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Transport (Tees Valley)

Volume 592: debated on Tuesday 10 February 2015

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Damian Hinds.)

I sought this debate on transport in Tees Valley to voice my concerns about how the discussion is developing on the need for greater investment in our transport infrastructure, and on the need for rebalancing our economy both in geographical terms and in terms of a greater focus on our manufacturing industries.

By way of introduction, Tees Valley may be more than 200 miles away from Westminster, but that is no excuse for the concerns of our region being as far away from the considerations of Downing street and Whitehall as they are at present. Last year, I asked the Prime Minister about the huge disparity in spending on transport infrastructure between the north-east and the south-east, and how the needs of the Tees Valley were neglected. In his response, he talked about the Tyne and Wear metro, the Tyne crossing and the A1 between Newcastle and Gateshead, but said not a single word about Tees Valley. I hope this evening to fix the location of Tees Valley better in the Government’s collective memory.

Much attention has been paid recently, and quite rightly, to the One North initiative of our great northern core cities of Manchester, Liverpool, Leeds, Sheffield and Newcastle, and to the transport for the north announcement made just a few weeks ago, which involves the same players, while the Chancellor has talked of an HS3 rail link between Manchester and Leeds, all of which has been set against the backdrop of the northern powerhouse.

All that is to be welcomed, but in this debate I want to explore the current limitations placed on such discussions, and ask whether these matters should be the sole prevail of the self-named core cities. I want to dispel the myth perpetuated by some that the north ceases at the M62. There is a great deal more to the north than that, and I submit that if we are truly to talk of a northern powerhouse and the interconnectivity of our economic engine rooms, it is essential to consider all of the north. In doing so, it is imperative that the role of Tees Valley should be properly considered.

I will concentrate in the main on rail infrastructure. It is telling that modern Middlesbrough came into being as a direct result of the creation of the railways and the founding of the Stockton and Darlington Railway Company to serve as the river access point for receiving coal from the Durham coalfields on the banks of the River Tees for onward shipping. Middlesbrough was subsequently propelled into the industrial revolution by becoming the site of the explosive iron and steel industry. It was described by Gladstone as the “Infant Hercules”, and it soon became the fastest-growing town in European history. Despite that railway heritage, Middlesbrough, which is now at the heart of a conurbation of some 660,000 people, is the largest conurbation in the UK without a direct service to the capital.

There are far too many aspects of the economic powerhouse of Tees Valley for me to cover in the time available, but the sub-regional transport needs must be seen in the context of the Tees Valley’s industrial and commercial might.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate, which is crucial to Teesside and the wider Tees area. I appreciate that he is concentrating on rail, but the Tees Valley local enterprise partnership reminded us today that we have no major road network and are forced to rely on secondary roads such as the A19 and the A66, which impacts on our ability to attract jobs. Does he agree that, as well as direct rail routes to London with electrification on the lines, we need 21st-century roads, including another Tees crossing, if we are to serve Teesside properly?

I wholeheartedly agree with my hon. Friend, who is absolutely right. One glance at a road atlas will show the complete absence of blue roads—motorways. We need one or two of them in our region.

The industrial might of the Tees Valley is a key component of the north-east of England’s manufacturing prowess. London apart, our region is the only one in the UK that consistently makes a positive contribution to our balance of payments. We lead the way in advanced manufacturing and export-led growth.

Tees Valley’s integrated chemical complex at Wilton, Billingham and Seal Sands is the biggest in the UK and second-largest in Europe. It sits alongside the steel industry—two vital foundation industries side by side. The Tees Valley economy contributes significantly to the north. It contributes some £11.5 billion of gross value added to the national economy every year. We have a thriving digital and creative industries cluster, which grew faster than that in any other LEP area in 2014. We have a 280,000-strong highly skilled work force, and a small businesses base of more than 14,500 firms.

We also have the UK’s third largest port, Teesport, which provides an international gateway, distributing products across the country and abroad. As a contemporary sign of its vitality and importance, PD Ports has just signed a seven-year contract with Sahaviriya Steel Industries for the continued shipping of its steel products.

Our leading colleges, our universities and national knowledge centres are at the forefront of skills development and innovation. Tees Valley also has an international airport, albeit one that is crying out for investment and redevelopment—we look to Peel airports to better develop the airport services—and we have direct road and rail routes to key locations across the north.

