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Transport in Bedfordshire

Volume 663: debated on Wednesday 17 July 2019

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

I am extremely grateful to Mr Speaker for granting—and to you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for chairing—this Adjournment debate on the topic of transport in Bedfordshire and, of course, in Luton. This issue is incredibly important to my constituents and to me. We all know that transport is a key enabler of economic growth, allows access to work and education, and is increasingly recognised as key to tackling loneliness.

My constituency is fortunate to have a number of great transport options, with the midland main line for rail, the M1 motorway and its proximity to the M25, and of course London Luton airport. These are the fruits of far-sighted decisions and investments made both in this place and elsewhere over the decades, but we cannot stand still. Infrastructure from the 20th century will not be sufficient for us to thrive in the 21st. While, understandably, that means having better broadband, with 5G and rural connectivity, it must mean having better roads, trains, buses and aviation links. Today, I wish to outline five areas in which I believe transport in Bedfordshire needs to put in good stead for this century, not just for the last.

First, we all know that we must develop our roads with an eye to the vehicles that will use them. Yes, this means electric vehicles and self-driving vehicles, but it will continue to mean existing petrol and diesel vehicles for some years to come. These contribute to climate change and cause congestion, but they are also a lifeline for the 54% of my constituents who travel to work by car, and they are essential for many living with disabilities. In supporting the logistics industry, good road connections will always be at the heart of our economy.

In that context, I remind the House that the M1 motorway was this country’s first full-length motorway, and it is a major strategic route. It is currently being upgraded to a smart motorway north of London. This is of course welcome, and it will tackle congestion on routes as they grow. However, the M1 leaving Bedfordshire south of junction 10, which has been subject to its own upgrade programme in recent years, is not currently operating in the same way.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on bringing this forward. There is not an MP in the House who does not have a transport problem in his constituency. My understanding is that the hon. Gentleman has problems with road closures across his constituency, as I have in mine. Ever mindful of that—and I did do some research into his key issue—is the hon. Gentleman worried about the disruption that the closure of the A6 for repairs will cause for transport in Bedfordshire, and if so, are there plans to tackle the disruption? If we do not tackle such disruption in every constituency, and particularly in this one, we will have a real problem.

I am extremely grateful to the hon. Gentleman, who once again uses his well-recognised ingenuity to raise the parallels between his constituency and my own. He is obviously well versed in the issues of the A6 just south of Bedford and adjacent to the village of Wilstead. He is quite right that its closure for up to six months will have a knock-on effect on constituents and on my constituency. I might say that I am surprised he did not raise the user experience of Luton airport, as he is of course a keen commuter backwards and forwards to his own constituency. Later in my speech, he may have some views on Luton airport, as I am sure he will have tried one of the many routes allowing him to get back to his constituency from the brilliant user experience that is London Luton airport.

I am very pleased to say that I have had the opportunity to use the Luton airport connection to Belfast City. It is extremely usable and accessible, but I would say to the hon. Gentleman that, unfortunately, Heathrow is just that wee bit handier for here.

I am particularly grateful that the main business of the House finished much sooner than we were expecting, because if the hon. Gentleman wants a long list of the many advantages that are coming to London Luton airport—in many ways, they may outstrip the advantages of London Heathrow airport in the years to come—I am sure I will be able to mention them at some point in my speech.

As I was saying, the M1 south of Bedfordshire does need looking at, particularly as London Luton airport looks to expand in the coming years. I ask the Minister to consider carefully whether the existing programme of development that is already in place will provide the capacity needed to keep the traffic flowing not in just in the next five or 10 years, but for the next 50 years.

That said, there is a wide body of evidence to show that simply widening roads does not do much to reduce congestion, as new capacity brings forward new demand. The brave programme, put in place under the previous Administration, of exploring smart motorways might allow further expansion of capacity south of Luton airport.

The other point I would like to make about roads before I move on is that it is 30 years since bus deregulation, and there is clear demand to reverse it. As a regular user of the bus services in my constituency—I acknowledge that there are many benefits as well as the cost implications, which in many ways are very different from those in major metropolitan areas—I am keen to hear the Minister’s thoughts on whether the process of allowing local authorities to have a greater say on the provision of services, achieved in places such as Manchester and London, could be extended to Luton, Bedfordshire and beyond.

