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The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. Tom Harris): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Wansbeck (Mr. Murphy) on securing this debate on passenger services on the Ashington, Blyth and Tyne line. I am well aware of his long-standing interest in the issue, which, I appreciate, remains a strategic priority for the region. As he said, it is seen as key to the regeneration of that part of the north-east. I hope that we can advance the debate today and that I can satisfy him, at least to some extent.
The Government, and the Department for Transport in particular, recognise the importance of good transport links for economic and social regeneration and for improving access to jobs and key services. Better accesswhether by bus, rail or caris crucial to achieving that. We have been working to address a legacy of underinvestment in transport that goes back decades. The growth in our economy, although clearly beneficial, has put further pressures on all transport modes. That is why the Government are committed to sustained long-term investment in transport.
Investment in transport in the north-east is at record levels. Over the lifetime of the first local transport plan, more than £450 million has been invested, delivering real improvements on the ground. More than £200 million has been spent on major capital projects in Tyne and Wear alone, with an emphasis on public transport improvements, delivering the extension of the metro to Sunderland and key interchange upgrades at Metrocentre, Gateshead and Four Lane Ends.
We have made significant investments and seen significant improvements in rail in the past few years. Performance has exceeded targets and passenger numbers have increased. We have also seen the number of passenger journeys increase by more than a third since 1996-97; they exceeded 1 billion in 2003-04 and have continued to increase in subsequent years. The amount of freight transported by rail has also increased by almost 50 per cent. in that time. The Government are also seeking to encourage greater use of local and rural railways through the community rail development strategy.
Our strategy for transport is focused on reducing social exclusion, tackling congestion and pollution and enhancing quality of life by improving all types of transportrail and road, public and privatein ways that increase choice and as an investment in the future. However, there is a need for realism. We cannot satisfy every demand for transport infrastructure enhancements on any mode.
Major infrastructure improvements are expensive and take time to deliver. We have to prioritise and be realistic. We must be confident that each scheme that we take forward offers value for money in terms of social, economic or environmental benefits. Regional and local bodies now have a much clearer picture of the resources likely to be available to their regions in the next 10 years. Through the regional funding allocation process, we have given them the opportunity to advise the Government on how they think those resources should be allocated to best serve their regions needs and objectives.
Although it was not possible to include rail funding in the previous round of regional funding allocations, regions were able to prioritise rail projects that they felt were important to them. The Government and the rail industry also engage with the region via consultation exercises, information gathering and so onfor example, in creating the north-east regional planning assessment.
Each transport mode has its own strengths and weaknesses. A particular mode may not be the best solution in some cases. For example, rail is generally best suited to longer-distance journeys between centres of population, while a bus services flexibility can make it more suitable for dispersed populations and shorter distances. The most appropriate transport solution may also change over time.
It is important to maintain an open mind when considering options and to make an informed judgment about the most effective solution; otherwise, there is a danger that the solution will be determined before pen is put to paper on any investigation and that thereafter all work will become an exercise in proving the case for the favoured solution. If, early in the process, it becomes clear that the solution will not stand up to scrutiny, time and money is wasted and nothing is done to address the issue.
The Eddington transport study, published last month, recommended that the transport decision-making process should incorporate four key principles: first, the starting point should be a clear articulation of the objectives and outcomes required, using a whole journey approach; secondly, the full range of options should be considered, including different modes and more efficient use of capacity; thirdly, the most cost-effective policies that deliver the objectives should be prioritised; and finally, the process should be underpinned by a strong evidence base.
Given the publication of the Eddington and Stern reports and recent changes in how the rail industry is structured and undertakes strategic planning, a great many changes can impact on rail scheme proposals, so it is important to take an objective view of proposals and assess whether they are the best solution now and for the future.
The Government have not closed their minds to the expansion of rail. Indeed, the railways are growing faster than ever before. However, our priorities for investment must be driven by an objective assessment of where the greatest benefiteconomic, social and environmentalis to be delivered. Generally, that follows strong patterns of established demand.
In my constituency and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Wansbeck (Mr. Murphy), there are good examples of joined-up thinking in which the Association of North East Councils, Network Rail and the transport authorities have got together to consider feasibility and business cases for the reopening of lines in Wansbeck and Leamside, which is in my
constituency. Will the Minister give a commitment that the Department for Transport will co-operate with the studies without taking any pre-determined view, and offer any assistance and guidance that it can?
