, it bypasses Manchester and pushes Manchester-bound traffic on to the wholly unsuitable A556 at junction 19. When he looked at the proposal for a new toll road, did he consider extending it to junction 20 so that the traffic could go on to the M56? That would be much more sensible. If we were given that in return for the concreting of thousands of acres of my constituency, we would not just be shifting the traffic jam to the end of the toll road.
§ Mr. Darling
My recollection is that the hon. Gentleman and I have already discussed the A556. He will recall that when we last discussed it on the Floor of the House I said that I was greatly troubled by the proposal to build a motorway along it. We are now considering whether there are better ways of directing the traffic. Once we have reached a conclusion, it will influence where the expressway will end.
The hon. Gentleman is right: major environmental sensitivities are involved along the A556. As I have said in the House before, I am concerned about that, which is why I have asked the Highways Agency to consider alternatives.
§ Mr. Bob Blizzard (Waveney) (Lab)
I know it is on the other side of the country, but I used the north Birmingham toll road earlier in the year and thought it excellent. I look forward to another 50 miles of it stretching north to Manchester.
When considering wider roads policy, will my right hon. Friend take account of parts of the country such as mine, which have no decent roads at all? Will he give 701 thought to that, in the interests of equity and inclusion—not just in the context of trunk roads, because there are none in my constituency—when he evaluates proposals for major capital schemes in local transport plans?
§ Mr. Darling
I am well aware of my hon. Friend's concerns about transport not just to Lowestoft but in East Anglia. Again, there are sensitive issues, such as the need to ensure that people can get about on the roads and the fact that it happens to be a very nice part of the country. My colleagues and I consider such issues every time proposals such as this come before us.
§ Michael Fabricant (Lichfield) (Con)
The existing M6 toll road is regarded as a great success and very useful to my constituency, which is now close to a motorway; it certainly was not before. The Secretary of State will know, however, that it is not used very much by heavy trucks or commercial vehicles, which seems to be a deliberate policy. Does he not understand the frustration felt by many of us—particularly me—about the fact that heavy trucks from the continent, which pay no British taxes, can fill up with diesel in France and travel all the way up to Scotland and back without refuelling in the United Kingdom? If they, too, refuse to use the new M6 toll road, once again foreign trucks will be using British roads and paying nothing. Can the Secretary of State envisage any possibility that overseas transporters will put their share into the British road system?
§ Mr. Darling
Yes, I can. That is why the Government are introducing a lorry road user charging scheme, with the widespread support of the haulage industry, whereby lorries will be charged on the basis of the distance they travel rather than money being raised from the purchase of petrol or diesel. We want all lorry drivers who use our roads to pay their fair share. The scheme is well advanced, and it will make a big difference. It also has much wider implications for the future of our cars, but that is for another day.