Secondly, we must provide our railways with the resources they need to succeed in the decades to come. The railway is extremely important to Luton. Many people travel to London for work or to see friends and family, while many thousands of others travel in the other direction to take a flight from London Luton airport. There is even more travel from Luton to Kettering and beyond, and such northerly connections are essential. Our railways serve a diverse set of needs. They might easily be characterised as just London’s commuter belt, but they are much more than that: they are Bedfordshire’s link to the world. Luton’s stations, of which there are three, serve 7.7 million people each year, and they are growing rapidly. That growth is built partially on the delivery of the Thameslink programme, which delivered extended platforms and a new footbridge to Luton station. In some ways, however, access for my constituents was diminished by the implementation of that programme and further fixes have not been put in place.

Alongside the botched timetable changes for Thameslink in May last year, which were very damaging to Lutonians, the programme as a whole delivered more seats, trains and capacity for Luton. I acknowledge that a lot has been achieved on rail transport in the past decade, but we should also remember that such programmes take time to be implemented. The Thameslink programme was originally called Thameslink 2000. It was proposed in 1991, just three years after the first Thameslink services began. Planning permission was not granted until 2006 and funding not delivered until 2007. It took 30 years to deliver the Thameslink project. Much of that time involved important consultation, impact assessments and cost implications, but Luton has not stood still in the past three decades.

I know the Minister has journeyed to see some of the improvements in Luton, and I met him at London Luton airport among other places, but I encourage him to see Luton railway station and the surrounding area. In the past decade, the area around Luton railway station has been completely transformed, with major investment by the local authority, businesses and others. The one remaining eyesore that still exists there, which I will come on to speak about, is Luton railway station.

Through the Luton to Dunstable busway, residents of the nearby town have access to London via Luton in less than 30 minutes. Over the past 30 years, Luton has grown significantly, and so have its transport needs. I am not the only Member of Parliament from this part of England to complain about his local train service. I would not want to put any money on the number of Adjournment debates you have sat through during your tenure, Madam Deputy Speaker, involving Members standing up to complain about commuter journeys. I acknowledge that the south-east does receive its fair share of transport funding, but that only serves to remind us that there is such a strain on railway services in the south-east because of demand.

I put on record that there are currently serious problems due to timetabling on the midland main line. As a result of the last-minute downgrading of the Thameslink programme and delays to the midland main line upgrade programme, last May, Luton station—where passenger numbers have risen by 12%—did not gain services but lost its peak-time East Midlands Trains services. Many of my constituents preferred using these services to get into and out of London in the evening, because they get to London faster and go more directly. At least at that time, however, the Department for Transport, in seeking to try to take some responsibility for the mess that had been caused, mandated Thameslink to provide for the loss of the services by providing additional fast peak-time Thameslink trains.

Infrastructure constraints mean that providing the replacement services to Luton required some Thameslink services to no longer stop at Harpenden, just a couple of stations down the line. Govia Thameslink Railway, which manages the route, has announced today that it will consult on moving some peak-time Luton services so that they stop at Harpenden. Many of my constituents rely on these services for their employment, and I would be deeply concerned to see their livelihoods put at risk by any loss of services from Luton. In February this year, I successfully blocked that move in an ill-tempered meeting with representatives of the company, commuter groups and other MPs. It was not a pleasant experience to have to do that to try to prevent services that rightly serve my constituency from being taken away and given to groups that shout more loudly in more leafy areas further down the line. As this consultation opens today, I urge all residents of Luton and those who travel from there to take note and contribute. In a growing town with growing railway usage, train users should have more trains, not fewer, and Luton residents who rely on these services to get to work must be heard.

I understand that there are difficulties caused by the delayed midland main line upgrade in places such as Harpenden, and while it is easy to sympathise with commuters further down the network towards London, any changes to the timetable should reflect the data and not just those who shout the loudest. I would go further and say that the consultation should also take into account the economic inequalities that are in play. Arguments to move services based on the proportion of season ticket holders, for example, do not accurately reflect the number of commuters, but rather the number of commuters who have the financial means and access to purchase expensive season tickets. It is a misleading comparison, and acting upon it would be hugely regressive for my constituents. It would be wrong to remove services, and particularly those put in place to mitigate the loss of other services due to the Government failing to foresee what was about to happen on that congested stretch of line, to serve a richer, more vocal community at the cost of a poorer one.