There is a consensus on the importance of reducing the UK’s trade deficit and rebalancing the economy. If that is to be achieved, it is important that Tees Valley and its mighty industries play their full role. Exciting developments in the energy-intensive industries hold great potential for our region and our country. Strictly subject to the science being right and there being verifiable safeguards, hydraulic fracturing and coal gasification have enormous potential for our future energy and industrial requirements. There is not time this evening to go into the detail, but subject to those safeguards, the future could be truly exciting. The major beneficiaries from the syngas so derived are the energy-intensive industries, and none more so than those on Teesside.

I must mention the Teesside Collective, a pioneering infrastructure project comprised of a cluster of leading industrial players—BOC, Lotte Chemical UK, SSI and GrowHow—which offers a compelling opportunity for the UK to progress its industrial and environmental interests at the same time. Work is already under way for the development of a business case for deploying industrial carbon capture and storage in the Teesside cluster. It will be completed later this year. Tees Valley is in the right place at the right time to become the industrial carbon capture storage leader in Europe. It is therefore essential that the Government provide the necessary support that such key foundation industries need, which in turn will allow our manufacturing industries to compete on a global stage. Good rail and road infrastructure for freight and passengers is essential to all of that.

On 17 January, the Secretary of State for Transport attended the launch in Leeds of Transport in the North, a body of regional leaders tasked with drawing up and delivering a comprehensive programme of strategic investment to transform the north’s infrastructure, and helping to maximise growth. I argue that, if that particular body is to properly speak on the transport needs of the north, it is wholly inappropriate if Tees Valley does not sit alongside the five cities on the board.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing what is a very important debate. I think across the House we can all agree that it is in the interests of the areas we represent to talk up Teesside and the great things happening there: steelmaking is back, train-making is coming and investment is coming in. This is a very important cross-party point: Tees Valley LEP needs to be represented, as those other bodies are, to give our area the strong voice it needs. I want to voice my support and to make it very clear that this is something that unites MPs from different parties, and council leaders and groups, in support. We need to ensure our voice is strong and heard.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. I think we are speaking with one voice for Tees Valley and I am grateful to him for his support.

Quite simply, the Tees Valley transport infrastructure, opposite the existing and future needs of businesses and communities, is lacking in key areas, and those deficits need to be addressed if we are to capitalise on the terrific potential of our region. Undoubtedly, Tees Valley is not configured like the self-styled core cities, but it has its own unique configuration and status that warrants a seat at the table. The Minister will be aware of the excellent inclusive outcomes that have been achieved in the governance arrangements for Rail North, and I hope he will agree with me that it would be entirely sensible to take that sort of inclusive approach in terms of the board of Transport for the North. I urge the Minister to take the necessary steps to ensure that Tees Valley has a seat.

It is regrettable that the state cannot currently compete alongside private companies for rail franchises, but putting that argument to one side for another day I am nevertheless pleased that on the awarding of the new franchise the business case has been won for the reintroduction of a direct Middlesbrough to London rail service, so I need not repeat it. Clearly, the economic growth that this will deliver is unarguable. The disappointment is that the service will come into being only in five years’ time in 2020. I wish to place on record my thanks to the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, the hon. Member for Devizes (Claire Perry) for meeting me to discuss this matter last week. I would like to think that she was persuaded by the veracity of the case for accelerating the start of the service. I hope that Virgin East Coast can find ways and seize whatever opportunities present to bring forward the start date of the service.

Turning to a matter that concerns Network Rail, just over a year ago the main entrance to Middlesbrough station was closed because of structural difficulties with the Victorian cloister buildings that sit underneath the station main car park. This means there is now no vehicular or indeed pedestrian access to the station from the main southerly aspect, because of the inherent dangers. A year on, plans are now being progressed to board up the frontage, install signage and prepare alternative parking arrangements while architects and engineers go about preparing plans for reconstruction and development. All well and good, but this is all simply far too slow. The people of Middlesbrough deserve better than this. They pay their taxes, unlike some HSBC super wealthy customers. I can only look on with envy at the £895 million redevelopment of Reading station. It looks fantastic and is entirely fit for purpose in the modern railway age. Back in Middlesbrough, however, progress is painfully slow. The town’s people are incredibly patient—they’ve had practice. Indeed, while Dresden, Frankfurt and Berlin were all rebuilt in the aftermath of the second world war, Middlesbrough railway station’s beautiful glass and steel-domed roof was destroyed by the bombs dropped by the Luftwaffe in 1942 and we are still waiting for it to be put back. I urge the Minister in turn to press home the need with Network Rail for much greater urgency and I plead for better communication. It surely cannot be too much to ask for there to be a dedicated website to explain directly to the public what the problem is, what they are doing about it and how long it will all take to put right.

