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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 596: debated on Thursday 11 June 2015


The Secretary of State was asked—

Disabled People’s Access (Public Transport)

1. What assessment he has made of recent progress in improving disabled people’s access to public transport. (900245)

The Department for Transport’s 2015 annual progress report on promoting accessibility for disabled people on public transport has just been published, and it demonstrates good progress in achieving an inclusive transport system. The Government remain firmly committed to improving disabled people’s access to all public transport services.

In Newcastle, we are proud that our Metro was the first in the country to be fully wheelchair accessible, and I hope that the Minister will support renewed investment in it. That vision of inclusive transport should by now include talking buses, given that the technology is so widely available, but the Minister has done nothing to ensure that is implemented and has cut by half the budget for accessibility, so when will we have inclusive public transport?

The hon. Lady will be pleased to know that 83% of buses operating in the UK now meet legal accessibility requirements, and that will rise to almost 100% by the end of next year. She is right to focus on talking buses—something that she and I have worked on with the Guide Dogs for the Blind Association—but we have been advised that the cost of rolling that out across the country is prohibitively high. However, another way—I am sure that she, as a highly experienced digital expert, will approve of this—is to make all data on public transport open-sourced so that applications such as the Next Stop app, which is being trialled in Leeds, can be rolled out. That would give a much more personalised service to disabled people accessing public transport.

I am sure that the Minister welcomes the progress being made across the country in improving disabled access, but will she look at the issue of theoretical access, where elevators are often left out of order for days, if not weeks, on end, making disabled access only theoretical?

Across the whole United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, there have obviously been great advances in improving access for those with sensory disablement—sight and hearing problems. As people travel between the four regions, has the Minister had any discussions with the Minister responsible in Northern Ireland to ensure uniformity in access for those with sensory disablements across the whole United Kingdom?

I have had not had those discussions, because I have only recently picked up that part of my portfolio, but my predecessor might have done. I shall apprise myself of the facts and, if necessary, would be delighted to have that meeting.

We all strongly support proper access to public transport for disabled people, which is absolutely essential. As the Minister represents a rural area, as I do, does she agree that some bus companies simply cannot afford to provide that? One way forward must be through dial-a-ride services, such as the one offered by Bradies taxis in Malmesbury, which I launched last Saturday, whereby elderly and disabled people in particular can ring up and find small buses to take them where they want to go.

My hon. Friend, whose constituency neighbours mine, makes an important point. Of course, I was delighted that the Government made money available in the previous Parliament to support exactly that sort of community access scheme.

The Minister’s colleague, the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Andrew Jones)—I congratulate him on his appointment—said at a transport event last night that his door would always be open. I invite the Minister and her new colleague to start with disabled people’s access to buses, because the Guide Dogs for the Blind Association, the Royal National Institute of Blind People and the Transport Committee have all said that the Government’s exemption of bus companies from mandatory driver training is not working. The Government have ducked and dived on this: a review was first promised for 2014, then more evidence this January confirmed the disquiet, and this week I received a written answer telling me that there will be a research project—a review of the review of the review. Will she use the open door that her colleague spoke about to stop the buck being passed for disabled people on buses?

All our ministerial doors are always open to all colleagues. I invite the hon. Gentleman to focus on the fact that almost 100% of drivers have now received some form of disability awareness training. We think that the future lies in providing public sector data, so that people can use an app themselves to make their specific journey. The cost of providing this across the UK can be prohibitive, but we will have 100% accessibility on all buses by the end of next year.

Road Investment Strategy

The road investment strategy, published in December 2014, set out ambitious plans for £15.2 billion of investment in the strategic road network between 2015 and 2021. The Department created a new Government-owned company, Highways England, to focus on delivering this plan. Highways England published its delivery plan in March this year, setting out next steps for the schemes starting construction or completing by the end of March 2020.

The widening of the A1M between junctions 6 and 8 will release the economic stranglehold on Hertfordshire. Will the Minister update the House on the Department’s plans to start that work?

I most certainly can. As part of the road investment strategy, the A1M between junctions 6 and 8—the Welwyn to Stevenage stretch—will become a smart motorway. I cannot provide an exact start date for construction, but the next step is the detailed design and planning of the scheme, plus consultation with the local community to produce the best possible scheme. That work will be taken forward by Highways England. My hon. Friend has long been a keen champion of this scheme, and I will make sure that he is kept fully informed of progress.

One of the things my hon. Friend and I agree on is the need for additional Thames crossings, but we potentially disagree about the location. Will he confirm that, before any final decisions are taken, he will fully evaluate the effect of free-flow tolling on the current Dartford crossing? Will he also look at whether what is currently proposed answers the question that was posed more than a decade ago?

It is rare, and always a matter of regret, if I ever have any disagreement with my hon. Friend. There is no doubt that a new crossing is needed. There are encouraging signs that the Dart charge is already bringing some relief to congestion in the area, and I can assure him that its impact will be evaluated and monitored carefully. However, I have major reservations about the suggestion to look again at all the schemes, as I do not want to delay progress. It has taken 10 years to reach this point, and we do not want to blight any more homes. Highways England is developing options for both possible locations and will take those to a public consultation scheduled for late this year or early next. I will be happy to discuss the matter further with my hon. Friend.

