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Port of Liverpool: Road and Rail Access

Volume 608: debated on Tuesday 19 April 2016

[Mr Christopher Chope in the Chair]

I beg to move,

That this House has considered road and rail access to the Port of Liverpool.

It is a pleasure to participate in this debate under your stewardship, Mr Chope. The port of Liverpool, which is primarily situated in my constituency and falls within Bootle and Seaforth, has a long history of serving this country in times of peace and war. Many buildings around the port hinterland still bear the marks and shadows of the bombing of the port in the May blitz of 1941. As we approach the 75th anniversary of the bombing, I pay tribute to everyone who served on or near the port in those dark days and to the people who were killed or injured, of whom there were many.

The port became a lifeline to these islands during the war in general, and during the battle of the Atlantic in particular. Between 1 and 8 May 1941, over seven consecutive nights, German planes dropped 870 tonnes of high-explosive bombs and more than 112,000 incendiary bombs around the Bootle, Litherland and Seaforth environs. Lord Haw Haw addressed the people of Bootle with the words,

“the kisses on your windows won’t help you”,

referring to the tape supposed to prevent flying glass. Unbelievably, only 10% to 15% of the properties in the town were left unscathed.

Thankfully, those days are gone, and we have much better, friendlier and more peaceful relationships with our European neighbours. During the dim recessionary days of the 1980s and for most of the 1990s, our connection with the European Union was a lifeline when the Government turned their back on us and talked of the managed decline of the city. I am pleased that those days are over, and I look forward to devolution gaining pace, which will enable us to run many of our own affairs rather than be run from this place.

That sets the context for what I want to say about rail and road access to the port of Liverpool. I am afraid that the degree of synergy, co-operation and collaboration among the various agencies responsible for transport has been woeful. I believe that the devolution process will help to address that lacuna. While Highways England pushes on with its assessment of the road links—new constructions or reconstructions—Network Rail appears to be taking a “mañana” approach to the need for significant investment in the rail links to the port. It seems to have put the rail freight connection in the “too difficult to do” box. Highways England is talking of anything between £120 million for a new road and £300 million for a realigned road being needed. Meanwhile, back at the ranch, Network Rail has decided that £10 million in total over three financial years will do the trick. That is the sum of investment in the port rail infrastructure. To use a phrase much used in Merseyside, are they having a laugh?

Highways England has not covered itself in glory. It has shown a pretty grim attitude over many years to the people who have to live along the Dunnings Bridge corridor. The local authority and my councillor colleagues have had to fight tooth and nail, through their contractors, to keep the Dunnings Bridge corridor cleaned, to get its street lights sorted out, to get its gullies unblocked, to have the grass cut and to enforce standards on lorry drivers who feel free to use the lay-bys as toilets, among other things.

Highways England seems incapable of providing soundproofing to just half a dozen semi-detached houses that have no acoustic protection from the thousands of cars and lorries that pass through night and day. It spent huge sums on glossy leaflets and several million pounds on decommissioning a traffic island on the route to the docks, but it seems incapable of sorting out triple glazing or some other acoustic amelioration. I am afraid that the Government’s recent response to me on that matter does not instil confidence that this long-standing issue will be sorted any time soon.

For those and other reasons, many people in my constituency and beyond have little confidence in Highways England’s ability to get the road link from the M57 and M58 right. Will it listen to calls for significant tunnelling along either route—in the Rimrose Valley country park or the Dunnings Bridge-Church Road corridor? What other more or less radical plans will it consider? Have the decisions already been made? The devil is in the detail. The agency’s history of dealing with local concerns sets the scene for local communities’ levels of confidence in future plans and proposals.

At the mention of the building or reconstruction of major highways, Highways England’s lethargy dissipates and its energy levels grow, because they are sexy, big projects. Why would it bother with the routine things that affect people’s daily lives when it can pore over road plans and spend hundreds of millions of pounds to boot?

