Transport System: Failings - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords am 1:43 pm ar 25 Ebrill 2024.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Photo of Lord Liddle Lord Liddle Shadow Spokesperson (Transport) 1:43, 25 Ebrill 2024

I congratulate my noble friend Lord Snape on introducing this debate in his own informed and inimitable way, and join those who have paid tribute to him for his contribution over many decades to the transport debate in this country. I also thank former Secretaries of State for contributing to this debate and I particularly endorse the remarks made by the noble Lord, Lord McLaughlin, about my noble friend Lord Hendy, who unfortunately is not able to contribute to this debate; it would have been nice to hear from him. Those present also remind me of those absent, and one of those is, of course, Lord Rosser, who was a much-loved Member of this House and a very great, moderate and sensible trade union general secretary.

It would be nice to have a coherent plan for transport, but in the last 14 years we have not achieved that. We had the impact of austerity, which led to massive cuts in local government budgets. I saw it in Cumbria, where we had fewer professional highways staff and where planned maintenance on our roads was cut to the bone, so we inevitably ended up with a chronic problem of potholes. The Government have done a lot of announcing about special funds for potholes, in a sort of patchwork attempt to cover up the consequences of what they did 10 years ago. In fact, that will only cover about half of what is needed to have a proper system of planned maintenance for our highways.

Austerity also brought big cuts in bus subsidies. When I was a Cumbria county councillor, we were forced to abandon bus subsidies for commercial services altogether. As a result, bus travel outside London has collapsed. The annual number of journeys since 2009 has gone down from 2.4 billion to 1.6 billion—a third lost.

Boris Johnson realised, to be fair to him, that this was a big problem. His Bus Back Better White Paper was full of typically bold promise and ambition, but, as with so much else, delivery was another matter. This is a serious issue—it might be even more serious than the railways—because the bus crisis affects the young, the elderly and the poor most of all. For a social democrat like me, we must do better and find a better policy.

The solution stares us in the face. London has seen little of the decline experienced in other parts of England. Why? Because, instead of the philosophy of provision being driven by free market competition, bus services in London are a fine example of public/private partnership, with a franchising model that works. This eliminates competitive cherry picking on bus routes that are highly profitable and allows cross-subsidy of those routes where there is less revenue.

The difficulty with this problem that Boris Johnson recognised is that the Government have never found time to legislate on it. This year, to be frank, the Government judged the pedicabs Bill more important than doing something to remedy our bus service problems. I regret very much the way that government policy has tilted against public transport since the Uxbridge by-election. The Government have tried to pose as a defender of the motorist against sinister socialist plots—this is nonsense. I am a strong believer in the freedom that cars bring. I was brought up in a non-car owning household and realised, with great wonderment and affection, how a car enabled me to travel to parts of the Lake District near my home that I had never been to before. As a councillor for Wigton in the last decade, I also saw how, in certain places where public transport is rotten, people depend on their cars. The care worker who is on the minimum wage—if that—depends on a car to do her job. Let us have no more of this culture-war nonsense.

We need, of course, sensible policies in towns and cities. We realised in the 1970s that there was no financially affordable or environmentally acceptable way in which road building could solve congestion problems. We did not want to become like America. When I was a young Labour councillor in Oxford in the 1970s, we championed what we called a balanced transport policy. We brought in park and ride from the outskirts, and bus lanes to get buses into town quicker. I remember how much opposition there was. Traders thought this was the end of the world. Professionals objected to not being able to drive their car to work as easily as they had done. But, when people saw the benefits, the objections quickly subsided. We could do much more in cities to improve bus reliability and efficiency without vast increases in public spending.

The same opportunity exists on our railways. I was never a dogmatic opponent of all privatisation, but I thought that separating the natural monopoly of the infrastructure from competing services that use it, while it might work well in telecoms, was a much more difficult proposition with railways. That has proved to be the case. The growing problems with privatisation have been evident for two decades. We had the collapse of Railtrack in 2001. We had the problem of franchisees overbidding for contracts and hoping that a weak Government would let them off the hook. My noble friend Lord Adonis told them to get lost, and their franchises were taken into public ownership. In 2018, the railways were unable to produce a timetable that worked. Since Covid, there has been a vast increase in costs and a real decline in quality of service. As a frequent Avanti user, although not quite as frequent as the noble Lord, Lord Goddard, I still cannot understand why it has been allowed to keep its franchise.

What Labour has announced today is fundamentally right—that we intend to bring the major part of the railway under unified public control and ownership. I disagree with my noble friend Lord Berkeley: we must take legislative action on this quickly, in our first term of office. A unified railway will save hundreds of millions of pounds by getting all parts of the system working together. It will end the costly arguments about delay attribution, and I hope that it will release the railway from the micro-control of civil servants who are currently making decisions about services and spending. It will not be a return to British Rail. Open access will be retained; freight services will continue to be operated by the private sector; the lease-holding arrangements for rolling stock will remain in place. This is a pragmatic response to the failings of the existing system. I hope that it will allow the kind of long-term approach that the noble Lord, Lord Bourne, talked about.

Again, there is not much difference between the Williams-Shapps plan and Labour’s proposals, which is why Keith Williams has backed them today. This provides an opportunity to establish a new, lasting consensus about the way railways should be run, and I hope that the Conservatives will take that view if they lose the next election.

Another area where consensus needs to be struck is on the issue of high-speed rail. After the Prime Minister’s decision, we are left with a high-speed line with apparently no public funds to build its London terminus at Euston, and a connection of HS2 to the west coast main line which makes the problem of train congestion to the north worse, not better, than it is at present. What was envisaged as a revolutionary transformation has, in effect, morphed into a high-speed tube extension from Old Oak Common to Birmingham. It has destroyed the integrated rail plan. In its place, we got the shoddiest White Paper I have ever seen from a Government, on the Network North plan; a set of incoherent proposals cobbled together in Downing Street without any expert input from transport people. This is no way to run a country.

Labour is not going to go for headline-grabbing announcements, but we need a carefully considered decision based on detailed work about where we are. There we have it: we must have a coherent policy at long last, replacing 14 years of dither and delay interspersed with reckless decisions. The country deserves a lot better.