A road investment strategy is only as effective as the bodies that are tasked with delivering it. Will the Minister therefore have conversations with Highways England about its catastrophic mismanagement of the Posthouse roundabout A483-A55 junction in my constituency, where delays to commuters and huge costs to businesses continue months after the work should have been concluded?

I will have monitoring meetings with Highways England every month for the remainder of the time in which it delivers our plan. I want to make sure that it is on top of this and delivering it. The Government’s ambition for the road investment strategy is significant, with £15 billion of investment, 127 schemes and 1,300 additional lane miles. It is a significant step change for our strategic road network. Its delivery is critical, and it is one of the top things that I will focus on. I will also focus on a method of communication from Highways England and me to all colleagues.

One of the most important decisions made in the previous Parliament was the decision to proceed with the Mottram bypass in my constituency, giving us the much-needed improved connectivity between Manchester and South Yorkshire. There are now a number of issues to resolve to take the scheme forward, particularly whether Hollingworth will benefit and whether we can build a new tunnel under the Pennines, which, if feasible, will be very exciting. May I trouble the ministerial team for a short meeting in this Session to advance these matters further?

Before the election, the hon. Member for Scunthorpe (Nic Dakin) and I had a very useful meeting with the previous Roads Minister in connection with the A15, which provides access to the Humber ports. Although this is a local authority road, some involvement with the Department will be necessary. Will the new Minister meet me and all the agencies involved at an early date?

The A15 is a local road and this will be a local decision. I know that a business case is being developed. I will be happy to meet my hon. Friend and local organisations such as the council or the local enterprise partnership. The key thing is to make the business case as robust as possible, and I will certainly help him to deliver that.

The Secretary of State will be very familiar with the A50. May I draw the Minister’s attention specifically to the A50 where it runs through my constituency, where the slip roads are frankly dangerous? The weekly number of blue light incidents is alarming, and the number of near misses is deeply troubling. The Secretary of State will also be aware of the situation just down the road at the Blythe Bridge roundabout. Will the Minister look urgently at what is going on with that section of road?

I am not personally familiar with the slip roads as the hon. Gentleman describes them, but I will be happy to take this issue forward. If he would like to contact me with any of his concerns, I will happily take them up with Highways England and then get back to him with an answer.

High Speed 2

3. What progress his Department has made on preparing for construction of the High Speed 2 rail line. (900247)

We are currently undertaking a very significant level of activity to prepare for construction of phase 1. Preparations include growing HS2 Ltd’s capability by bringing in senior teams with extensive experience of major rail and infrastructure programmes; commencing ground investigation works; progressing the procurement of contractors to undertake £750 million-worth of enabling works; and preparing to commence procurement of contractors for the main civil works this autumn.

As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will be aware, many Erewash residents continue to live with the uncertainty of the location of the east midlands HS2 hub. Will he press HS2 Ltd for a final decision on the hub’s location?

May I welcome my hon. Friend and congratulate her on the fantastic result she secured in the general election?

No decision on the phase 2 route and station locations has yet been made. The Government intend to announce a way forward on phase 2 later this year. I certainly appreciate the uncertainty for those people around the route that is being talked about, but it is absolutely essential that we get the best possible connectivity to serve the whole of the east midlands. I think that we are all concerned to do that, but I certainly understand the concerns raised by my hon. Friend.

To construct HS2 to Crewe, Manchester and Leeds, another Bill, or Bills, will need to be prepared. When will they be published?

Let us take one step at a time. As I have said, we have not yet confirmed the route. Once it has been confirmed, that preparation work will be undertaken. A separate Bill is being considered to deal with another stage to phase 2—phase 2A—which would go from Handsacre to Crewe.

Does my right hon. Friend accept that progress on the preparations for the construction of HS2 has been delayed because of the antiquated Victorian processes to get permissions to build a major project of this nature? What are the Government’s proposals to modernise and improve the procedures?

I think that I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for his helpful question. It is right that we address people’s concerns, and I think that we are making the progress that was set out when HS2 was first promoted by the previous Government. The Bill before the House is making good progress.

First, I welcome the Secretary of State back to his departmental position. I am sure we will find many areas of common interest and purpose within this portfolio to assist people in Scotland and across the UK.

On HS2, what meetings has the Secretary of State had with the Cabinet Secretary for Infrastructure, Investment and Cities, Mr Keith Brown MSP, the Scottish Government Minister for Transport?

I note that Mr Brown said in another Parliament that he had not met me, but I have spoken to him on the phone on a number of occasions and am more than happy to arrange a meeting with him. It is very important that Scotland gets the benefit of HS2 from day one, and it will. Trains will continue to run on conventional lines once they come off the high-speed lines.

With respect to the Secretary of State’s keenness to make progress, may I urge him to meet the Scottish Government Minister as a matter of urgency? Will he confirm that he will undertake to do so?

I will be more than happy to meet Mr Brown when a time can be found that is convenient to both of us.

