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Transport in Hertfordshire

Volume 661: debated on Tuesday 4 June 2019

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

I rise to discuss transport in Hertfordshire. I am an MP for Hitchin and Harpenden—the MP, not an MP; there is only one, at least at the moment. Transport affects us all—not just Hertfordshire, but all counties and everybody in the House—but it particularly affects my constituency, and today I want to draw the House’s and the Minister’s attention to two specific issues: first, the train system and commuters going in and out of London from the stations of both Hitchin and Harpenden—both main commuter stations into London; and secondly, the looming expansion of Luton airport and the constant disruption faced by many of my constituents and others across Hertfordshire, including the constituents of many of my colleagues.

I will start with trains. When thinking about our transport system in Hertfordshire, we must have a sense of balance. Better public transport is essential. I do not know anybody on either side of the House who would disagree. We recognise that people in Hertfordshire want better public transport. Yes, they want better roads as well, as it so happens, but they want better public transport. They also want to maintain their standard of life. They moved, often from big towns or cities, principally London, because they did not want to be there. Hertfordshire is a much more rural county than many people realise, and the green belt is very precious to many of my constituents. It is important to bear that in mind when thinking about what infrastructure improvements are needed.

In particular, on the subject of Luton airport, I spoke to the Minister earlier today. I know how much he understands and cares about these issues, despite being relatively new to his brief. It is important that infrastructure such as airports is used for the benefit of all and is mindful of the negative externalities and impacts on many people in Hertfordshire and in particular my constituency.

As the hon. Gentleman says, infrastructure and better funding for transport are important not just in his constituency but across the whole UK. Does he agree that decent infrastructure is necessary to every community and that, although issues such as potholes might not be high on the register for some, for those of us who want investment in our local communities, good infrastructure is the starting point, and that requires good planning and good funding, and these two must go hand in hand?

I agree with the hon. Gentleman. Good infrastructure matters. It is the difference between being a developed advanced country and not being one. The ability to get into work in a timely manner is critical to the economic and social wellbeing of a country, particularly in constituencies such as mine that rely on commuting. He talks about potholes and roads. I will come to this later. Roads are the essential lifeblood of pretty much every small business, of people taking their kids to school, visiting family, seeing friends or just conducting everyday business. These things may appear small, but they are critical.

That leads me to trains. Many in the House will have heard me talk many times about trains. I can see my hon. Friend the Member for Wells (James Heappey) in his place. He has heard me bang on about this many times.

Hitchin station in north Hertfordshire serves 3.2 million passengers a year—1.3 million more than nearby Letchworth. Everybody in the House will be aware of the debacle in the rail industry in May last year with the big timetable changes, which did not go well. Like many others, Hitchin suffered severely, although there were some improvements. People going from Hitchin into central London no longer have to change at King’s Cross St Pancras but can run all the way through the core of London to the south of London, which many constituents have told me is a significant improvement that has considerably improved their commute. That should be noted and welcomed.

That said, there are significant problems with the timetabling, particularly with overcrowding. This is a big problem, and not just because it is uncomfortable; it can often be a health problem, especially in the summer—and we are getting into warmer weather now. For anybody who has a disability or is pregnant or feeling ill, it can be a significant problem when commuting to and from work. The overcrowding is basically due to the fact that since the timetable changes there are fewer peak time trains from Hitchin and the trains stop more often going into London. This increases the overcrowding.

The Minister or any of the millions of people watching might think me just another MP whingeing about his local train service, because that is what local MPs do, and that is partly true, but unless the things that local MPs bring to this House, often after being begged by constituents, get heard, and unless constituents can see they are being heard and that their concerns are being acted on, there will be a crisis of trust not just in the local MP, but in the Government and Parliament as a whole, as a means to resolve the issues that people face. On these sorts of issues, I urge people—I know that the Minister, being a very good champion of his own constituency, understands and cares about this—to think about these things very deeply. Constituents email or write to their MPs, but they have better things to do; they do it because it matters and significantly impacts on their lives.

The Department for Transport does not run all the trains. It is not in charge of every driver of every route. The Transport Secretary does not determine every train timetable in and out of Hitchin or anywhere else. The Department sits atop a structure that includes Network Rail, which is responsible for the infrastructure and stations, principally, and for timetabling, and the operators —in our case, GTR—which are responsible for running services under franchise agreements with the Department. My contention is that GTR has not treated Hitchin as a major station. It has treated it as just another station in north Hertfordshire and not adequately appreciated the fact that it is the main station in that area, and this has had real consequences.