Let me say this: I will not stand by and watch my residents’ services taken away by a more vocal minority. It is an injustice, and the Department should not hide behind Thameslink’s action, if the move that the consultation brings about takes services away from Luton and places them in the hands of Harpenden.

Thirdly, we must make our railway stations fit for everyone in the community, so I make no apologies for raising again the matter of Luton station, which serves some 3.7 million passengers a year. Close watchers of this House’s proceedings will recall that 1,223 days ago, I secured an Adjournment debate on this matter, noting at the time that no progress had been made on the rebuild in the 2,179 days since the hon. Member for Luton North (Kelvin Hopkins) had secured a debate on this issue. My maths tells me that 3,402 days have now passed since that first debate, and I regret to inform the House that, despite widespread agreement that the upgrade at Luton station is required, no progress has been made.

Luton station was identified in 2009 as one of the 10 worst stations in the country, and it was promised money from the £50 million better stations programme, but it saw that funding pulled by the coalition Government when they came to power in May 2010. The station is as old, tired and inaccessible as it was 10 years ago. Because of its location in the town, the station also harms accessibility for people who want to get from one part of the town to another to access jobs, education and shopping opportunities. Frustratingly, funding for that vital rebuild has been close on several occasions, but it has not been close enough for my constituents. Luton station has received no new funding in a decade.

I seek a commitment from the Minister to meeting me, GTR and local rail users to discuss how we can improve Luton station. There is no point in delivering a railway that succeeds for the decades to come if it continues to fail some of the most marginalised groups in our society. I would like the Minister to reflect on the fact that in richer constituencies along the Thameslink line—the line has received £7 billion of investment to upgrade capacity—works have been scheduled in control period 6, and other upgrades have been delivered in control periods 4 and 5, but there has been a complete failure to mandate any upgrades to the facilities at Luton station.

Fourthly, we must enable aviation to succeed in the national interest. I see you taking the Chair, Mr Deputy Speaker, and you will be pleased to hear that I only wish to make five points. I have long championed Luton airport, which is in my constituency and which supports around 30,000 jobs and puts £1.5 billion into the local economy. Each household in Luton benefits to the tune of £340 a year because we chose not to sell off London Luton airport in the late 1980s, as many on the local authority wished us to do. In retrospect, that looks like a very smart decision.

The benefits are widely spread. The airport carries 16.6 million passengers a year; that figure is 80% higher than when I came into the House in 2010. The airport is England’s gateway to the rest of the world, and it brings major benefits to the whole country, as well as to my constituency. Crucially, it has delivered growth and improvement with no additional runway capacity; we still operate with the same runway that we have used for many years. That is in line with the Government’s aviation strategy, which allows expansion but not at Luton airport. I welcome the airport’s masterplan for sustainable growth over the next 30 years, which seeks to take capacity from 18 million passengers a year to 32 million or 33 million.

The Government will be asked to make a decision on expansion at Luton airport, because only central Government can balance matters of national importance against local concerns. Against the backdrop of otherwise unmeetable aviation demand in the south of England, expansion is necessary and wholly appropriate. We know that we can deliver it at Luton, where we have a real vision for an airport that is currently Britain’s fifth largest. It is also right that local authorities make decisions on smaller matters that might affect local residents but that are not strategic concerns for the nation. As an example, increasing the planning limit on noise at Luton airport by some small amount will directly affect local residents, but it will not have massive strategic implications for the future of the nation.

Both those planning processes are appropriate and important. Personally, I think that it is outrageous deliberately to conflate the two, alongside the local authority’s ownership of London Luton airport. That might make good copy in the pages of the Herts Advertiser, but it represents really poor behaviour from those who should know better. I would appreciate it if the Minister laid out his understanding and expectation that under the current planning framework, the decision to undertake any major expansion at London Luton airport would be made by central Government after weighing up all the implications.

Fifthly, and finally, interconnectivity between different modes of transport must be at the heart of any transport strategy for Bedfordshire. I should point out that the largest railway station in my constituency is not Luton, but Luton Airport Parkway, which serves 3.9 million passengers each year. At present, it takes about at least 20 minutes to get from the station to the airport terminals. If we are to enable aviation to succeed—Luton airport is particularly important to airport capacity in the south of England—we must provide easy interconnectivity between the airport and the railway. That is why the Luton Borough Council’s investment of £220 million in the direct air-rail transit, or DART, system is so important.