The Select Committee on HS2 will shortly visit the Chilterns area of outstanding natural beauty, to see the stunning national jewel we are all trying to protect by getting extra tunnelling for the railway. May I invite the Secretary of State to visit the Chilterns with me—I know that he has visited on many previous occasions—to look at the AONB and to see why the tunnelling is essential to keep our manifesto pledges to

“build new infrastructure in an environmentally-sensitive way”

and to “maintain national protections” for AONBs?

As my right hon. Friend says, I have visited the Chilterns on many occasions, but visiting with her might be unresistable. [Hon. Members: “Irresistible!”] I might stick by the first word. I will go and investigate, Mr Speaker and report back to the House. If it can be arranged and fitted in with my diary, I will be more than happy to visit.

I welcome the Government’s renewed commitment to HS2 and look forward to the announcement later this year of the precise route for phase 2. Will the Secretary of State indicate whether any serious consideration is being given to advancing the date for construction of the Sheffield to Leeds section of phase 2? If it is, and if that goes ahead, what will that mean for the parliamentary timetable?

There is great demand from Leeds, Sheffield and other areas in the north for an accelerated programme, which I understand. It is right that we go through all the proper procedures. I am very pleased that all the attempts to judicially review the Department have been unsuccessful save for one, which was on a very specific item. It is right that we act properly within the rules and the law to enable those developments to take place, but David Higgins is certainly looking at that, and I very much support him in that objective.

My right hon. Friend will know that the upgrade works to Birmingham New Street station are running more than a year overdue. What assurance can he give me that construction work on HS2 will not suffer a similar fate, causing disruption not only to my constituents in Lichfield, but to those of Mr Speaker in Buckingham?

How to curry favour, Mr Speaker!

My hon. Friend is right that there has been some overrun at Birmingham New Street station. There are occasions when big infrastructure projects overrun and do not come in on budget, but I point out to him the many projects that get done on time and well within budget. Crossrail is a fantastic tribute to engineering in this country, and it is on time and on budget. We are getting better at delivering such very big projects.

Aircraft Noise (Gatwick)

4. What steps his Department is taking to reduce aircraft noise near Gatwick airport and its effect on communities living under the flight path. (900248)

The Government recognise that noise is the primary concern of local communities near airports. Aircraft noise has reduced significantly over the last few decades and the Government remain committed to working with Gatwick airport, the Civil Aviation Authority, NATS, UK airlines and the Gatwick consultative committee, which includes community representatives, to reduce and mitigate aircraft noise.

I welcome the comments of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, but add that my constituents are still suffering from the current airspace strategy. Will he confirm that environmental mitigation will continue to be part of the consideration in the implementation of airspace strategy?

In welcoming my hon. Friend to the House, I assure him that mitigating the aviation industry’s effect on the environment has been and remains a key factor of aviation strategy. We need to strike a fair balance in our policy between the negative environmental impacts of aviation and the positive economic and consumer benefits that the industry provides.

When does the Secretary of State expect to receive the Davies report on south-east airports, and how soon thereafter does he intend to make a decision on the future of airports in the south-east?

I expect to receive the Davies report shortly. I will not anticipate at this stage when a decision will be taken. When the report is received, I will make a statement to the House.

Will the Secretary of State confirm that those Cabinet Ministers who have a constituency interest in either of the airports will not be part of the Government’s consideration of the Airports Commission’s work?

I can assure my hon. Friend that the Government will act in a proper and open way in informing the House of the decisions they take once they have received the report.

If Gatwick were to be given approval for an additional runway, what would the Minister’s intentions be if either the airlines or the airport authorities decided to remove direct flights between Heathrow and major regional airports such as Belfast, which are the absolute lifeblood of my constituency?

Until I have received the report I am not going to start discussing what may or may not happen. What I will say is that I know how important connectivity between airports is to both Northern Ireland and Scotland. Those slots are incredibly important. I will bear that in mind, as I know Sir Howard Davies will, once we have the report.

Local Roads

Road condition statistics for 2013-14 show an improvement to the local road network, with fewer main roads requiring maintenance than a few years ago. The funding of just under £1 billion that we are providing to councils this year––enough to fix up to 18 million potholes––should continue that trend. I am launching a pilot today, and when we launch the scheme next year it will provide councils with an incentive to ensure they are being as efficient as possible and that taxpayers’ money goes further. That incentive will add up to £578 million by 2021.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on his promotion. Local residents are delighted with improvements to the A13 and A127, and with the record amount of money dedicated to road improvement, which is helping to deal with potholes. Will my hon. Friend reassure the House that road safety is a top priority, with particular regard to crash barriers?

I can most certainly provide that reassurance to both my hon. Friend and the House. Road safety is at the heart of our programme; in fact, it was detailed as a key objective of our road investment strategy. Work on road safety was the first work I commissioned in the Department, which I did within hours of starting. I hope that that shows my personal commitment to this subject.

I am very pleased to hear that funding will be made available to councils to enable them to repair potholes. I receive regular complaints about the condition of my local roads, with potholes a major issue. I am not going to name each road individually because they are far too numerous to mention, but when will the funding be made available to Rochdale Council so that it can maintain the roads to the standard my constituents expect and deserve?

