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National Policy Statement (National Networks)

Volume 590: debated on Tuesday 13 January 2015

[Relevant document: Sixteenth Report from the Transport Committee, Session 2013-14, National Policy Statement on National Networks, HC1135.]

I beg to move,

That this House approves the National Policy Statement for National Networks, which was laid before this House on 17 December 2014.

The draft national policy statement was published and laid before Parliament on 4 December 2013. Following public consultation on the report and recommendations from the Transport Committee, the final NPS has now been prepared for designation. I thank the members of the Transport Committee and their Chair, the hon. Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs Ellman), for the important work that they undertook in scrutinising the draft NPS and publishing a report on their findings. I also give thanks for the scrutiny that was undertaken in the other place, which made an important contribution to the final document.

It may be helpful if I begin by clarifying the role and purpose of the NPS, as it is a specific document with a specific purpose. It is a technical planning policy statement that will comprise the decision-making framework for nationally significant road, rail and strategic rail freight interchange projects, as set out in the Planning Act 2008. First, the NPS establishes the need for the development of our national networks at a strategic level. Secondly, it provides the policy framework by which proposals will be decided. It includes, for example, policies on safety, environmental projections and design quality. The NPS sets out a compelling case for development of our national road and rail networks to sustain and drive economic growth, improve quality of life and safety, and deliver better environmental performance.

According to central forecasts, road traffic is set to increase by 30% and rail journeys by 40% by 2030. Rail freight has the potential to nearly double by 2032. The strategic road network makes up only 2% of roads in England but carries a third of all road traffic and two thirds of freight traffic. Under the Government’s 2014 estimates, we forecast that a quarter of travel time will be spent delayed in traffic by 2040 if we do nothing. Our national networks are already under considerable pressure, which is expected to increase as the long-term drivers of demand for travel—economic and population growth—are forecast to increase substantially over the coming years.

Without action, congestion on our roads and crowding on our trains will affect the economy and reduce the quality of life. Congestion has a significant economic cost. In 2010, the direct costs of congestion on the strategic road network in England were estimated at £1.9 billion per annum. Developments are also needed to achieve our broader environment, safety and accessibility goals. There is a need to tackle safety issues, improve the environment, and enhance accessibility for pedestrians and cyclists—an issue very close to my own heart.

The NPS sets out high-level policies and a general requirement on the need for better infrastructure. It does not set out specific locations where development of the national networks will take place. Although the NPS is not spatially specific, it recognises the need for a high-performing road and rail network that connects our cities, regions and international gateways to support economic growth and regeneration, and to improve the user experience. For strategic rail freight interchanges, the NPS identifies a need for an expanded network located near the business markets they serve and linked to key supply chain routes, especially in poorly served areas.

The Minister talked about rail freight interchanges. Is not the problem with our railways that the gauge is too small for trains to accommodate lorry trailers and the large containers in use today? We need large-gauge special rail freight systems to deliver that kind of freight.

The hon. Gentleman has a long history of campaigning for freight cars that will carry semi-trailers such as the type used on our roads. It is not the Government’s policy to move to that type of gauge. The High Speed 2 network and the improvements to electrification will free up capacity on the existing network for container freight. There might not be lorry trailers on the trains, but capacity will be released for more container freight on the railways. That will mean that motorways are less congested, which will be good news for everyone else who uses them.

Sure, some containers can go on the existing rail network on low-loading and flatbed trucks, but the containers that are now becoming common are too large to go through, even on those low-level, flat trucks.

We are slightly digressing from the NPS. I well understand the hon. Gentleman’s long-held belief that we should move that way, but I gently remind him that to improve the gauge of our existing Victorian network would mean extensive work on tunnels and bridges and other work. We only have to look at the disruption that the west coast main line improvements caused to realise that such work does not come without a cost.

The Minister mentioned HS2. Does the NPS clearly set out that if there are England-only infrastructure developments, that should result in full consequentials for the devolved Administrations?

The NPS applies only to England, but we are aware of the need for better connectivity between the devolved parts of our country and in particular to the European networks we are working with. I spoke recently with one of the hon. Gentleman’s colleagues about the need for better connectivity between Wales and England.