Turning to Darlington railway station, which is the sub-region’s east coast mainline hub, there are significant encumbrances, but their resolution will facilitate significant developmental opportunities. I am confident that my hon. Friend the Member for Darlington (Jenny Chapman) will not mind me trespassing, but the entrapment of the local west-east line out of Darlington station, between the north and southbound lines of the east coast, causes immense difficulties in terms of managing the competing traffic demands. It is also a source of congestion and delay for the east coast service itself. The accepted solution is to move the local line from its current configuration and relocate it free of the mainline crossover. Not only will that improve both local and long-haul services, it will free up a major commercial developmental opportunity within the station itself.

All that was brought into stark reality for me just two weeks ago, when changing trains from the King’s Cross Darlington train for the Darlington-Middlesbrough train. The local train was a Pacer train—perhaps one of the worst in the fleet with the metal-framed bus seats. There was a problem with the points, and there were no trains in or out of Darlington for more than an hour. On a bitterly cold evening, the choice facing passengers was to step out on the freezing platform or to wait in their seats and suffer the dreadful poisonous diesel fumes coming into the carriages. That these are our travelling conditions some 200 years after George Stephenson created the first passenger railway in the very town of Darlington simply beggars belief.

My plea to the Minister is that we get rid of these cattle trucks as quickly as possible and replace them with some decent forms of transportation. David Higgins, the CEO of HS2, has himself said that if the good people of the south of England were asked to tolerate such appalling rolling stock, there would be riots. The time for change is long past. I know that the Secretary of State has been pressed on this, but they need to go, and to go quickly.

With more than 70% of major local businesses internationally owned, we remain globally competitive by offering effective transport links and resilient infrastructure. Undoubtedly, rail connectivity needs to be improved, and electrification across the north of England is crucial to this objective. While the TransPennine and Northern franchises have yet to be awarded, it is absolutely essential for the vitality of Tees Valley, the entire northern region and the UK as a whole that good and direct links be preserved and developed right across the north to include direct services from Middlesbrough to Leeds, Manchester and Liverpool.

The argument for electrification has long since been won. I shall not recite the environmental and economic justifications, but the benefits to Tees Valley would be enormous. Much is said about the interconnectivity of our core cities, and rightly so. We have to address that issue, but the same principle applies to interconnectivity within regions such as the north-east and sub-regions such as Tees Valley. It currently takes up to one hour and 36 minutes to travel between Middlesbrough on the Tees and Newcastle on the Tyne—a distance of 40 miles by road between the two major conurbations; and it takes 53 minutes to travel from Saltburn to Darlington by way of a bone-shaking Pacer that has no part in modern-day transport in one of the richest countries on the planet. Mo Farah would give it a good run for its money! I know that the electrification taskforce will report imminently, but I trust that the Minister will agree that the case has been more than made that electrification from the east coast main line from Northallerton through to Teesport is a top priority.

The concept of the Tees Valley metro has been on the stocks for some considerable time, but only electrification of the existing sub-regional network could make it feasible. A light rail or tram system would be trans- formational for Tees Valley.

The way in which bus services are currently delivered is encapsulated in the stories I hear when I speak to Avanta, which is charged with delivering the Work programme. It tells me that far too often it can source entry level work at places such as Teesport and elsewhere across Tees Valley, only for it to prove impossible for the client physically to travel to such places of work at the times the businesses need them and/or to get home again. Quite frankly, we do not have a public transport system worthy of the name.

My constituents in places such as Berwick Hills tell me of the lack of buses to get to the hospital. It is essential that when powers are devolved to combined authorities they include the re-regulation of buses, in the way that benefits London, and mandatory comprehensive transport coverage for accessing health services and other key destinations. A truly integrated transport system must be one where bus, road and rail services coalesce around the needs of our businesses and communities.