We have already announced a very generous scheme. This year, a needs-based formula is allocating £901 million across England, of which the hon. Lady’s council has already received more than £2.4 million.

Potholing has taken on a new meaning in the Ribble Valley and, quite frankly, it is dangerous when done in a car, on a bicycle or on a motorbike. The Minister mentions the £15 billion going into the road investment strategy. Cannot some of that money now be diverted, not into new roads but into existing roads to ensure that the potholes are filled once and for all?

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State announced in December a fund of almost £6 billion to take us up to 2021, running at £976 million per annum, to support local highway authorities with their highway maintenance. I am sure the feedback that I suspect we all receive from our constituents will be supportive of that.

The issue is not just about resources; it is about making sure that utility companies undertake proper reinstatement when they dig up the highway. Will the Minister look again at whether the regulations in respect of utility companies opening up the highways can be looked at afresh, so we can ensure our roads are reinstated to their proper condition?

The hon. Gentleman raises a very interesting point and I would be very happy to take that forward.


The Government are committed to doubling the number of journeys made by bicycle and to continuing the excellent progress we made in the previous Parliament when, thanks to a strong economy, we were able to invest record amounts in cycling. The Infrastructure Act 2015, which will shortly come into force, places a duty on us to produce a cycling and walking strategy. It will contain specific objectives and funding requirements to meet those objectives.

Weaver Vale has many excellent cycling groups and initiatives, such as Pedal Power and Breeze, to encourage constituents of all ages to get on their bikes. Under the last Government there was record investment in cycling. Will my hon. Friend please confirm that the Government will carry on the previous Government’s excellent work?

I know of my hon. Friend’s great interest in and support for local cycling. Indeed, as a keen Boris biker myself—or perhaps they will soon be known as Zac zippers—I am delighted to support both my own personal commitment and the Government’s firm commitment to making cycling the journey method of choice, particularly for short journeys.

As has been noted, cycling has been enjoying a renaissance in recent years. Will my hon. Friend reconfirm that new road schemes built by Highways England will be cycle-proofed to enable more of us to get on our bikes?

I welcome my hon. Friend to his place. He fought a marvellous campaign, and I know he is a keen cycler. He was also one of the first MPs to lobby me on behalf of his own rail services. He is doing a brilliant job. Yes, I can confirm that the Government are committed to cycle-proofing any new road scheme— a really important change—and we have committed £100 million to do just that.

Is it not an act of the deepest cynicism for the Government, a few months before the election, to announce, in a fanfare of self-congratulation, a very modest increase in spending on cycling safety, only for that money to be axed in the first week after the election? Why should any of Britain’s millions of cyclists believe a single word the Government say?

I am slightly disappointed, because I know that the right hon. Gentleman is a keen cyclist, and I am sure he will know and welcome the fact that when the last Administration came to power, cycle spending across the country was around £2 a head; that currently it is around £6 a head; and that in the cycle ambition cities, it will reach £10 a head. I have been assured that the cycle ambition city programme, which the previous Government introduced, will fully deliver its outputs. He should welcome that.

What steps is the Minister taking to make cycling safer, particularly in our great cities, such as London? There can be no greater deterrent to people getting on their bikes than their fear of cycling on busy roads.

I am sure that, like me, the hon. Lady has had some very scary cycle journeys. We have to continue to work with cyclists. Bikeability training—so we start young—is important. We also have to make sure that any new road scheme does what road schemes of old did not do, which is make sure that cycling is “baked in” to those road designs. She will also know that we are working closely with local authorities and Transport for London to make sure that any pilot changes to HGV requirements are looked at carefully and, potentially, implemented.

Road Congestion

The Government’s road investment strategy has committed £15 billion to deliver 127 schemes over the next five years. Some of these schemes will tackle long-standing congestion and safety problems as well as major capacity enhancements around Manchester. On local roads, a programme of local road schemes with around £1 billion of departmental funding has been announced.

Wilmslow Road, which runs through my constituency, is one of the most congested roads in the area, as a result of the large numbers of unregulated buses that pass down it. When does the Secretary of State expect progress to be made to allow the London-style bus franchising powers that Manchester needs?

We will say more about buses later in the Session, and I hope that that will answer some of the hon. Gentleman’s questions, but it is also true that buses need a good road network as well.

21. The Secretary of State will be aware of the congestion at the Dartford crossing. It has been eased by the free-flow system put in place, but the administration of that system under the Dart charge scheme is woefully inadequate and has caused misery for my constituents. Will he, as a matter of priority, please address this issue and end this frustration for my local residents? (900269)

I certainly understand the frustration felt by my hon. Friend’s constituents. Indeed, the roads Minister has organised a meeting on this subject. This is a major change, however, and many people are saying that they are going through the tunnel and over the bridge a lot quicker. There have, therefore, been improvements, including in journey times, but the frustrations that his constituents face are not acceptable, and we will take them up with the company.

Will the Minister tell us what progress has been made by the Government to ensure the affordability of bus travel for young people, particularly when, after September 2015, young people must attend work-based training or education until their 18th birthday—and bus travel is simply unaffordable now for many such young people?