Mr. Harris: My hon. Friend has already raised that matter with me, and I am more than happy to reiterate the commitment that I have already given: the Department will do everything that it can to help progress such initiatives, particularly when local partnerships are working positively together.
The assembly will shortly invite tenders for a study to establish the feasibility of introducing passenger rail services between Morpeth and Bedlington stations. The service may provide an alternative to the Ashington, Blyth and Tyne line and improve accessibility in south-east Northumberland. The study is expected to be completed by the end of March 2007.
I turn to the Ashington, Blyth and Tyne line. I shall, of course, be more than happy to meet a delegation led by my hon. Friend the Member for Wansbeck to discuss the project and how it can be progressed. I appreciate that there is considerable support in the region for the reopening of the Ashington, Blyth and Tyne line as a means of regenerating deprived areas of Northumberland and providing greater accessibility. Although there has been a great deal of background work and examination, as far as I am aware, no business case has been created recently. The creation of a business case, with Network Rail and the rail industry, is the essential first step in taking forward any rail proposal.
Mr. Murphy: My hon. Friend the Minister is, of course, right that no business case has been put forward. That is because of the reasons that I gave during my speech. Between 1999 and 2001, it was the No. 1 priority for every organisation in the region, but it was deliberately scuppered by Railtrack, which put forward a breathtaking, eye-watering figurein excess of £45 millionfor bringing the line up to scratch. Every expert in the rail industry has said that that figure was wildly over the top and was put forward deliberately to scupper the scheme.
Mr. Harris: I accept my hon. Friends point, and I hope that, if I agree to join him in criticism of Railtrack, he will agree that a business case is essential for progressing the project. In developing a business case, several potential obstacles would need to be addressed.
The cost of the scheme appears to have risen significantly. My hon. Friend addressed that issue, but we must get to the true figure. I understand that recent detailed estimates indicate that costs may now be more than £45 million, but I accept that that figure might not be as up to date as perhaps it should be. He suggested that it originally came from the 1999 Railtrack review. Nevertheless, it has the potential to weaken any future value-for-money assessment and would require proportionally larger benefits.
The proposed service would operate on the east coast main line for five miles north of Newcastle Central station. There is a question about whether
there is sufficient capacity on that section of line and at Newcastle Central station. A new service using the line would clearly reduce capacity and flexibility and, potentially, the reliability of operation of the existing services on the line. Therefore, Network Rail would need to consider whether capacity could be found for the Ashington, Blyth and Tyne service, and of course it would be necessary to show that sufficient passengers would use the services to make it a viable, value-for-money option.
A formal business case would consider each of those issues as a matter of course. It would also provide an objective means of comparison with other schemes across the country. So while the various issues in reopening the line to passengers are by no means insurmountable, they do suggest that the option could be for the longer term, rather than the medium term. The 2004 regional rail study that informed the regional spatial strategy reached that conclusion.
The output from the study prioritised regeneration links as third, behind inter-regional and intra-regional links. Although the report said that the scheme would be worth while in assisting regeneration, it said that it is
an expensive scheme with a relatively marginal value for money performance and making a case for national funding appears problematic.
On that basis, the report recommended a phased approach. A Newcastle to Ashington and Blyth express bus could be implemented in phase 1, followed by the reopening of the Ashington, Blyth and Tyne line to passenger services in phase 2. The north-east regional planning assessment also suggested that bus-based solutions might be more appropriate. It said that
reopening lines such as the Ashington, Blyth and Tyne as passenger routes would become viable only if development were targeted at the proposed stations. Again, that suggests a longer-term option, dependent on regional and local planning policy. As such, the reopening of the line was not considered a priority in the regional planning assessment.
I recognise that the proposals have been, and continue to be, a long-term strategic priority for the region. Reopening the line has been a constant in Northumberland county councils local transport plans. I note that the most recent local transport plan acknowledged that the scheme is a medium-term proposition. Nevertheless, it remains the case that formal analysis of the scheme by the relevant local authorities may lead to the development of a scheme that has good value for money and could therefore be taken forward by them.
It is always open to local transport authorities to bring forward proposals on the basis of their own committed funding, but such proposals must also be subject to rigorous scrutiny, starting with a consideration of whether they would be the most effective transport option. The production of a business case represents a considerable investment in time and resources, and any authority would want to consider carefully its priorities in the context of local, regional and national plans, just as central Government would.
