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I beg to move,
That this House has considered the Union Connectivity Review.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms McVey. I am pleased to have secured this debate on the Union connectivity review and delighted that so many Members have shown an interest in taking part. I will certainly bear that interest in mind and try to keep my remarks reasonably brief.
Sir Peter Hendy published the Union connectivity review interim report last week, and I want to start by congratulating him and his team on their work so far. What leaps out from the pages of that report is a genuine enthusiasm for transport connectivity and its enormous potential to strengthen our economic performance by improving the opportunities available to the people we all represent. In my discussions with Sir Peter, it has been clear to me that he gets it. I believe we can expect a substantial and potentially transformative piece of work when the final report appears in the summer. The review should be welcomed by everyone who cares about improving connectivity within and across the United Kingdom. It is to be welcomed for practical reasons and for reasons of principle.
Before I talk in more detail about some of those practical benefits, particularly as they apply to my area in the Scottish borders, I want to set out why the review is right in principle. As Sir Peter states unequivocally in his interim report:
“Devolution has been good for transport”.
As he is a former commissioner for transport in the devolved Greater London Authority, it should come as no surprise that he says so—and he is correct. His review is rightly seeking to engage with the devolved Administrations across the United Kingdom, though in the case of the SNP Scottish Government, sadly, that co-operative attitude has not been reciprocated. The decade I spent as a Member of the Scottish Parliament convinced me of the huge potential for more responsive decision making, which is inherent in devolution, even if I did not always think that the nationalist Government were always making the most of that potential. I might return to that point if time permits.
Nothing in the content or intention of the review in any way undermines the ability of the devolved Governments to make transport policies for the nations they serve. Instead, the review does something new, imaginative and, I think, necessary—it looks at our transport connectivity right across the United Kingdom in the round. As Sir Peter points out, devolution, for all its undoubted benefits, has led to a lack of attention to connectivity between the four nations. The review seeks to pay some attention to that important matter.
It is quite right that the United Kingdom Government, as the Government serving the whole UK and accountable to representatives of the whole UK in this Parliament, should have commissioned the review. Everyone who wants devolution within the UK to work should welcome this approach. Of course, if someone’s objective is to show that devolution does not work and that separation is the only answer, no doubt they will object to it. If it is good for the United Kingdom, it is bad for the cause of separation. I fear we might hear some of that dog-in-the-manger negativity from SNP Members later in the debate, but perhaps they will pleasantly surprise me.
There is another reason that this is a timely moment to conduct a review of this sort. As we have left the European Union, we have consequently left the EU’s Trans-European Transport Network, or TEN-T. That common policy seeks to forge greater economic and social cohesion across the EU through the development of transport networks. How successful it has been, or could ever be, in achieving that aim across as vast and diverse a geography as the European continent is debateable.
What is clear is that the UK was not a major beneficiary of TEN-T projects. The UK contributed in the region of €447 million annually to the TEN-T funding vehicle, the Connecting Europe Facility for Transport. However, we achieved only around €48 million in awards. TEN-T was not a great deal for the United Kingdom, and the EU’s transport policy making was inescapably distant and remote from our needs and concerns. We now have the chance to replace that distant and remote policy with a new, bespoke and pan-UK strategic transport network. That is principled, it is timely, and it can deliver tangible practical benefits.
I will set out some of those benefits as they would apply in my own area in the south of Scotland. An obvious focus for the review has been cross-border links, and those are crucial for us in the south of Scotland. For the communities I represent, access northwards into the central belt, particularly the economic and cultural centres of Edinburgh and Glasgow, is of huge importance, but so too are links south into England and west into Dumfries and Galloway. For my constituents in Berwickshire, the local economic centre is over the border, in Berwick-upon-Tweed. Similarly, to the south-west of my constituency, around Hawick and Newcastleton, many residents look to Carlisle as their economic hub. As I am sure my right hon. Friend the Member for Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale (David Mundell) —if he catches your eye, Ms McVey—will say that residents in Dumfriesshire also look to Carlisle.