That is an ingenious way of bringing the hon. Lady’s question into order, Mr Speaker. I absolutely agree with her about the importance of bus travel, and we have seen investment in buses. I am more than happy to discuss in greater detail with the hon. Lady some of her concerns about the accessibility to buses.

As the Secretary of State and the rail Minister will know from visiting Bath before the election—I thank them very much for that—air pollution and congestion are among the biggest issues in the Bath area. What does the Department have in process to invest in local roads, including in the long-awaited A36-A46 link road in my constituency?

I congratulate my hon. Friend on his fantastic victory. I met him and the council leaders in his constituency before the election and I know that they had some positive plans for transport. Given that the council has become Conservative controlled as a result of recent elections, I look forward to working with it to see those plans taken forward.

Would the Secretary of State and his Department support a strategic congestion commission for the city of York, where congestion is having a real impact on the environment, on businesses and on the lives of people living in our city?

It is important for local authorities to come forward with plans, but they also have to ensure that those plans are right and proper for the city. I will be interested to hear of any plans suggested and I will look at them.

Infrastructure Projects

10. What recent discussions he has had with local authorities and local enterprise partnerships on delivery of transport infrastructure projects. (900256)

I am delighted to say that this Government will spend an unprecedented £56 billion on transport infrastructure over the next five years. It is our view that this money is most usefully spent when organisations such as local authorities and local enterprise partnerships, which know best about the needs of local people and the community, are involved. That is why we consult them on every large national project and indeed why we are devolving local funding to them, putting them firmly in the driving seat for local decision making.

As my hon. Friend is no doubt aware, my Bury St Edmunds constituency sits directly on both the rail link from Norwich through to London, which I know is due for improvements, and on the A14 road corridor that connects Felixstowe, the country’s fifth largest container port, to the rest of the country. Could the Secretary of State and Ministers visit the constituency to discuss a collaborative funding approach with the local enterprise partnership and other bodies to facilitate improvements on the A14 and the campaign for no more delays on that road?

I welcome my hon. Friend to her place. I saw her predecessor enjoying a small glass of wine in Westminster only last night, and he wishes her well. I would be delighted to visit, with other colleagues if appropriate, to see what is going on in her constituency. She will know that the local growth fund is already providing £8 million-worth of investment in Bury St Edmunds, including in the eastern relief road. I look forward to seeing that and to hearing about other projects.

May I remind the Minister that many local enterprise partnerships and local authorities feel bypassed by Government policy at the moment when it comes to infrastructure? The northern powerhouse, which many of us have not yet fully assimilated, is one thing, but my constituents want fast improvement in rail and road infrastructure now.

May I just gently say to the hon. Gentleman that there are some stunning examples, particularly around the Anglia region, where the east of England LEPs have been absolutely in the driving seat of delivering really good analysis and pulling in important amounts of funding? I suggest that the hon. Gentleman gets involved with his LEP and makes sure that it has the right people on board, because LEPs can be very powerful agents of change.

Will my hon. Friend confirm the Government’s willingness to work with the Solent LEP and the Isle of Wight council to set up an island infrastructure taskforce to examine the future of transport on the Isle of Wight and cross-Solent options?

During the last Parliament, my hon. Friend brought in a team to make that point, and they argued the case very assiduously. I am delighted to confirm that our Department is committed to working with him and local partners to deliver the infrastructure upgrade.

It is welcome that the Government are saying that decisions on infrastructure projects should be made locally, but later this year a Conservative Secretary of State will decide on the Leeds New Generation trolleybus scheme, which is being forced on us because the Labour Government said that we could not have a bus-based scheme. Will the Secretary of State now intervene, and allow us to make our own decisions about what is the best transport system?

Perhaps the hon. Gentleman and I should meet to discuss the matter—I should be delighted to discuss it further—but, as I have said, we believe that local people are best placed to make decisions about local transport.

Rail Franchise System

We continuously monitor a range of indicators, including performance figures and passenger satisfaction. Rail use is at its highest level since the 1920s: 1.65 billion passenger journeys were made in Great Britain on franchised passenger trains in 2014-15. The number of journeys made on the rail network has more than doubled since the introduction of the franchise system .

Will the Secretary of State join me in urging Network Rail to upgrade the level crossing in Redcar town centre? West Dyke Road, which is a main artery into town, has been closed more than 15 times in the last year. Network Rail has promised upgrades, but they are not forthcoming. The problem is having a huge impact on small businesses, which are having to close, and also on bus routes.

I welcome the hon. Lady to the House. My hon. Friend the rail Minister will be more than happy to meet her to discuss the issue. Network Rail has a huge investment programme, and it is certainly trying to address the problems of level crossings.

18. As the Secretary of State will know, I was very disappointed that, at the time of its franchise bid, it was not possible to persuade Virgin Trains to provide a service to Grimsby via Market Rasen. It is already running four trains a day to Lincoln. Is there anything to prevent it, under its franchise, from extending at least one service a day to Grimsby via Market Rasen in order to serve that huge rural area? (900266)

I shall be happy to look into the matter, but I welcome the fact that the new franchise on the east coast is producing some remarkable new services, which will benefit towns that have not had rail services for some 50 years.