The Government take the need to invest in transport infrastructure seriously. In December 2014, we published the first ever road investment strategy, which outlines how £15.2 billion will be invested in our strategic roads between 2015 and 2021. That is the biggest upgrade to our strategic roads in a generation, building on the £9 billion-worth of schemes under construction in this Parliament. Equally, more than £35 billion will be spent on operating and expanding the railways in England and Wales between 2014 and 2019, including more than £9 billion of infrastructure investment. That includes delivering an extra 140,000 commuter journeys into our major cities during the morning peak to improve commuter travel into the major urban areas. That is in addition to the investment committed for HS2, which is outside the scope of the NPS.

The first point to make on that is that the HS2 network is not within the scope of the NPS; it has its own separate hybrid Bill process. The vast majority of the schemes we are investing in are upgrading existing networks. Indeed, in the smart motorways scheme, we are using existing carriageway for hard-shoulder running. Some specific schemes will need land, such as—off the top of my head—the A14 Huntingdon bypass, which will be on new land, and one of the options for the lower Thames crossing would also require the procurement of land.

On the specifics of the NPS, the Select Committee raised some issues with the forecasts in its scrutiny of the draft NPS. The Government use a number of forecasts to allow us to understand the potential for a range of outcomes for road demand. The range of forecasts predict growth on the strategic road network of between 27% and 57% from 2013 to 2040. Rail passenger demand is predicted to continue to grow significantly. Total average growth in passenger kilometres is predicted to be just over 50% from 2011 to 2033, including phase 1 of HS2.

Long-term forecasting is challenging and we acknowledge that in the past we have over and under-forecast traffic. That mainly reflects inaccurate projections for the key drivers of traffic growth: population, GDP and oil prices, which are themselves uncertain, as anyone who is waiting to buy their first litre of petrol for £1 will no doubt agree. To reflect the uncertainty in these key drivers, we have presented a range of forecasting scenarios. It is notable that on this basis we expect greater divergence between traffic in different locations, but even on the lowest national traffic forecasts we will still see strong growth on the strategic road network that will increase congestion and crowding.

There is a similar picture for rail, where even low forecasts show more crowding, more congestion on rail lines and problems with reliability. It is important to understand that the forecasts in the NPS will not be used as the sole means to justify new developments. Individual schemes will also be required to use local models to justify schemes and to understand local impacts. Local modelling will remain an important part of the transport business case, which all road schemes funded by the Government will continue to be required to complete.

The NPS supports a significant and balanced package of improvements across the road and rail networks. Those improvements are accompanied by policies to support sustainable transport.

Before the Minister moves off the subject of forecasting, may I press him a little on resilience? I know that this is an issue that my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham South (Lilian Greenwood) pushed in Committee, but of course it is not just about passenger or traffic growth but about the resilience of the transport network into the future, particularly given some of the problems we saw last year with flooding. What is the Government’s assessment of the future resilience of the national network?

The first point to be made is that even during the bad weather and flooding we had last winter the strategic road network proved particularly resilient, as was High Speed 1, which, being built to a high specification, was able to cope with the weather. The hon. Gentleman is right that we must consider the resilience of our network, particularly the rail network, and that is why we commissioned one of the Department’s non-executive directors, Richard Brown, to look specifically at resilience, and particularly at what happened at Dawlish and the need for alternative routes. That is very important and the hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that we should focus on it.

The appraisal of sustainability in the NPS shows that overall its environmental impact will be neutral. Yes, there might be some localised environmental impacts but they have been shown not to be significant, and the targeted measures to reduce pollution in areas of poor air quality, the commitment to tackle areas of the network that are vulnerable to flooding and noise and the huge support for ultra-low emission vehicles show how the NPS supports a sustainable package of measures.

The NPS is clear that road improvements must be delivered in an environmentally sensitive way and must look to improve environmental performance wherever possible. Much environmental good can be done as part of the investment programme, including introducing noise-reducing surfaces and sustainable drainage and eliminating bottlenecks in the system that push up emissions and worsen air quality.

As a result of the consultation and the debates in the other place, we have further strengthened environmental protections. For example, we now have a presumption against road widening or new roads in national parks and areas of outstanding natural beauty. We have also made a number of other changes, including strengthening the text on biodiversity, landscape, land use and noise.

Reducing carbon is very important and that is why the Government have already set stretching and legally binding carbon budgets that will see a 50% reduction in emissions in 2025 compared with 1990 levels, on the path towards an 80% reduction by 2050.

What work is being done on increased demand for bus use and the development of road infrastructure in England? It is very important in towns such as Telford, which are car-reliant because of their new-town nature, that bus transport is promoted hard.