To best illustrate these consequences, rather than use my own words—we have heard enough of those already—I thought I would gather up some emails that I have received in only the last 72 hours about the train service from Hitchin. Constituent 1 told me—I will not name them because then they might appear on Google and it would all be terribly embarrassing, but I will quote them directly:

“I am still to gain an answer from GTR as to why the station of Letchworth has seen such vast improvements in service over the past 12 months whilst the Hitchin service remains relatively unimproved. Letchworth now has the same frequency of peak trains as Hitchin (despite the fact that Hitchin has almost double the annual usage) as well as gaining Direct services”

—to London—

“(which Hitchin commuters had previously lost). As a committed campaigner for a greener future yourself I can see no logic in the fact I can now drive to Letchworth station rather than walk to nearby Hitchin, and still get to London faster?”

Here is another example, from Mandy.

“Please can you explain to me why every time there is a school holiday”


“are totally unable to run anything approaching an acceptable service?”

Chris writes:

“Hello Bim…Can I ask what can and will be done? The service provided…is abysmal and must be a serious consideration when people of our age are looking to relocate out of London. It must also affect the prosperity of the area as so many of us commute. The costs are enormous yet the service is poor at best.”

Mike says:

“Hi Bim,

The trains are worse than ever, it’s been a complete disgrace since the May timetable changes. Most seem to be around lack of staff? I don’t understand…

Are you able to find out if they’re lying to us? I just want to be able to get to work in the morning and home in the evening.”

I will not continue, but I have received those emails over the last 72 hours, and I have received hundreds more over the last 12 months. This is a real problem with which I believe GTR has manifestly failed to deal. What do we need? The answer is simple. In Hitchin, we need more peak-time trains leaving between 07:30 and 08:30, and more peak-time trains arriving between 18:00 and 18:45. I ask the Minister to deal with that specifically in his response.

Let me now turn to Harpenden, the equally loved station in my constituency. GTR has been pretty unwilling to accept that any changes are necessary, but in the case of Harpenden it has openly admitted that its actions last May caused severe difficulty. It has been quite candid about that, and has engaged with me several times on the subject of the station and the trains. That culminated in a meeting that I arranged in February this year with representatives from St Albans, Luton, Bedford and, obviously, Harpenden: commuter groups, local MPs, officials from GTR, and various people who decided to turn up. That was a big room.

The stated aim of the meeting was to deal with the problem at Harpenden, because everyone in the room recognised that there was a problem. Honest, open views were exchanged, and by the end of the meeting everyone had agreed that Harpenden needed at least two more peak-time services that would otherwise stop at Luton, because the number of commuters between Luton and London was infinitesimal compared with the number at Harpenden. That was agreed by everyone in the room—except the hon. Member for Luton South (Mr Shuker). The hon. Gentleman is not here and cannot defend himself, and I do not blame him for what he said. He felt that the issue affected his station, he did not want to be on record as having accepted that any station in his constituency had “lost” services to Harpenden, and he objected.

GTR manifestly failed in its duties. It is no way to run a process to accept that there is a problem—everyone is in a room with all the passenger loading data, the information and the evidence, and everyone agrees that in Harpenden services are needed from Luton rather than Bedford or St Albans—and then to hide behind an effective veto from a local MP. I do not believe that that is the way to run a service.

This afternoon I spoke separately to the Minister and to the rail Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Andrew Jones). Will the Minister commit himself, on behalf of the Department, to meeting me, various officials from the Department—if he wishes—and local commuter groups, along with GTR, to establish, finally, how we can broker some sort of agreement or solution to the problems faced at both Hitchin and Harpenden? That would be welcomed not just by me but, most important, by my constituents. Then, finally, we might achieve a resolution and an endgame to the problems that we face.

A connected, although separate, issue is the long-proposed rail freight site at the Radlett aerodrome, on the same line, which may not be advantageous to commuting services. Will the Minister confirm that the Government are no longer seeking to include that in their rail freight plans for the south-east?

I have dealt with the issue of trains. Let me now turn to the issue of Luton airport, which, surprisingly enough, is in Luton. It is in Bedfordshire, which is right next to my constituency. Constituents of mine live less than 200 yards from the runway. It is a rapidly growing airport: it handles more than 16.6 million passengers a year; and passenger numbers over the last 10 years have grown by over 80%.