In closing the debate, I confirm that we are working to improve transport connectivity in the north-east as a whole to ensure that people are better able to access jobs and essential services. I recognise the value of the Ashington, Blyth and Tyne scheme, and I suggest that Northumberland county council considers how a viable business case might be constructed.
Pete Wishart (Perth and North Perthshire) (SNP): I refer to my entry in the Register of Members Interests. In addition, I express my disappointment and that of my colleagues in the House of Commons band MP4 that we will not secure a single penny from our greatest hits recordings in 50 years time if the Gowers review suggestions are followed.
I congratulate Andrew Gowers on producing a thorough and complete report on intellectual property, and in meeting the terms of reference set by the Treasury. He went about his business with the professionalism and diligence that one would expect of someone with his experience and background. It was always going to be a tough task comprehensively to review IP in the United Kingdom and how it applies to the UK economy, and then to set out recommendations about how things could be improved. It was always a task that would be mired in controversy, at the very least.
The report was eagerly anticipated. I do not think that there has been such a scale of submissions during the consultation period of any Government review, and a similar thing can be said about the reports publication at the beginning of December. Again, the number of responses from all the different stakeholders was almost unprecedented. The Andrew Gowers report will be considered and debated not just for the next few weeks and months but for the next few years.
This is my first and probably only appeal to the Minister: do not close down the debate now. Let us consider the Gowers review as part of the process of the Governments coming to their own decisions and conclusions about the future of IP and copyright. The review should go out for proper consultation so that all stakeholders have an opportunity to respond. I hope that the Government put a brake on the Gowers process and ensure that all stakeholders are consulted and have an opportunity to respond fully and comprehensively to the recommendations.
The Government must do that. The knowledge economy is fundamentally important to the UK, and I am sure that I do not need to tell the Minister that. It represents some 8 per cent. of our total gross domestic product, and the latest assessments are that up to £50 billion of gross output is dependent on it. We must get this fundamentally right.
More important that anything else, we must get the balance right so that creators are rewarded for their talent and initiative and so that we have the proper business environment, framework and culture to allow the development and growth of our IP.
John Robertson (Glasgow, North-West) (Lab): I congratulate the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart) on securing the debate. As chairman of the all-party group on music, I ask him whether he agrees that the law must be strengthened to cover those people who facilitate piracy. As a musician, he knows that the basis of copyright is to give the musician and other creators of music the chance to make a living. Does he think that it is important for the Minister to take up that matter?
Pete Wishart: I totally agree, and I pay tribute to the hon. Gentlemans sterling chairmanship of the all-party group, which we all very much appreciate. He raises crucial points about things that have not been properly considered in the review. We must ensure that musicians and people who create music are properly rewarded for their initiative. It is totally unfair that the current situation will allow illegal downloads to continue. We must ensure that we have a viable music industry that can counter all of that.
The review is a rare opportunity to consider whether our IP rules strike the right balance for rewarding creativity and allowing businesses the opportunity to develop and grow the knowledge economy. The Gowers report will stand or fall on whether the balance has been effectively struck. On the face of it, I do not believe that it has. The report fails to recognise the rights and interests of so many of our creators and artists.
At first look, the review seems to be a modest document. It makes a little tweak here, does a bit of sorting out to facilitate enforcement, and removes some of the more general inconsistencies that Gowers identified. However, it is not what the report says that is important but the impression that it gives to so many stakeholders in our creative economy. The Gowers review may have undermined the confidence of a whole sector of our creative economy, particularly musicians and artists who now feel undervalued, unsupported and misunderstood in respect of what they are trying to achieve through copyright protection.
It seems at times that Gowers decided unilaterally that copyright no longer belongs to the creator but to the user, the consumer and the general public. It is given back to the creator only as some sort of pat on the head or grudging concession. That view has infuriated the creative community in the UK, and the unprecedented collection of signatures of 5,000 UK musicians, from the humble to the high and mighty, who have come together to demand fair play for musicians, demonstrates the great concern of our artistic community, which feels unsupported and undervalued. The campaign is supported by the general public. A British Phonographic Industry opinion poll found that more than 60 per cent. of the public support these musicians and think that they should be treated equally when it comes to term extension.
The review was a missed opportunity to support UK performers and the music industry, and it shows a lack of understanding of some of the key copyright issues and how they apply to artists and musicians. Copyright term extension has become the totem of the review and the hottest issue. It was probably the most controversial element that Gowers touched on. It is the one thing that has highlighted the feelings of being undervalued among our vital creators.
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