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Topical Questions

Volume 690: debated on Thursday 11 March 2021

We aim to please, Mr Speaker.

Schools are reopening this week, and many more people, including students and parents, are therefore making essential journeys, so I am delighted to announce that today we have released another 150,000 Fix Your Bike vouchers, helping people to get on to their bikes and back into active travel. Each voucher is worth £50 and will help more people get their old bikes fixed and roadworthy again—all part of our unprecedented £2 billion of active travel funding throughout this Parliament.

I welcome the news that Transport for the South East has submitted its ambitious 30-year transport strategy, and my right hon. Friend is to have regard to that in setting policy and investment decisions. Decarbonisation is vital, and as Transport for the South East has shown, its ability to bring together local authorities, Network Rail, Highways England and others and act at scale with six other sub-national transport bodies puts them in a perfect position to help deliver our decarbonisation initiatives. What role does my right hon. Friend have in mind for STBs to help bring about the interventions needed to meet our climate goals?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right: sub-national bodies are extremely important in helping to bring together what can be quite different, disparate systems within a sub-regional area, to ensure that the transport is effective but also, as she rightly says, decarbonised. I see their role as being pivotal to delivering not only good transport but our transport decarbonisation plan.

Last week, I met some of the families of those who have died on smart motorways. I heard the pain and the devastation of those who have been affected by all-lane-running schemes. We last had an update on the number of deaths on smart motorways a year ago. Will the Secretary of State set out what the most recent number of fatalities on smart motorways is?

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right about public concern about smart motorways, which, as I mentioned before, I very much share. I was the first Transport Secretary to order a review and a stocktake, which published a year ago yesterday with an 18-point plan. Tomorrow, I will have an update on my desk that I have ordered from Highways England, which will give me all the latest data. The last information I have is the 39 deaths between 2015 and 2019.

I appreciate the answer, but I do not think it is acceptable at all that the data appears to be at the very least a year out of date about a scheme that has significant public interest and when there are grieving families who want to know the true impact. I ask the Secretary of State to improve and to press Highways England to improve its data collection on that issue.

Yesterday, Highways England launched a campaign that encourages drivers to sing a Pet Shop Boys song as a reminder to pull into a refuge. That reduces it down to an insult, insinuating that drivers who became stranded were somehow careless. They were not. They were the victims of an ill-conceived scheme that still leaves people at risk today. What the families really want to know is, what is being done to ensure that there are no further fatalities? At the last Transport orals, I asked the Transport Secretary to pick up the phone and to reinstate the hard shoulder. Did he do that, and if not, why not?

First, the figures to which I refer are national statistics. My understanding is that they have to be quality assured, and it is beyond the control of the Secretary of State to quote figures that have not yet been checked. In answer to the hon. Gentleman’s last point about why we do not simply reinstate the hard shoulder— and I know that is his policy—I know from the work that has been carried out that the statisticians, who have worked very hard on this, tell us that per 1 billion miles travelled, which is the way roads are measured, there are about a third more deaths where there are hard shoulders, because one in 12 fatalities actually takes place on a hard shoulder.

As I mentioned before, I am the first Secretary of State to undertake a full stocktake and review. Tomorrow, I will have a report, and I will come back to this House and report on it very quickly afterwards. These are not new things; they were introduced in 2001 by John Prescott. However, I do absolutely agree with the hon. Gentleman’s desire to see the problem resolved. It is important to know that, while I mentioned the 39 deaths on so-called smart motorways, at the same time there were 368 deaths on regular motorways, so it is very important that we take all of these steps.

On an education campaign so that people understand how to use all motorways, not just smart motorways, the £5 million campaign was one of the calls of the stocktake. Many of the victims’ families, including Meera Naran, who lost her eight-year-old son, have welcomed the fact that the Government are spending a record £5 million to ensure that people know what to do when they do break down.

Last month, I paid a late-night visit to the Orwell bridge to meet the teams who are working on introducing the new speed limit, which will hopefully mean that, when we have recovered from this pandemic, we no longer have to put up with constant closures of the bridge during high wind, which has a very negative economic impact. I actually went inside the bridge, which is something I did not know you could do, and it was very interesting. Also, the port of Felixstowe is to become a freeport—very good news; Orwell bridge—good news. However, we do know that with a freeport we are likely to see increased economic activity and increased traffic. Will my right hon. Friend commit to the increased investment in our road and rail infrastructure to make sure that we can sustain and support this additional growth and activity? (913290)

I am delighted to hear about the progress that has been made on the Orwell bridge, which was the subject of an Adjournment debate between my hon. Friend and I a few months back. I am also delighted to hear about the success of the freeport bid. Obviously, good transport links will be essential. We will consider the implications of freeports on local transport networks in future infrastructure investment decisions.