Frankly, the south of Scotland has not been well served by successive Scottish Governments, whose focus has always been on the central belt and who have consistently neglected rural areas, particularly in the south and north-east of Scotland.
I am grateful for that. There is an opportunity in the review to accelerate the extension of the borders railway from Tweedbank to Hawick and Newcastleton, and on to Carlisle, which is why I and most of my constituents are baffled as to why the Scottish Government refuse to engage with the review and allow the acceleration of that project to take place.
That is even more surprising because the hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Alan Brown) has called for an extension of the borders rail link to Carlisle, and for it
“to become a proper cross-border connection.”—[Official Report, 17 October 2018; Vol. 647, c. 353WH.]
Back in 2018, he asked whether the UK Government would work with the Scottish Government on that line, so I do not understand what has changed. There is an opportunity to get that project moving more quickly, yet his colleagues in the Scottish Government are trying to stop investment in transport in my constituency and other parts of Scotland.
It is hard to get it across to the SNP Government that transport links across the border are important too, and that Scotland’s two Governments should work together to improve them. The UK is a willing partner in that enterprise, as the review testifies, and it is time that the SNP put the politics aside and joined the UK Government in that spirit. My constituents welcome the ideas and intent of the UK connectivity review to boost cross-border infrastructure. The Borderlands initiative, behind which the UK Government have been the driving force, reflects the fact that the south of Scotland and the far north of England are a functioning economic area with strong ties. That is one of the reasons that voters in my area rejected by two to one the suggestion in 2014 that an international border should be erected to separate Scotland from the rest of Britain. We do not want new barriers; we want new connections and stronger links.
I have campaigned for a number of years alongside my right hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Anne-Marie Trevelyan) for improvements to be made to the main A1 trunk road, which links Edinburgh and the borders to Berwick, Newcastle and the rest of England. I am delighted that the A1 between Newcastle and Edinburgh is listed as a major priority in the interim report.
Alongside improvements to the A1, my other chief priority for the review is the campaign to extend the borders railway to Hawick and Newcastleton, and on to Carlisle. That extension would bring huge benefits to the local area and has the potential to open up a new cross-border rail corridor. A £10 million feasibility study of an extension was announced last year as part of the UK Government-backed Borderlands growth deal. I pressed the case for borders rail directly with Sir Peter Hendy, and I will continue to make the case for it. The Campaign for Borders Rail is looking forward to meeting the Minister of State, Department for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Daventry (Chris Heaton-Harris), in the coming weeks.
The Union connectivity review is taking a new approach to assessing where our transport investment priorities should lie. In line with the Government’s levelling-up agenda, and following the Treasury’s recent review of the Green Book process, the focus is rightly shifting away from a narrow cost-benefit analysis towards a more strategic approach, taking into account wider environmental and social impacts. That is why I say that the connectivity review has the potential to be transformative, because better transport connectivity can transform lives.
Those who live in cities or in well-connected suburbs take connectivity for granted. They know that if they want to change jobs, embark on further study, take up a new hobby or simply go to the shops, the cinema or a concert, there will be transport options to get them there and back, but there is no such certainty in the smaller rural communities that I represent. That limits people’s opportunities, and it drives away younger people who might want to stay in the local area surrounded by family, friends and support networks but just cannot make it work because of the lack of transport connectivity.
The improvements for which we are fighting in the Scottish borders are not about shaving a few minutes off a commute or increasing the chances of getting a seat on a rush-hour train, important as those things are for many people. We are fighting to replace no service, no choice and no opportunity with something new and something better.
I remember speaking to a parent in Newcastleton about the lost opportunities experienced by her family. Her children could not take part in after-school activities at the high school in Hawick, as the school was more than 28 miles away, and there were no public transport options for getting the kids home after the sports and other activities had finished. What impact does that have on our children who live in communities where they simply cannot access what other young people take for granted as part of their educational experience? Doing things the old way has not served many of the communities in the Scottish borders well. The Union connectivity review represents a new, principled, pragmatic and imaginative approach that has the potential to change lives. It has my support, and I urge Governments at all levels across the United Kingdom to give it their support too.