Buses are increasingly environmentally friendly. Indeed, the Government have put £106.5 million into cleaning up buses both by supporting the purchase of new low-emission buses and by funding the cleaning-up of older buses. Many people rely on the bus to get to work, particularly at the start of their careers. Bus priority lanes are also part of the process, which is why I and many others were surprised when Labour-run Liverpool decided to abandon the majority of its bus lanes.

Carbon impacts will continue to form a key part of the transport appraisal and decision-making process for road schemes. We also make it clear that any new schemes that would have a material impact on the ability of Government to meet their carbon reduction targets should not go ahead.

At the same time, the Government are committed to decarbonising roads. Investment of more than £900 million in ultra-low emission vehicles—December’s registration figures for such vehicles are very encouraging—and fuel efficiency regulations mean that we expect greenhouse gas emissions from motoring to drop in 2030 by about 20% from present day levels.

The Government take air quality seriously, and substantial weight will be given to air quality considerations where a project would lead to a significant air quality impact or to a deterioration in air quality. Not all new road schemes will present an air quality challenge. Air quality implications are complex, depending on a number of criteria relating to both the new road scheme itself and the wider area. It is important to take an holistic approach to improving air quality. That is why this Government are committed to large investment in a package of measures to support cleaner and more sustainable transport, which will also help to improve air quality.

Consent for a scheme will be refused if the air quality impacts result in a currently compliant zone becoming non-compliant, or affect the time scale of a zone becoming compliant. The Government have recently announced various initiatives to reduce local air pollution, including more than £900 million to support the uptake of ultra-low and zero-emission vehicle technologies between 2010 and 2020; £100 million for the road investment strategy specifically for air quality improvement; £2 billion for the electrification of the rail network, replacing dirty diesel trains with cleaner electric trains; and £600 million for the local sustainable transport fund, as well as the money for cleaning up older buses, which I have mentioned.

I am grateful to the Minister for giving way again. Is there anything in the new national networks policy that commits the Government to improving air quality on the existing strategic road network when it is in an air quality management area that exceeds EU safe standards?

It is important to note that we have all agreed those EU standards at a European level. They are not being dictated to us by Europe; we agreed to them. It is important that we look at the reasons why air quality is deteriorating in some areas. The work that has been done on cleaning up buses has certainly helped in urban areas.

It is disappointing that, because of the economic problems under the previous Government, the car fleet was not renewed as quickly as we had predicted. Therefore, the older cars that produced more nitrogen oxides and other pollutants were not replaced as rapidly as they should have been. As we return to economic growth, with near record levels of vehicle registrations, more old dirty cars are going to the scrap heap and more new cars are getting on our roads, which will help. We can also use a number of mitigating factors on the strategic road network. For example, we are considering trialling barriers to try to channel pollution away from communities that are close to roads.

I am very disappointed to hear the Minister blame the economic woes of the world economy, which affected the previous Government, for air pollution and the deterioration of air quality. Does he not agree that his first answer, which was, “We’re not quite sure what’s causing it, but we’re going to look at it”, was a much better answer?

I was very careful not to blame the previous Government, but to state the fact that, because people were not buying as many new cars—for a variety of reasons, which I will not go into because we have just had a debate on that—we were not getting as many clean vehicles on to our roads. Moreover, it is always disappointing to see how the published fuel consumption figures at the bottom of an advert compare with use in practice. I have had discussions with the motor industry to see how we can make the test cycle, which is meant to give a clear indication of a car’s performance, more relevant to normal operating conditions.

Although we have made tremendous progress in reducing sulphur dioxide emissions by cleaning up fuel—we have taken lead out of petrol—we still have the problem of “knocks”. That is due not to the fuel but to the atmosphere, and is produced in the engine by the combustion process. However, it is linked to fuel consumption, so as we have more fuel-efficient cars, we will have fewer nitrogen oxides, which cause air pollution and health problems.

Would not a scheme to take 5 million lorry journeys off the roads and on to rail every year contribute enormously to improving air quality?

We do have a scheme to take a lot of lorries and freight off the roads and on to rail—it is called High Speed 2—and it will deliver that. We are committed to investing in High Speed 2, to creating capacity on the existing rail network, which is currently blocked up with commuter and inter-city trains, and to getting more freight off the roads and on to rail. Indeed, the interchanges that are part of the NPS will also help to increase rail connectivity.

