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Portishead Railway

Volume 666: debated on Wednesday 16 October 2019

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

I am grateful for the opportunity to have this debate, especially during the week of the Queen’s Speech. I am also grateful for the dogged and outstanding support that the Portishead railway project has had from the residents of the town itself, from North Somerset more widely, and from the wider region. I am also grateful to my fellow Bristol MPs for being here this evening. I single out and pay tribute to the Portishead Railway Group, whose contribution has been utterly invaluable.

When I last raised this issue in an Adjournment debate in this House, in January 2005, I spoke about the increase in population in Portishead. In the mid-1950s, the town had a population of around 9,000, which had risen to some 15,000 by the time I was first elected in the early 1990s. The population now stands at around 25,000. The power station and the phosphorus works that used to sit on the dock are long gone, with the last stacks having been brought down in 1992. In their place, we now have one of the country’s finest marinas, and we have contributed more than most to the rise in the country’s housing stock.

That housebuilding has not been without controversy. John Prescott, as Housing Minister, ordered that the housing density be doubled, so almost twice as many homes as originally intended were built on this land. That inevitably had consequences for the traffic in the town and parking has been a particular problem. Although the housing density was doubled, the number of parking spaces per home was allocated at the national average of 1.6 per household, when the average in North Somerset, even at the time, was 2.76. It does not take a mathematical genius to work out that the inevitable consequence was a huge deficit in the number of parking spaces available compared with what was needed.

The increased population in what I described back in 2005 as the most overcrowded cul-de-sac in the country—a phrase that has been widely deployed since—has inevitably put pressure on our road system. The A369 is the only A road out of the town, and junction 19 of the M5 is a regularly miserable experience for Portishead commuters, particularly at peak times. The answer to many of our problems, but by no means all, is to reopen the railway line to Portishead, providing additional capacity to our overstretched transport network.

The reopening of Portishead railway is part of the MetroWest project, which was given the go-ahead in July 2012 as part of the city deal under the coalition Government led by David Cameron. Portishead railway was part of MetroWest phase 1, but it has been beset by delays and cost overruns. In 2017, the planned date of the Portishead opening was 2020, yet by then the original cost of £50 million had mushroomed to £116 million. It became quickly clear that it would be beyond the financial scope of North Somerset Council or, indeed, the partnership of four councils to absorb such an increased cost. We were therefore pleased that the former Transport Secretary, my right hon. Friend the Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling), came to visit North Somerset and indicated that this Government would ensure that additional money became available. I wish to focus on that area and some of the technical issues around it so that the Minister can give us categorical assurances where there remain some anxieties.

The proposed allocation of £31.9 million by the Department exactly closed the funding gap. It did not reduce it; it closed it. The four local councils and the West of England Combined Authority have spent, and continue to spend, millions of pounds on the design of the reinstatement of the railway, the necessary environmental studies, and in preparing the development consent order application. For those who may not be familiar with the process, let me describe what this entails. The development consent order process is based on many submission items, one of which is a full funding statement. The statement has had to be generated on the assumption that the Department’s £31.9 million funding share will not be withdrawn. Another item is the business case, which is strong. Its benefit-cost ratio of around 3:1 is almost unheard of for a public infrastructure project. In other words, we know the reinstatement would be an efficient and effective use of public funds to produce a defined benefit. That is a lot more than we can say for many projects funded with taxpayers’ money.

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman, my constituency neighbour, both for securing this debate and for allowing me to intervene. He will be aware that, in addition to the football and the rugby, Ashton Gate stadium has hosted a number of entertainment events this year. Investment in transport to and from the ground is critical. As the line goes through south Bristol, it provides an opportunity to open up more local transport provision, so it is not just about what we can get now. We are very supportive of this opportunity, which is critical to us in south Bristol.

I am extremely grateful to the hon. Lady, and she is right that we deserve better public transport in the Bristol area. Bristol is one of only two cities in the United Kingdom, outside London, that produce a net benefit to the economy, and we deserve a level of spending commensurate with that level of economic contribution to the UK economy.

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for securing this debate. He was very good to us in Strangford on many occasions in his former position as a Minister, so I wanted to come along to support him tonight.

The right hon. Gentleman has outlined the need for the Portishead railway to be encouraged and rebuilt, based on the population trends, the extra traffic and the pressure on our roads. Does he agree that perhaps it is time for the Government to look at sustaining public transport, be it railways or buses, to take pressure off the roads?