I shall call other Back Benchers, followed by the SNP spokesperson, the Opposition spokesperson and the Minister. We want to get to Front-Bench contributions by 5.30 pm, and a lot of people wish to contribute today, so the time limit will be between four and four and a half minutes so we can get through everyone.
I will not use up four and a half minutes and I will respect those who wish to speak in the debate. That is how it is done: include other people, talk to other people and it is shared around. That is a lesson the UK Government should learn.
As with the levelling-up perspective, published with the latest UK Budget, the UK Government are using the powers they gave themselves through the United Kingdom Internal Market Act 2020 to bypass the Scottish Parliament and govern in ways that could contradict the devolved priorities of Scotland. Where is the consultation in the Union connectivity review? I heard what was said by the hon. Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk (John Lamont), but there is a difference between consulting and talking down to what is already a devolved area. The UK Government keep saying that they will consult with the devolved powers when the opportunities arise, but they truly do not. What happened to “Lead not leave”? What happened to the most powerful devolved nation in the world? Promises were swept aside with a smirk, or a shrug of the shoulders.
Now comes a new set of promises, exhibiting what I would describe as a superiority complex, going by its political title—one nation conservatism. The UK Government are once again ignoring the plans of the devolved powers and failing to take those plans into consideration. If the UK Government will not consult, we can only presume that they will not seek consent to any projects relating to devolved matters.
We know what the talk of a physical link between Northern Ireland and Scotland is all about. Businesses in Scotland are being burdened with heavily increased and complex paperwork to ship Scottish goods to Northern Ireland and the European Union. That is a direct consequence of the UK Government’s choice to remove Scotland from the single market and customs union. A bridge will not fix that; a tunnel will not fix it. They cannot bury their mistakes.
The UK Government must honour their commitment to UK-wide infrastructure investment, and they should do so by ensuring that adequate new resources are made available through relevant budgets, to allow decisions on infrastructure priorities to be taken by each devolved Government.
It is not clear from the Union connectivity review’s terms of reference that the review comes with additional funding as a mechanism for prioritising existing funding. However, there is now, more than ever, a need for the UK Government to agree increased fiscal flexibilities for the Scottish Government, so that they can take advantage of the historically low cost of borrowing to invest for Scotland’s future. Such large infrastructure programmes should not be used as last-minute attempts to paper over the cracks in the Union, when support for independence is riding high. If the UK Government and institutions of state really cared for the development of the whole UK—and with that, inter-connectivity—Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and the north of England would not have been ignored for decades before now.
Finally, this process is not about a Union of equals; it is not about connectivity. This is a political bribe. It is today’s equivalent of baubles and shiny beads for the natives because the Tories can see that Scotland is building its own road—a road to independence—and that scares the life out of them.
Obviously, the hon. Member for Inverclyde (Ronnie Cowan) is disappointed and has delivered what we might have expected. It is all about independence; it is not about delivering for the people of Scotland on the issues that are really important to them.
My constituents, watching this back in Dumfries and Galloway, will be absolutely appalled by the ignoring of the issues that really impact on them. One of those issues is that the A75, which is one of the most important strategic routes in the UK and was identified as such in Europe, has received little or no investment from the Scottish National party Scottish Government.
That is something of a surprise, because back in 1997, when Alasdair Morgan, the former MP, was campaigning, the A75 was Scotland’s forgotten road and was to be prioritised. Then, in 2001, I read in my local paper that the A75 was the nationalists’ top priority. It had been identified in an SNP policy paper as an absolute in terms of upgrading Scotland’s transport infrastructure. But still there is no meaningful upgrade to that road.
Back in 2016, ahead of the Scottish parliamentary election, we were promised a transport summit in Dumfries and Galloway within 100 days of that election. Well, guess what? The SNP Government could not even meet their 100-day target, which did not even come with any financial consequences. A meeting was subsequently held in 2016 and—surprise, surprise—what has happened since? Nothing, nothing; no meaningful upgrades to the A75. That is why my constituents and I welcome this report, which identifies the strategic importance of the A75 for traffic coming from Northern Ireland, but it also is important for my constituents who live in the Dumfries area and want to go to work in Carlisle.