I welcome what the NPS says and acknowledges about the need for redevelopment and further development of rail infrastructure, and particularly its emphasis on London and the south-east. In my constituency, South West Trains pays the largest premium to central Government for the right to run the service, but there is a high level of overcrowding and passengers therefore feel that they do not get value for money. When the policy is fleshed out further, will there be a link between the operating companies paying a very high premium to central Government and the provision of a minimum level of service for passengers? They cannot keep paying more and more to get less and less back.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. For too long, we have not invested sufficiently in our rail network. When privatisation took place, many people thought that railway travel in this country would be a case of managed decline. As it is, the number of people using trains has doubled since privatisation, and many commuters in the south-east and elsewhere are to some extent paying a price for that. That is why we are committed to investing in better rolling stock. We have a £38 billion investment programme in rail, which is not only for the capital, but for the wider country.

In a nutshell, the NPS provides clarity and certainty in Government policy on the need for nationally significant infrastructure projects. It allows planners to focus on important local considerations at planning inquiries, rather than being drawn into wider discussions about the matters resolved in the NPS. As such, it is a vital tool in delivering the infrastructure investment that is so central to our long-term economic plan.

I am sure that Members on both sides of the House are glad finally to debate the national policy statement on national networks, which is a direct consequence of the Planning Act 2008. Its introduction should ensure that decisions on major infrastructure projects are faster, fairer and more transparent, and it will be judged against those criteria.

When the Planning Bill was introduced, the then Government said that it would ensure

“more timely and predictable decisions on infrastructure projects which are key to economic growth”

and international competitiveness. Although this Government’s response may be predictable, it is, unfortunately, anything but timely. The Rail Freight Group told the Transport Committee that the national policy statement

“has been overdue since the Planning Act, and that has caused particular concerns for the people who are developing rail freight interchanges.”

Other policy statements came and went, but the Government’s guidance for our transport networks remained stuck in the sidings. The initial draft of the statement received criticism from many quarters; I will return to that point. The final version was published on 17 December, the last day before Parliament broke up for Christmas, and the text of today’s motion was only published last Thursday.

What is the significance of the document we are being asked to approve? Even on that, the Government cannot get their line straight. The Treasury has described it as a national transport policy, but the Department for Transport insists, on the contrary, that it is not a policy document, but a compilation of technical planning guidance. The national policy statement is delayed and over-spun. In that respect, it is a reflection of this Government’s transport policies as a whole.

The Government would have us believe that the NPS builds on a careful synthesis of the rail investment strategy and the road investment strategy, but their commitment to integration seems to extend only as far as giving road and rail the same acronym. It could be worse—the Transport Secretary initially wanted to call this paper the “rail investment programme”, until an official pointed out that that would become RIP. As passengers are hit by stealth fare rises and season ticket cost increases of more than 30% since 2010, and as the Government’s flagship electrification programme comes off the rails, perhaps the Transport Secretary’s initial suggestion was the more accurate description.

The text of the NPS reveals a total absence of co- ordinated thinking. As the Chartered Institution of Highways and Transportation told the Transport Committee:

“The needs case…appears not to consider integration of modes, other than in very simplistic terms.”

Let us look at those claims in detail. Several critics have described the Government’s roads policy as outlined in the national policy statement as a return to “predict and provide”. Well, the Government are failing to provide, having scrapped £3.9 billion of planned capital investment in the strategic roads network. I suggest that the decision to axe roads investment is the true significance of the Prime Minister’s ill-fated “road to nowhere”.

A view shared by many is that the Department for Transport is not effective in predicting demand. The Campaign For Better Transport, among many other organisations and experts, has argued that the Department has historically overestimated road traffic demand, but those criticisms have not been adequately addressed by Ministers. On the other side of the coin, rail received the opposite treatment in the NPS. Network Rail has said that there was a “significant difference” between the Government’s initial estimates for rail demand, and industry projections. Incredibly, the Department used more conservative estimates for future rail demand in the NPS than it did for Network Rail’s 2012 high-level output specification, and the consequences of that are potentially very serious. Network Rail has warned:

“If it meant that investment did not get consent because of overly conservative forecasts, we would have more crowding and punctuality issues than might otherwise be the case”.

The Minister may say that the NPS has been revised in light of those criticisms, but central forecasts for rail demand growth remain unchanged. In addition, the separate network modelling framework estimates have undergone a suspicious evolution. An original estimate of 36% to 46% growth by 2030 has been replaced by a 50.1% growth estimate by 2033. How does the Minister explain that change? Was the uncertainty in the original estimate removed and the date range simply extended by three years to reach 50.1%? Has a new method been used, or has the Department moved the goalposts?