My hon. Friend makes an excellent point about the bus service through Park End. This follows the recent news of the closure of the medical clinic in Park End, which also served his constituents in Berwick Hills. Not only are primary health care services being cut, but access to secondary health care services is being reduced as a result of the bus service terminations.

My hon. Friend makes a good point. People need to get to hospital when they are ill or visiting relatives, and they need to get to work at the time their businesses need them and then get home again.

Almost finally, roads warrant an entire debate of their own, but as my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton North (Alex Cunningham) said, Tees Valley is crying out for an additional road crossing over the Tees. Several plans have been prepared over the years, and I would urge the Minister to have his officials consider them.

In conclusion, Tees Valley has a proud history of major contribution to the economic vitality of this country, and not only does it continue to make that contribution, but the capacity for even greater achievement is immense. However, that vast potential can only be realised if the Government understand and respond in appropriate terms. In addition, I ask that the core cities realise that the northern powerhouse story is not just about creating a London of the north, but about building interconnected communities and economies that provide inclusive prosperity for all.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough (Andy McDonald) for giving up some of his time to allow me to make a number of very brief points. I wholly agree with what he said about the governance of the transport board, which penalises, excludes and isolates our region from the rest of northern transport policy and procedures. I also agree fully about the importance of proper investment in our rolling stock. The Pacer trains to which he referred are unacceptable and no longer used in the rest of the country, so they should be considered unacceptable and unusable in Middlesbrough, Hartlepool and on to Newcastle, as well.

I shall concentrate, as I have on many occasions, on the inadequacy of our bus service. As my hon. Friend said, only re-regulation will provide a co-ordinated proper bus service for our region. In the past week, I have received correspondence from the principal of Hartlepool college, who said that inadequate transport provision meant that potential students from Teesside, North Yorkshire and South Durham were not able or could not afford to get to the college. Apprentices aged 16 or 17 from Hartlepool might not be able to take up the opportunities in Wilton or elsewhere.

Ensuring that the transport system, particularly the bus network, matches the routes to learning and employment, as well as ensuring that we can avoid social exclusion, are crucial. At the moment, that does not happen on Teesside. I therefore ask the Minister what he will do to ensure that we can provide a cheap, reliable and co-ordinated bus and transport network across Teesside so that people in our area have the opportunity to achieve their potential and make sure that the population and industrial potential are matched.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Middlesbrough (Andy McDonald) on introducing this debate. He reminded me, as I am sure he will have reminded you, Madam Deputy Speaker, of Hegel. It was Hegel who said:

“Nothing great in the world has ever been accomplished without passion.”

The hon. Gentleman’s passionate advocacy of the interests of his constituents and indeed of Teesside more generally certainly made an impression on me—and, I am sure, on other Members.

I do not disregard the significance of Teesside. I could hardly do so, given that when I was a Minister at the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, the hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr Wright), who has contributed to this debate, brought a group of business men from Tees Valley, who themselves illustrated, indeed personified, the very range of innovative industries that the hon. Member for Middlesbrough has described tonight. I am well aware of the character of the innovation taking place there and of the need to provide the right kind of transport infrastructure to support it.

I have a very long and impressive speech, but I shall not have time to deliver it. I know that that is a disappointment to you, Madam Deputy Speaker, and to the whole House. I shall, however, make a commitment to include anything I cannot cover in a letter that I will send to the hon. Members who have contributed to this evening’s proceedings. However, I would like to deal now with some of the specific points that the hon. Gentleman raised.

As I say, we recognise that effective transport plays a key role in stimulating growth across the country, creating a more balanced economy, connecting communities and enabling people to access jobs, services and leisure in the way described in the contributions we have heard. That is why we have determined to reverse the effect of some of the neglect in respect of infrastructural development that has characterised previous regimes. Members will be pleased to know that I am not going to be more partisan than that, but I wanted to make that point at the outset.

I know that the hon. Member for Middlesbrough will recognise and, I hope, acknowledge the importance of the road investment strategy that we have put in place. This is a long-term funded commitment, looking at the national road network in an innovative way, based on empirical analysis of the benefits we get from the money we spend. It secures both plans and money through to 2021. It is a £15 billion investment—probably the biggest road investment programme since the 1970s—and the north, including the north-east, will benefit from it, as the hon. Gentleman will know.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned Tees Valley in connection with logistics, environment interests, the creative industries and so forth, and I am aware that the connectivity he described is vital. A major new scheme will be taken forward on the A19. My hon. Friend the Member for Stockton South (James Wharton) has campaigned on this for some time, and I was pleased to see his parliamentary neighbour, the hon. Member for Stockton North (Alex Cunningham), joining his campaign to make those improvements.