Many people in the area surrounding the port—or the docks, as it is better known—are suspicious of the local benefits that the expansion will bring. That will not come as a big surprise to most people in the area. People understand the regional, national and even international benefits, but they ask themselves what the local benefits for jobs and growth will be. They are sceptical. I do not share that level of scepticism. I believe that the port expansion will bring benefits to our community.

I have discussed the issue with many of my local councillor colleagues, including Councillor Gordon Friel, who is a councillor in that area. However, it is difficult to break through the scepticism when people believe the vast majority of port-related traffic will simply move in and out of the port along one or other road, and when the rail option, which most believe to be the most appropriate, languishes on a shelf somewhere, if indeed it has even been produced. The rail line I refer to is the Bootle branch line. It is about 7 miles long and runs from the west coast main line to the port. I use word “runs” loosely, because it is in a dreadful state. I will not take up Members’ time by setting out how dreadful it actually is—suffice it to say that it is.

We can compare that with the activity of professional rail aficionados, civil servants and the Government on High Speed 2 or Crossrail 1 and 2. We can compare the £16 billion spent on Crossrail’s 73 miles of track and 26 miles of tunnels, and the £30 billion projected for Crossrail 2, with the £10 million over three years that is to be spent on the Bootle branch line, which serves a port that is one of the largest in the country and expanding. In the Budget, the Chancellor announced £80 million just to start the planning for Crossrail 2—a staggering eight times the amount that will be spent on the actual works on the Bootle branch line. Crossrail 1 cost £210 million per mile of track, so recent announcements of £340 million for rail services across my region equate to only 1.5 miles of Crossrail 1 track. The figure for Crossrail 2 will be double that for Crossrail 1.

Before anyone suggests that Liverpool city region should be grateful, don’t bother. The Government need to reprioritise capital spending, of which the south-east, and London, in particular get the lion’s share, to other areas—then we might be grateful. I agree with Mayor Joe Anderson of Liverpool and my colleague Councillor Ian Maher of Sefton Council that we now need transformational funding. I have a cunning plan: to rename the Bootle branch Crossrail 3. By that measure we would get money thrown at it, and the Minister would be falling over himself to accommodate us—but perhaps the plan is not cunning enough.

All stakeholders agree that a multi-modal solution is required. The requirement to improve rail access has been talked about for decades. The last study before the recent Highways England assessment was in 2011. It concluded that there was spare rail capacity, but that the port facilities were a major barrier. Five years later, that issue has still not been addressed. In 2011, it was estimated that a modal shift to rail could increase the amount of freight carried by rail from 2% to 11%. In the 2015 study, it was considered too “ambitious” to use a 15% rail share, due to funding constraints and the ability to persuade freight hauliers of the advantages of rail. The study concluded:

“It is clear that any increase in rail freight beyond 24 trains per day will most likely require a new rail line to be constructed to the port and there are expected to be a number of significant issues associated with this”.

By the way, Crossrail 1 will have 24 trains per hour each way. I accept that we are not comparing like with like, but the point is well made for illustrative purposes. So there is a surprise: evidence of a mentality that, as I suggested earlier, wants to put the issue in the “too difficult” box, because no one will care, and in any event it is not London.

Network Rail therefore has no such plans in its programme. If the Government were serious about rail freight, other than getting to grips with Network Rail, they would increase the investment in rail network in and out of the port of Liverpool to ensure the maximum modal shift to rail, and provide incentives for freight hauliers to shift to rail and so avoid overly congested roads.

The Government gave the port operators a significant regional growth fund grant to expand the port, even though a feasible strategy to ensure that goods could be moved in a variety of ways was not in place. I am afraid that the chaotic, unplanned, uncosted, piecemeal approach to the port’s transport needs is creating tension and irritation in local communities and uncertainty across the board, with a perception, at the very least, that Governments—not just this one—have not simply taken their eye off the ball but never had it on the ball in the first place.

