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London’s Transport Needs

May 24, 2004

London's Transport Needs

Mr. Mark Field (Cities of London and Westminster) (Con): London’s transport needs?and, accordingly, the outcome of the Government’s forthcoming spending review?crucially affect the residential population. As one or two hon. Members have pointed out, they affect also commuters, tourists and businesses. As has already been said, the lifeblood of our nation lies in London. It is the economic powerhouse not only of the nation but, to a large extent, of Europe. The hon. Member for Edmonton (Mr. Love) rightly pointed out that a loss to London is a loss to the UK. Jobs lost in London will not necessarily go to Birmingham or Manchester?or even, dare I say it, to Glasgow or Edinburgh?but may leave our shores entirely.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Battersea (Martin Linton) on securing this important and overdue debate. He is critical of my party’s record, but I take that on the chin?although I could argue that his party has been in Government for the past seven years. However, as he rightly says, the East London line is the key. I will be interested, as he will, to hear the Minister’s copper-bottomed commitment and guarantee to fund the line.

London’s transport is?perhaps wrongly?widely regarded as being in something of a mess. I take on board the comments of the hon. Member for Eltham (Clive Efford); he is absolutely right to say that the transport system undertakes an enormous task daily. We have all had, and know constituents who have had, negative experiences of commuting to and from and moving around London, but to a large extent London’s transport is a great success. It does its job, albeit with certain glitches. We cannot deny what was said in the International Olympic Committee’s report on the Olympic bid. That report raised the profile of the issue, and will continue to do so in the months ahead.

I have repeatedly said that our Olympic bid will be in great difficulty unless there is a commitment to Crossrail and the East London line. There is little doubt that we will have great difficulty putting forward a coherent case in July next year unless that case is turbo-charged by a Government commitment to the funding needed for the transport system.

I appreciate the concerns about the reliability of the tube felt by the constituents of my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Wilkinson). He mentioned that he has eight stations in his constituency at the moment; I am sure that he is hoping for nine or 10 when the Croxley link is in place. He rightly identified the need for better leadership on transport. That lies at the core of this debate. Where do we want our transport system to be, not just in the next few years, or in the run-up to the next mayoral or other elections, but in 20 or 30 years’ time?

We need a strategic vision. To that extent, I have some?very limited?sympathy with Ken Livingstone. I agree with the hon. Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) that he has been visionary. I do not agree with much of what he has done, but at least he has driven the agenda forward on the congestion charge and the buses?and I am a more regular bus user than I was in the past. [Interruption.] There have been great successes with buses, and I am the first to admit it. However, what is the cost? There is a colossal cost, which will affect all London council tax payers in years ahead unless we get investment from the Government, and unless some economic sense is put in place.

Clive Efford : On the economics of London’s transport network, the Conservative party’s candidate for Mayor?[Hon. Members: "Jarvis."] Yes, Mr. Jarvis; he said that he would scrap the congestion charge on day one. At the moment, the estimate is that the congestion charge will increase our income per annum by about £60 million. What would the hon. Gentleman cut to finance the abolition of the congestion charge?

Mr. Field : Obviously, I have to bow to the hon. Gentleman’s knowledge, bearing in mind his taxi-driving interests. Perhaps scrapping the congestion charge would be good for those with such interests.

It is fair to say that, economically, the congestion charge has been something of a disaster. The hon. Gentleman points out that it will apparently raise £60 million a year, but he will remember, as I do, that 18 months or two years ago, when it was evident that the congestion charge would be introduced, people were talking about it raising £200 million a year, which was to be securitised into an enormous number of transport projects. That has not happened; in fact, the congestion charge may well be one of the few taxes that lose money. That cannot be a sensible way forward. I entirely support my candidate, Mr. Norris, in his plan to scrap the congestion charge.

However, although the congestion charge has not proved its worth economically, not least because many businesses in central London have suffered, at least the idea showed a sense of leadership and the vision to take the issue forward.

Tom Brake : The hon. Gentleman has not answered the question: how do the Conservatives propose to fund the shortfall of £60 million a year?

Mr. Field : The hon. Gentleman will appreciate that such issues are, rightly, in the hands of the Mayor and the Greater London assembly. However, there is no question of a £60 million shortfall. There will be no shortfall this year, and it is questionable whether there will be a shortfall in future.

Time is pressing, and I should like to mention a few specifics. Inevitably, we have not had much discussion about aircraft noise, apart from the contribution of my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip-Northwood. I have not said, and will not say, much about pedestrianisation, although I entirely agree with what the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake) had to say about it. We need to look at such matters in an integrated way. I should like more aesthetic design, for example, to make pedestrianisation more attractive, particularly in central London.

Where is the Government strategy? There was a 10-year plan in 1999, which is now defunct. We encountered a refusal to commit to Crossrail.

Inevitably there has been a plan, which will no doubt come to fruition now, to delay any announcement until after 10 June, when the mayoral and GLA elections will have come and gone. I am concerned that the Secretary of State for Transport is a man who, as a Scottish Member of Parliament, represents nothing and no one on transport matters in this House?yet he is making decisions that will affect all Londoners, as well as tourists and businesses.
We now face the prospect of prolonged strikes, courtesy of the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers?affecting the tube and the rail network in London during the hot summer months ahead. We are long overdue for an agreement that will, it is to be hoped, lead to a no-strike deal, if we are to get the requisite level of investment.

Where has Mr. Livingstone, Labour’s hand-picked candidate, taken us on transport matters? In the first three years of his mayoralty he spent millions of pounds of Londoners’ money suing the Government in a futile attempt to block the public-private partnership on the tube. Indeed, things have got markedly worse on the underground system in the past seven years. They will get worse still in the next five years, I suspect, even with the investment promised under the PPP scheme, and I believe that there is a financial nightmare ahead for the buses. The optimism that has been shown about the congestion charge is also unlikely to come to fruition.

Several hon. Members made interesting contributions; one was the hon. Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn). Having been a Finsbury Park resident and one of his constituents, I suspect I am solving one of the longest-standing mysteries troubling him. He wanted to know who the one Tory voter in Tollington ward was during the early 1990s. It was me. However, I endorse what he said about Finsbury Park station It could and should be an important hub, just as, as the hon. Member for Battersea (Martin Linton) would say, Clapham junction could be an important hub outside the central area. It is such an unattractive place at the moment that it needs fundamental redesign.

Jeremy Corbyn : That is the nicest thing that has ever been said about it.

Mr. Field : That is also the nicest thing that I have said to the hon. Gentleman.

The hon. Member for Edmonton (Mr. Love) rightly identified the failure to deal with the expanding need for new transport. We must have more vision on this matter. The Conservative party, too, failed, when in government, to achieve a visionary outlook. However, it is important, just as it is to get the transport issue right in the context of London governance. If London’s economy fails, the UK will fail. I cannot overstress the importance of that. Yet although the Mayor has been given power over Transport for London, he does not control the financial aspects that he needs to control if he is to be able to drive forward an agenda.

I have some sympathy with the Mayor of London, however financially illiterate I believe him to be, because he cannot influence the development of tramways and other projects, on which some detailed feasibility studies have been done. I have great sympathy, too, for the Transport for London staff in Windsor house, who are working on many of the relevant schemes. They know that those schemes will never leave the drawing board, because of the Treasury’s financial control-freakery.

We need to break the log jam. The true congestion in London’s transport lies in the failure to see through imaginative projects, because of the Treasury’s reluctance to invest in our capital. I hope that the Minister will have something sensible to say about that, because otherwise all Londoners, all tourists and all London’s businesses will continue to be let down by the Government.