Geoff Hoon: You Ask The Questions

The Secretary of State for Transport answers your questions, such as 'What's green about enlarging Stansted?' and 'What will you do about train fares?'


One of your very first moves in your new job at Transport was to give Stansted expansion the green light. How do you expect anyone to take the Government's pledges on the environment seriously when you support airport expansion? SIMON LEPPARD, Thanet

I don't agree with the black-and-white proposition that you measure people's environmental commitment by putting them into a "pro" or "anti" aviation box. My role is not to choose between safeguarding the economy and protecting the environment – it's about doing both. The announcement on Stansted focused on making the best use of the infrastructure that already exists there. This will bring real benefits to the public. But at the same time, we have been at the forefront of European action to tackle emissions. The terms of the recent EU agreement will mean that CO2 emissions are pegged below current levels, with any increase met by reductions in other areas.

Does your Stansted decision mean that you're in favour of a third runway at Heathrow? LIZ TRINDER, London

In 2002, the Government consulted widely on options for new airport capacity across the UK. The 2003 White Paper "The Future of Air Transport" rejected the approach of "predicting and providing". It concluded that two new runways were needed in the South-east, first at Stansted and then, if strict environmental conditions could be met, at Heathrow.

As a country we are hugely reliant on Heathrow. It handles 85 per cent of UK long-haul flights and 56 per cent of air freight. Over 70 per cent of foreign companies moving to the UK for the first time choose a location within an hour's journey of Heathrow. These international connections are vital in supporting our national and regional economies, particularly in difficult times like these.

We are doing a lot to address aviation's wider environmental impact, through improvements in aircraft technology and measures to encourage good practice at airports. Continued uncertainly about Heathrow's future does nobody any good – least of all those living near or working at the airport. So I hope to make a final decision before the end of the year.

Is it right for petrol prices to be falling again when we're running out and everyone needs to use less? ROWAN MORTON, Liverpool

We are all pleased that prices have come down. Individuals, families and businesses rely on their cars to go about their daily lives. What is vital is that fuel retailers, who were quick to pass on rising costs to consumers, ensure that reductions are also passed on at the petrol pump.

But you're right – in the longer term we need to shift to lower carbon forms of transport. That's why we're investing record sums on buses and trains. We have a huge programme to encourage people to walk and cycle, and everyone up to and including the PM has been looking closely at how we can promote electric vehicles, hybrids, and other technologies.

Are biofuels a good thing? MATTHEW O'NEILL, Cardiff

Biofuels have the potential to deliver real reductions in greenhouse gases, and we cannot afford to ignore this potential given the scale of the climate-change challenge. However, it is clear that there are concerns about some of the impacts of certain biofuels on the wider environment and on food production, particularly in developing countries. So proceeding cautiously and having regard to sustainability is the right thing to do.

How will the recession affect investment in transport developments like the high-speed rail links that you support? ERIC DEAN, Charlton

Its crucial that we do the work now to make sure that in future years we are in the strongest possible position to make the right investments in the transport network. That is why one of my first tasks as Transport Secretary was to ask the Railways Minister Andrew Adonis to look at the potential for high-speed rail, alongside continuing improvements to the speed and reliability of the existing network.

We only have to look at the West Coast Mainline to see what sustained investment can achieve. The £8.8bn spent has already delivered faster journeys between London, Birmingham and Manchester, with further improvements to come.

During the last economic slowdown in the 1990s, the Tories slashed infrastructure investment. I am determined not to make that mistake. In order to stimulate Britain's economic growth and support our position as a leading world economy it is essential that we take the right long-term decisions and investments in our transport infrastructure today, which is why public spending on transport is 54 per cent higher in real terms than it was in 1997.

People have been annoyed with public transport for as long as it's existed. Is that just a fact of life, or can you do anything to make people happy about their journey? JON TRAVERS, Cirencester

We have greater mobility nowadays than ever before, and in general that's a good thing for both the public and the economy as people can be more flexible about where they work. That said, you are never going to make every journey problem-free. What we have done, though, is to invest record sums in the transport network to try to make the journey as easy, safe and reliable as possible. But I know we need to keep working hard to improve commuters' journeys.

When are you going to stop it costing £96 for a weekend return from London to Leicester? ALISON HILL, Poole

Looking online, there are weekend return fares from London St Pancras to Leicester for £42 in October and £24 in November, so it's always worth checking. More people are travelling by train than any time since the 1940s, and many of them are paying fares which are good value for money. But passengers can be confused by the number and complexity of fares on offer. That is why we have worked with the railway companies to deliver a simpler fare structure, so passengers can shop for the best deals.

Does Lord Adonis really have "a real passion for railways", as you said this week? Is it greater than his passion for the academy programme? LOUISE BROOK, Halifax

I think Andrew would say that he has a "real passion" for reform, whether it's on the railways, in schools in hospitals, and wherever it brings real, long term benefits to society. He is a very capable Minister and we are lucky to have him as part of the team.

Ruth Kelly, your predecessor at Transport, resigned to spend more time with her family. Is it that sort of job? TODD BEATTIE, Newcastle

Ruth did an outstanding job as Transport Secretary. Like every job, this one has its challenges. I am discovering the positives, though. You get the chance to make a practical difference to people's lives. If you ask anyone who works long hours and is away from home for significant periods – sales people, construction workers, seafarers – I think they'd all agree that it can put a strain on home life.

You said that Ruth Kelly's resignation was handled "irresponsibly". So should the people who briefed the press lose their jobs EMMA RAPLEY, Swindon

I think Ruth said at the time she would have preferred less drama, because she had discussed the matter with the PM and decided what to do several months before. Leaks are unfortunately a fact of life in politics. I respected Ruth's decision and I thought she handled the whole thing with commendable dignity.

What was it like being Chief Whip? Do you have to make people vote for things they don't believe in? If so, how does it feel? JOAN CORNFORD, London

MPs are pretty strong characters on the whole, so it would be difficult to get them to vote for something they didn't believe in. And they are allowed not to vote for something if it goes against their conscience. As Chief Whip, you have to go into detail about why a particular position is necessary, or to explain the context. The Chief Whip's job is trying to make sure that the Government – and MPs elected as part of the governing party – deliver the promises that they were elected on. That's a healthy part of the democratic process.

The Government has seen a rise in the polls during the economic crisis. What will happen to that when the real recession kicks in? JACQUELINE POTTER, Manchester

There is no doubt that there will be tough times ahead. The credit crunch will definitely have an impact on the "real" economy, and we're seeing that already. However, I believe that the Government – and in particular the Prime Minister – has demonstrated that we have the ideas, experience and the leadership to minimise the effect of the global crash on the public.

What's your greatest ministerial achievement? DAVE CONNOR, Leeds

I've always seen myself as a team player and I am proud of what this Government has achieved since 1997.

Why did you shave your moustache? CARL ARMSTRONG, Stratford-Upon-Avon

The number of people confusing me with Tom Selleck became a problem, so the moustache had to go.

Did you know your nickname was 'buff'? Why, do you think? PHILIPPA SHIRLEY, Oldham

See answer above. Actually, if "buffoon" was the worst thing people ever called me, I'd be doing well.

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