I now take great pleasure in commuting from my constituency and seeing the progress that is being made on that project every day. DART will greatly improve passenger connectivity, cutting the shortest journey time between St Pancras station in central London and the terminal door to less than 30 minutes. I believe that when it is in place, it will be quicker for me to travel from the House of Commons to Luton airport than to travel from the House to Heathrow—certainly before the new Elizabeth line opens. I encourage Members to try that out when the opportunity comes along.

Most services currently take considerably longer than 30 minutes, however. The shortest journey time of under 30 minutes is possible on just one train per hour. Most airports—for example, Gatwick and Heathrow—benefit from four fast trains per hour from central London, but those airports are full, and any new construction will not be completed for decades. I am sure the Minister will agree that Luton airport has an essential role in meeting new aviation demand, but it will not be able to play that role without effective surface access, which, in my view, requires a Government commitment to putting its rail connections on an equal footing with those of Gatwick and Heathrow. As the Minister knows, I lobbied hard for that at the time of the awarding of the East Midlands franchise and was disappointed by the missed opportunity to mandate four fast trains per hour. I ask the Minister to work with me in trying to lobby the new operator, Abellio, to introduce that service voluntarily. Even at this late stage, it will be missing an opportunity if it does not do so, as the airport seeks to expand and potentially double its numbers over the coming years.

That five-point plan for improving transport connectivity in my constituency and beyond is obviously not conclusive. It will not radically transform transport. The issues are more complex than that. No single Minister is likely to pick up a pen to grant all those wishes in one go. That is, in many ways, part of the frustration experienced by a Minister at the Department for Transport: making decisions that will take a long time to come to fruition. However, these are the important bread-and-butter issues on which we are elected to the House to deliver. I would love the sort of decision-making prowess for which the Minister is renowned to be applied to them and particularly to the rebuilding of Luton station. In that context, I shall welcome him back to Luton as soon as his diary secretary will allow him to pay it a visit.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Luton South (Mr Shuker) and welcome the opportunity to discuss the important issue of transport in Bedfordshire. I will deal with all the points that he raised. He ended his speech by saying that there were some frustrations for a Minister in the Department for Transport. I have to say that being a Minister in the Department for Transport is a great privilege and honour, and great fun, too, but it would be nice if we could sometimes deliver projects a little more quickly in the United Kingdom. That problem has bedevilled the delivery of infrastructure and, indeed, all sorts of procurement in the UK. But we fully recognise the importance of transport underpinning the economy of our nation. The investment in transport we are making underpins economic growth and investment in social mobility and in environmental improvement—all points the hon. Gentleman made very eloquently in his speech.

It is a while since I last visited Luton, but I recall doing so and I am acutely aware that Bedfordshire is an historic county and an important county in transport terms. The hon. Gentleman mentioned the M1, and there is also the A1, the A5 and a number of key rail routes, and obviously it is home to a major international airport. Transport is critical in ensuring that his communities can work together to secure the local ambitions of a vibrant place to work and live. He also mentioned the important social function of tackling loneliness, which I entirely agree with.

Across transport modes, the Government are making a number of key investments to help drive economic growth through our transport networks. Let me start by talking about the investment in rail. I am aware of how critical rail is to the Bedfordshire economy and transport network, and the number of people who rely upon it for their daily commutes. As the hon. Gentleman highlighted, the majority of services in Bedfordshire are delivered by GTR and East Midlands, and he highlighted the particular challenge in terms of GTR performance last year. I am pleased to say that the service has been significantly better over recent months, although several external incidents have impacted on services over the past few weeks, such as some flooding and trespass on the line.

The performance of Thameslink and, indeed, the entire network in terms of punctuality is absolutely my priority. Officials in the Department are continuing to engage with GTR to ensure that performance improvements are delivered and then sustained, and I have also raised this with GTR and will continue to do so. The entire industry knows, because I have been very boring in saying nothing much else, that I expect to see performance improvements and it basically doing what it says on the tin: keeping to the timetable. That is the rail industry’s key customer pledge.