Instead of having these snivelling, pathetic constitutional arguments about the administration of the project, I want to see the Scottish Government grasp this opportunity and get the job done. I want to see a dualled A75 between Gretna and Stranraer. I would work with anybody to achieve that. My son, Oliver Mundell, who is the MSP for Dumfriesshire and has campaigned relentlessly to dual that road, is of the same mind. It is not about all these constitutional technicalities and the obsession with independence, it is about getting the A75 dualled. When people come to vote on 7 May in the south of Scotland, I think they will know who are the people who stand up to get something like the A75 done and who are just apologists for the SNP Government in Edinburgh.
I want to use the final minute to make one brief plea to the Minister about a very particular local issue: the upgrading of junction 45 of the M6. Cross-border connectivity is not just about big schemes. Junction 45 of the M6 serves the Gretna area, but is in England and administered by Highways England. There have been long-running efforts to improve that junction, which would prevent heavy traffic having to go through Gretna, which, as the Minister will know, is world renowned for its wedding industry and offerings. The junction needs to be upgraded to stop that. There have been various attempts to do it, but they have not progressed. I hope in her closing remarks she will give me some hope that that will indeed happen.
While we await the final recommendations of the connectivity review, when Sir Peter Hendy publishes his final report this summer, I am pleased that the interim update released last week identifies issues with cross-border rail services between south Wales and Bristol and the Bristol area as an important emerging theme.
As referenced in the interim report, 9.4 million passenger journeys were made between Wales and England in 2018-19. This total includes many of my constituents who commute to work in Bristol and the west of England from Newport, the Severn tunnel and the Severn tunnel junction
The Severn tunnel junction is a gateway station for Wales. It has been one of the fastest growing passenger stations on the Great Western mainline over the last two decades. This is despite having lost a number of services on the Great Western franchise back in 2006 and more recently having one less cross-country service. Over the last 10 years, total passenger growth has been large—three times the UK average.
Unfortunately, there has not been an investment in capacity to meet this growing need for cross-border travel from south-east Wales. I realise that at the moment we are in different times, but, for example, in pre-pandemic times, GWR morning services from the Severn tunnel junction to Bristol Temple Meads and beyond have been plagued by overcrowding and a lack of reliability for years.
The situation is compounded by the fact that the Welsh Government and Transport for Wales were restricted by the Department for Transport from providing any additional cross-border services under the current terms of the Wales and Borders franchise. Extra services would help to alleviate some of pressure. As I have highlighted in numerous Transport questions, it is still not clear why the DFT is blocking this. I hope the final report of the Union connectivity review this summer will have something to say about that.
It is not good enough either for Tory Ministers to continually point the finger at the Welsh Government on transport issues, when they will not do anything about the ones that are within their remit and their gift to remedy. On this theme, a connected issue—which was not explicitly mentioned in last week’s interim report, but is the elephant in the room for Welsh passengers—is the UK’s chronic under-investment in Welsh rail infrastructure. Wales accounts for 11% of the UK rail network but receives only 2% of rail investment enhancement. Welsh Government research suggests that, on current estimates, there will be an under-investment in Welsh rail of between £3 billion and £8 billion by 2029.
This under-investment was specifically identified by Lord Burns in the South East Wales Transport Commission’s recent report as something for the UK Government to fix, with crucial work on the south Wales relief lines and new stations for Magor, Llanwern and Somerton as part of the plan. If the Government are serious about creating an interconnected Union, they cannot keep ignoring their responsibilities here.
The interim report published last week said the review will continue to engage with stakeholders over the coming months. I hope that the views of the Welsh Government and the South East Wales Transport Commission can form an important part of that. The report will provide a stimulus for long awaited investment in our rail network. My constituents and I will be watching closely.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship. Ms McVey. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk (John Lamont) on securing this important debate.