If the House will indulge me, I will explain why I am particularly concerned about Luton airport beyond the fact that the disruption to my constituents from both noise and air pollution has grown significantly. Luton airport is owned by London Luton Airport Ltd on behalf of Luton Borough Council, which is also the planning authority hitherto responsible for approving increases in the allowed numbers of passengers. In December 2017, Luton Borough Council put forward a plan to expand Luton airport—a huge expansion, going up to 38 million passengers, which was later reduced to 32 million. I think, however, that everybody can appreciate that that is a significant increase from the current limit of 18 million passengers.

I am completely opposed to this proposal for expansion of Luton airport, but that is a subject for another day, because the processes of how it will be submitted are still being gone through and the Government have already accepted that the increase is so great that the application will go to the Planning Inspectorate at central Government rather than be decided by Luton Borough Council. I would make this point about Luton airport: it is not the right place for a major airport the size of Gatwick. Its location on a plateau means that topographically it is closed by fog and bad weather much more frequently than most airports in the south-east. The dense pattern of settlements around Hertfordshire and that part of the country—whether Hemel Hempstead, Harpenden, St Albans or large villages—means that significant numbers of towns and villages face growing amounts of noise and air pollution and traffic on rural roads, and particularly in my constituency.

Returning to Luton Borough Council’s role, to be frank, my constituents—and, I know, many constituents in Hertfordshire generally who are overflown by planes from Luton airport—do not trust the council on this issue, because there is a conflict of interests: Luton Borough Council owns Luton airport. I want to be very clear that I am not alleging any specific illegality or impropriety—I have no evidence of that—but, as all of us here know because we are politicians, the appearance of fairness is often as important as fairness itself and there is a significant trust deficit between my constituents, many people in Hertfordshire and Luton Borough Council and its role vis-à-vis the airport.

In December 2013, Luton Borough Council approved a proposed expansion of 9 million—from a limit of 9 million passengers to 18 million passengers. That proposal was in 2013, so only six years ago, but it was meant to take place over a 15-year period up until 2028, and the project was designed to be a balanced one that matched growth with mitigation measures for traffic, air pollution, noise pollution and the like. On the face of it that seems a broadly acceptable way of proceeding, or at least it seemed so at the time.

Since then I am afraid we have seen a lot of growth; in fact, as I have said, we are already getting up to the limit of 18 million passengers in 2019, despite the fact that we are only meant to get to that point by 2028. There has been lots of growth but no mitigation. In fact it has been worse than no mitigation; things have got worse—things have been going backwards. Noise for my constituents, which blights them every single day—and night, as I will come on to—is getting worse and worse and worse for those who are unlucky enough to live beneath a flight path.

Luton airport is now in breach of a key noise control planning condition known as the night noise contour. Broadly speaking, limits were set on how much night noise there should be and Luton airport has exceeded that limit. Here I come to the problem with Luton Borough Council: guess which body will be making the decision on whether Luton airport will be able to breach its agreed planning condition, which was expressly designed to limit noise that affects Hertfordshire? That body is Luton Borough Council.

People might think that, just because the council owns the airport, it would not necessarily approve any expansion, and that is of course true. I am sure that it will say that there are strict Chinese walls in its organisation, and perhaps there are. However, Luton Borough Council receives more than £20 million from Luton airport from dividends alone, and we can see the direct incentive to make the airport grow as fast as possible so that Luton gets the gain from the growth. I accept that there is significant economic gain for Luton; I do not deny that. However, the pain—in terms of increased traffic on small rural roads, increased noise and air pollution and significant disturbance—will come to my constituents and the people of Hertfordshire. Luton gets the gain and Hertfordshire gets the pain.

Does the Minister agree that planning conditions governing aviation noise and emissions are a key part of maintaining the balance between growth and environmental protection to which the Government’s aviation policy framework aspires? Does he condone the failure of Luton Borough Council to enforce a key planning condition despite the fact that the airport has breached the condition for the past two years and that a further breach of the same condition is predicted for this year? Will he, on behalf of his colleague, the aviation Minister in the other place, agree to the aviation Minister or another Minister from the Department sitting down with me and other local representatives and campaign groups from Hertfordshire to discuss whether the decision should be called in, in the light of the breach of the noise planning contour at Luton airport, such is the disturbance that this is imposing on my constituents?

