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House of Commons Hansard
23 November 2016
Volume 617

  • I beg to move,

    That this House has considered transport in the North East.

    It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward. I am grateful for the opportunity to hold this debate on such an important issue for many of my constituents. This is by no means the first time that I have spoken in this House about transport in the north-east, and I start by reiterating what I said on those occasions about the region’s huge economic potential. Nissan’s recent decision to build two new models at its Sunderland plant was a resounding vote of confidence in the workforce and in the north-east economy and a demonstration of what can be achieved when Government and business work together to maximise what the region has to offer.

    As the only English region consistently to maintain a balance of trade surplus over the past decade, the north-east is clearly doing something right in developing export opportunities by land, air and sea. One of the most effective ways that Government can help to support those efforts and drive economic growth is through greater investment in transport infrastructure. After all, a 2014 research paper commissioned by the Department for Transport described transport as an

    “essential input to income generation”

    that has

    “positive impacts on a wide range of economic variables including city size and employment.”

    Creating better transport connections between the north’s economic centres is also meant to be one of the central planks of the Government’s so-called northern powerhouse scheme. Despite the soaring rhetoric of the northern powerhouse initiative, the level of public spending allocated to the north-east remains very low compared with almost every other region in the country. Government figures show that expenditure has declined by almost 20% over the decade, with the result that the north-east accounted for only 2.8% of overall UK spend on transport last year.

    Although other northern regions have also suffered from a decline in central funding in recent years, the amount spent on transport in the north-east last year was by far the lowest of the English regions, and second only to Northern Ireland across the UK. The difference between the north-east and London is especially stark. At £300 a head of population, expenditure in the north-east is far below the London spend of £1,900 a head. Some £573 million was spent across the whole north-east on transport last year, but £27 billion to £32 billion has been earmarked for Crossrail 2 alone.

    Given the substantial levels of public investment in transport in the capital, it is hardly a surprise that one in 10 Londoners do not own a car. Few realise that the north-east has the second lowest rate of car ownership in the country after London, with one in three people entirely reliant on public transport to get around.

  • I am grateful to my hon. Friend for securing this debate. I know she is a passionate champion of bus services. Does she realise that bus passenger numbers have fallen by 57.7% in the north-east since deregulation in the 1980s—the highest of any region? Does she think that is a sign of success, or is it actually a recognition of the failure to have a co-ordinated transport policy?

  • I feel that deregulation has been an unmitigated disaster for regions such as the north-east, where we have had a knock-on effect on fares, falling bus patronage and local communities often entirely cut off from bus services. I know that my hon. Friend faces similar problems in his community in Hartlepool to those I face in mine.

    On that point, the people in my constituency are entirely dependent on bus services. There is no other option. It is therefore imperative that the comparatively small amount of money allocated to the north-east for transport is spent on ensuring that local public transport services meet the needs of local people and businesses. Unfortunately, expenditure on local public transport in the north-east has dropped by more than 45% over the last five years, which is by far the biggest decrease in spending on any mode of transport in the region.

    I want to take the opportunity to again raise with the Minister my long-standing concerns about the state of north-east local bus services. Over the past six years, thousands of local people have contacted me to express their deep dissatisfaction about the cost of fares and the level of service being provided by private bus companies. That is why I vocally supported efforts by Nexus and the North East combined authority to use existing legislation to reregulate local bus services, through the introduction of a London-style quality contract scheme in Tyne and Wear. It would have integrated fares and routes and ensured that taxpayer subsidies were used to improve services instead of to increase operating profits. I was therefore sorely disappointed with the quality contract scheme board decision a year ago to reject the proposals, even though it acknowledged that the scheme would offer local people a transport system unrivalled outside London. I still find it incredible that the board believed operators should be compensated for the future loss of potential profits. The people of the north-east should not have to compensate bus operators for what is taken for granted in London.

    One year on, north-east passengers are no closer to getting the bus service they deserve. Nexus was clear during the QCS process that if the scheme was not implemented, bus cuts were inevitable, fares would increase and ridership would go down. That scenario is playing out. Annual bus statistics show that bus patronage has decreased by 2.7% again in Tyne and Wear and given the frequency with which operators chop and change services and raise fares, that is hardly a surprise. While north-east bus passengers continue to suffer from the absence of a fully integrated network, bus operators in the region continue to make large profits. In fact, in some cases the profits made by commercial bus operators are even being used to prop up loss-making rail franchises, as David Brown, chief executive officer of the Go-Ahead Group recently admitted. We cannot go on like this.

    The QCS board decision last November may have blocked efforts to introduce franchising schemes under existing legislation, but there was much hope that the Bus Services Bill would give us the power to implement the change we so desperately need. Unfortunately, despite sensible amendments to the Bill in the House of Lords on bus franchising schemes, the Government seem determined to ensure those powers will only be available automatically to mayoral combined authorities. It seems as if the region will once again be denied the opportunity to improve services for passengers. The current deregulated system has not only failed to prevent a decline in bus patronage—it has exacerbated it. I ask the Minister to think carefully on the amendments and to give the north-east the powers it needs to implement the urgent, radical change needed to arrest and reverse that decline.