London Overground and Merseyrail have transformed stations and services that were unreliable and unsafe under the previous franchise holders. In stark contrast, the recent performance of franchise-holders such as Southeastern has been woeful on lines that Ministers had considered devolving to Transport for London before rejecting the plan. Notwithstanding the rhetoric on devolution, the reality is that progress has been as slow and inconsistent as commuters’ early morning trains.

There is a real appetite for taking on more services in the north, the west midlands and elsewhere. Is it not time to get on with that, rather than sticking with franchises that are failing passengers?

In 13 years, there was no devolution of rail services. We have done more to devolve rail services in five years than the last Government even considered possible, and I am very proud of that.

Network Rail (Investment)

12. What recent assessment he has made of progress in implementing Network Rail’s investment programme. (900258)

15. What recent assessment he has made of progress in implementing Network Rail’s investment programme. (900262)

17. What recent assessment he has made of progress in implementing Network Rail’s investment programme. (900265)

As the independent regulator for the railways, the Office of Rail and Road is responsible for overseeing and enforcing Network Rail’s obligations. The ORR reports twice a year on performance in “Network Rail Monitor”. The last report noted that there had been relatively successful delivery during control period 4, but that the expected progress had not been made in the early stages of the enhancement projects in control period 5. The Department is working with the ORR and Network Rail to ensure that the vital passenger benefits are delivered.

The latest figures show that the cost of rail season tickets held by commuters from Garswood, Rainford, Earlestown and Newton has risen by up to 25% since 2010. Can the Secretary of State explain to my constituents why the Government are allowing blatant profiteering that is ripping off passengers?

I am very pleased that in the last two years we have capped rail fares at RPI, and we have also promised to cap rail fares for the next five years at RPI, and that is what we will do.

Costs are rising on the Great Western electrification project and there are fears that plans could lead to downgrading on the line to south Wales. The rail regulator’s website this week slipped out that only two of the four lines west of Newbury might now be electrified. Will the Secretary of State confirm that this option is being looked at and whether the project has indeed been downgraded, and what the consequences will be for passengers?

I do not want to see any downgrading of our electrification programme. In the last five years we electrified some 50 miles, which compares favourably with the 10 miles managed in the 13 years of the last Labour Government. The electrification programme is a very big and ambitious programme and I want to see it delivered.

Any delays to the Network Rail infrastructure programme are a concern to those in the rail supply chain, including Tata Steel in Scunthorpe. Does the Secretary of State agree that essential track maintenance and renewal must go ahead in a way that does not affect the supply chain and threaten jobs?

The enhancement of the railways is important for the supply sector, but it is also important that that sector is competitive and provides Network Rail with competitive rates. We are all keen to see that. I point out to the hon. Gentleman that there will be a £39 billion programme of rail investment over the next five years. We are also looking at investment in High Speed 2 and, so far as railway track is concerned, we are looking at investment in Crossrail, too.

What assessment has the Secretary of State made of progress in electrifying the midland main line and whether that would be enhanced by electrifying the branch line through Langley Mill and Alfreton in my constituency at the same time?

May I also congratulate my hon. Friend on his remarkable achievement with his majority? He has been a great advocate of further expansion of electrification on the midland main line, and I am happy to discuss it with him in more detail.

Does the Secretary of State agree that the rail investment programme is good but would be better still if we had more stations? He visited Stonehouse Bristol Road station in my constituency, which provides a very good example of why some stations should be reopened.

I am pleased that we have seen some stations reopened and some announcements of new stations. My hon. Friend and I did visit that station in his constituency and I am glad that, with his increased majority, he will continue to make a good case for it in this House.

Although investment in Network Rail’s existing lines is welcome, my constituents in Lewes really want a second main line from Sussex to London, and the Chancellor kindly gave us £100,000 for a feasibility study in the last Budget. Will the Secretary of State update me on the progress of that study?

I know the Minister with responsibility for rail, my hon. Friend the Member for Devizes (Claire Perry), is more than happy to discuss that project with my hon. Friend following her stunning electoral success.

Recent reports suggest that the Government are looking at breaking up and privatising parts of Network Rail. We know that under this Government Network Rail is still underperforming and needs to improve. That was again highlighted by the recent investigations by the Office of Rail and Road—and just ask anyone enduring the misery that is commuting into London Bridge at the moment—but does the Secretary of State agree that the last thing we need in the railways is more privatisation and more fragmentation?

The hon. Gentleman should not believe everything he reads in the papers. I sometimes think he writes some of the press releases and then believes what he has written, but they always seem to be inaccurate. Network Rail has a very big job to do in delivering its enhancements, but it is no good complaining that the work inconveniences people because we are building a far better railway network, and that is absolutely essential.

That was not an answer, so we will try again. The Secretary of State’s own Department—this is not my press release—refused to deny recently that it was looking at changes to the structure and ownership of Network Rail. The truth is we need improved co-ordination across our railways, we need to put right the fact that the only people who have no say in the running of the railways are the passengers themselves, and we need more public control, not less. Can he now tell the House categorically that his Department is not looking at or considering options to break up or sell off parts of Network Rail?