We spoke about roads and potholes at the beginning of the debate, and I want to put on record that Hertfordshire County Council is doing its level best to improve the state of its roads. It has done well, and I call out Councillor David Williams, the leader of the county council, for working hard on this and making it a focus, but the council needs more money. I urge the Minister and the Department to keep in mind that we are not there yet. The money has increased, but there needs to be significantly more to improve the state of our rural roads in Hertfordshire and across the country.

On the roads we have cars, and we also have buses. Buses are the lifeblood of rural areas for elderly people or those who cannot afford a car. They cannot get anywhere without an adequate bus service, but in many parts of my constituency the local bus services have worsened and are inadequate. The village of Redbourn is an example, and I call out Councillor Victoria Mead for her absolutely fantastic campaigning to improve the bus service from Redbourn. Various villages to the south of Hitchin also have failing bus services that need support and improvement, and I urge the Minister to take a look at this issue in rural areas. How can we help our local bus services? I will work with him on anything that he and the Department wish to do.

I am a realist; I know that there is no magic wand. These issues are structural—whether they involve trains or Luton airport—and they take time. They are complex and difficult, and as I have said, the Government are not the only actor involved. However, I am asking the Government—in addition to answering the precise questions that I have mentioned—to lean in a bit more heavily on the side of the people and against the interests of GTR, which is not taking my constituents’ concerns adequately into account, and against the unbridled, unfettered growth of Luton airport by Luton Borough Council, which is pursuing this reckless growth and profit without taking Hertfordshire residents into consideration. Let us work together to ensure that we improve the lives of the Hertfordshire residents that I and many other colleagues are here to represent.

As a fellow Hertfordshire MP, how could I not be here this evening to support my hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Bim Afolami)? He has not been in the House for long, but he has picked up on some of the crucial issues that have blighted my constituents’ lives for many years. I have lost count of the number of debates and meetings I have had about Luton airport, and every single thing that he said about the airport is accurate.

My hon. Friend talked about pain and gain. Luton Borough Council is the relevant planning authority, owns the airport and gets the money, but none of the take-offs or landings occurs over Luton, or even over Bedfordshire. Depending on the wind, the majority of planes fly over Stevenage, Hitchin and Harpenden and the rural northern part of my constituency of Hemel Hempstead. I have had meetings with the airport’s operators—the previous ones and the current ones—and they say, “We don’t have radio beacons anymore. We’ve got GPS tracking,” and I say, “I hate to say this, gentlemen, but you are the important managers who run this airport. I was standing in the village of Caddington, which is just about in my constituency, and I could have shook hands with the pilot of the plane that flew over. You are telling me that that plane wasn’t there and that it was another 500 yards away.” The residents say to me, “Look, Mike, this is what we have to put up with.”

The airport has been there a long time—it was an RAF airfield during the second world war—but there has been an increase in flights, particularly at night, with low take-offs. I have talked to pilots, many of whom work at Luton airport and live in my constituency or that of my hon. Friend, and have said to them in private, “Come on. Why don’t the planes climb faster when they come off the plateau?” If they climbed faster, the lives of my constituents and my hon. Friend’s would not be blighted so much. The answer, I am afraid, is money. The faster the planes climb, the more fuel they burn. The simple fact is that the operators, particularly the low-cost airlines, are trying to make as much money as they can, and does Luton Borough Council give a monkey’s about our constituents? No, it does not, because it is raking in the money. That is where the problem lies. I am pleased that some of the planning will now be called in and that the Planning Inspectorate will look at it, but it has taken nearly 10 years to get to this situation, and the legal authority for Luton airport is Luton Borough Council.

I will not repeat everything that my hon. Friend said about the airport, but am I a hypocrite—have I flown from Luton airport? Yes, I have on occasion. It is very convenient for my constituents, some of whom work there, so the economic gain is obvious, but we have to balance that against my constituents’ quality of life. If I stand in some of the villages in the rural parts of my constituency, I can smell something that smells like paraffin, and it is aviation fuel. They tell me that they put bits and bobs out there in the woods, but there is no mitigation out there at all, particularly when it comes to noise, yet that was part of the original plan.