    Buses are of course not the only means by which people travel across the north-east, although they are the only mode of public transport for many of my constituents, which is one of the main reasons for the poor connectivity between semi-urban and rural constituencies such as mine and the urban centres they surround. If the Government really want to create better transport links between economic centres in the north, they must provide Nexus with the long-term funding necessary for essential infrastructure works to refresh and expand the metro. With 60 stations, around 40 million passenger trips per year and trains running up to 19 hours a day, the metro has been serving the needs of north-east residents for more than 40 years.

  • I am very interested in that point about how busy the Metro is. Is my hon. Friend aware that Network Rail maintains the principal part of the rail tracks that the metro runs on, as well as the rest of the rail tracks in the north-east? Does she agree that we should press the Minister to assure us that Network Rail will not be privatised again, as has been widely reported in the national newspapers? It was brought into public hands because of a poor safety record in the private sector. We need an assurance on that today, bearing in mind how dependent we are in the north-east on the railways and the metro.

  • I am sure the Minister will want to respond to that point; I am not sure that my hon. Friend will get that assurance, but he has made his point clearly.

    The metro, a system that was once the envy of the country, is now in need of major renewal and investment. The metro reinvigoration programme, published by Nexus in July this year, provided a clear strategy for the creation of a joined-up rail and metro network that will make use of the disused former passenger and freight routes that criss-cross the north east, such as the Leamside line. Those plans would provide people in my constituency, as well as those living in Washington, Seaham, west Newcastle, Gateshead, Team valley and elsewhere, with the means to travel much more easily and efficiently across the region.

  • I thank my hon. Friend and neighbour for giving way. Does she agree that the £550 million required to replace the current metro fleet, which would stop the breakdowns and the unreliability that compounds the problem, is absolutely essential for sustaining where we are at the moment, never mind for moving forward to the phase 3 that she is talking about, and that the Government should look seriously at that?

  • My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The Minister should look carefully at the business case being put forward and make sure it is given full and proper consideration.

    The benefits for economic regeneration arising from the expansion and extension of the metro are obvious. One example would be connecting Sunderland city centre to Doxford park via the former Hetton colliery railway. That would provide access to Doxford international business park, which is currently very poorly served by local bus services. Extending metro-style services to Sunderland’s biggest business park can only help attract new businesses, investors and skilled staff to the constituency and the wider region.

    It is no secret that there have been major issues around the metro’s reliability and performance in recent months. If passengers cannot rely on the metro to get them to where they need to be on time, they will stop using it—it is as simple as that. I commend the progress that Nexus has made in carrying out essential renewals over the past six years in the face of budget cuts, but one of the main reasons many people are experiencing regular delays and cancellations on the metro is the deteriorating state of its rolling stock, much of which dates back to the 1970s and has long since passed the end of its design life. That is why I support proposals by Nexus to introduce a new fleet in 2021, which would also make the expansion of metro services much more likely.

    I urge the Minister and the Department to make a decision about Government investment for that project as soon as possible so that Nexus can meet the target. The completion of the metro reinvigoration programme is the least that people across the north-east without access to integrated transport links deserve. Will the Minister commit to considering carefully the strong cost-benefit ratio of those proposals and the major economic benefits for the region that they will bring? Can he give an indication as to when we can expect a Government decision? I urge him to make it an early one.

    Greater investment in local public transport in the north-east should not come at the cost of much-needed regional and local road improvement projects. The new Wear crossing, which is part of Sunderland City Council’s strategic plan to create a continuous dual carriageway between the port of Sunderland, the city centre and the A19, will not only help reduce congestion but bring sustained economic regeneration and transport benefits to the city and the wider region. However, the cancellation of the central route scheme in 2011 in my constituency remains a source of deep disappointment. There are major house building projects under way, but we lack the necessary transport infrastructure. Large numbers of vehicles on local roads are causing major congestion and problems for residents, as well as pushing up the logistical costs of doing business.

    The purpose of this debate is not to ask for special treatment for our region. All we ask for is a fair funding deal that reflects the unique needs of the north-east and addresses the inequality in Whitehall’s transport spending. Although the transport authority and local councils are doing their best in difficult circumstances, they clearly need more financial help and support from central Government. Big ticket projects such as HS2 demonstrate that significant money is available.

    I hope that the Minister will reflect carefully upon the issues that I have addressed and make the case for greater investment in the north-east to the Secretary of State. Warm words and platitudes will not cut it any longer. If the Government are as serious about rebalancing the UK economy away from London as the Chancellor claimed in today’s autumn statement, Ministers need to act now.

  • I thank the hon. Member for Houghton and Sunderland South (Bridget Phillipson) for giving me the opportunity to talk about a different aspect of transport investment in the north-east—that of mostly rural Northumberland.

    I thank the Minister for the work that his exceptional team from Highways England is doing. It is rolling out £300 million-worth of investment in the first stages of dualling the remaining part of the A1, which has been untouched by Governments of every colour for many decades. It is very exciting work. I was with the team on Saturday to see the plans for the detailed work that is going on in that rural territory—the farms there have not had a change to their transportation network for so long. I commend the Minister and the team, which is putting a huge amount of work into local communication so it understands how best to create a modern, 21st-century dualled road through Northumberland. It will ensure that livestock can cross that bigger, busier road and that it does not cut through the middle of farms inappropriately. It is exciting to see that activity going on. Doom-mongers in my constituency still say to me, “It’ll never happen in my lifetime,” so it is exciting to be able to direct them to the maps and show them the farms that will see that investment.