Major new schemes, the Norton to Wynyard schemes, will be implemented on the A19. Along with two previously announced schemes on Tyneside—the A19 coast road and A19 Testos schemes—they will raise the A19 to expressway standard from Yorkshire to north of Newcastle. The widening of the A19 Billingham bypass in Teesside to three lanes between the A139 and the A689 will also include replacement of the concrete surface with low-noise surfacing. These investments will complement the Highways Agency’s pinch point schemes, which are already under way at two key junctions on the A19, and will smooth the way along the entire route, delivering more reliable journey times and reducing congestion and pollution.

Those who travel from the junction at Norton, where I live, on the A19 at 8.30 in the morning just join a queue for the next half hour. The real question is this: can we look forward to another crossing over the River Tees in the next programme that the Government plan?

I suggest that the hon. Gentleman apply for an Adjournment debate on just that issue, so that we can explore it in the depth that it deserves. As the Minister responsible, I should be delighted to respond to such a debate.

The roads investment plan also reflects the conclusions of the six feasibility studies announced in June 2013, which examined the case for improvements on the A1 and in other key national corridors.

In the time available to me, I shall depart from my script in order to deal specifically with some of the points made by the hon. Member for Middlesbrough, and, hopefully, give him good news. I share his view of the work that is being done on the Victorian cloisters at Middlesbrough station, and I will ensure that we pursue Network Rail so that the matter is dealt with speedily. Indeed, I will go further than that. The hon. Gentleman spoke about the roof which was destroyed in 1942. I wonder if we might consider the feasibility of doing something about that too, in the longer term.

I agree with the hon. Gentleman that a seat at the “Transport for the North” table for his area would be appropriate. He makes a persuasive case. I shall need to take it up with the Secretary of State, but I know that he is sympathetic to it, and I think that we should go ahead with it speedily. I also think that the hon. Gentleman is right about direct services to Middlesbrough, and I do not see why we should not consider the further improvements that he suggests as soon as the Government’s improvements to the east coast main line—on which I enjoy the privilege of travelling very frequently—have been completed.

I hope that the hon. Gentleman will forgive me if I do not. I am very short of time.

The hon. Member for Middlesbrough also made a persuasive case about rolling stock, and I shall be happy to look at that as well. As he will appreciate, such matters need to be considered in the round, but I agree with him that people deserve a chance to travel on trains that are fit for purpose.

Generosity has taken hold of me. I will give way to the hon. Member for Sedgefield (Phil Wilson) after all.

I am grateful to the Minister. I wonder whether he will raise with his Treasury colleagues an aspect of air passenger duty which affects Durham Tees Valley airport and the other airport in the north-east, namely its devolution to Edinburgh. It would be very beneficial if the Government gave some thought to what could be done to ensure that there is no loss to the regional airports in the north-east.

As you know, Madam Deputy Speaker, the breadth of my grasp and the length of my vision know few bounds, but we have no time to explore that issue in detail this evening.

The hon. Member for Middlesbrough made some important points about buses. As he will know, bus travel is dear to my heart. He advanced the interesting argument that no adequate public transport was available to provide access to health services, and to hospitals in particular. Again, I share his view. The situation is similar in my own constituency, where bus services serving the new Johnson community hospital have been restricted. I am fighting a similar campaign in my constituency, and I think we should look closely at this. It seems to me to be important that particularly the sick and vulnerable should be able to get to those services readily and easily and affordably, and the relatives and people who care for them and want to visit them, too.

Those are all areas where I think we can make progress. We can do so on the basis that the hon. Gentleman brought these matters to the attention of the House this evening and, as he will know, we can only do so because this Government have created an economic turnaround. Through our long-term economic plan, we are creating sufficient resource to be able to look at all these matters. Were it not for the determination shown by the Government not only to think strategically about transport in respect of rail, buses and roads in the ways I have outlined, but to do so on the basis of a credible, rational long-term economic plan, none of what the hon. Gentleman has asked for, or I—I hope reasonably, moderately, in a non-partisan way—have agreed would be possible.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.