[R] Here in south Yorkshire, we are providing free community transport to vaccination sites for those who need it. We are doing what we can, but covid has pushed our underfunded bus network to the brink. The national bus strategy is an opportunity to make meaningful change, so can I ask the Secretary of State to reassure me that Mayors and local authorities will be given the powers and the resources needed to improve our bus services? (913291)

I know from our many conversations of the hon. Gentleman’s enthusiasm to get greater control of bus services in his area. I can reassure him, exactly as he has just asked, that not only is that our intention, but—and this will interest other Members of the House who have asked about it today—he will not have to wait very long at all for the bus strategy.

Inter- connectivity is vital to the prosperity of our northern towns and cities. In order to ensure that Wakefield is better connected to neighbouring communities and is more accessible, improving road capacity on routes is needed. Can my right hon. Friend outline whether a Denby Dale bypass between Wakefield and Kirklees will be considered in the third road investment strategy to better connect us with Huddersfield, Manchester and beyond, while relieving pressure on the M1 and M62 around Leeds and Bradford? (913293)

My hon. Friend is a tireless champion for Wakefield. A bypass for Denby Dale would be a matter for the local highways authority—in this case, Kirklees Council—to consider, but it is something it could consider as a bid into the Government’s recently announced £4.8 billion levelling up fund, which has improving local transport connectivity as one of its top priorities.

With the impending cutting-out of petrol and diesel cars from production in the near future, will my right hon. Friend indicate what discussions he has had with the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy to ensure that cars can be more affordable on a mass production basis? (913294)

The £2.8 billion referred to earlier is designed to do exactly that—for example, investment in a megafactory or a gigafactory to produce those batteries, which is one of the largest components of bringing down the price so that cars are affordable. It is also worth considering that we already have more rapid chargers per 100 miles driven than any country in the EU.

The Secretary of State will know that during the covid pandemic, the number of people using bus transportation has fallen dramatically, partly because of people’s fears, but partly because of the social distancing rules. Does that not make it astonishing that, in the middle of its industrial dispute with Unite the Union, Go North West is now packing its buses to shove passengers in? What will be done to increase bus transportation post covid? Will the Secretary of State have a word with the management of Go North West to insist that it does not put passengers’ lives at risk? (913296)

I thank the hon. Gentleman. I am not familiar with that situation, so I am grateful to him for bringing it to my attention, and I assure him that I will look into it this afternoon. On the wider point, he is right to say that right now people are being told to stay at home and avoid travelling. We must do a lot of work to encourage people back on to our public transport—it is important we do that—and as I have hinted to others, he will not have to wait long for a national bus strategy, which I hope will answer all his questions.

Following Cheadle’s successful town’s fund bid, I am pulling together an industry working group to collaborate on the delivery of our new £8 million train station proposal. I look forward to working with representatives from Stockport Council, the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, Network Rail, and Transport for Greater Manchester to restore connectivity, and put Cheadle on the public transport map. Will the Minister agree to meet me to explore opportunities for support from his Department, and help drive that exciting transport project forward? (913295)

The Department is considering my hon. Friend’s ideas fund bid for the East Didsbury to Stockport Metrolink line. We are working closely with the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government as part of the assessment process, and I am sure my hon. Friend the rail Minister would be delighted to meet my hon. Friend.

We will try again, Mr Speaker. I was pleased with the Hendy report on cross border connectivity, which talked about improving the north Wales coastline and access to HS2. Central to that is the Chester to Crewe line. Why not crack on now with electrifying and upgrading that line, and with the track re-layout as part of the Growth Track 360 project at Chester? Will the Minister commit to that? (913292)

It was worth the wait—it is always a delight to hear from the hon. Gentleman. He will be aware that as part of the integrated rail plan we are looking at a range of major investments across the north of England. I am keen to see connections to Crewe enhanced, and Royal Assent has now been given for phase 2a that will take HS2 into Crewe. We have also been consulting with the Crewe north connection on further investments, as part of the design refinement consultation for HS2’s western leg into Manchester. I am keen to speak to the hon. Gentleman about this issue. I have been working with local stakeholders, I have met Growth Track 360, and I am keen for us to work together to achieve this.