    We are doing only about a third of what remains of the last stretch of the A1, which, as its name suggests, should be the first road all the way through to Scotland. As the economic case becomes clearer, we will continue to press for dualling to ensure that people are able to drive from London to Edinburgh, through the constituency of the hon. Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk (Calum Kerr), on a modern, dualled and, in large part, four-lane motorway—although not in Northumberland.

    The hon. Member for Houghton and Sunderland South talked about having an integrated transport system. It is important to understand that we all have to have cars in rural Northumberland because the bus networks are almost invisible, except for those between one or two of the more major towns. That is a real challenge for families, which often need two cars if two members of the family work in different parts of the county or if one commutes to Newcastle or up to Edinburgh.

    We want investment in the train network to continue to grow. The train networks in the north-east are pretty much as good as they get. I think all of us who use them weekly are reassured that we get to and from Newcastle and Berwick, and down to London, in a timely fashion, but it is difficult for my constituents. We are trying to develop a better conversation with the Department for Transport about how we can extend the platform at Belford railway station—it is in the middle of my constituency, which is nearly 70 miles long—so trains can stop there. That would open up opportunities for house building in that part of my constituency and help communities to grow. It would also ensure that more people get on to trains and are not stuck in the commuting networks, clogging up the city centres, which Opposition Members are here to stand up for and defend.

    Those are the points that I want to put into the mix. I thank the hon. Lady for giving me the opportunity to talk about the Northumbrian model, which is different from the city models. After so many decades, the Department for Transport must continue to remember that rural Northumberland is a key development opportunity. We have an enterprise zone in Berwick and a growing aeronautical sector in Amble, and we want to ensure that the transport links work so we can continue to grow and invest for the future.

  • I apologise for arriving after the start of the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Houghton and Sunderland South (Bridget Phillipson).

  • Don’t worry. We started early.

  • Thank you, Sir Edward.

    I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate on a subject that is so important to all our constituencies. Transport in the north-east is a critical part of our infrastructure. My time is short, so I want to make four points about roads, rail, buses and industrial strategy.

    The hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mrs Trevelyan) said that everyone has to have a car in rural Northumberland, but I know constituents of hers who do not have one. The bottom line of a transport strategy should be to have a public transport system that enables ordinary working people to go to work, universities and schools without having a car. The fact that a Member of Parliament who represents Northumberland believes that her constituents have to have a car is significant. It is true that the bus services in Northumberland are often very poor—I have experienced them—but I hope the Minister will commit to delivering transport infrastructure in the north-east that enables my constituents to go about their normal work and leisure business without having a car.

    I listened closely to today’s autumn statement, and I did not hear the looked-for and somewhat trailed investment in transport infrastructure. My understanding is that the dualling of the A69 has been replaced by dualling of the A66. If that proves to be the case, I would like the Minister to explain why we cannot have the investment across the north that we need to ensure we have proper transport links, and why investment in our road infrastructure is piecemeal and on such a limited scale.

  • On the subject of transport capital investment and today’s autumn statement, if the Government are keen on rebalancing the economy so that it works for everyone, why is the Cambridge-Milton Keynes-Oxford growth corridor worthy of a designated budget line in the autumn statement when there is nothing in there for the north-east?

  • I thank my hon. Friend, the Chair of the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee, for making such an important point, which I will come on to properly later. I agree wholeheartedly with the implication of his comments. The economic contribution of effective transport infrastructure for the north-east is not recognised in the same way as it is recognised in London and other areas of the south. That absolutely has to change if we are to have any hope of rebalancing our economy and making it more resilient and distributive across the country.

  • My hon. Friend set out what she will speak about, but airport passenger duty is also important to the economics of the north-east. Our airports play an equally valid and massive role in helping our economy. We heard nothing today about what will happen with regard to Scotland, but it will be detrimental to our north-east airport if the Scottish Government reduce APD.

  • Given the interest in and strategic importance of transport, I will focus on the issues I set out, but my hon. Friend makes a critically important point. Newcastle airport is a vital part of our economic infrastructure. Naturally, it competes with airports in Scotland. The lack of a decision today—I am not sure whether it has been kicked into the long grass or into orbit—is detrimental to economic certainty at a time of great uncertainty for many other aspects of our economic future.

    Let me talk briefly about rail and the metro. I was nine or 10 when the metro came into being. It was a fantastic, highly advanced network that was ahead of its time—I think it was the first network in Europe or the world to be accessible to disabled people—but 40 years later we are using exactly the same rolling stock. Is that believable? Hitachi recently told me that it can deliver trains that would provide what we have been talking about—an extended light rail and metro service across a greater part of Tyne and Wear and the north-east. I hope the Minister will commit to that investment, because we need transport infrastructure and a metro without delays to support the kind of economy we want.

    Most of Newcastle Central’s transport is about buses. We have a number of metro stops, but for most of the west of my constituency and parts of the north it is about buses.

    The failure of bus deregulation in Tyne and Wear has been so patently obvious for so many decades that it beggars belief that we are still debating it today. Outside my constituency office near Central station in Newcastle two No. 1 buses leave in totally different directions, one going north, one south—they both have the same number, because obviously that puts them at the head of some queue. It is totally incomprehensible to those who have lived in the city for many years, never mind visitors.