I always look at all the suggestions that are put forward, whatever they relate to. The hon. Gentleman says that I did not answer his question, but what he means is that he did not get the answer he wanted. I did answer his question: we expect Network Rail to invest huge amounts of money in enhancing the system, and I want to see that being done by getting good value for money.

Topical Questions

It is good to be back. Five weeks ago today, the British people gave us a clear mandate to finish the job of fixing our economy, paying off our debts, modernising our infrastructure and securing a better future. I am glad to say that no time has been wasted since the election. We have already seen the completion of the tunnelling for Crossrail and announced the train companies shortlisted to transform rail services in East Anglia. We have also confirmed that high-speed rail and the northern powerhouse are priorities, which will help to end the decades-old economic gap between north and south. This Government will continue with that job and that challenge.

The Secretary of State seems keen to talk about increased majorities. Many of the 21,829 people who recently voted for me in Chesterfield are concerned about the state of our roads. They are saying clearly that the state of Britain’s roads is dangerous and damaging to people’s cars, not only in Derbyshire but across the country, and should be a major priority. When will the Government take seriously the issue of potholes, and when will we see a serious plan to get them sorted?

I hope the hon. Gentleman will address the question he has just put to me to Derbyshire County Council, because I have substantially increased the funding available to that council to fix potholes. They have got the money; let them get on with the job.

T5. I welcome the Secretary of State back to his place. In Lowestoft, we are now getting on with the preparatory work for a third crossing at Lake Lothing. A lot needs to be done in a short time, and I would be grateful if he could confirm that he will continue to work with me and the local community to get the crossing built as quickly as possible. (900239)

I have visited the site of the crossing, which my hon. Friend is keen to see completed, on no fewer than two occasions. He is to be congratulated on the scheme, to which the Chancellor of the Exchequer and I have paid considerable attention. I have asked my officials to support Suffolk County Council and the local enterprise partnership in taking forward the scheme, and I understand that a meeting took place in Lowestoft last Friday to maintain the momentum. I am sure that my hon. Friend will keep up the pressure on us.

This was the week in which Ministers boasted that they were going to cut red tape by replacing the counterpart driving licence with an online system. That is a good objective. The trouble is that the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency’s computer system has already crashed under the strain. Motorists who want to hire a car abroad now have to contact the DVLA online and obtain a code in order to access the same information that they would previously have had in their pocket, and if they do not hire the car within three days, they will have to go back to square one because the code will have expired. Mr Speaker, you could not make it up! Cutting red tape? It’s a mess, isn’t it?

The simple fact is that people do not have to do that online; they can phone. There was a problem on the first morning of the new system, but since then it has been operating successfully.

T8. I thank the Secretary of State for his tremendous support in helping us to secure a direct train service from London to Shrewsbury. Initial results from Virgin show that the passenger numbers are very encouraging. Our next priority is to secure the electrification of the line from Wolverhampton to Shrewsbury. Will he meet a delegation from Shropshire, to enable him to understand the urgency of this matter? (900242)

All my colleagues are urging me to agree to extra investment and extra spending, and I am keen to do that where a good case can be made for it. I am sure that my hon. Friend the Minister with responsibility for rail will be more than happy to meet my hon. Friend to discuss the matter.

T2. Can the Secretary of State clear up the confusion caused by the Chancellor’s recent comments about a separate rail franchise for Devon and Cornwall? He will be aware that those bits of the First Great Western franchise are the least profitable. Is there not a danger that they would be unviable on their own, and that we would suffer service cuts? (900236)

My right hon. Friend the Chancellor said what I would say as well—that we are always looking at ways to improve the franchising system and the service for passengers. I very much hope that new rolling stock will be announced for that particular line in the not too distant future.

What level of assurance can my right hon. Friend give to my constituents who most frequently use the Great Eastern and West Anglia lines that the outcome of the Greater Anglia franchising process will lead to new rolling stock?

I congratulate my right hon. Friend and his colleagues, my hon. Friends the Members for Hertford and Stortford (Mr Prisk), for Norwich North (Chloe Smith), for Ipswich (Ben Gummer) and for Chelmsford (Mr Burns), and my right hon. Friend the Member for Witham (Priti Patel), on leaving us in no doubt of the importance of upgraded, improved rolling stock on that franchise. We are looking at all rolling stock options as part of the process and high quality points will be awarded for proposals to upgrade the franchise. The invitation to tender will be provided to bidders in August of this year.

T3. Now that HS2 Ltd has declared that it sees no business case for extending the high-speed line to Scotland, will the Secretary of State confirm that it is now an England-only railway and that full Barnett consequentials for the devolved countries will be announced in the next comprehensive spending review? (900237)

I do not accept that at all. Indeed, I have said that I want to see services going to Scotland, and one of the points in the report by Sir David Higgins about faster services was that those will go on to north Wales as well.

I am grateful to the Secretary of State for confirming a further announcement on phase 2 of High Speed 2, but a number of my constituents are affected by blight in relation to HS2 Ltd. Will he encourage representatives of the company to meet with my constituents to discuss the severe impact on their businesses and homes?