[R] On Wednesday 10 February, in answer to my question, the Prime Minister said: “I can certainly confirm that we are going to develop the eastern leg as well as the whole of …HS2”—[Official Report, 10 February 2021; Vol. 689, c. 325.]but an implied threat was posed to that in the National Infrastructure Commission report, so in order to adhere fully to the Prime Minister’s commitment, can the Secretary of State tell us when work on the eastern leg of HS2 will start, so that the promises of his predecessors and the Prime Minister to the people of the north and the north-east can be fully fulfilled? (913297)

The hon. Gentleman will be aware that the Prime Minister said that it is not a case of to be or not to be. We are committed to bringing the benefits of high-speed rail to the north of England and work on the integrated rail plan is progressing well, but Ministers need to take their time to fully consider all the evidence from all stakeholders, including the National Infrastructure Commission and the Government’s own analysis, before finalising the plans. We therefore hope to publish the IRP this spring.

People in Bedfordshire who commute to London on the Bedford midland main line can already take advantage of flexible season tickets or carnet tickets, but my constituents who use stations in Arlesey, Sandy and Biggleswade cannot. When will my hon. Friend come forward with flexible season tickets, so that all my constituents can take advantage of them? (913298)

The Government recognise that changes in travel patterns, which have been accelerated by covid-19, need to be reflected, and we need to accommodate them in a more flexible style of working and travelling. We understand concerns about the cost of some rail fares and the impact that can have on people’s budgets. The Department is actively working with train operators to develop a solution that offers better value and convenience for those who commute flexibly, including on GTR routes, and we will provide a further update on that as part of the Government’s four-step road map out of lockdown.

Thank you, Mr Speaker, for my second bite at the cherry this morning. I am deeply concerned that the traffic policy in my constituency is pushing more traffic on to arterial routes and disproportionately risking the health of the poorer and BAME residents there. What monitoring are the Government doing to ensure that well-intentioned pollution-cutting measures do not shift the problem on to the most vulnerable? (913304)

I am very sorry to hear about what the hon. Gentleman’s local Labour council has been doing with the traffic situation there. I will ensure that the Roads Minister meets urgently with Ealing Council to try to address his concerns, and those of other Ealing Members, over their traffic process.

[R] Will Transport Ministers ensure that funding for a new junction 10A on the A14 at Kettering is provided in road investment strategy 3? Otherwise, with 2,700 new houses expected to have been built in the new Hanwood Park development by that time, traffic will grind to a halt in Kettering, Barton Seagrave and Burton Latimer. (913299)

I thank my hon. Friend for raising that issue. I believe he met my noble Friend the Roads Minister just last week to press the case once again. Highways England is undertaking a full technical review of the options for that junction, to obtain certainty over project costs. That will inform future decisions about how to proceed.

We know that as a result of the disruption caused by the pandemic, many driving students have had to double-pay fees for a driving test. When pressed on that, the Department said that the Road Traffic Act 1988 forbids refunds. Will the Secretary of State therefore support the private Member’s Bill of my hon. Friend the Member for East Renfrewshire (Kirsten Oswald), the Driving Tests (Repayment of Test Fees) Bill? (913317)

Driving tests are among the many things for which there is a big backlog due to the pandemic. I know that because my children are desperate to take their driving tests—or will be shortly. We are doing everything we can to bring them forward, particularly so that people who have already taken their theory test do not end up in a position where they have to pay again. We are doing everything we can. We have already extended the period of time. We have an issue in that we do not want people to take their practical test with a theory test that is so old that it would create new dangers on the roads, but I will look carefully at what the hon. Gentleman has to say.

Exeter airport in my constituency of East Devon will continue to access bespoke support following last week’s Budget and I thank Ministers for engaging with me over the past year. Of course, we continue to grapple with the pandemic. Passenger numbers are down 90% at Exeter airport, and it is clear that long-term solutions will be needed to ensure the recovery of my regional airport and many others across the nation. Please will the Secretary of State provide an update on the progress made so far towards the Government’s aviation recovery plan and say when it will be published? (913300)

On 12 April, my hon. Friend can look forward to seeing that report published. We will ensure that it contains a route not only out of lockdown for travel but, all being well, and as long the vaccination programme is going as it is at the moment here and internationally, for international travel. I stress to the House that while we are in control of our vaccination programme—44% of our adult population are now vaccinated—we do not have control over other countries’ vaccinations. That is why we think we will require a combination of vaccination and testing for international travel to work again. There is a lot to be done. We are working hard, along with my hon. Friend the Aviation Minister, and we will report back to the House on 12 April.

I am now suspending the House for five minutes to enable the necessary arrangements to be made for the next business.

Sitting suspended.