It is not simply a specific case; it is also a generic one. We need to see major improvements in our railway capacity for exactly those reasons and for the environmental benefits that will come from not having the pollutants from slow-moving traffic congesting our towns and villages.

As a result of the Department for Transport announcing its £31.9 million funding share, the four local councils and the West of England Combined Authority have now committed to their £84 million share of the funding for the railway project. I make it clear that the railway reinstatement cannot be completed without the Department’s £31.9 million, so can the Minister make a clear commitment tonight that the Department’s funding will be solely on the basis of there being a good business case?

I am pleased to be here to support the right hon. Gentleman’s case for the Portishead line. Does he agree it is part of what should be a much broader rail network? It is about commuter traffic into and out of Bristol. My Bristol North West constituency is adjacent to his, and there should be a connection to the Henbury loop line so that people can travel between the major areas of employment, as well as travelling into and out of the city.

I completely agree. Our transport network is now an economic rate-limiting step in the Bristol area. I know, and my colleagues will know, of companies that want to grow but are incapable of doing so. We are fortunate to have low levels of unemployment in our area, but it is difficult to get people to come into those areas where growth could occur because our public transport network is so inadequate.

The second issue I would like the Minister to address tonight is the Department’s rail network enhancements pipeline. As the House will know, the RNEP is a multistage process that could lead the Department to adjust its priorities such that its £31.9 million funding share could be either reduced or cancelled. This railway reinstatement is widely accepted as a no brainer in the region and beyond. It has a strong business case, and it is viewed as being of the highest priority in the wider Bristol area. The Department for Transport itself seems to think that the reinstatement of the Portishead line is a major improvement to our railways overall, and so do I. A ministerial commitment on this issue would be most welcome, so will the Minister confirm that the RNEP process will be used only to assure the Department that it is using its money wisely, rather than being used to generate a reason to reduce or cancel the Department’s funding contribution?

The Portishead reinstatement will upgrade 8 km of existing Network Rail freight line to Pill and reinstate the track along 4 km of existing permanent way from Pill to Portishead. Given the length of time it has taken and the amount of money spent, it must be one of the greatest investments in one of the smallest increases in railway track that the House has seen.

Unfortunately, despite the extremely modest nature of this particular project, the reinstatement is subject to the weighty process that applies to major rail improvements. Why? Because the criterion set out in the Planning Act 2008 is pegged at more than 2 km of track on non-railway land. The only reason why more than 2 km of the reinstatement track is on non-railway land is that North Somerset Council wisely decided to purchase the Portbury to Portishead section to ensure future reinstatement. In other words, we are being penalised because of the council’s foresight and confidence that this most worthwhile project would eventually be brought to fruition.

I understand that, unfortunately, the processes operated by the planning inspectorate for the DCO and by the Department for the RNEP clearly have to be followed, despite the non-major nature of the reinstatement. I want from the Minister an assurance that everything possible will be done to ensure that the process is as speedy as possible, within the constraints of the law.

Given the urgent need to reduce CO2 emissions, which has been widely discussed recently, will the Minister confirm that he and his officials will do everything they can to speed up the processes, so that the long-standing congestion and environmental pollution that afflict the 50,000-plus people who will directly benefit from the railway and the 130,000-plus people who will indirectly benefit from the railway, can be reduced at the earliest opportunity?

I wish to raise two other brief points. There has been much speculation locally that, rather than a traditional railway, a hybrid of bus, tram and train might be introduced. What is the Minister’s understanding of the likely outcome of any such proposals currently under consideration? There has been a great deal of debate about the relative merits of a range of different alternatives, but we are now seeking an end to the indecision, and clarity about the timescale and nature of the transportation system itself.

When I visited the North Somerset summer show this July, I gave my word that I would raise the issue of Sustrans. I am sure the Minister will be aware that Sustrans has been instrumental in the creation of a national network of cycle routes on quiet roads and traffic-free paths that now extends to more than 17,000 miles. I hope that he and his Department can look into the potential for a dual-use path alongside the planned railway, to see whether we can improve our local facilities further, with all the benefits that that will bring to recreation, transport and health.

As I have said, this project is a no-brainer. It fulfils all the Government’s criteria for reducing road congestion, improving our environment and improving the functioning of our local economy. We are keen to give the Government all those things—if they give us reassurance, clarity and the necessary funding. After all the delay, I would be proud if this Government gave the people of Portishead what they deserve and what they have waited so long to get.