    As my hon. Friend the Member for Houghton and Sunderland South discussed, we should not still be debating the lack of integrated bus transport in 2016, when we have seen the success of, for example, the Oyster card and the integrated system in London. I really cannot believe that the Minister will stand up to say that Tyne and Wear and my constituents do not deserve some control over a bus system that is so important to them simply because of the lack of a mayor.

    Why is this all so important? As my hon. Friends the Members for Hartlepool (Mr Wright) and for Houghton and Sunderland South said, transport is important because it is part of our economic infrastructure and the north-east having critical mass.

  • On economic infrastructure, does my hon. Friend agree that given the recent enormous investment in Newcastle Central station, investment in Sunderland station—which is just as large a city—needs to be addressed by Network Rail? The station does not even have a toilet for public use, never mind the rest of the upgrading. Influence from the Government needs to be exerted, because the local authorities and Nexus for the combined authority have put aside a significant amount of money for their part in any investment, but it is up to Network Rail, which is simply not doing anything at the moment. Urgent investment is needed to upgrade the facilities for what is a very large city.

  • I thank my hon. Friend for her intervention, which gives me the opportunity to support investment in Sunderland’s infrastructure—[Interruption.] I know I am going into controversial territory, but I shall plough ahead regardless. As she mentioned, investment has gone into Newcastle Central station and, although the work was painful and disruptive, we now have a fantastic gateway to the city, as well as much improved facilities. Sunderland was equally part of the great industrial revolution and the investment in and birth of the railways. For its history, as well as for its present and future economy, it merits the facilities of a great industrial and manufacturing city.

    All this is so important because, as a region, we need critical mass if we are to compete effectively nationally and internationally. We need people to be able to travel to work in less time, so that we can benefit across the region from skills in Sunderland, Newcastle or Durham. We are a distributed region, with a relatively low population by comparison with other regions around the country, so an integrated and effective transport system is even more necessary for us. The talents of everyone and all our businesses and working people could then be shared throughout the region. If the Minister cannot commit to the sort of investment that we have outlined, all the talk—of a northern powerhouse spreading beyond Manchester, of rebalancing the economy to support the regions and of delivering some type of certainty post-Brexit to enable business investment in our region—will be as nothing against the lack of any action.

  • It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Houghton and Sunderland South (Bridget Phillipson) on securing the debate.

    My constituency, like that of the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mrs Trevelyan), is rural, although it is not quite as large as hers. She made an interesting point, because in parts of my constituency, too, without access to a car people cannot even get to the public transport system. Many of my constituents travel out of North Durham—as hers do from her constituency—to work in Teesside, Tyneside or Wearside. The important thing, therefore, is to have good transport links to those jobs that exist along the A1 corridor and in areas in the north-east.

    Is the answer a metro for my constituency? No, it is not. My hon. Friend the Member for Houghton and Sunderland South talked about quality contracts, but she knows that I disagree with her about that. A quality contract would have done nothing for North Durham or, I hasten to add, for the constituency of the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed, because the Tyne and Wear councils would have got control over buses in my constituency. What saddens me a little is that the councils of the north-east, having lost that case—anyone who looked at the finances knew it was going to be lost, right from the beginning—seemed then to park the issue.

    My hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central (Chi Onwurah) spoke about Oyster cards and smart ticketing. It is vital that the combined authority and the councils sit down with the bus operators to consider how to introduce things such as shared ticketing and Oyster-style arrangements. Bus companies tell me that they are willing to speak about the situation but that they are not getting a great deal of traction from councils.

    We will do the travelling public of the north-east a great disservice if we simply wait for the national Government to come up with something or think that some future regulation will be the answer. The combined purchasing power of north-east councils is strong, given what they put into security services, for example. Leadership is needed, rather than thinking that in future we will somehow get a quality contract mark 2, as though that were the only game in town. I do not think it is.

    There are opportunities to make a real difference, such as being able to change tickets between different operators, a smart-ticketing process like an Oyster card, or some agreement on children and young people’s fares, which I know that the bus companies are prepared to look at. Is that partly down to the Government? Yes, but some things are in our hands, and combined authorities and council leaders could act. I press them to start negotiations now to see what can be done, at least in the short term.

    We have no large employers in my constituency, which is a former coal-mining area, and many people move out to work around the region. The other main network for my constituents, apart from the buses, is the railway and Chester-le-Street station. It is 10 minutes from that station to Central station in Newcastle. However, trying to get any investment, not only in upgrading the station but by ensuring that the operators stop more regularly and at times when people actually want to travel, is very difficult.

    That could be dealt with straightaway by ensuring more stopping services and hourly services not only during the day—that is what we have at times; at other times they are half hourly—but at peak times, to ensure that we have regular stopping services at Chester-le-Street. That would avoid many people having to use their cars to travel into Tyneside, as they do at the moment.

    Increasingly, my constituents complain about the poor service that they get from the operators, whether that involves trains being late, trains not turning up or, when they do turn up, trains being frequently very overcrowded. People sometimes do not even have the opportunity to stand for 10 minutes, because there is not enough room for them to get on at the station in Chester-le-Street in order to go to Newcastle Central.