The Government’s levelling-up agenda, in particular the Union connectivity review, represents a welcome step forward for north Wales, where there have been decades of under-investment in infrastructure. Although the UCR focuses on all forms of transport connectivity, in the interests of time I will confine my comments to rail services.
The all-party parliamentary group on Mersey Dee North Wales, which I chair, works closely with a rail taskforce with the same footprint, otherwise known as Growth Track 360, to promote the infrastructure needs of our region. For that area, the connectivity we need is not just efficient long-distance travel but fit-for-purpose regional services that can better support day-to-day life and the success of our cross-border economy.
Mobile phone data from 2019 demonstrate that the number of daily journeys from north Wales to the north-west is more than 20 times higher than the number from north Wales to other parts of Wales. Those journeys take place despite the poor existing infrastructure. At present, a 65-mile journey by train from Prestatyn in my constituency to central Manchester takes at least one hour and 45 minutes. Travelling by car is a quicker option, at just over an hour. A rail journey of the same distance in the south-east takes as little as 40 minutes. Perhaps unsurprisingly, currently only 1% of cross-border commuting in our region is by rail, some 80% less than the national average.
Sir Peter Hendy’s interim report highlights connections from Ynys Môn and the north Wales coast to Merseyside and Manchester for freight and passengers as a key issue arising from the work he has undertaken so far. That recognition is welcome, as is £20 million of funding to explore the development of projects across the country. I hope that forthcoming plans for the north Wales line will be ambitious, seeking provision for eight train paths an hour, greater line speeds, more frequent signalling stanchions as necessary, and the accommodation of express, freight and stopping services.
In the APPG’s submission to the UCR in January, I raised the need for HS2 to work for north Wales. It is pleasing to see the UCR acknowledge that. It will require the correct configuration at Crewe, including both a hub station and a junction to allow trains to reconnect to HS2 northbound. It is also important that the interchange between HS2 and Northern Powerhouse Rail at Warrington benefits north Wales and west Cheshire.
Ultimately, the electrification of the Crewe to Holyhead line will be necessary, for reasons of both connectivity and decarbonisation, and preferably by the time HS2 first operates. I would appreciate an indication in the Minister’s response of how the initial £20 million UCR fund is to be allocated and prioritised, and of the timescales for the process.
Sir Peter Hendy’s interim report shows that the UCR is heading in the right direction. The review must continue to focus on how infrastructure of national and regional importance, including that which is divided by an administrative border, can be delivered in a more successful and joined-up fashion.
Our Union connects us constitutionally, politically, economically and culturally. There are links of identity and a web of physical and emotional ties that all come together to make this Union great. Today, we focus on a very important aspect of any union: physical linkages, infrastructure connectivity. It is welcome that the Government of the United Kingdom are putting such priority on that end.
For Northern Ireland, we have specific needs that we ask to be addressed as part of the review. Members will know that, as part of our confidence and supply agreement in 2017, we asked that the Government review domestic air passenger duty. We see APD as a regressive tax that disproportionately impacts on the outer regions of the United Kingdom. We urge the Government to seize the opportunities that scrapping APD would bring, such as job creation and boosting GDP. Importantly, it would also assist in better connectivity with more routes developed within the United Kingdom.
Connectivity to the rest of the United Kingdom is vital for Northern Ireland’s economy. As the protocol has shown, Great Britain is Northern Ireland’s largest market and being cut off from that in any way is damaging for business. We are about removing barriers. That is why the protocol must go. We must ensure that ease of travel and trade is restored. We encourage those advocating the opposite to rethink.
I will also address the issue of the proposed physical connection between mainland UK and Northern Ireland. In our 2019 manifesto, we supported a feasibility study of a fixed connection between Northern Ireland and Scotland. We asked the Government to ascertain whether it was feasible, so we welcome this being part of the review and await the consultation on this study. It is regrettable yet not surprising to watch the hysterical, immature dummy spitting of nationalists and others to the very suggestion. To see a devolved infrastructure Minister so frenzied in opposing infrastructure. For those same people, it would seem the harder the border, the better, the more barriers, the better, but dare not anyone suggest better connectivity across our United Kingdom. We want a Government that are bold and ambitious in promoting better connectivity within the United Kingdom.