I am so pleased that we have some time to talk about more areas of concern in my constituency, which shares many of the issues that affect my hon. Friend’s constituency. Turning to rail, his constituency is served by Thameslink and the east coast main line, but I am on the other side, so I have the west coast main line, and we have a fairly new operator in West Midlands Railway. Until a couple of weeks ago, I just got complaints from people saying, “I couldn’t get a seat. It is not fair,” and I feel for them, because they pay the same money as someone who has a seat. If someone gets on at Berkhamsted, they can get a seat, but someone getting on at Hemel does not get one.

However, I also have two other stations, Apsley and Kings Langley, that are commuter stations for London. Over the past couple of weeks, I have been inundated with letters and emails from constituents saying, “All of a sudden, while I’m waiting at Euston to get the train home, they’ve decided that the train will no longer stop at Apsley, and Hemel will be the first stop, or the train will stop at Watford, but then doesn’t stop until Milton Keynes.” These are people who commute every day and pay a huge amount of money for season tickets. Their cars are often at those stations because they live in more rural parts, so they are trapped. I have written to the rail operator, so it will not be surprised that I am standing here and saying this: it is simply not fair.

The best thing my hon. Friend said to the Minister is that the Government need to lean in on this. The Government represent the British public, and they give out the franchises. This is a relatively new franchise. I had problems with overcrowding under the previous operator, and we had comments about late trains, but now the trains are not even stopping at the stations where they are supposed to stop.

This morning, my member of staff said that the train turned up with six carriages, not eight, so nobody got a seat from Hemel onwards, even though the train stopped. These passengers pay the same money for the service. My Government have given the franchise to an operator that, to me, is in breach of it. Yes, passengers can get compensation, but they do not want that. They just want to go to work. They want to come home on time to see their little ‘uns go to bed, and do all the sorts of things that families want to do—they might even want to go to the pub and have a drink on the way home. They are paying for a service, and it is simply not happening.

I have two issues for the Minister, and I completely agree about Luton. It is not just the east coast main line and Thameslink; it is on our side, too.

I drove down this morning on the M1, which is often the lifeblood of commuters in our constituencies because many of them do not have the confidence to use the railway. The bus service is basically full, even from Hemel. For various different reasons, people need to drive. As I drove on to the M1 at junction 8, I might as well have been driving through a rubbish tip. I do not know what Highways England is doing, but it has a responsibility—and I know the public should not throw litter out of their windows. My local authority is desperate to encourage businesses, new people and new companies to come to Hemel. Even the downgraded M10, which is now the A414 and which Highways England still has responsibility for maintaining and looking after, is strewn with litter as it comes into my constituency. The next thing we know, Highways England comes to cut the grass and all the litter gets chopped up.

That sounds trivial, but Hertfordshire is a beautiful county. I have a new town. I have 45,000 homes in my constituency, of which only about 7,000 are in my villages. I have the Chilterns, which go right up through to the Bedfordshire border. It is stunningly beautiful, only to be blighted by people, organisations and agencies of Government not doing their job. I am sure Highways England will say it has a programme and that it collects the litter every month or two, and I have written to it loads of times over the years, but it has to be named and shamed. It is an absolute mess.

It is not just litter. Street furniture was dumped at junction 8 when Highways England did some kind of maintenance years and years ago. I have written to Highways England over and again, and I am sure it thinks it can just ignore a Member of Parliament. Well, in this case it cannot because I am naming and shaming it from the Floor of the House.

It is not all doom and gloom. In Hemel Hempstead we have the lowest unemployment since the new town was built. The unemployment rate is about 1.5%, which means there are more jobs in my town than there are unemployed people available to take them. That means there is a lot of commuting into Hemel.

Junction 8 was redesigned in about 2005, and we were thrilled when it happened, but I have 5,000 houses being built around the junction—the land is owned by the Crown Estate—and I have 20,000 new homes coming over the next 20 years. Interestingly, my constituency contained Redbourn many years ago but, as we have grown, Redbourn has commuted to another constituency.

We are growing and people are coming into the town, and junction 8 cannot cope. I know there are draft plans on the statute book, as I was a Roads Minister many years ago. Roads Ministers have plans for future road improvements and roadworks put in front of them by their people, and they consider things such as the business case ratio—if we spend £1 million on that, will we get back £5 million or £6 million? Plans are often rejected because the BCR is low. I also know full well that every now and again the Treasury will say, “Hold on a second, we’ve got quite a lot of money. Tell us about projects that are on the stocks.” One project that needs to be on the stocks—and I understand it is being worked on at the moment—is a junction 8 improvement scheme. It is now getting dangerous, because traffic is backing up at the traffic lights as we come into Hemel on to the M1 slip—and what was the M10 slip. That is unacceptable.