I am sure the Minister can see that the Government have a responsibility to ensure that economic development and growth is seen as being just as important in the Liverpool city region as anywhere else. Given that, a crumbs-from-the-table approach to the infrastructure needs of the port of Liverpool is just not good enough. It is disrespectful to social, economic and business communities alike. I therefore exhort the Minister to take a fresh look at the plans, or rather the lack of plans, that Network Rail has for non-road port traffic ingress and egress. He should also ensure that Highways England stops acting like a robber baron and treats my community with the respect that it deserves.

If you detect an air of irritation in my voice, Mr Chope, you would be correct. The Luftwaffe could not push Bootle, Litherland or Seaforth around, so Highways England and Network Rail have little chance, and they would be well advised to take that into account in their deliberations.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Bootle (Peter Dowd) on securing this debate on road and rail access to the port of Liverpool. However, I am a little more optimistic and excited about the prospects for the city region. Recent times have seen an acceleration in the growth of the local economy and the creation of private sector jobs and business start-ups.

Liverpool is an historic maritime city and much of its growth came from its port, which is still a key economic asset for the city region, the north and our whole country. The local enterprise partnership’s Superport strategy is focused on growing the port, enabling the creation of a further 21,000 jobs by 2020. Peel Ports, the port’s owners, shares that vision and has invested significantly, including in Liverpool2, which is due to open later this year and has a new biomass handling facility. The port of Liverpool can handle vessels that carry between 3,000 and 4,000 20-foot-long containers. In order not to become marginalised on important trade routes, Liverpool needs to be able to handle larger vessels, and the new Liverpool2 facility at Seaforth will enable it to do so.

As hon. Members know, the Government do not directly invest in UK ports; the hundreds of millions of pounds invested by Peel Ports is private sector investment. That investment and the economic benefits that it brings will be stymied if it is difficult to move the goods around the UK after they have arrived in Liverpool. That is where the role of Government in ensuring that our road and rail networks meet the needs of people and businesses comes to the fore.

Improving multi-modal access to the port is a key priority for the Government and the Liverpool City Region combined authority. With the full support of the port, Highways England, Network Rail and my Department, the city region is leading on the delivery of a strategy to improve access to the port involving all modes of transport.

On roads, the A5036 is vital to the Liverpool city region, its businesses and, in particular, the port of Liverpool. The road is the principal link between the port and the motorway network. At current levels of port activity, the mix of local and port traffic is already causing difficulties, constraining the economic opportunities for the city region. As part of our £15 billion road investment strategy, therefore, we committed to a comprehensive upgrade to improve traffic conditions on that link.

Highways England is taking forward the development of the scheme. Consideration is currently being given to options, including an online one and an offline one, the latter being through the Rimrose valley. Both options present difficulties, which is why I recognise the local sensitivities, and that is why I welcome Highways England’s clear commitment to work with local stakeholders throughout the development and delivery of the scheme.

A recent programme of public information sessions has been held. I understand that they provided useful feedback for the project team. In addition, two newsletters have been produced, and local MPs have been kept informed and involved. The hon. Gentleman was highlighting how involved, and sceptical, the local community are. I make the commitment that public involvement in development of the plans will continue.

The next stage is for Highways England to move from option identification to option selection, with the aim of identifying those options that are to be taken forward to public consultation before the preferred route is announced. The current timetable has the public consultation happening this autumn, leading to a preferred route announcement in spring next year; the forecast for the start of works is spring 2020.

The A5036 scheme is only one element in a comprehensive access strategy being led locally by the combined authority. Measures to improve rail access have been considered. The Government recognise the importance of rail freight in delivering reduced congestion and lower carbon emissions. The investment that we are making through the strategic freight network fund includes a number of projects that improve access to the port of Liverpool, three of which are: the doubling of the single line link from the Bootle branch line into the port estate; increasing line speed on the Bootle branch; and improved signalling at the Earlestown West junction. All those schemes are scheduled to be completed by 2018-19 and will double the number of freight paths to the port to 48.