It is a pleasure to answer the debate of my right hon. Friend the Member for North Somerset (Dr Fox). I thank everyone who has contributed to the discussion, including the Bristol massive, who are lined up on the Opposition Benches—the hon. Members for Bristol North West (Darren Jones), for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy), and for Bristol South (Karin Smyth)—ably assisted by the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) in his support for his old right hon. Friend. I also congratulate my right hon. Friend on securing this debate on the future of the Portishead railway line and, indeed, the railway group that he named in his speech.

My right hon. Friend has always been an advocate of this important proposal and for improved transport links in and around his constituency. He describes the town of Portishead as one of the fastest growing in the south-west. Its population has risen by more than 3,000 since 2001 and is expected to increase by another 8,000 in the coming decade.

Reopening the Portishead line is an important part of the MetroWest scheme. This is a project that is led by North Somerset Council and the West of England Combined Authority, which have been leading on devolved matters in the area since 2017. I understand that good progress is being made—the business case for the Portishead line is being developed, and North Somerset Council will very shortly be taking a big step forward by submitting a development consent order for reopening the line to the Planning Inspectorate. I am very confident that our decision to provide £31.9 million of funding, subject to a satisfactory business case, provides the necessary commitment for North Somerset Council to submit the application and supporting funding settlement.

As my right hon. Friend knows, it is the Planning Inspectorate’s responsibility to assess and decide on whether to grant the consents necessary for construction to commence, and he mentioned that in his speech. Once the outcome is known, we expect to carry out a full assessment of the business case for the scheme. He asked me to be as speedy in that process as I possibly can, and I give him the guarantee that my Department will be.

Although the development and delivery of MetroWest and the Portishead route are ultimately the responsibility of the local authorities and have been since their inception, the Government are committed to working closely with Network Rail, North Somerset Council and the West of England Combined Authority to support the reopening of the line and all elements of MetroWest, because improving rail services for the people in the Bristol area and the west of England has been, and will remain, one of the Government’s key priorities. The importance that we place on the Greater Bristol area is demonstrated, I hope, by the recent investments that we have made. For example, we are investing £5 billion into the electrification and upgrade of the Great Western main line, from Paddington through to Bristol Parkway and Cardiff, delivering better services and new trains with thousands more seats.

Modernisation of the line will improve more than 100 million rail journeys each year and stimulate economic growth from London, through the Thames valley, to the Cotswolds, the west country and south Wales. It includes major rail infrastructure projects in the Greater Bristol area, such as the four-tracking at Filton Bank. This, combined with the biggest signalling renewal of its kind undertaken by Network Rail in the Bristol area, has increased capacity and contributed to reducing end-to-end journey times for Bristol to London Paddington services.

I wish to reaffirm my support for what the right hon. Member for North Somerset (Dr Fox) said in his speech. I remember back in 2005, when I was first elected, that we talked about the urgent need for the Portishead line to be reopened. And here we are some 14 years later still waiting. All these rail improvements for Bristol are a really good thing, but we do also need to look at the very short local journeys on the suburban branch line, because they are as important for getting people around as the commuter services.

Yes, I agree with the hon. Lady. She is absolutely right in what she says. As a Minister in the Department, I welcome the cross-party nature of the support that is being given to my right hon. Friend and this proposal.

The services that I was talking about when I took the hon. Lady’s contribution will ensure that the rail network can meet the growing passenger demand and will allow more trains to run in the future. My officials are working with Network Rail to secure funding to upgrade Bristol East junction to support future service enhancements and, importantly, to enable the capacity needed to run the second phase of MetroWest services. These works will also improve the resilience of the network, so passengers in the area will benefit from a more reliable railway.

As my right hon. Friend knows, the coming December 2019 timetable change will bring a significant increase in services making use of this new infrastructure, which is already providing performance benefits along the route.

The investments that we are making in the area are not just on the railways. As I am told by many people who live in and around Bristol, it is an exciting time for Bristol and the wider area. There are plans to develop the Bristol Temple Quarter enterprise zone, including Bristol Temple Meads station, for business, housing and education, including a new university campus. That work is progressing and is being led by the West of England Combined Authority and Bristol City Council. The combined authority will also receive £103 million from the Government through the transforming cities fund to transform connectivity in the city region.