I understand the point made by my hon. Friend. With big infrastructure schemes such as HS2, announcing the route always brings problems for people living along it. I am more than happy to meet her and see if more can be done by HS2 Ltd.

T4. This week we have heard further reports of delays to the decisions about another runway in London. Will the Secretary of State comment on when he thinks that the Government will finally make a decision about whether to have a third runway at Heathrow? (900238)

The hon. Lady may read reports, but I suggest that she should not believe everything that she reads. We have not yet had the report. When we have had the report, I will make a statement to the House and set out the proposals and our intended way forward.

One measure that would help enormously with aviation capacity issues in the south-east, in particular given the worries of my hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Tom Tugendhat), is the reopening of Manston airport. I am grateful to the Secretary of State for his visit to that location only a couple of months ago. The PricewaterhouseCoopers report is now with his Department, so will he agree to meet me as soon as possible to discuss its implications?

I am more than happy to meet my hon. Friend and his neighbour to discuss the PwC report, although I have yet to see it.

T7. The Secretary of State may be aware that a tender process is under way for the Northern rail franchise. Salford and Eccles is a densely populated urban area that requires good transport links to the rest of Greater Manchester and beyond but, like many northern cities, it enjoys a less than favourable rail service. Favourable rail services are essential for the economic growth and regeneration of areas such as Salford and Eccles. What action will the Secretary of State take to ensure that the Northern rail franchise tender process provides for an increased level of rail provision, including more frequent services and better connectivity to our cities across the north? (900241)

I fully accept how important rail services are to the hon. Lady’s constituents and those in neighbouring constituencies, and that is why we are investing hugely in the northern hub. As she knows, investment that is finishing off at Victoria station at the moment is incredibly impressive. Furthermore, I am sure that she will join me in thanking the Government for announcing that we will get rid of the Pacers. They were there throughout the previous Labour Government, but we have announced that they will go after 40 years.

Order. Maximising the number of contributors demands brevity, which in any case is expected of topical questions. In looking for the textbook example of the genre, my gaze focuses on someone with 27 years’ service, who can provide the tutorial— Sir Gerald Howarth.

As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State knows, I am a practising aviator. Indeed, I believe I am the only Member of this House who performs aerobatics, and so I believe we can never have too many runways. In that spirit, may I ask him to assure the House that he has not ruled out additional runway capacity at both London Gatwick and London Heathrow?

Given your recent ruling, Mr Speaker, I shall say that I am awaiting delivery of the Howard Davies report. When I have it, I will make a further statement to the House.

T9. Last week, I attended the handover ceremony at Enfield Town station whereby some suburban rail lines were transferred to London Overground. Its promise of a better service and cheaper fares is good news for commuters. But how does the Minister intend to ensure that all passengers, across Enfield and beyond, will get a fair deal, given that some are having to pay National Rail pay-as-you-go fares simply because their services are operated by Govia Thameslink Railway or Abellio Greater Anglia, and not London Overground? Will she put pressure on those companies to match London Overground? (900243)

The Government welcome the devolution of these inner services to the Mayor and Transport for London, which, again, demonstrates our support for devolution when appropriate. However, many people using those lines will be coming from further afield, and the national franchising system provides the best way to secure rail services. We are freezing rail fares for the next five years and working extremely hard to deliver a massive infrastructure improvement that will benefit the right hon. Lady’s constituents, as well as those across the UK.

A collapsed wall is blocking one lane of an already congested road through the centre of Shipley. That wall is owned by Network Rail. My constituents have been waiting for months for it to be repaired by Network Rail, but it keeps delaying and we now face a further three-month delay before the wall is fixed. Will the Minister get Network Rail to pull its finger out and get that wall repaired straightaway?

May I say to the Secretary of State, given my knowledge of the hon. Member for Shipley (Philip Davies), that he is very wise?

The Secretary of State is aware that the funding for the coastguard tug currently stationed in Orkney is guaranteed only until the end of this financial year. Will he convene a round-table meeting, perhaps involving Scottish Ministers, local authorities and industry representatives, to see how we might find a way of keeping this most vital provision in place in the future?

I am aware of the vessel, partly because I visited it with the right hon. Gentleman in the last Parliament, and I am more than happy to meet him to discuss this matter.

Can the Minister confirm that money allocated to the regional air connectivity fund has been safeguarded and that it will continue to support public obligation services such as that currently enjoyed by Newquay airport in my constituency?

I have used that service on a few occasions in the past year, and it has been very much welcomed. That funding is there for the duration of that contract and then we will look further at things once it comes to an end.

The Woodland Trust has identified 43 ancient woodlands that are threatened by HS2. Will the Secretary of State advise the House of the measures he will take in the ambitious infrastructure roll-out programme he talked about earlier to protect further bodies of ancient woodland?

It is important that we do our best to protect woodlands wherever we can. I would also point out to the hon. Gentleman that 2 million more trees are to be planted on the proposed route.

I am sorry to disappoint colleagues; the demand is greater than ever, which is a very healthy phenomenon, but I am afraid that supply is finite.