The success of the town means that we are growing. One of my biggest bugbears is that if you drive round the M25 or down the M1, you will see signs 20 or 30 miles away for Watford. But Watford is not the largest town in Hertfordshire, Hemel Hempstead is. You have to almost bump into Hemel before you see a road sign for it. There is a fixation in our part of the world with Watford. My hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden and I have argued and campaigned on a new hospital for our constituents, but the news today is that they are going to chuck £350 million into the centre of Watford and the Victorian hospital there.

The Highways Agency shares the fixation. You have to be at the junction with the A41 before you see a signpost saying “Hemel Hempstead”, even though we are the largest town in Hertfordshire. I cannot allow us to continue to be the forgotten town in Hertfordshire. We are the largest, the fastest growing and, at the moment, the most dynamic town, partly because of the terrible explosions that happened in 2005. Most of my town was damaged by the Buncefield explosions, and my council has been dynamic in rebuilding my town and bringing new businesses in. That brings me back to the point that both my hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden and the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) made about infrastructure. The public have to have trust in us to deliver the infrastructure so that business can prosper and improve the quality of life in my constituency and Hertfordshire.

We have an interesting problem. Both the east coast main line and the west coast main line have major problems at the moment, with two separate and completely different franchises. Luton airport blights my constituency and my hon. Friend’s, and if the other hon. Members for the area were here, they would be banging on about it, because that is exactly what happened in the debate in Westminster Hall. The problem extends to the small stuff, like the fact that the litter is not picked up off the motorways as often as needed. The grass grows and covers it up, but if we want an environment that we all want to live in it needs to be done.

The Government have to lean in—that is a fantastic way to describe what we expect from the Minister, and it is what I hope I did when I was the Minister at the Dispatch Box in 2010, in an Adjournment debate that should have lasted 15 minutes and was an hour and a half. The reason this matters is that people want to have trust in this place—we were talking about that in the previous debate. People want to know that their views—the emails from Mary, John, Peter or whoever—are heard, and it is not just a letter to the different rail operators or to the Minister: it is the Minister standing at the Dispatch Box and saying that he or she will do something about it. That is what we would expect.

As both my hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Bim Afolami) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead (Sir Mike Penning) know, Her Majesty’s Government—this Government—are always on the side of the people, and that of course includes very much the people of Hertfordshire. This is my first appearance at the Dispatch Box as Minister of State for Transport, and I am privileged to respond to the excellent points that they have made.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden on securing the debate. He is an avid representative of his constituents’ interests: he was when I was Minister in the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, and I know that he is on transport, too. I welcome the opportunity to speak about Hertfordshire, which is a sizeable county with a number of thriving communities, as my hon. Friend and my right hon. Friend have said. Transport is a key factor in ensuring that those communities can work together to secure the local ambitions of a vibrant place to live and work. We heard my right hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead talk about how incredibly low—record-breakingly low—unemployment is in his constituency. Of course, transport is a key factor in how communities live, work and play, and in how they secure their ambitions.

My hon. Friend and right hon. Friend were wide-ranging in their discussions of modes of transport. I wish to make reference to some of the work that we are doing at the Department for Transport and how we are investing in transport in the county of Hertfordshire. If I may, I shall start by talking about the A120. I am sure my hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden is aware that we recently announced our support for a significant transport scheme in Hertfordshire. The A120 Little Hadham bypass, promoted by Hertfordshire County Council, consists of a 3.9 km single-carriageway bypass to the north of the village of Little Hadham. The A120 is an important east-west link in Hertfordshire’s primary road network, running eastwards from the A10 at Puckeridge to join the M11 near Stansted airport. The scheme is designed to remove the significant congestion and delays that are caused by the one-way working, the signal-controlled junction and the bridge in the centre of the village, as well as to reduce the risk of fluvial flooding in Little Hadham. The total cost of that scheme alone is £39.58 million; via the Department for Transport and the Environment Agency, the Government are providing £30.6 million of that sum.