    I ask the Minister to look at the situation. The formidable Alex Nelson, the stationmaster at Chester-le-Street, always argues very strongly when it comes to refranchising for more trains to stop, but there seems to be a blind spot on the part of the operators and the people who draw up the timetables. My hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central talked about extending the metro, but I am sorry; I do not think that is the answer, certainly in parts of my constituency and in Berwick and other places. We need investment in rail—whether it be the Blyth-to-Tyneside route, the Leamside line or others—to increase capacity on the east coast main line, but I fear that over the next 20 to 30 years, most of the money will be sucked into the vanity project that is High Speed 2 and High Speed 3.

    Some people in the region, including the chamber of commerce, try to lecture us about how important that project is to the north-east, but I do not think it is. It will be a drain on investment—investment that could go into rail projects in the north-east. It is not even a matter of jam tomorrow; it is a matter of the ingredients and possibly the recipe for creating jam. It will have a detrimental effect on some of the small changes that could be made to the north-east rail network that would make a huge difference to connectivity. The one thing that always gets me is how long it takes to travel from Tyneside to Teesside on a track that with some investment could be radically improved. I do not see that happening in the next few years, because, like I say, most of the rail investment in this country will be sucked into HS2 and HS3, which will not benefit my constituents or many other north-east constituents.

    We need to put forward doable plans, but we should not think that everything is in the hands of central Government. On buses, there are certainly things that could be done now. The answer to getting people in the north-east out of their cars and on to public transport is not necessarily just to upgrade more roads. The hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed has campaigned for many years for the dualling of the A1, but that will not directly improve connectivity in the north-east or the region’s economy. Although that would be a good feather in her cap, it is certainly not a priority when it comes to the sea change in connectivity that we need to ensure happens in what, as my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central said, is quite a small region. People in the north-east increasingly do not live near their jobs but have to travel around the region, and it is difficult for people without direct access to public transport to get to those jobs.

  • I am on the other side of the argument. Re-regulation of buses is acutely needed, particularly in my constituency and especially in the rural parts of east Cleveland. My main concern is the growth in the use of taxis. I am not at all against hire cabs, but there is encroaching monopolisation in the industry. An aspect of transport that is not talked about is the ever-increasing employment of people in the industry, which is highly unregulated and does not best serve my constituents. One Middlesbrough company with a dubious background is encroaching into Redcar and Cleveland. My main concern is that the lack of regulation of rail and particularly local buses, where that problem is acute, is causing ever-growing demand for taxi services, particularly among disabled users.

  • I hear what my hon. Friend says, but the quality contract was put up as the only game in town for the north-east bus network. I am sorry, but it never was. Proper regulation is important, but the way that it was done meant that it never stacked up financially. It would have meant that my constituency was more poorly served; for example, Durham taxpayers would have subsidised the Tyne and Wear metro system.

    I hear what my hon. Friend says about taxis. I have scars on my back from my time in charge of taxi licensing at Newcastle City Council. May I give him some advice? If the political will is there, the regulation is there to be used; it is a matter of how it is used locally. I accept that that is not easy, because taxi drivers are a vocal section of the local electorate, but we made some major changes when I was in charge of taxi licensing in Newcastle. The regulations are there; it is a matter of how they are used.

    Was there anything for the north-east in today’s autumn statement? No, there was not. There is a reason for that: the only bits of the north-east that were ever going to get anything under this Government or the previous Government were those with Conservative Members of Parliament. It is not surprising, for example, that money has gone into the A66 and the A1. Those Governments have made pork barrel politics a new art form. It is sad that people in the north-east are being penalised by the Government and denied any major structural investment just because they do not vote Conservative.

  • On that bombshell—be careful not to encourage them to do so. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship again, Sir Edward. You have obviously been a naughty boy; you have been sent here many times recently, by the looks of it. [Interruption.] We can see the connotations the Tories take from the phrase “naughty boy”—I don’t know.

    I congratulate the hon. Member for Houghton and Sunderland South (Bridget Phillipson) on securing this debate and her colleagues from the north-east on turning up in numbers to support her. They are clearly all concerned and passionate about the issue, and she gave an excellent introduction, which is so important in Westminster Hall debates. Her plea for the north-east to be given the powers that it requires to meet the challenges that she articulated so well cannot have failed to be heard.

    The hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mrs Trevelyan) also did well. I see that she now has a friend from the other side of the country, the hon. Member for Carlisle (John Stevenson), so she does not feel quite so isolated. She tried hard and succeeded in making a contribution that was positive about what has been done and at the same time pleaded for much more. I can tell hon. Members that she clearly backs the dualling of the A1, because she gave me a sticker and encouraged me to put it on my car.

    The hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central (Chi Onwurah) makes an excellent contribution to any debate, although I will now be concerned every time I see a No. 1 bus—is it the correct one? Going by his detailed contribution, the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr Jones) is quite clearly an expert on buses. He sparked some interesting thought processes about HS2, and I will deal briefly with the challenge of what exactly to spend our money on.

    I am struck that the imbalances between Scotland and England that my party is somewhat guilty of always complaining about also apply very much to the regions of England. Those imbalances, and in particular the London effect, make me question why new infrastructure such as HS2 needed to start in London and could not have started in—

  • Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

  • As a result of the Chancellor’s announcement today, Scotland will apparently receive an extra £800 million. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that authorities in the north-east should be included in the Barnett formula and get an equivalent sum, which we could use for transport funding?