It is pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms McVey. The Union is over 300 years old. The Tories have been in power for 66 years since the end of world war one, and yet now suddenly we need a Union connectivity review, with Westminster telling us what we need. Westminster has failed Scotland for years and now we are supposed to embrace a vanity project such as a Union bridge or tunnel to Northern Ireland.
If we look at Scotland’s road systems, it is the SNP that has been making up for a previous lack of ambition. The SNP Scottish Government have delivered the new M74 and the new M80 motorways—we never even had a continuous motorway linking Glasgow and Edinburgh until the SNP made it happen. We have also built the Queensferry bridge and are dualling the A9.
In a similar vein, our island communities benefited from EU funding, not Westminster generosity, for bridges such as Scalpay to Harris, causeways, ports and road upgrades, including the Fort William to Mallaig road to the Isles, which was the last remaining single-lane trunk road in the UK until 2009. It was being in the EU that helped Scotland to access funds, which were not coming from Westminster, and now the Tories have also taken that avenue away from us.
If we look at the A75, which has now suddenly become a modern Tory totem, what about acknowledging the Cairntop to Barlae, the Newton Stewart, Barfil to Bettyknowes, Planting End to Drumflower, and Hardgrove to Kinmount upgrades, as well as the Dunragit bypass? There has been a lot of money spent in the A75 by the SNP.
If we look back at Hansard, it confirms the Tories actually promised the Dunragit bypass, as a scheme that was in progress in 1989, as was the Barlae upgrades. It is the SNP that is making up for decades of failed Westminster promises and failures of Labour at Holyrood as well, yet the Tories still shout “More, more, more!” They do not want the Scottish Government to have additional borrowing powers, they stand by while the Chancellor cuts the capital budget to Scotland to 5% and yet they shout “More!” The SNP has also undertaken several upgrades to the A77 including the Maybole bypass—a project first thought about decades ago and also promised by Lord Douglas-Hamilton in 1989.
Turning to rail, the hon. Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk (John Lamont) actually had the cheek previously to speak out against the Borders rail project because, he said, if it was only going to Galashiels, he would rather have the money spent elsewhere.
I do not have time.
The hon. Member still has not complimented the SNP on delivering what was the longest new railway in Great Britain for over a century, and we do not need a Westminster review to tell us the benefits of extending it to Carlisle. I appreciate he did point out that I have spoken about this in the Chamber before as well.
On rail, I have also highlighted the absurdity whereby the choice of rolling stock for HS2 means that when it comes into operation, trains from Scotland to Crewe will go slower than they do now. What we need is independence and to be able to speak about cross-border transport as a nation of equals, rather than being told what to do.
I thank the hon. Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk (John Lamont) for securing this important debate. I hope that we can all look forward to seeing the benefits, rather than harking back to past complaints and trying to settle old scores. It is part of who I am and part of my party’s core belief that we achieve more by working together with our friends and neighbours than not.
From Portmahomack to Preston, from Edinburgh to Essex, like many people, I have connections to all corners of our country, but I am perhaps not as well connected as I would often like or should be. While I welcome the interim report, which references Scotland 57 times in 61 pages, I believe there is much more that should and could be done. While I would want to focus on how we link up the whole of the United Kingdom, I know that there are people outwith Scotland’s central belt who would welcome a similar approach to connectivity from the SNP Government at Holyrood.
Improving the transport links right across the country is vital. However, we must ensure that we reduce our impact on the environment at the same time. As businesses seek to grow and families reconnect, these improvements will form a key part of rebuilding after the pandemic. Our transport systems are broken and our climate is under threat. This is an opportunity to address both at one time. Sustainability must therefore be central to our connectivity.
