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Topical Questions

Volume 673: debated on Thursday 12 March 2020

With your permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to say a few words about an issue that I know a lot of Members have been concerned about: smart motorways. I announced last year that the Department would carry out an evidence stock-take to gather the facts about the safety or otherwise of smart motorways and make recommendations. I have listened to friends and families affected, and I have looked hard at the evidence. Today, I am publishing a report into the findings. Alongside that report, I am launching an 18-point action plan to raise the bar on smart motorway safety. Overall, the evidence shows that in most ways smart motorways are as safe or safer than conventional ones, but they are not in every way. I have therefore developed new measures to further improve safety.

I pay tribute to Edmund King of the Automobile Association and the families of those who have lost loved ones, including Meera Naran who is here today watching our proceedings. I also want to thank other campaigners, in particular my right hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead (Sir Mike Penning), the hon. Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion) and my hon. Friends the Members for Chatham and Aylesford (Tracey Crouch) and for Harborough (Neil O'Brien). Their work to help to ensure our motorways are as safe as they can possibly be is, I think, something the whole House will welcome. I have laid copies of the report in the Library and a written statement will be laid later today.

I thank the Secretary of State for those comments on smart motorways. The new plan for a northern powerhouse between Manchester and Leeds has been announced every year since 2014. Why would anybody think it will be any different this year? If Northern Powerhouse Rail is to be a success, it has to go right across the north, so why is there is nothing about the Liverpool to Manchester part of the route, which is the easiest part to deliver? As the Prime Minister was fond of saying during the election, it is oven ready.

I share the hon. Gentleman’s frustration. I have a consultation virtually ready to go. I am working with Transport for the North to get that signed off across various different parties up there. I will be expressing the hon. Member’s concern to them to get on with that. I agree that Manchester to Leeds is part of it, but getting on with the bit to Liverpool, out to Hull and all the rest is also important.

T2. Greater Anglia, which runs the trains round our way, is currently introducing a £1.4 billion fleet of brand new trains—very good. Among other benefits, that will support the local economy and tackle social exclusion. However, the great eastern main line needs to be upgraded quickly. What steps is the Department taking to ensure that key upgrades, such as the Bow junction remodelling, extra loops between Chelmsford and Colchester and the provision of digital signalling, are delivered within the next five to 10 years? (901515)

The new Greater Anglia train fleet will certainly deliver many benefits, including extra passenger capacity on the great eastern main line. I am particularly interested, too, in seeing the results of the great eastern main line taskforce study work on the upgrades my hon. Friend mentions, and the renewal of the strategic outline business case and wider economic benefit studies so we can move forward.

More than 12 months has passed since the Government announced a consultation on banning old tyres from public service vehicles. The Tyred campaign and tens of thousands of supporters have waited far too long. I pay tribute to Frances Molloy and my hon. Friend the Member for Garston and Halewood (Maria Eagle) for the work they have done. The Secretary of State has the power to act now before more innocent people are needlessly killed. Is it not time for the Government to get this done?

As with the smart motorway point that I made a few moments ago, the hon. Gentleman is absolutely right about the need to get this right, and it has been the subject of several coroners’ reports. He will not have to wait very long and I do not think he will be disappointed.

T3. The A68 runs from the town of Darlington all the way up to Edinburgh and through five constituencies in the north of England, including mine. Given that 30% of its use is from heavy goods vehicles, will the Secretary of State consider Transport for the North’s recommendation that it becomes part of the strategic road network? (901516)

My hon. Friend mentioned that briefly to me already, so I know that it is on his radar. It is important that all our roads are managed by the appropriate authority in the interests of road users and local communities, and I would be quite happy to meet my hon. Friend and the roads Minister.

T8. A recent survey of social media found that the M56 was the most complained about motorway in the whole country. Junctions 12 to 14 are a complete bottleneck, causing regular accidents and frustration for local people, so I hope that the Minister will be able to confirm that among the many announcements yesterday, those junctions on the M56 will also get some investment. (901521)

We are very keen, unlike the hon. Gentleman’s Front-Bench team, to sort out the problems on our major roads. I would be more than happy to meet him or for another Minister to do so.

T4. At a recent community event in Middlewich organised by Redeeming Our Communities, one of the loudest calls from young people was for improved bus services in the town. What support can the Government give to help to facilitate that? (901517)

My hon. Friend will know that we are providing £5 billion in new funding to overhaul buses and cycling nationwide to benefit all passengers of all ages. The national bus strategy will set out further details.

T9. Yesterday’s Budget provided no further clarity on the £350 million for cycling that the Prime Minister mentioned on 11 February. As a consequence, from the start of next month, local authorities outside London have nothing earmarked for their local cycling and walking infrastructure plans. Will the Minister explain why cyclists were forgotten in yesterday’s Budget? (901522)

The hon. Lady will recall that when it was announced that we would go ahead with HS2, a £5 billion fund for buses and cycling was also announced. Cycling will get a very good chunk of that money and that will be outlined in the forthcoming spending review, but I absolutely understand the point that she has made. We are working to ensure that the gap that there could be in funding is resolved.

T5. A short-sighted decision by Transport for Greater Manchester and Stagecoach to scrap the 375 bus service, serving my constituents in Mellor and Hawk Green, has been met with dismay. Will my hon. Friend, the excellent Minister, meet me urgently so that we can maintain this important service and keep the wheels on the 375 bus going round and round? (901518)

My hon. Friend will know that decisions are made locally for Transport for Greater Manchester, and Greater Manchester already receives just under £3 million each year to support local bus services. The Government have also committed to £5 billion more for buses, which I hope is a cause for optimism for him, but as he knows, I will always be happy to meet him to discuss any particular issues.