  • I thank the hon. Gentleman for his contribution. I have not given any thought to how money should be allocated. I do not like the phraseology that he uses, but he certainly puts forward an interesting idea. How do we rebalance the economy across England and across the UK? Devolution of power, including spending power, is an important aspect that needs to be considered. As I was saying, if HS2 is indeed so important, why could it not have started in the north of the country? Why could it not be part of redressing the balance between north and south instead of being done in a kind of hub-and-spoke way that reinforces the idea that it is all about London?

    I was told that this room would be full of northerners. I do not know whether this makes any difference, but they are all southerners to me. That probably feels like an insult; I assure them that I do not intend it as one. Let me make a couple of points. First, why I am here to sum up, apart from the fact that the third party is asked to sum up in all debates? The reason is, despite being the spokesperson on the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and on digital, I am from across the border. Interesting interventions were made about how we in the south of Scotland work with the north of England. The more we can collaborate and work together, have a collective voice and look at ways in which we can become more connected, the more we can collectively redress the pull of the south to which I referred.

    I will touch on an example that may appeal to the hon. Member for North Durham, which is to reference the longest piece of domestic railway to be constructed in Britain for more than 100 years: the Borders railway from Edinburgh down to Galashiels. It cost £353 million, it was delivered on time and on budget and it is smashing all predictions on passenger numbers. It was predicted to carry 650,000 passengers a year and the figure is now well beyond a million—it hit those passenger targets within six months. I give that as an example not necessarily of an alternative to high-speed rail but of the kind of projects we should consider.

  • That is a good example of the sort of project that could deliver for the north-east, not to compete with high-speed rail but to bring rail back to communities in rural Northumberland and parts of County Durham, which would be beneficial to local people.

  • I 100% agree. With the fixation on high-speed rail, as the hon. Gentleman rightly said, the danger is that that sucks up too much money and prevents other projects that could deliver greater economic benefit while attacking some of the geographic challenges that hon. Members have mentioned. The Chancellor in his autumn statement today was keen not to mention too many individual projects. Bizarrely, he decided to talk about one country house refurbishment, although it seemed to me that that was more about scoring a narrow political point against the Labour party than anything else, but such is life.

    I appreciate that I am going somewhat off-piste, so if the Minister wishes to bat this back to me I will understand, but is there any mention in the autumn statement or elsewhere on what the Government’s position is on extending the Borders railway through to the constituency of the hon. Member for Carlisle? The Scottish Government have a multi-modal study looking at transport across the Scottish borders and a key ingredient in that is extending the Border railway service from Galashiels to Hawick and through to Newcastleton and Carlisle, which would create an extra link. That is the kind of project that we should be looking at. That is not necessarily to the exclusion of high-speed rail, but I know which project I would pick if I had to pick between the two. If the Minister could give me any kind of response on that, I would be grateful.

    My final point is on pathways. The east coast main line remains an important line for us. The Scottish Government are committed to new stations at East Linton and Reston and a new service with new trains. My concern is that sometimes again we fixate on services to London—Edinburgh to London—which exclude local services, and that means that main lines become less viable. At the moment we are looking at a two-hour service, and once things are made irregular their viability and usefulness diminishes. The Government have a key role to play too in looking at all pathways and the balance between national services serving major cities and local services. I close by congratulating the hon. Member for Houghton and Sunderland South again on securing the debate.

  • It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Houghton and Sunderland South (Bridget Phillipson) on securing the debate on an important subject for her and her constituents. We have had many good contributions from my hon. Friends, with substantial speeches from my hon. Friends the Members for Newcastle upon Tyne Central (Chi Onwurah) and for North Durham (Mr Jones) and a good speech from the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mrs Trevelyan). We had good interventions from my hon. Friends the Members for Jarrow (Mr Hepburn), for Hartlepool (Mr Wright), for Sunderland Central (Julie Elliott), for North Tyneside (Mary Glindon) and for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland (Tom Blenkinsop). Given the lack of time, I will try to be as brief as possible.

    As others have pointed out, transport in the north-east has suffered from consistent underfunding from the Government. Figures from the Department for Transport show that since 2010 the north-east has received the lowest level of public spending on transport compared with any other region in England. As a consequence of that underfunding, bus patronage in the north-east has declined faster since 1986 than in any other region. It has fallen by more than a half, and is now about 50% lower than before deregulation, declining from 426 million bus passenger journeys in 1985 to just 180 million last year. That deregulation, far from increasing competition and improving services for consumers as the Conservative Government at the time promised, has created damaging bus market monopolies. In fact, recent statistics published by the Department show that in Tyne and Wear just two operators—Stagecoach and Go North East—accounted for 87% of market share. Arriva had a market share of more than 97% in Darlington and more than 91% in Redcar and Cleveland, while Stagecoach has 91% in Hartlepool. Monopolies mean that passengers lack alternatives and have to put up with fares rising faster than wages, while we also see allegedly unprofitable routes consistently being axed.

    It does not have to be like that. While in Government, Labour introduced legislation to enable local authorities to re-regulate the bus market in their areas. The Transport Act 2000 introduced quality contract schemes and in 2008 there was an attempt to simplify that process, although it is fair to say that we all now recognise that that legislation was overcomplicated.