I shall come to aviation in due course, but let me move on first to local roads. The local highway network is of course one of our most valuable national assets and an essential component of our economy. It is the local roads, not the A roads or the motorways, that form some 98% of our national highway network, and local authorities such as Hertfordshire County Council have an existing legal duty to maintain them. Having a good and well-maintained local highway network has never been more important, and that applies to all the counties of our country. The Government and businesses see good roads, both strategic and local, as vital to commercial success. That of course includes issues such as litter as well as the roads’ structural goodness, if I can put it that way.

It is hugely important to have roads in an acceptable and safe condition, and that is true for us all, whether we are car users, lorry drivers, bus passengers, cyclists or pedestrians. Let us face it: most of us are many of those things at various times. Ministers and Members of Parliament receive plenty of correspondence on potholes, for example. I myself have considerable experience in this policy area: I campaigned on the subject as a Back Bencher and was credited by the former Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne with drawing attention to the issue as it related to Northamptonshire.

The Government are investing more than £6 billion in funding for local highway authorities in England outside London between 2015 and 2021. Indeed, this year alone, the county of Hertfordshire is receiving more than £14 million for local highway maintenance. That funding is not ring-fenced and its use is entirely at the discretion of highway authorities based on their local needs and priorities. I assure my hon. Friend that we will continue to work with local highway authorities on a wide range of initiatives, including ensuring that funding is used for its intended purpose—to improve the condition of our local road network—as well as ensuring that authorities are open and transparent about how the significant funding we are providing is being used, because it is a lot of money.

We are also looking at transport improvements on the strategic road network. The first road investment strategy has one scheme in Hertfordshire—the smart motorway between A1(M) junctions 6 to 8. It is scheduled to start construction this financial year, 2019-20, and it will be “all lane running”, with the hard shoulder converted into a permanent running lane to help reduce congestion. Variable speed limits will also be implemented to smooth traffic flow.

As well as that, £3.5 billion has been allocated for the major road network and the large local major schemes programme. We are working with subnational transport bodies, including England’s Economic Heartland, of which Hertfordshire is a member, to prioritise schemes in their areas to be put forward for funding consideration. A lot of money is going into roads in these areas.

Rail also plays a crucial role in the Hertfordshire economy and transport network. We know that more than 60,000 people commute out of the county by rail every day, with the majority commuting to London. Rail also brings more than 12,000 workers into Hertfordshire, so many are commuting into the county as well as out of it. A number of rail projects are therefore being committed or planned that will transform rail travel in the region over the next 10 to 15 years. I understand that my hon. Friend had a positive meeting with the rail Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Andrew Jones), earlier today, and I understand that a further meeting has been scheduled to discuss rail services in Hitchin and Harpenden in more detail.

Major projects will provide significant changes to the capacity available and journey opportunities on key services to and from Hertfordshire. We are planning and delivering investment in key local stations in Hertfordshire, such as the planned second footbridge at St Albans City station and the Stevenage Turnback project.

Govia Thameslink Railway provides most of the services in Hertfordshire. I will focus on that franchise not only for that reason but because it was mentioned by my hon. Friend. GTR runs Thameslink and Great Northern services, which connect Harpenden, St Albans, Hitchin, Stevenage, Welwyn Garden City, Hertford and other Hertfordshire towns to London. Recent overall performance on GTR—I have asked about this—has been strong. Its overall public performance measure figure for the most recent rail period—covering May—was 88%. However, I accept that there have been some major operational incidents in recent weeks, including power and signal failures, which have negatively impacted performance across the GTR network, including at Hitchin and Harpenden stations. My Department continues to monitor performance to ensure that, when these incidents occur, the operator recovers service as quickly as possible.

I was concerned to hear my hon. Friend mention the fact that several of his constituents had written to say that they had not received replies from GTR. Perhaps he will raise these points with me afterwards, or write to me in more detail, and I will see whether we can assist in getting expeditious responses.

In the timetable change last month, GTR introduced an additional train each hour in both directions on the Cambridge to Brighton route. I am advised that Hitchin now has more services in each peak, including more fast services, compared with before the May timetable change last year. Hitchin passengers now have a much wider range of possible destinations, with the option of travelling to King’s Cross or using the Thameslink services for direct access to St Pancras, Farringdon, City Thameslink and Blackfriars. Since last month, this range of destinations has also been available at weekends—which it was not previously—with a direct service each hour now running through central London to Brighton on Saturdays or Gatwick on Sundays.

