Transport in London

I will deal with issues relating to transport in the capital, particularly the underground. I congratulate the hon. Member for Ilford, South (Mike Gapes) on securing the debate, which is very important to Londoners and the significant number of people who live outside the confines of the M25 but work in London and rely on transport in London.

When the hon. Gentleman says that the situation was not meant to be like this, I am inclined to say, although I was not in the House at the time, that Conservatives warned the Government about it. The idea that Londoners would elect a London Mayor with a huge personal mandate and that that Mayor, whoever the person was, would not take to himself many centralised powers was unrealistic, to put it mildly.

I shall discuss issues that specifically relate to central London, such as the congestion charge, which I shall mention shortly. Tomorrow, we shall debate on the Floor of the House the report on the PPP by the Select Committee on Transport, Local Government and the Regions. The current state of affairs in London Underground is nothing short of a national disgrace. There is little doubt that if animals were subject to the conditions that many underground passengers have to put up with, it would immediately become a national scandal. The problems occur not just in the rush hour but for much of the working day.

Clearly, the massive strategic problem with funding the underground must be addressed. Unfortunately, a case is going to court. The only thing that we can safely say is what the Mayor has said: there will be scratchy public transport for the next 10 years. There is little doubt that the London Underground situation will get worse before it gets better, irrespective of the resolution of the court case in the next few months. 
The Mayor has significant powers, and I appreciate that the hon. Member for Ilford, South has great concerns about the execution of those powers within the confines of Transport for London. All the bickering will not get us anywhere. It is important that London MPs play their part in facilitating matters. For our part, Conservatives have spent much of the past year encouraging Ken Livingstone and Bob Kiley to ensure that the right thing is done in the interests of Londoners. We have done our best to be constructive in the matter.

However, politicians and, more importantly, our constituents are running out of patience because of the mess that is being created in Transport for London and the poor relationship between the Mayor of London and central Government. At the heart of the PPP issue is the funding of the programmes that we have in place. It is easy for all of us to blame the Mayor or Transport for London, but the Treasury has deliberately held on to the purse strings not just for transport and crucial day-to-day issues concerning transport, which is specifically within the confines of this debate, but for public services as a whole. London gets an appallingly bad deal from central Government.

Ms Diane Abbott (Hackney, North and Stoke Newington)

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that when looking at transport problems in London, all roads lead to the Treasury? On the PPP, London Underground could be wholly privatised – I would not support that, but it could be done and would have intellectual consistency – or it could remain in the public sector. However, the Government’s chosen course of PPP is the worst of all possible worlds.

Mr. Field

I suspect that I shall not utter these words too often in my parliamentary career, but I entirely agree with the hon. Lady’s sentiments. PPP is absolutely the worst of the available options. The Select Committee knows considerably more about the details, but it is clear even from a cursory look at the PPP document that the Government are saying that transport in London will get worse for at least the first seven and a half years of PPP’s operation, assuming that it can be got under way.

It strikes me that the whole fiasco of Railtrack and the oft-repeated phrase that there would be an integrated transport policy under the Deputy Prime Minister, the former Secretary of State who now has responsibility for the regions, point to a lack of central Government credibility. The Government’s transport policy for London and where it is going is greatly worrying.

On congestion charging, the big idea of the Mayor was predicated on the fact that there would be great improvements in public transport prior to the introduction of the congestion charge. Indeed, that is self-evidently necessary because, if the congestion charge is to be effective, it will take some 15 to 20 per cent. of capacity from central London’s roads. That capacity must go somewhere and the obvious idea was that it would go into the public transport system.

We have seen a lot of publicity from the Mayor about improvement with the buses. There has been an improvement and there is clearly a long-term investment structure for buses in central London. However, the great worry – the reality is undeniable – is that the buses can make only a very small difference in capacity. However much they are improved with bus lanes and so on they will not be able to make the necessary difference. The flag that has been run up by the Mayor and Transport for London that buses are the answer to all the problems prior to the introduction of congestion charging is a political red herring. Things will get worse before they get better, and it is now incumbent on the Mayor of London to postpone congestion charging for the foreseeable future until those improvements are in place.

As many hon. Members know, my local council, Westminster City Council, is taking the matter to the High Court in the middle of July. It is regrettable that it has been forced so to do, but it is understandable given the concerns of many local residents.

Mike Gapes

Does the hon. Gentleman suspect, as I do, that the Mayor might secretly welcome Westminster city council’s legal challenge because a delay in introducing the congestion charge might avoid a political fiasco and disaster for him?

Mr. Field

I had suspected that and I pacify a number of my local residents associations and constituents on that basis. My only caveat to that theory, which goes back to funding, is that the one significant benefit of congestion charging for Mr. Livingstone, over and above the environmental advantages and other political aspects that have driven the policy forward, is the prospect of £130 million to £150 million a year that he can securitise for transport and other projects in the years ahead. So little money is coming through from central Government that he may find it difficult to resist such a prospect, notwithstanding the potential political fiasco, to which the hon. Gentleman referred, of introducing a congestion charge in that way.

London needs a strong and credible Mayor with the legal authority to drive through an agenda. Unfortunately, over the past two years, we have had little more than a media personality using his celebrity to proclaim a vision without any idea of how to deliver it.

Central Government need to understand that the devolution of power in London must at the same time ensure that the city is suitably rewarded for being the economic powerhouse of the country. It is little short of a disgrace that the Government have largely ignored the quality of life of so many Londoners. They are happy to take the taxes, the increased stamp duty and inheritance tax that flow from the wealth created by Londoners, but do not invest in the basic transport infrastructure that is so necessary.