When the Blair Government came to power in 1997 they announced a moratorium on new road building. Will the hon. Lady tell the House which projections they based that on?

The Minister asks about road building, and clearly the intention of the new ’97 Government was to have a multimodal approach to dealing with demand for transport. That was why under the previous Labour Government there was real-terms record investment in our rail network, including building High Speed 1 and committing to Crossrail.

It is unclear whether any significant revision has taken place in response to criticisms by the Transport Committee, as outlined by my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs Ellman)—I am sure she will return to that point—as well as other groups. Another question that required urgent attention was the lack of focus on the transport network’s resilience—that issue has already been mentioned today, and I raised it in the House last February. Jeremy Evans, a member of the transport policy panel at the Institution of Engineering and Technology, told MPs that

“resilience is hardly mentioned at all in the NPS”.

The draft was produced just one month before the collapse of the Dawlish sea wall, and that event and other disruptions to the national transport network, including the Christmas chaos on the railways, has thrown light on the need to ensure the resilience of new and existing transport networks.

The final NPS was amended to state:

“In some cases there may be a need for development to improve resilience on the networks to adapt to climate change and extreme weather events rather than just tackling a congestion problem.”

We must recognise progress, however limited or belated it may be. I would, however, like to register the disappointment of those on the Labour Front Bench, especially in the light of recent events, that there is only a single specific reference to ensuring the resilience of the rail network in the revised documents.

Concerns have also been raised by those who pointed out that HS2 was not included in the NPS. I understand the Government’s argument that HS2 is subject to a separate planning process, but it is vital that the objective of integrating HS2 with existing transport networks is maintained. That is why we amended the High Speed Rail (Preparation) Act 2013 to ensure that HS2 is integrated with existing railways, roads, airports, light railways, footpaths and cycleways. That amendment stood in my name and that of the Minister, and received cross-party support. Will he assure the House, when he sums up, that this important principle is being respected as the Department develops its proposals for phase 2 of the project?

We have listened to industry groups who argued that, although the document may be imperfect, it is better than having no policy statement at all. We have already seen the compelling need to reform the way decisions are made on strategic infrastructure. These decisions are often controversial and all parties in the planning disputes that follow should know the process for developing and submitting a planning application, the impact that application will have on the environment and the local communities, and the time scale for reaching a decision.

We have heard that having a national policy statement available in draft form has helped some cases reach an earlier conclusion than under the old system. The document is not, as I am sure the Minister would say, the appropriate means for introducing new policy, and that is one reason why we will not be seeking to defeat the motion. We strongly support the objective of sustainable, long-term and co-ordinated spending settlements for our roads and railways as a way of ending the cycle of stop-start investment, and spending public money more effectively. However, I would like to say a few words about what could and should have been in the NPS if the Government had taken a more constructive approach to long-term infrastructure planning, which would ensure better value for taxpayers’ money.

It should be a source of national embarrassment that Britain has fallen to 28th in the World Economic Forum’s ranking for infrastructure investment. Too many projects are announced before an election and then quietly dropped when the votes have been counted. Decisions are made about the same areas by Network Rail and the Highways Agency without reference to each other’s plans. Changes are approved to the strategic roads network without due regard to the impact on local roads that make up 98% of the total. Indeed, this is a subject on which the NPS is silent, even though this is where problems such as potholes are most acutely felt.

Some 89% of businesses surveyed by the CBI supported the creation of an independent national infrastructure commission, as recommended by Sir John Armitt. The proposal is also supported by the Institute of Civil Engineers, the Manufacturers’ Organisation and many other bodies. However, the Government voted against creating such a body through the Infrastructure Bill.

When it comes to investing in our national transport networks and identifying our long-term infrastructure needs, I am afraid that the Government cannot look back and say the job is done. Having a national policy statement in place for our transport networks will be a step forward, but there is so much more left to do.

I listened to the hon. Member for Nottingham South (Lilian Greenwood) and was slightly incredulous when she talked about investment in both road and rail as if the Government had done nothing in the past five years. She seemed to forget completely that in control period 5—just to remind her, that is between 2014 and 2019—£38.5 billion is being invested in our railways. Some £15 billion is being invested, between now and 2021, on improving our road infrastructure. On top of that, there is the £33 billion that is going to be spent on investing in High Speed 2. Either she has become over-enthusiastic because we are 115 days away from a general election, or she has been badly briefed. It must be one or the other. I will be charitable and suggest it is the former, not the latter.