Since the timetable change of May this year, Luton is receiving an increased weekend service and passengers are seeing the benefits of the Thameslink programme, providing enhanced connectivity for Luton and Bedfordshire, and Luton and Luton Airport Parkway stations will both receive £80,000 from the GTR £15 million passenger benefits fund.

As the hon. Gentleman knows, the Secretary of State announced in April that Abellio East Midlands will operate the next East Midlands rail franchise. This new franchise will bring a host of enhanced services and passenger benefits to Bedfordshire. The service is due to start almost exactly one month from today, and Abellio East Midlands will invest over £500 million pounds in the network; this will deliver significant improvements in the quality of trains and stations to maximise and build upon the £1.5 billion investment the Government are making in the midland main line upgrade.

Abellio will oversee the introduction of a brand new fleet of trains to the upgraded midland main line from 2022, which will result in faster journeys over long distances in the peak and introduce new frequent express services from Corby through Luton into London. From December 2020, once the relevant section of the midland main line upgrade is complete, the additional East Midlands services mean that Luton Airport Parkway will benefit from an extra-fast direct, branded Luton airport express service from St Pancras every hour throughout most of the day.

This is in addition to the current East Midlands service and the GTR services, so up to 10 trains per hour will run to Luton Airport Parkway in the peak and a minimum of eight during the off peak, including twice hourly fast and direct express services. This additional East Midlands express service will also benefit Luton station, which will be served by eight trains per hour all day, up from seven, and up to 14 trains per hour during the peak, up from 12. Together, these improved services will improve access to and from Luton airport.

The points that the hon. Gentleman made about the importance of connectivity to airports were absolutely spot on. We obviously wish that connectivity to be increased through the rail network, not through the road network. These improved services will help that objective significantly. He mentioned the consultation that GTR will carry out with Luton and Harpenden passengers, which could indeed see some small targeted changes made to the timetable from December this year. GTR opted to undertake the consultation so that it could fully consider the views of both sets of stakeholders, alongside other factors such as passenger numbers, in making its decision on what represents the best balance of services on the line.

I understand entirely where the hon. Gentleman was coming from on that point, and I encourage him to ensure that all his constituents contribute to that consultation. My focus will be on increasing the capacity on the line so that both communities benefit from better services. The objective is to ensure that we do not have to worry about the allocation of rare slots and that we see the upgrades that will ensure that all communities are better connected.

The hon. Gentleman made a good point about the station at Luton, and I hope that the news that Luton is one of the 73 stations that will benefit from the £300 million Access for All funding available in this spending period has been welcomed. It is part of our inclusive transport strategy to ensure that our railways are open to everyone. I am aware that local partners, including the borough council, have aspirations for a much wider redevelopment of the station. I believe that Network Rail is working with the council to try to ensure that their proposals are integrated and will allow the Access for All phase of the development to commence as soon as possible. However, delivery of the Access for All work can progress only with the co-operation of Luton Borough Council, and I therefore hope that the current co-operation between the council and Network Rail will continue, because the project is long overdue and we want to see it delivered.

The hon. Gentleman has a very good track record of bringing people together to solve community issues on his patch, and I hope that he will continue that work to bring people together on this issue. I will be happy to take up the issue with Network Rail. He asked for urgency, and I am happy to give that undertaking. I will of course keep him updated on progress.

The hon. Gentleman highlighted the importance of local roads and congestion, and he pointed out that 54% of his constituents travel to work in their cars every day. As we know, there is congestion in the area, and congestion is a problem that we take very seriously. That is why we have made a number of investments for local transport within Bedfordshire to help to address this issue, and we will continue to invest. This includes £2.5 million towards a new Bedford western bypass and £11 million towards the regeneration of Bedford town centre. We are also funding £22 million towards the A421 dualling scheme that is being led by Central Bedfordshire Council. That £22 million investment will improve journey times and ease congestion from Fen Farm to junction 13 of the M1.

I clearly remember my visits to Bedfordshire during my time as Roads Minister. In fact, there were three visits. Two of those were related to the £162 million investment in the new link road between the A5 and the M1 north of Dunstable. I saw the project twice during its construction, and I know how important it has been in improving journey times and reliability, and in improving the quality of life in that area, because Dunstable was a real bottleneck and the town centre was being made significantly less pleasant than it could be because of the sheer volume of through traffic, particularly heavy traffic. I hope that that construction has helped to tackle that problem.

