Skip to main content

Topical Questions

Volume 649: debated on Thursday 22 November 2018

I shall start with some good news for the south-west. A couple of months ago, I announced that we would be extending the current public service obligation on flights from Newquay to Gatwick. I also spoke at the Dispatch Box about the potential benefits for Newquay airport and the south-west of a direct link to Heathrow, once Heathrow expands. I am pleased to say that that link is going to happen sooner, and that it will be starting in the spring of next year, supported by the Government. I think that it will provide a really good boost to business in the south-west, providing it with connections to important destinations around the world.

I thank the Secretary of State for his answer. The A27 in Chichester is at capacity and that is restricting economic growth. The local councils have approved their local plan review, which is now out for public consultation and, as is required to pass the process, it includes minor improvements to the road. The strategic solution, however, is the only viable answer to the problems with the A27. Can my right hon. Friend confirm that it is still the Department’s intention to fund major road improvements around Chichester in the recently increased road investment strategy 2—RIS2—budget?

I know how important this is to my hon. Friend and to many of her constituents. She will know that the divisions of opinion in the local community have put the project back by a number of years. I do not want to give her undue cause for optimism about its position in the queue, because it was certainly a setback when the local authority decided to reject Highways England’s plans, but it remains the view of the Government and Highways England that improvements in the area around her constituency will be necessary in the future.

T2. In my recent community consultation, I heard growing concerns about bus services and prices, particularly from young people. Sheffield fares are as high as £3 for journeys of little more than a mile and a half. Throughout the country we have seen a 12-year low in the number of bus journeys. The spiral of decline started with Tory deregulation in the 1980s, but since 2010 bus budgets across England and Wales have been cut by 45%. When are the Government going to recognise that we need a new approach? (907790)

Bus patronage is different up and down the country. Those local authorities that work closely with their bus operators and use technology and concessionary fares appropriately see an increase in bus patronage. I mentioned earlier the areas in which patronage is going up—it is up 22% in Brighton and Hove—and there are areas throughout the country where younger people are jumping on buses, too. It is about making it work better, collectively; it is not just about money—even though there is more than £1 billion for concessionary fares and we have invested £250 million in bus services.

T3. Disruption on the M20, M26 and all roads in Kent is having a serious impact on the county’s economy. Schools are reporting that as many as 15% of students are getting in late, and businesses are already preparing for shift working in case their employees cannot get to work. That will cost serious time and serious money. A combination of works on the M26 and overnight closures on the M20 not ending until 6 am are causing the problems. My hon. Friends the Members for Chatham and Aylesford (Tracey Crouch), for Maidstone and The Weald (Mrs Grant) and for Faversham and Mid Kent (Helen Whately) and I have already written to Highways England for answers. Will the Minister explain to residents, schools and businesses in Kent just what he, Highways England and Kent County Council are doing to keep Kent moving? (907791)

My hon. Friend will know, because we have met on many occasions and discussed this matter in the Chamber, that the Department is very focused on concerns in the south-east. Highways England is carrying out works on the M20 smart motorway scheme between junctions 3 and 5. That work is about relieving congestion and improving journeys. Of course, some disruption is inevitable—that goes with major programmes of road investment—but I will ask Highways England to investigate the effect of the current roadworks, and in particular the timing of the overnight closures on the M20.

If the Government really are serious about Northern Powerhouse Rail, will they commit to giving it precedence over Crossrail 2? Will they also commit to starting with the route from Hull to Leeds, as that part of the track has had very little investment over the years?

We remain absolutely committed to Northern Powerhouse Rail. I have been clear that the two projects—Crossrail 2 and Northern Powerhouse Rail—must march in lockstep. The hon. Lady will be aware that we have just provided an additional £40 million for the continuing development of Northern Powerhouse Rail. Transport for the North is working on the business case right now. We provided for passive provision for Northern Powerhouse Rail in the structure of HS2, so the necessary junctions will be there. We are very committed to the project.

T4. Following the massive reductions in bus services in parts of Stoke-on-Trent, does my hon. Friend agree that it is essential to take action to strengthen the local bus market to improve services in the city? (907794)

Absolutely. The Bus Services Act 2017 introduced a number of new tools to help local authorities to improve local bus services, including through partnership working and franchising. Stoke-on-Trent City Council has not yet engaged with my Department about using the new powers available, but we are working together to develop its proposals for the transforming cities fund. I was delighted that the council successfully applied for a share of the £1.7 billion fund.

Crime is soaring on the railways. It is up a fifth in the past year, and that is fuelled by a spike in sexual offences, which are up 16%, and violent crimes, which are up 26%. The highest increases are in areas where trains operate without guards—just one symptom of our broken franchise model. The guards in the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers are striking for passenger safety on Northern rail. Why will Ministers not follow the evidence and end the expansion of driver-only operation?