I welcome this debate, the Transport Select Committee’s report and the Government’s policy statement. For far too long under successive Governments, we have suffered from short-termism in relation to infrastructure investment. I remember, as a young man, working in this place during what most hon. Members would consider the nightmare of the 1974-79 Labour Government. Every time there was an economic crisis—at one point, the noble Lord Healey had to turn away from getting on a plane at Heathrow to go and beg the IMF for money to bail us out—one of the first areas to suffer from the ensuing Government cuts was transport infrastructure. Of course, this stop-go approach is in no one’s interest.

A wise man not only repairs the roof when the sun is shining, but in difficult times will not make the false economy of cutting investment in infrastructure; instead he will actually increase infrastructure, not only to improve the transport system that this country desperately needs, but to create the jobs and everything else that flows from significant infrastructure investment. As the Select Committee highlights, the document, which, to be fair to the hon. Member for Nottingham South, builds on the Planning Act 2008, represents long-termism —looking to the future by investing in infrastructure—and I welcome that.

I also welcome the fact that, as the blurb says, and as my hon. Friend the Minister and the shadow Minister said, the aim is to overcome problems with the planning regime to ensure the infrastructure plan comes to fruition. I like that aim, but in one way it is inadequate. Notwithstanding the improvements in the document, the planning procedure for major infrastructure projects is antiquated and contrary to the ethos of getting ahead with infrastructure, because it takes too long. It was ludicrous that terminal 5 at Heathrow took 10 years to build, and it will be ludicrous if, once the Davies commission reports next summer, whatever recommendations it makes to maintain our airline hub status in western Europe, it still takes years of public inquiries and environmental impact assessments—important as those are—before any ground is prepared for the new buildings that are so badly needed.

The policy statement rightly excludes HS2 because of the separate planning procedures for high-speed rail, but those are also antiquated. It is ludicrous. The basis of the parliamentary procedures for HS2 was laid down in Victorian times when the railways were being developed. To do that, the Victorians used the law responsible for granting permissions to erect toll booths. One major project, the London-Birmingham railway, from the moment it was devised to the moment it was up and running, took five years—between about 1833 and 1838—to establish. Victorian MPs would spend an evening in the Chamber discussing a project and then grant the planning permission. By comparison, HS2 is moving at less than a snail’s pace—and that is just for phase 1. We will have to repeat it all over again from 2017 on phase 2. In a modern, highly competitive world, where we have to be ahead of our competitors, we cannot continue with such an antiquated system.

Although the statement does not apply to HS2, it is a step in the right direction for other major road and rail projects. There has to be a consensus between the main, if not all, parties—after the general election, I suspect—to get more common sense into the procedures, enabling us to deliver the necessary permissions, along with all the safeguards such as the environmental impact assessment and so forth. Then we will not be held back as a nation—in a way that the French, for example, are not —and we can ensure that these projects move forward. The national policy statement makes an important contribution to the debate.

The document comes up with a number of important statements. It would be fair to say that, by and large, the Select Committee chaired by the hon. Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs Ellman) has welcomed it, although it highlighted a number of concerns. These are not major concerns, and they can easily be addressed by the Government, where appropriate.

Let me highlight two concerns, one in passing, as I have already mentioned it. The first point in the report’s summary is about having better road and rail connections to ports, airports and parts of the country not currently well served by those networks. That is a very good point, and it is close to my heart, because the main road into the hinterland of East Anglia goes through my constituency—the A12 from the centre of London, bisecting the M25 and going up to the ports at Felixstowe and Harwich and into Suffolk and Norfolk. I am delighted to say that, following significant lobbying by Essex county council, me and others over the years, the Secretary of State and the Chancellor announced in their statements before we went into the summer recess that the A12 from the M25 up to Colchester is going to be transformed from a two-lane into a three-lane road. That shows the significant Government investment in our infrastructure that is so badly needed to get Britain and East Anglia moving again, so I warmly welcome it.

The Select Committee report—and, to be fair, the hon. Member for Nottingham South in her comments—also deals with the connection of HS2 to the conventional rail network just north of Leigh and north of Manchester and from Crewe and beyond towards Liverpool, which must be an issue close to the heart of the hon. Member for Liverpool, Riverside. That is crucial, and we must get it right.