    As we have heard, the North East combined authority came closest to implementing a quality contract scheme, but that fell at the last hurdle just over a year ago. One of my first trips as a member of the shadow Transport team was to Newcastle to meet key members of that team. I pay tribute in particular to Tobyn Hughes, the managing director of Nexus, and the team who tried so hard, and I remember their account of why they did. They gave an account of a local travel system that had been integrated, as hon. Members have explained, and that was one of the most effective public transport systems in the country—it is still fondly remembered—with the metro opening in 1980, providing a seamless integrated link, and one ticket taking people across the city on bus, metro or ferry. Of course, back then we had passengers and citizens, not customers and commodities.

    Despite that, the metro is still the busiest light-rail system outside London and the backbone of the transport system, with the public authority specifying fares and frequencies, as we would like to see for buses. However, as we have heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central, it certainly needs overhauling. We will support Nexus in that process. It is extraordinary that if a passenger crosses the river and boards a bus, they now need to buy another ticket. Unsurprisingly, the result of all that fragmentation is that despite support from the local authorities—dipping into reserves to try to help—bus patronage is still falling, and the familiar cycle of declining services and cuts to services locks in future decline. The system simply is not working.

    That is why we strongly supported Tobyn and his team in their Herculean effort, and we were deeply disappointed by the rejection of their proposal by the board. In fact, we were astonished by the board’s implication that bus operators ought to be compensated by local authorities for financial losses they might incur. We were more than astonished by some of the comments from some of the bus companies.

    We hope that the situation is calmer now, and it was a welcome surprise when the Government followed Labour’s lead, recognised the shortcomings of the current arrangements and introduced the Bus Services Bill, which has its Third Reading in the other place today. The Opposition want a constructive relationship with all bus operators, large and small. However, we worry that there is a danger that the Bill will have insufficient impact in the north-east because of the linkage to the demand for a combined authority and a mayor. Of course, discussions are going on in that part of the world, but it appears that with a devolution deal “off the table”—in the Government’s words—local people are to be denied the services they should be entitled to. We worry about the future of bus services, but there is a solution and we hope that the Minister will give some thought to making sure that it is available to those people.

    I will turn briefly to roads and finally to rail, where we also feel the Government are also in danger of breaking their commitments. We recognise how important the “laddering” is—the road connectivity between the parallel north-south highways of the A1 and A19—by way of improvements to the east-west A66, and of course the A19 Tees viaduct is currently a key constraint on the strategic road network.

    On rail, the Minister said last week that improving northern transport infrastructure is vital to the success of what the Government have termed the northern powerhouse, and that the Government are committing £13 billion to transport improvements in this Parliament. However, it was promised in 2012 that projects that would benefit the north-east would be delivered between 2014 and 2019, such as maximising the value of the north trans-Pennine electrification through capacity enhancement at Huddersfield station. Much of that has now been delayed until after 2020. There were also hopes for improvements to transform Sunderland, as we heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland Central, and to improve capacity at Newcastle.

    To conclude, the recent history of transport in the north-east has been less than inspiring. It is a story of hard-pressed local authorities doing their best for their communities, but in our view they are too often thwarted by rules imposed upon them from the outside. I very much hope that the Minister will confirm today that the Government will give the North East combined authority the power needed to plan its own bus network and regulate bus services, the support needed to continue to improve transport for everyday passengers and the freedom to unleash the full potential of the north-east of the country.

  • May I congratulate the hon. Member for Houghton and Sunderland South (Bridget Phillipson) on securing the debate? It has been quite clear from the remarks by hon. Members across the House just how important transport infrastructure and investment is to them and to all their constituents. I entirely buy the case that has been made that it supports growth and business and helps people to get to work, to shops and to services.

    We do not have too long left in the debate, so I will scamper through as much as I can, and I will potentially have to follow some of it up afterwards.

  • Will the Minister give way?

  • My hon. Friend has a brilliant sense of irony. Yes, I will.

  • I appreciate the Minister giving way. I apologise for my late arrival, Sir Edward, which was in part due to the machinations of the Scottish Affairs Committee.

  • Keep it to the north-east, please.

  • I appreciate that the debate is very much about the north-east and the transport there, but connectivity between regions and cities is vital. We have heard good news about the A66. Will there be good news about the A69?

  • That was very good timing, from a comedy perspective. I will talk about roads if I get a moment a little bit later.

    We are very keen to continue the work on rebalancing the economy. The northern powerhouse is a significant part of Government thinking and has driven much investment over the past few years. We have created Transport for the North, which is a key part of the concept of the northern powerhouse—it is about taking control of one’s destiny. Transport for the North is driving forward transport plans and will support economic growth across the whole of the north. There will be a £13 billion set of investments in Yorkshire and the Humber, the north-west and the north-east during the course of this Parliament alone.

  • Does Transport for the North’s remit actually go any further than the corridor that Minister referred to? I have certainly not seen a great deal of impact or any ideas for the rest of the north, which, if the Minister looks at a map, goes a bit further north than Leeds.

  • Transport for the North’s remit is the north: it is north-east, Yorkshire and the Humber and the north-west. That point needs to be made to it and I will happily make it.