As my hon. Friend says, GTR undertook a passenger demand review on the Thameslink route between St Pancras, St Albans, Luton and Bedford during the morning and evening peak periods to determine properly the usage of each service, including the newly introduced Thameslink express services, following timetable changes throughout the route in May 2018. GTR has consulted on small-scale changes with stakeholders who represent the interests of passengers on the Harpenden route. While an agreement was not able to be reached in time to allow for these changes from May 2019, GTR has said that this process is ongoing and that it will continue discussions with all affected parties to try to achieve a settlement for future timetable changes.

Once the midland main line upgrade works are completed, the frequency, seat numbers and overall capacity at Harpenden, Flitwick and Leagrave stations will be increased to the level that was originally planned. We have already seen additional weekend services at Harpenden, with two extra trains each hour on Saturdays and Sundays introduced in the timetable change last month. For the first time in 40 years, passengers from Hertfordshire are riding on new trains to London Moorgate, as GTR begins to replace mainland Britain’s oldest electric rail fleet. In addition to the new class 700 trains that have been introduced on Thameslink services, 150 new carriages are being introduced on Great Northern in a £240 million investment to replace trains that first entered service as long ago as 1976. The new trains have capacity for 940 people, providing around 25% more capacity compared with the trains they replace. They have air conditioning and free wi-fi, and are designed to modern standards for safety and accessibility. Those are all positive aspects.

As my hon. Friend will know, the Chancellor of the Exchequer announced an extra £500 million at the autumn Budget 2018 for the housing infrastructure fund, bringing the total funding available to £5.5 billion to unlock up to 650,000 new homes across England. The fund will: deliver new physical infrastructure to support new and existing communities; make more land available for housing in high-demand areas, resulting in additional homes that otherwise would not have been built; and support ambitious local authorities that want to step up their plans for growth and make a meaningful difference to overall housing supply.

In March 2018, the Government announced the areas that are being taken forward through co-development, where the Government are working with local authorities to further develop their proposals for the housing infrastructure fund. Hertfordshire is one of the places we are working with in co-development. The Department for Transport continues to work closely with other Government Departments and local partners to take forward these proposals. By working together, we can maximise the opportunities that the fund creates. We can create well-connected places with good transport infrastructure, and accelerate the delivery of homes that the county and the country need.

My hon. Friend raised the issue of Luton airport—powerfully so—and the impact of expansion plans on the residents of his constituency. [Interruption.] Indeed, my right hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead eloquently did the same. Under section 23 of the Planning Act 2008, all airport expansion decisions that are seeking to increase their planning cap by over 10 million passengers per year are, as my right hon. Friend acknowledges, going to be required to follow the development consent order process, so they would be considered as nationally significant infrastructure projects. That means that they are subject to Government approval as part of that process. It is not just left to the local authorities.

The Government are aware that Luton airport has been in breach of night noise contour limit planning conditions for the past two years. As the noise controls at Luton airport are set by the local planning authority, decisions on enforcement should also be made at this level and without Government intervention. As Luton airport has requested a variation to a condition of its existing planning permission, which was granted under the Town and Country Planning Act 1990, the question of whether to call the application in is not determined by the aviation Minister. I understand that the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government is considering requests to call in this planning application for a variation of conditions. He will have regard to call-in policy when reaching his decision. In the meantime, as a result, it would not be appropriate to comment any further.

The Government recognise, however, that aviation noise is a key concern for communities who live near airports and underneath flight paths, and that aviation emissions are a key factor when considering how the sector can grow sustainably. To maintain an appropriate balance between growth and the environmental impact of aviation, the Government believe that, where possible, noise and environmental controls should be set locally, and this is often achieved through planning conditions.

There is something special about Luton. Yes, this should usually be done through the local authorities and local councillors should decide, but Luton owns the airport and Luton is the planning authority. It is not done in the usual way; it is a very different situation. They get all the profits and none of the flights; they get all the benefit and we get all the pain.

I take on board my right hon. Friend’s point. I am sure he will agree, having said that, that considerable investment is currently being made in transport improvements in Hertfordshire. There are also some excellent opportunities for further investment in this key corridor through the various funding streams that I referred to earlier, most notably the housing infrastructure fund and the major road network. I would urge local partners to build a robust and compelling case that demonstrates to Government the need for investment in key infrastructure in this high-growth part of the country, delivering benefits to the constituents of my right hon. Friend and my hon. Friend, and to current users, as well as equipping the area for future growth and success.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.