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Transport Issues In London

September 16, 2003

Transport Issues In London

Mr. Mark Field (Cities of London and Westminster): I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge (Mr Randall), who is a colleague in the Whips Office, on introducing this important debate.

As my hon. Friend rightly pointed out, and as, I am sure, the Minister will confirm, one of our problems as London Members of Parliament, whether they be the small crowd of 13 of the Conservative Benches or the rather larger, albeit today invisible, massed ranks on the Government Benches – the exception is the hon. Member for Leyton and Wanstead (Harry Cohen) – is that much of this issue has become devolved over recent months and years to the Mayor of London. It is therefore inevitable that in any debate in this place about transport issues in London we have to touch on his role during the past three and a half years in the post. Of course, the matter is now under the auspices of Transport for London, but there remains some parliamentary input.

I shall briefly touch on one or two issues as I examine the concerns of many of my constituents in Central London. The main concern for many of us in London, and what transport in London means to many people outside the capital, is the tube network. There has been a catalogue of disgraceful delays and bureaucratic bungling. As my hon. Friend the Member for Orpington (Mr Horam) said, much of the blame must be laid firmly at the Government’s door. It is difficult to go into detail, but the last six and a half years have been a catalogue of wasted time and my hon. Friend was right to cast aspersions on the role of the Deputy Prime Minister. His tenure in looking after the transport system throughout the country, let alone in London, will be remembered only as a never-ending disaster.

Unfortunately, the wrangling between the Government and the Mayor of London over the tube, which finally ended with the power being passed fully into the hands of Transport for London, has effectively meant that there have been three wasted years in which no improvements have been made, for all the best will in the world. Many Londoners now have a grave concern that there are going to be appalling blackmail tactics by Mr. Bob Crow and his friends at RMT, who have Mr Livingstone in their pocket – a situation which there is little doubt would continue if he won a second term as Mayor of London, because RMT will be a major funder of his independent campaign in June.

We have grave concerns about what will happen to the underground system. A lot of money will be spent, but much of it will go into the pockets on union members who will constantly complain about safety measures, despite having had no great concerns about safety in past decades. It is interesting that most railway accidents in recent years have been down to driver error or the incompetence of unionised staff, rather than Railtrack, to which blame has been attached. We are in for yet more difficult times, and the commuters who rely on the underground and the rail system to get from far-flung suburban areas to work in central London are the ones who will suffer.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge pointed out, the bus service is one of the success stories of recent years. It is only fair to say that, although perhaps the success has been slightly over-hyped on behalf of the Mayor of London in the past three years. In my constituency there have been marked improvements, including the addition of new hopper buses, but at a great cost. The Transport for London budget is now out of control. A shortfall of five hundred million pounds sterling is estimated for future years and the mayor will, I fear, throw himself on the mercy of central Government, who, I suspect, will have relatively little sympathy for his antics.

Above all, Londoners will suffer. Some advertisements in London buses are about the advantages of a congestion charge – notionally, the money raised will be put into buses, but we all know that that is far from the truth. I shall not go into detail about the congestion charge, because I have spoken about it in this Chamber several times and led a debate on it in February. It has not been quite the failure that we all feared, in the sense that there have not been riots in the street. However, many central London retailers and traders have suffered great, and my hon. Friend the member for Uxbridge mentioned the comprehensive survey by Sir Stuart Hampton of John Lewis, outlining the many grave concerns of central London retailers. However, at least in the first few months of the congestion charge, there was less congestion. That was one reason for retailers suffering – passing trade was radically reduced, although there is evidence that that is beginning to change.

The real concern about the congestion charge is that so little money has been raised. It has been bureaucratic nightmare; it now appears that the over hyped assumption that two hundred million pounds sterling a year would be raised is being downplayed, not just to the latest figure of sixty five million pounds sterling a year given by the Mayor of London, but to a mere fraction of that, for the next two or three years.