When I was a Minister in the Department for Transport —I do not think it has changed—I always viewed phase 2 of the project as simply a spine for high-speed rail in this country. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport has already announced that the Department is looking at the feasibility of a phase 3, running north of Manchester, up to Glasgow and then across to Edinburgh. That is excellent. Providing a business case and a feasibility study justify it, I would like to see other branches developing off that spine—for example, not simply to the north of Crewe but, in time, all the way into Liverpool. If a case can be made, it could go down into south Wales or even into the south-west of England. That shows the opportunities we have to move forward with this exciting project.

If this document and Governments of all political persuasions have the foresight to develop major infrastructure projects on a long-term basis rather than a chop-and-change, go-and-stop basis, I believe that the initiative that flowed from the 2008 Act will be of considerable benefit not just to this Government but to future Governments, and will contribute to the improvement of this country’s infrastructure.

I welcome the publication of the statement. It is unfortunate that there has been so much delay, but it is important that we have reached this point. Major strategic infrastructure matters, and this statement matters, because it is about ensuring that decisions are made in the right way and in a timely manner. I hope that it will be effective in securing that end.

The Transport Committee scrutinised the draft version of the statement, and made a number of recommendations for change. I am pleased that many of those recommendations were accepted, some in full and some partially, but there are still some important omissions.

The Committee wanted the statement to include examples of projects that the Government would like to see, and the Government responded to that. I welcome the reference to projects promoting integration between national road and rail networks and access to airports and ports, and to the way in which national networks can promote local economic growth, because those are important aspects of strategic investment. The Committee was concerned about the safety of all road users, including cyclists and pedestrians. The statement now refers to the issue, and that is another important improvement.

The Committee was also concerned about the need to recognise the possibly adverse local consequences of development that might be required nationally. The revised statement recognises that, and emphasises that there should be a presumption against road widening or the building of new roads in national parks and areas of outstanding natural beauty. That does not mean that such developments could not take place, but a very strong case must be made for them, which I think strikes the right balance. I also welcome the references to the importance of diversity and noise abatement.

The Committee called for recognition of the impact of road building on carbon emissions. The statement partly accepted that recommendation in recognising that road building decisions should not be based solely on predictions of traffic growth, and that other factors, including environmental impacts, should be taken into account.

I welcome all those changes, but problems remain, and some of the omissions from the statement are serious. The need for integrated planning for passenger and freight transport across routes or regions has still not been recognised, and that is, perhaps, the most important omission. Road and rail strategies are still separate, which has led to problems that are raised with the Committee regularly, most recently in relation to cross-Pennine transport and transport in the south-west. That is a glaring omission.

Problems relating to traffic forecasting have not been fully addressed. The Minister said earlier that there was a range of forecasts, but this is an important matter. We should bear in mind the fact that rail franchises in the north have been let twice on the basis of predictions of no growth. That turned out to be dramatically wrong, which is a key reason for the fact that so many people travelling in the north face so many problems such as overcrowding.

I am also concerned about an issue that has already been raised during the debate, namely the absence from the statement of any reference to the importance of linking investment in the existing classic line with High Speed 2 to improve and, indeed, maximise connectivity, and the benefits of a major investment in high-speed rail. I know that the Department in its response—and this was repeated by the Minister today—stated that that did not fall within the scope of the statement and that it was being addressed separately, but this is about the fundamental principle of connectivity and maximising the benefits of strategic investment. I therefore reinforce that point and state that this is an important omission.

All the points raised need to be addressed. I welcome the substantial changes that have been made in this statement, but I emphasise again that the omissions are important ones. They need to be addressed. Strategic investment is of vital importance for future prosperity, and the decisions that are taken must be the right ones.

I will not speak for long, but I have a helpful suggestion, and I hope Ministers will at least give some consideration to it, and perhaps even ask their officials to look into its feasibility. I suggest that we develop an existing route, which would not be difficult or expensive but would be an enormous advantage as a transport route.

My proposal is that we electrify the route from Birmingham Snow Hill to London, which goes through Leamington Spa and Banbury. At present, a small number of trains use that route mainly to go to Marylebone, but it is also linked to Paddington. More significantly, that route is physically linked to what will be Crossrail and could easily be linked without much expense to Crossrail going in both directions. If it were electrified, it could accommodate 125 mph trains from Snow Hill, which is in the middle of the Birmingham business district and would link it directly to the City of London and Canary Wharf and other stations on Crossrail. Business people could literally walk from their offices to Snow Hill and walk from the destination station into an office in the City of London or Canary Wharf.