That project followed earlier investment in Bedfordshire, including the £30 million improvement to junction 10A, which the hon. Gentleman and I both visited. We visited a number of places across the constituency. Indeed, it was my honour as Roads Minister to cut the ribbon to open that new spur to the airport. I will certainly pass on the comments about the M1 south of Luton to the current Roads Minister. The smart motorway network has helped to improve the capacity and predictability of our network. The system has evolved through several iterations since the early days on the M42 many years ago, and the scheme has helped to improve capacity considerably.

Buses are a core part of local transport infrastructure, and bus use in central Bedfordshire has risen by 27% over the past 10 years. The innovative Luton to Dunstable Busway, which my Department helped to fund, has been key in increasing bus patronage in the area, allowing Luton to be reached from Houghton Regis and Dunstable in less than 30 minutes, which puts Luton’s employment opportunities, airport and fast London trains within easier reach.

The hon. Gentleman had some specific questions about bus franchising, which takes us back to the Bus Services Act 2017. Franchising is a significant responsibility, and all authorities must have a compelling case to implement such a scheme. Local decisions to move to franchising must be based on robust evidence and analysis, with the needs of passengers firmly at the centre of a council’s decisions, which can be subject to judicial review. The 2017 Act provided a suite of options, which include partnerships and enhanced partnerships. It may be preferable for local authorities to consider partnerships with bus operators to improve services in their area. Although I am no longer the Bus Minister, I am aware that partnerships have successfully helped to drive up bus usage, and they are also less disruptive, with less risk for the franchising authority—the local council. Several options are available, but I would encourage all councils to start by looking at the opportunities in the different partnership models.

At the heart of the hon. Gentleman’s speech was the importance of Luton airport to the local economy and community, and he made the case for the connectivity required to help it thrive very well. Luton is the fifth largest airport in our country, and air travel is vital across the UK and the EU for connecting people and businesses. The UK and EU have a mutual interest in maintaining closely integrated aviation markets, and both have put in place measures to ensure that flights can continue under any EU-exit scenario, demonstrating a clear commitment to maintaining connectivity. That should give Luton airport’s customers the confidence to book and fly to European destinations however we leave the EU. I am aware of some uncertainty in the press about how dampened demand has potentially led to people redirecting their holiday choices, but the key thing is that we have made great progress and that there will be a clear commitment to maintain connectivity whatever the EU-exit scenario. We want Luton’s customers—indeed, all aviation customers—to book with confidence.

I am aware of Luton Borough Council’s desire to increase the capacity of the airport and that it will be undertaking a consultation in advance of a potential development consent order application next year. As the final decision on the planning application will be taken on its merits by the Secretary of State for Transport, it would be inappropriate to comment any further, but it is good to see people working to improve the local economy and the factors that drive it.

The issue of connectivity to the airport is perhaps the fundamental point, and the hon. Gentleman has requested four trains an hour. In the development of the east midlands franchise there was a public consultation on the question of Luton airport services, and the public were supportive of the status quo, so we did not specify an increase in services to Luton Airport Parkway as a requirement. However, bidders were incentivised to propose initiatives to increase rail access to the airport that would not cause a reduction to existing services.

Passengers will benefit from a doubling of fast East Midlands services to two an hour, both to and from the airport, from December next year, and they will be modern, comfortable Luton Airport Express-branded services. The hon. Gentleman makes his case well, and I will pass on his comments to GTR and East Midlands Trains so that they both consider connectivity to the airport, as he requests.

I hope the hon. Gentleman and, indeed, Members right across Bedfordshire recognise there has been considerable investment in the county’s transport network. I simply urge local partners to identify the best solutions to address their transport problems and to build a robust and compelling case that demonstrates to Government the need for investment in key infrastructure in this high growth, high potential part of the country, delivering benefits for current users and equipping the area for future growth and success.

We have had a good debate that has covered all modes of transport. The only one we have not covered, for fairly obvious reasons, is maritime—[Interruption.] Perhaps I should not tempt the hon. Member for Luton South. There has been significant progress, and I look forward to seeing more progress delivered to improve quality of life and to drive the economy of the constituency he serves.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.