    Let me get back to the world of buses. I, too, am a passionate supporter of buses. I know that Nexus and the North East combined authority have been working hard to improve local transport in the north-east, and I applaud their work. The Pop card has been a great success and allows for a seamless, inter-modal shift between bus services, the metro and the Shields ferry. However, we have to go much further.

    The hon. Member for Houghton and Sunderland South highlighted her disappointment that the traffic commissioner rejected the bid from NECA for the quality contract scheme. It is because of the desire for local areas to have more influence on the provision of their bus services that we have developed the Bus Services Bill. When drafting the Bill, we had clear objectives in mind: to increase bus passenger numbers and improve services. The Bill will have a range of tools to enable that, including new and enhanced partnership arrangements—although that might not be appropriate in all areas—and the provision for local authorities to have franchising powers. Franchising will enable authorities to specify the services that passengers want and to deliver an integrated network.

    Our intention is that mayoral combined authorities will have automatic access, with other areas having access if granted with the Secretary of State’s consent. However, we are neutral about the methods that are chosen on a local basis. I do not mind what local authorities choose to do, as long as they achieve their objective, which is to put more passengers on the seats of buses.

    The metro is clearly a fantastic asset for Tyne and Wear. I remember its arrival—the home where I was brought up is just to the south of there—and it was fantastic. That is why we are supporting it with a £317 million capital grant to reinvigorate the system and ensure that it continues to provide an efficient public transport system. We are also supporting the day-to-day operational costs of the system with a revenue grant of £203 million.

    We have talked a bit in the debate about the business case. Nexus is working up a business case for further investment in the metro system up until 2030. Hon. Members asked whether the Department was open to that. My Department is actually working with Nexus to develop that business case, so yes, we are extremely open to it. I cannot give an indication of the timing of when that will be decided upon; we have to receive the case first. I am also aware that NECA has looked at a wide range of options for extensions, some of which would directly benefit the constituency of the hon. Member for Houghton and Sunderland South. I also very much like the idea of Hitachi providing the metro’s new rolling stock. “From the north-east, for the north-east” is a very attractive message.

    Rail has been mentioned, so I should highlight the fact that Network Rail will be spending £40 billion between 2014 and 2019, in addition to the High Speed 2 investments. The key benefits that we will see locally will be in the new franchises: Northern and TransPennine Express. By 2019 we will see brand new TPE trains in service, two new TPE trains an hour between Newcastle and Manchester, an hourly TPE service between Newcastle and Edinburgh and additional services from Sunderland to Middlesbrough and Newcastle.

  • I am grateful for that information, but if those services do not stop at Chester-le-Street, they are not actually going to improve things for my constituents at all.

  • Clearly trains have to stop if people are going to get on them. That argument does not seem to me a difficult one, but it is one that has to be built in to the franchise arrangements. I will happily take that back. The hon. Gentleman also asked about the Ashington, Blyth and Tyne line. The North East local enterprise partnership has asked us to consider a bid for development funding for the reintroduction of passenger services on that line, which seems to me to be very positive.

    There has been some caution regarding HS2, which seems to me to be entirely unreasonable. HS2 will free up capacity on our network, inject capacity to allow more services to be provided and deliver benefits of £103 billion to the UK economy, around one third of which we expect to be in the north of England. Some 70% of the jobs that will be supported by HS2 are expected to be outside of London, so HS2 is an important part of our network.

    We have not talked much about roads. Not only will we have a motorway running to the north-east for the first time ever, as highlighted by my hon. Friend the Member for Carlisle (John Stevenson), but there are also schemes to the west of Newcastle. With regard to today’s announcements, I can confirm that we have done five strategic studies in the Department for Transport as part of the road investment strategy. As part of those, the A66 will be dualled and there will be work on the north-west quadrant of the M60. That is part of the road investment strategy from 2020 to 2025, so the idea that the north-west is getting everything and the north-east is ignored is not true. There was a further announcement, which has not necessarily been picked up yet: that the Tees Valley east-west connections are also being approved to take the business case forward to the next stage. That is effectively a Darlington north-western bypass. That was a further positive announcement today.

    My hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mrs Trevelyan) talked about people being doom-mongers and wondering whether anything would happen in people’s lifetimes. I was asked by a colleague whether HS2 would happen in anyone’s lifetime and I suggested that, as we were starting to do the build in the spring, it would be quite a good idea to hang on—we do not want a by-election. I agree entirely on the merits of the borders line. It is one of the most beautiful parts of our United Kingdom, and it is a big success. I will be very happy to see it extended. That sounds like a good idea, but I have not seen anything further on it.

    This is my last point. I hope that this quick canter through the various announcements that have been made has highlighted the fact that significant investment is taking place in road and rail. We have seen air capacity increased. We have changes taking place to buses—

  • Order. The Minister should please give the hon. Member for Houghton and Sunderland South (Bridget Phillipson) 30 seconds to wind up.

  • I heartily support all that is happening and the Government’s strong commitment to the north-east.

  • I am grateful to the Minister. I look forward to further debates with him on bus services when the legislation returns, and I will hold him to his point about that being open to other areas—I may also be debating that with my hon. Friend the Member for North Durham (Mr Jones). I will also hold the Minister to his point about the business case for the metro. We need progress, and I hope the Department will consider that a matter of priority.

    Question put and agreed to.

    Resolved,

    That this House has considered transport in the North East.

  • Sitting adjourned.