We have a simple rule-of-thumb costing of the scheme. We have not done any detailed work yet, but my engineer friends suggest that the cost of electrifying that route and making the necessary links would be in the order of £1 billion. There are 125 mph electric trains already available, but obviously new rolling stock might be needed.

Not only would that route be enormously useful and tremendously beneficial, but there would be no need to change trains or get taxis from mainline stations into the city as there would be a direct route into the city where the offices are, so business people could work on the train and walk straight to their offices at both ends.

Moreover, this could easily be linked from Leamington Spa through to Birmingham airport, the Birmingham national exhibition centre and the Birmingham New Street line, so direct 125 mph electrified trains could come from the north of England on to this line and go straight into the City of London, and also to Heathrow. As a result, there could be a link between Birmingham airport and Heathrow—those airports could serve each other—perhaps, at this speed, with a service of no more than an hour’s duration. One could almost be seen as a hub for the other, and, certainly, linking those airports would be beneficial to the midlands economy, and I think possibly to Heathrow as well.

As for points north, the ability to get on a train in the middle of Manchester or Liverpool and be taken direct to Heathrow without having to change would be an enormous advantage. That route is already there. It is under-utilised, it is capable of 125 mph working, and it could easily be electrified.

This is so obvious that I am surprised it has not been suggested already. These views are not only mine; they are the views of experienced railway engineers, who tell me what can be done and the likely costs.

I think there is a compelling case for this, and I hope the Minister will at least give it some consideration and take it back to his Department for further thought. I am happy to provide further details if he wishes, but I hope this speech has at least provided a taster.

With the leave of the House, I would like to make a few concluding remarks.

I will make sure that my colleague the Minister with responsibility for rail is aware of and will examine carefully the points made by the hon. Member for Luton North (Kelvin Hopkins). Let me repeat our thanks to the Select Committee for the contribution it has made. As a former member of it, I know how assiduous it is at doing its work, and I am pleased that the Government are able to accept some of its suggestions, in whole or in part. The hon. Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs Ellman) talked about predictions, and I have to say that many people probably think predictions about future transport demand, like economic predictions, serve the purpose of giving astrology a good name. The fact is that when colleagues come to me to talk about overcrowding on their railway or the congestion on their roads, they are not talking about something that is going to happen in 10 years’ time; they are talking about congestion that is happening now and we need to address now. That is why I am so proud that this Government have addressed those real shortfalls in investment we saw under the previous Administration.

I understand that we are getting close to the election, so I will forgive the hon. Member for Nottingham South (Lilian Greenwood) some of the points she made from the Front Bench. Indeed, I will forgive her the amnesia she seems to be suffering from, which has blocked out the period between 1997 and 2010. Many of her points were demolished with aplomb by my right hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford (Mr Burns), so I will not go into them at all. I will just pick her up on her comment that our electrification programme is “coming off the rails”. May I gently remind her that the previous Government put in place less than 10 miles of electrification and we are committed to electrifying more than 850 miles? I suspect Hornby electrified more railways than the previous Labour Government did in their time in office.

I welcome the tone in which the Minister is responding, but may I ask him to confirm two things? The first is that it was the last Labour Government who built HS1—67 miles of brand new, fully electrified railway. The second is that only 2% of the Government’s fabled 850 miles has actually been completed under this Government.

I shall give the hon. Lady credit for High Speed 1—what a shame we did not start 20 years before, like many of our European and far-eastern competitors. We are finally getting on top of electrification and we have announced major projects—and the money to go with them. I always used to get amused when the previous Government talked about investing in things, because investment is something that is there in 10 years’ time. We are investing in infrastructure, because that is real investment. Many of the previous Government’s spending commitments could not be described as investment because we can no longer see where that money was spent.

I will conclude this debate by highlighting, again, how vital the national networks are, both to our way of life and our economic growth. We have fallen behind our international competitors through years of under -investment. That must be remedied, but it must be done in a balanced, safe and sustainable way, as outlined in the national policy statement. We have taken seriously the environmental concerns raised during the consultation and scrutiny process, and we are committed to improving resilience and safety, and encouraging cycling and walking, wherever possible. I ask therefore that the House approve the NPS.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House approves the National Policy Statement for National Networks, which was laid before this House on 17 December 2014.