The problem is that even in areas where there is an offer to the RMT that guards will remain on the trains, they are still on strike. This strike is not about safety—the national safety regulator for the railways has said that it is nothing to do with safety. We are trying to deliver a better railway, and the reality is that if guards are not standing at the back of trains waiting to press a button, they are better able to look after passengers. It is also worth saying that on the new trains that are being introduced by this Government right across the country, the introduction of closed circuit television will make a real difference to safety. May I also pay tribute to the work of the British Transport police? They do an excellent job in trying to protect passengers on the railways.

T5. Will the Minister inform the House what progress is being made on creating apprentices in the transport sector? (907796)

There has been good progress, but we are committed to doing more. Leading transport employers are committed to providing quality apprenticeships, and more than 5,000 apprenticeships have been created in road and rail since 2016. In 2017-18 alone, we have seen a 22% on-year increase. Employers have committed to 10,000 apprenticeships with Heathrow expansion and 8,000 in express delivery. Training places for maritime cadets will rise to 1,200 each year over the next seven years, and we have seen 1,300 apprenticeship starts in road freight, but we are committed to doing more.

We have known for five decades that there were 4,000 holes in Blackburn, Lancashire, but the number in Gateshead now far outstrips that—potholes I am talking about. When will we get some resources to the local authorities to mend the holes in our roads and to give drivers much-need alleviation from the problem?

I absolutely understand the hon. Gentleman’s concern. As I have already pointed out, the spike in potholes, to which he refers, originally occurred between 2005 and 2010. He asks when, and the answer is in the previous Budget where a specific £420 million in-year contribution was made. I do not have the numbers to hand, but if I did I have no doubt that I would find that multiple millions of pounds have been spent in his highway authority locally on potholes as a direct result of that funding announcement.

T6. Following our summer of severe service disruption that saw Northern rail cancel more than 12,000 services, will the Secretary of State meet me to discuss how we can ensure that it does not happen next year? More importantly, though, can we also discuss the building of the South Fylde line, which will see the doubling of the service from once an hour to every half an hour, as it will be a huge boost to the Fylde coast? (907797)

We have been very clear that disruption following the introduction of the May timetable was entirely unacceptable. I would, of course, be very happy to meet my hon. Friend to discuss his proposals and the work that is under way to ensure that we minimise the risk of disruption for future timetable changes.

Ministers will be aware of the work that is being carried out by Bridgend County Borough Council, me and my Assembly Member to try to close the Pencoed level crossing following safety concerns. Network Rail is now agreeing to regular meetings to try to progress the closure. It tells me that it needs more funding from the Department for Transport. Wales Office officials have now agreed to attend these three-monthly meetings to be able to progress the closure and improve infrastructure. Will Ministers now agree to their officials attending these meetings so that we can make some progress on closing this dangerous level crossing?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. I have to say that I am not immediately familiar with that particular level crossing, but I will, of course, look into it and get back to him with the answer.

Order. The hon. Member for Erewash (Maggie Throup) is in a category of her own. She is the only hon. Member standing who has thus far not asked a question this morning. I know that colleagues will agree, in a spirit of equality, that their own need is secondary to hers.

What assessment has my right hon. Friend made of the review into non-statutory property schemes for High Speed 2, and why did it fail to deliver a bespoke package for Long Eaton, which has been promised by Ministers on more than one occasion?

My hon. Friend and I have had many discussions about Long Eaton. I am very keen to make sure that we have done the right thing by the different people affected by the proposed railway line through Long Eaton, whether it is the businesses affected or the people who live in the railway cottages. If there are things that we are not yet doing, I suggest that she and I sit down and go through it again.

It costs me more to get a bus a few stops up the West Road in Newcastle than to cross the whole of London. It costs more to get a bus from Newcastle to Amble—30 miles—than to get a bus from London to Newcastle—290 miles. Can we have a comparative study of the cost of bus travel in Newcastle under a Tory Government and in London under a Labour Mayor?

Managing bus fares and having transparency on bus fares will further encourage bus patronage. Those bus companies that make bus fares available and public will always see an increase in bus patronage. We are working with the bus sector to do what we can to make sure that this information is available, just as it can be available on journey times and at stops, too.

I welcome the Secretary of State’s announcement and the Department for Transport’s ongoing commitment to connecting Cornwall. What assessment has he made in light of today’s announcement on Heathrow of the potential for exports from Cornish businesses and for inbound tourism, and of their effect on the Cornish economy?

Improving transport connections for the south-west is essential, and it is one of the parts of the country that needs those improved transport links. A range of things are happening: the number of local trains within Devon and Cornwall is increasing, new trains are now serving that route, and road improvements have taken place. Now, there will be a better link for business into Heathrow airport. This is all part of making sure that we deliver on our promises for better transport in the south-west.