On roads, the area has benefited from £36 million through the local highways maintenance challenge fund. Three separate awards provided by the Government, totalling £113 million, have been provided towards the metrobus scheme, which will provide a 50 km bus rapid transit network in the greater Bristol area.

Then, of course, there is MetroWest. The Government continue to be highly supportive of its development and recognise the benefits it will bring to the area. The plan is that MetroWest will help to reduce congestion in the centre of Bristol, get people out of their cars and create a cleaner environment for people in the city with a decrease in carbon emissions. That demonstrates the Government’s commitment to decarbonisation through moving journeys from road to rail and helps to meet our ambitious, legally binding target of net zero carbon emissions by 2050.

Does the Minister recognise that the Mayor of Bristol is doing some extraordinarily important work in trying to meet our air pollution targets? As we have been discussing this evening, the delivery of public transport is a vital part of that. Can the Minister commit to continued support from the Department to help us to meet our air pollution targets in Bristol?

I do recognise the work of the Mayor of Bristol that the hon. Gentleman details and I can give him that commitment.

Bristol and that area is a fabulous part of the country—I used to live there. The Portishead line is a microcosm of the problem in many regions across the country. Does the Minister agree that one of the great challenges, as we have just heard, is that if we are to improve air quality in our urban areas—our city centres and so on —improvement in sub-regional transport, as exemplified by this project, is critical? Does he see that as a greater priority than HS2?

I will deftly pass on answering the last part of the hon. Gentleman’s question, but I do absolutely see that as critical—100%. That is why we stepped in to provide £31.9 million to bridge the funding gap for the Portishead line element of the project after costs increased.

I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for North Somerset for acknowledging that that support was over and above what was expected from the Government, which I hope shows our commitment to seeing the line reopened. That support is, obviously, subject to my Department receiving a full business case that demonstrates the benefits for passengers and successfully passes through the Department’s rail network enhancements pipeline process, as he described. That is a process, not an excuse to cancel. I assure him that it will be used as it would be for any other scheme.

I am pleased to say, as my right hon. Friend notes, that the business case for the scheme is looking positive. It is currently at the outline business case or design level. Work is under way by North Somerset Council and the West of England Combined Authority to develop the scheme further to a full business case.

Once that work is concluded and the outcomes of the development consent order are known, the business case will be assessed to ensure that it delivers sufficient passenger benefits and offers value for money for the taxpayer, to inform the Department’s final investment decision. That approach will ensure that we are confident in our decision making, and it is in line with the Government’s approach to funding all major improvements to our railways.

My right hon. Friend will be pleased to hear that outline designs for the project are being been completed and feasibility works are under way to look at timetabling and how the new Portishead services will fit around existing train services in Bristol. Network Rail is continuing to develop strategies for the construction and future maintenance of the line. My officials and I will continue to work closely with the West of England Combined Authority and North Somerset Council to support the delivery of all elements of MetroWest as quickly as possible and to ensure the best possible outcomes for the Greater Bristol area.

Our transport investment in the Greater Bristol area, and our work with local authorities to improve transport in the area, does not stop there. My Department last year committed to jointly fund the Greater Bristol area rail feasibility study with the combined authority, which will conclude shortly. The purpose of the study is to address transport priorities in the area, assess the feasibility of a number of proposals and support delivery of a local transport network that can be locally run and sustainable.

The study is looking at a wide range of areas such as station improvements, light rail and tram-train options in the Bristol area and a passenger demand study. That is a positive step towards developing a shared long-term vision for transport in the area and determining how best to meet the needs of passengers, the rail industry and all interested stakeholders. We will continue to support local authorities in the area, again because rail in the Bristol area and the west of England is a priority for the Government and the subject of significant investment.

I am aware of the benefits of reopening the railway to Portishead and of the need for an improved local rail service in the area. I look forward to continuing to work with the combined authority and North Somerset Council to support the scheme’s delivery.

My right hon. Friend asked whether other options such as light rail could be considered. No, this is a rail solution—a heavy rail solution. He also mentioned the Sustrans plans for the local area. I met the chief executive officer of Sustrans today, and I look forward to developing all the proposals with that organisation that will get people out of cars and on to bicycles and, we hope, walking as well.

I should conclude, before I am timed out, by thanking everybody who took part in the debate. I thank my right hon. Friend again for securing this debate on the future of Portishead railway. I hope that, like me, he feels it has a very bright future indeed.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.