The hon. Gentleman will be aware that the biomass required to support more environmentally friendly power generation is already carried by rail from the port of Liverpool to its destination. The four trains per day that currently run are forecast to rise to 10, so rail is vital to the port’s current and future plans and we are investing to support its future growth. In addition, both Network Rail and Transport for the North have been studying the strategic requirements of freight movements across the north of England, and their work will inform future investment planning processes.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the investment going into HS2. The key reason why that project needs to be taken forward is that it will inject capacity into the rail network. The west coast main line, on which £9 billion has been spent in recent years, is nevertheless forecast to be full very soon. That means not that every train will be full but that we will not be able to put more train parts on to the track. The injection of capacity that HS2 will provide will free up capacity for freight.

There are of course other modes of transport. I want to highlight coastal shipping. Peel is investing in facilities on the Manchester ship canal so that more freight can be moved inland by water, and it is also promoting greater use of coastal shipping, which should help to reduce the growth in road traffic.

I should mention the wider investments we are making across the Liverpool city region. I understand why there is a degree of scepticism about transport investment in our country, because we have had a stop-start approach to rail and road investment for many years. Arguably, there has been more stop than start, but I do not think that that accusation can be levelled fairly at this Government. We are looking at a record level of rail investment—the highest since the Victorian era. Our first road investment strategy features £15 billion of investment, which is the highest in the road industry since the 1970s. All parts of the country are benefiting from that.

Between now and 2019, there will be £340 million to provide a bigger, better, more reliable railway for passengers. More than £179 million from the local growth fund has been provided to the local enterprise partnership and combined authority to deliver a number of transport schemes that are essential to local growth. There are provisions in the devolution deal to support Merseytravel to make progress with the locally funded procurement of new trains for the Merseyrail network. We have also supported the new Mersey Gateway crossing in Halton, one of the largest local transport schemes in the country, which is now under construction.

The north of England rail infrastructure upgrade programme has already delivered a significant benefit. The electrification of the routes from Liverpool to Manchester and Wigan has taken 15 minutes off the fastest journey between Liverpool and Manchester. On 1 April we saw the start of the Northern and TransPennine franchises, both of which will see significant investment—particularly in new rolling stock—that will benefit everybody in the area and provide an enormous boost for the rail sector.

Another important change that has not been mentioned is putting Transport for the North on a statutory basis. The Cities and Local Government Devolution Act 2016, under which it was established, received Royal Assent only in January. It has brought together the 29 transport authorities throughout the north. I believe that we will plan transport like this much more in future. It is from the north, for the north. Transport for the North will be working alongside Highways England and Network Rail to plan investment in the area. Of course, it is already involved not only in planning but in the running of the rail franchises, which are being run jointly by the Department for Transport and Rail North. Again, that is run in the north, for the north. This is the first time that has happened.

We are seeing significant devolution in the world of transport that will bring benefits not only to the hon. Gentleman’s area but throughout the north. We are working with Transport for the North on northern powerhouse rail, which is sometimes called HS3. It will provide a fast link from Liverpool across to Hull, linking Manchester and Leeds, as well as Manchester airport and Sheffield. It is all about creating new fast links between northern cities and will, of course, release more capacity for freight. We agree that moving freight on to our railways is part of the answer to improving the freight sector’s environmental performance. As northern powerhouse rail develops, Liverpool’s aspiration for a direct connection to HS2—the mayor has personally told me about that—will be considered.

I hope that I have provided assurance to the hon. Gentleman that we fully recognise that it is most important that we improve access to the port—access to ports and airports has been underestimated in this country’s transport planning for too long—and that we are working constructively with local partners on implementing their multimodal strategy by investing in both road and rail schemes, through which we are playing our part in meeting the ambitions of the port, the city region and the north of England. What is happening at the port is a huge boost for the economies of all the affected areas, and it is therefore critical that we maximise the opportunities that this private investment brings by making corresponding public investment in connectivity to ensure that we capitalise on it for the benefit of everyone.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.