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Transport Select Committee Issues

Submitted by on 26 Jul 2011 – 11:34

John LeechJohn Leech MP, Liberal Democrat Member, House of Commons Transport Select Committee

The work of the Commons transport select committee: hours spent listening to argument and counter-argument; visits to a rain-lashed Scottish coast or an airport terminal. So it’s satisfying when the time and graft we put in pays off and we can see our influence on policy as backbenchers.

The most recent example is the committee’s inquiry into the future of the coastguard service. We urged the Government to issue revised plans, so it is very positive that they have. Ministers listened to the case we put for all retained coastguard stations to provide round-the-clock protection.

The Maritime and Coastguard Agency had statistics that it said justified daylight working but our committee concluded that these did not tell the whole story. They did not reveal the need for continuity or how serious the incidents at night were. So I am pleased that the Government’s had a re-think following our work and will ensure 24-hour expert assistance to people on local coastlines.

The other major concern our committee had was on the potential that a lot of local knowledge built up over years would be lost if ministers closed ten coastguard stations. We could have lost both knowledge about local coastlines and the close ties with communities and volunteers that have been established.

Ministers have responded with fresh proposals to keep one coastguard station of each pair that between them currently have full local knowledge about the coastline covered by both. These revised plans will be subject to a second consultation, so everybody has another chance to have a say: for example, are they right to retain a station at Holyhead rather than at Liverpool?

It is interesting to note that the new plans will still ensure that the same amount of savings can be made: by having one, not two, maritime operations centres. This only goes to show that there are always alternatives that can be brought to ministers’ attentions and which us backbench MPs can tease out. I hope that we can force a further re-think on the idea to end the contract for emergency towing vehicles whilst work on alternative funding is still going on.

Our committee has also been working to influence the increasingly entrenched debate on the future of high-speed rail in this country. We made a conscious decision to not wade into the row about the alignment of HS2 sparked by the consultation on the detailed London to Birmingham route. The scrutiny of the local impacts is rightly left to the committee charged with examining the hybrid bill. We have concentrated instead on the bigger picture, something I fear that has been lost sight of.

We have been hearing what the benefits of high-speed rail are, not only to cutting journey times – something that is often portrayed by detractors of HS2 as only providing a small gain – but for improving capacity, for cutting carbon emissions, and for bridging the north-south divide. We have heard that there would be a massive freeing up of capacity on the West Coast mainline, allowing more local and regional services.

We often are surprised by what we hear and have our assumptions tested. I would have thought that, because we are a small, dense, island, the benefits of improved journey times would be less than on the continent because we all live closer together. But SNCF and Deutsche Bahn told us that the reverse is true: high speed rail would be more successful here because of our larger centres of population.

Our committee has even commissioned a review of the Government’s business case, which highlighted that many benefits of high-speed rail are not included in Whitehall’s calculations. For instance, the new line would act as a spur for development around high-speed rail hubs, bringing more jobs, but this has not been included in the so-called ‘wider economic impacts’ in the business case. I am hopeful that our work will help steer the debate.

Looking ahead, the decision to not allow further runways in South East England is one of the many transport challenges that our country faces that parliamentarians need to face up to. In my view, the Government rightly shelved plans for new runways. But we do need to be pro-active to prevent congestion at South East airports and aeroplanes circling in the sky for a landing slot.

So we need to look at ways of encouraging the use of spare capacity at regional airports and stemming the flow of air traffic to the South East, and particularly to Heathrow, in line with the Government’s commitment to re-balance the economy. Regional airports such as Manchester have lost a number of long-haul routes to Heathrow. The review of air passenger duty provides us a big opportunity to do that.

I think that we should introduce APD holidays for new long-haul routes at regional airports, with the tax phased in to allow the airports to establish the markets.