The raison d’etre of a congestion charge was to raise a pot of money that could be securitised for a range of other transport initiatives, such as Crossrail in particular, which people in London consider an important part of a long-term strategy. Crossrail is an issue that dates back to the post-war era as it was recommended as long ago as 1948. The Conservative Government in the early to mid-19990s first put the project on hold, and a repeat of that by this Government appears almost certain. I should be glad to hear the Minister’s comments about Crossrail. The tragedy is that a decision must be made now to bring about improvements 10 or 12 years down the line. An Olympic bid would be almost unsustainable without commitment to – and the reality of – Crossrail, at least for those areas in the near part of eastern London that would be affected.

I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge about taxis, although I appreciate that the subject is a little outside the Minister’s area of authority. There is a grave concern that there has been an explosion in the number of unregistered cabs here in central London. My feeling is that we need to encourage the licensing of reputable black cabs, despite concerns about the dumbing down of the knowledge. My real concern is safety for the elderly and for young women, many of whom come to socialise in my constituency in such places as Soho and Covent Garden on a Friday or Saturday night and want to know that they can return to the suburbs safely. There have been appalling statistics on rape and assault in recent months.

Mr Randall: My hon. Friend may be interested to know that I am a member of the Sexual Offences Bill Committee. One of the presentations from the Metropolitan police was on rape resulting from taking a minicab. That obviously does not happen everywhere, but it is a serious problem.

Mr Field: I thank my hon. Friend. There is little doubt that there has been an explosion in the number of unregistered cabs, and we all feel very strongly about that on behalf of our constituents.

I shall touch on airports, although that issue is closer to the heart of my hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge and I appreciate that he has expressed grave constituency concerns. When walking in such places as West Drayton in his constituency and Harmondsworth and Sipson in the Constituency of the hon. member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell), one cannot fail to be impressed by the number of posters, which are all over the place, and the campaign involving many local residents in that part of West London is massive. One of the benefits of our long parliamentary recess is that it gives us a chance to so some research, and on one of the warm summer days this year I spent some time walking through much of that area and looking at the beautiful 12th century foundation church of St. Mary’s, Harmondsworth, which is likely to be entirely obliterated, or find itself a mere stone’s throw from a third runway, if such a runway is built.

However, the business argument cannot be lightly dismissed, apart from the very questionable Department for Transport methodology on aircraft usage. I am a great believer that freedom to travel gives freedom to think, and one of the benefits of living in a cosmopolitan and open-minded globalised society is that if people are allowed to travel and experience other cultures, many of the problems highlighted by the global terrorist threat of the past two years will begin to be dissipated. The discussion on the third runway at Heathrow is ongoing, and I understand that the final decision on that and on runways at Stansted and Gatwick is likely to be delayed until the new year, I hope that the Minister can confirm the precise state of play.

There has been a savage attack on private car usage by central Government through fuel duties and by the Mayor of London’s anti-car policies – not just the congestion charge – but car usage must be seen as an integral part of sensible transport planning.

I shall conclude soon, because the hon. Member for Leyton and Wanstead wants to say a few words. Our concern about transport in London reveal a mess of the Government’s making. The Secretary of State may well be seen as a safe pair of hands who was appointed to neutralise this as an issue, but the conclusion, first aired by the "Evening Standard", that the Government really have it in for London and Londoners if inescapable. As a capital city, we make a vast contribution to the national coffers – some twenty billion pounds sterling per year – yet we receive considerably less than our rightful share in terms of infrastructure projects. That applies not only to Crossrail, but to the general state of the railways and roads, and to hospitals and other matters outside the Minister’s transport remit.

To me, that is an attack on the quality of life of all but the very richest Londoners, who can in effect opt out. It may well be that national pay bargaining suits the trade unions and a Labour Government dominated by Scots and northerners, but it is an absolute disaster for Londoners whose public services are thereby denuded of cash and staff. I appreciate that the Minister will want to address specific transport issues when he sums up, but I hope that he takes back to his boss the grave concerns – felt by many of us who represent Londoners – about the general quality of life. Much of that is, I fear, in the hands of central Government and I hope that they will act positively in the months and years ahead.