Fairground operators make a significant economic contribution to my constituency and use red diesel for their power-generating equipment. Members of the Showmen’s Guild of Great Britain have contacted me to say that the Chancellor’s planned increase in fuel duty on red diesel will put them out of business altogether, and they are not in line for an exemption. Will the Minister make representations to her colleagues in the Treasury to exempt the fairground industry from the planned increase to protect the livelihoods of this unique and vibrant community?

Red diesel has traditionally enjoyed a significant subsidy, which, as the hon. Member rightly points out, was constrained by yesterday’s Budget. The Government are working across the board, with many sectors, including farmers and fishermen, and the consultation will be open to reflecting exactly the concerns she raises about fairground operators and others. I would encourage her to engage in that consultation.

T6. I was pleased to hear the Chancellor announce a new £500 million a year pothole-filling programme in yesterday’s Budget. Will the Secretary of State commit to ensuring that this funding is targeted and gets to local authorities as quickly as possible, and will he confirm that the Government will work to improve the conditions of roads in Stafford? (901519)

I am sure my hon. Friend was pleased by the £500 million a year—£2.5 billion in total, which is more than the £2 billion promised in our manifesto—to help fill potholes, and I look forward to working with her and other colleagues to ensure their potholes are filled as soon as possible.

At a recent meeting, London North Eastern Railway shared with me its ambition to introduce an extra train per hour between Newcastle and King’s Cross, but owing to a lack of capacity on the east coast main line, this can only be achieved by curtailing other providers’ services at York, meaning that fewer trains, if any, will run between Edinburgh, Tyneside, Tees Valley, south and west Yorkshire, Greater Manchester and Merseyside. How soon can we expect the levelling-up investment on the east coast main line north of York necessary to fulfil all these competing ambitions?

One day. Alas, I cannot promote him to that position.

I am fully aware of the problem the hon. Gentleman has just outlined, and we are working with the franchise and throughout the industry to resolve it. As he knows, investment in rail takes a long time to come through the system, but I promise we are looking at this.

T7. I welcome the Government’s decision yesterday on the A303. The potential to unlock the south-west has just been announced, and I look forward to seeing it come to fruition. I also congratulate the Government on their 2050 maritime strategy. Will the Minister meet me to discuss how we can uplift the potential in our coastal communities and make sure their local economies are not at sea? (901520)

Like my hon. Friend, I represent a coastal constituency. The south-west has great strengths in maritime autonomy and renewables and clean maritime innovation. We look forward to working with the recently formed Maritime UK South West to create an environment where these objectives can be realised nationally and in the south-west. I would be more than happy to work with him as we progress some of these ideas.

The Government’s airports policy has been struck down by the Appeal Court, and the Government have decided not to appeal that decision. Does the Minister accept that the Government cannot be a bystander on this and leave this for a decision between the courts and Heathrow’s management, who have no interest other than their own financial interests?

We have been clear that the court case is complex and we will set out our next steps. We have always been clear that any expansion would be done via the private sector. It is for the promoters of the scheme to take that forward, and as I have already outlined this morning, there is an ongoing legal case.

In my constituency, we have major issues with disabled facilities at Dewsbury railway station, where there is no tactile paving for the blind and partially sighted, and at Shepley and Mirfield railway stations, where there is a lack of wheelchair access. What assurance can the railways Minister give to my constituents that these problems will be tackled in the near future?

As my hon. Friend knows, the Government recently made £350 million available to add another 209 stations to the Access for All programme. The stations he mentioned were not successful in that round of money, but I would be delighted to meet and work with him to ensure that those stations get the funding they deserve, because our rail network needs to be accessible for everybody.

The Coventry and Warwickshire branch of the National Federation of the Blind says that people with visual impairments are missing their destinations or cannot find timetable information as bus stops and buses are not enabled with audiovisual announcements. Can the Minister tell me what steps the Government are taking to make talking bus stops and buses a reality for visually impaired passengers?

The hon. Lady is absolutely right, and this is something we are really passionate about. My hon. Friend the Minister in the Lords recently made an announcement on talking buses. In addition, just a couple of weeks ago I launched a new Access for All campaign for stations in London to extend it right across our network. There are so many things that we can do to make our rather antiquated, old-fashioned railways and transport systems much more access-friendly.

May I warmly welcome the Secretary of State’s decision, in principle at least, that something needs to be done about the rules of pavement parking outside of London? Will he join me in urging people to commit to the consultation and, if there is a case for change, ensure time in this place to deliver it for vulnerable people in this country?

May I pay tribute to the Chair of the Select Committee on Transport, and indeed the former Chair, for promoting this subject so much? We are pleased to respond today to “Pavement parking” and will certainly wish to join him in taking forward those steps, exactly as he has described.

Will the Secretary of State commit today to making sure that every single decision taken in his Department is assessed for whether it contributes to or mitigates climate change?

Yes, that is absolutely the case. We are committed to 2050 and will soon be producing a decarbonisation plan, which will do precisely what the hon. Lady is after.

The development consent order decision for the Lowestoft third crossing should have been made by 6 December. More than three months on, I would be grateful if my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State advised us to when a decision will be announced. Does he agree that if the UK is to build the infrastructure that the Chancellor outlined yesterday, we need a timely and efficient legal process for making such decisions?

I understand my hon. Friend’s frustrations with the delay. We will be issuing a written ministerial statement setting out a new date for the decision as soon as practically possible, but as it is a live planning application, I unfortunately cannot comment further on the scheme. However, as he knows, we of course want to ensure that all applications are dealt with in a timely way, and our Department will work to ensure that.