At the same time, I was disappointed not to see any mention in the interim report of the importance of the aviation industry, to both our connectivity and economy, because regardless of our commitment to greener transport, we must also support our aviation industry and encourage it to improve its climate-friendly credentials. Our airports and wider aviation industry are facing the largest threat to their existence, so while pursuing the green agenda, we must make sure they have the support they deserve. Both rail and aviation have a vital role to play in the UK’s economic recovery, in covid-19 and in achieving net zero by 2050, yet to do so we need certainty and long-term schemes such as the HS2 eastern leg.
For my city of Edinburgh, I see this connectivity report as an opportunity to create a transport hub for Scotland, to make the capital the best it can be and to give it the best chance to recover as we face another summer of streets devoid of the usual buzz of festival goers. But there is an important wider point. To take part in this review is to buy into the premise that, together, we can improve the lives of people across our four nations. We can be better connected. We can drive economic growth and give the people of Scotland and the rest of the UK more opportunities than they have at the moment.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Ms McVey. I am also very pleased that the hon. Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk (John Lamont) has brought this issue forward. I am unashamedly an Ulster Scot. I am also unashamedly British, because I want to be and because I feel it. I am very much a Unionist, so I will speak from a very pro-Union point of view. I share the Gaelic connection with my friend to my right-hand side in the Chamber, the hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Alan Brown), and I am very proud of that, by the way. If it came to it, we could probably speak the same language, I suspect.
I believe that the one United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland—often my catchphrase in this House, Ms McVey—is always better together. I believe it to be the case, and I believe it in my heart. I want to repeat what my hon. Friend the Member for Upper Bann (Carla Lockhart) said just a few minutes ago. This is a debate about connectivity, and my constituency is being disconnected by the Northern Ireland protocol. I sit going through what businesses cannot access, and each day I see a different example: pet food, grass seed, plants, machinery parts, cheese, livestock—the list goes on and on. The Minister is undoubtedly aware that this responsibility lies with the Brexit Minister, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, Lord Frost and also the Secretary of State. On numerous occasions, we have begged to be once again connected and considered as part of the United Kingdom, rather than as a protectorate, which is how we feel at present.
The Secretary of State has made some movements in relation to the soil. The soil that was okay on 31 December was not okay on 1 January—same soil, same plants, same trees, everything. I could not quite understand that. There was a palpable anger back home about the Northern Ireland protocol and where we are. So given the concern of the report, I say bend the Northern Ireland protocol and ensure deliveries can be made and received to ensure that the people of Northern Ireland feel connected in the most basic way, as actually being a part of the great United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
I do not have the time to refer to the physical link that others referred to. I just want to say this: Northern Ireland has so much to offer international investors—a highly skilled workforce, high-speed internet connection and low rates. Yet what puts them off is the feeling that there is not enough connectivity. We could address that by reducing the air passenger duty. I understand the Minister has referred to that and I look forward to a response.
We must also allow investment in what we have to offer, securing and harnessing international flights as well. We must do that for Northern Ireland, by investing in the airports and the shipping ports. I welcome a physical connection, but at this time the priority must be investing in connections through the airports—Belfast City, Belfast International and Londonderry—and also through the four ports of Belfast, Larne, Warrenpoint and Londonderry. We have, I understand, a freeport. Perhaps that will bring us some jobs that we need as well.
It has been a lovely day up here—the first proper day of spring, I think—so I am not going to let the contrived drivel that the hon. Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk (John Lamont) spoke at the start, with some others following, ruin my otherwise sunny disposition. In contrast, the speeches delivered by my hon. Friend the Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Alan Brown) and my hon. Friend the Member for Inverclyde (Ronnie Cowan) were both passionate and had the benefit of being accurate.
Fundamentally, the review is an insular exercise. Scotland’s horizons are much broader than just the rest of these isles. As a European nation, our connections to the continent are important—and I mean connections in every possible sense of the word. Decades of southern-centric planning has resulted in much of our export trade being taken to channel ports rather than exported directly from Scotland. Nowhere in the review is our international trade capacity dealt with. Nowhere in the review are direct air links to Europe from Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland even mentioned, because international connectivity was not in the remit. However, our links overseas are crucial.
That is fundamentally a problem with a review that was concocted for purely political reasons. Not only was it announced without any consultation with any devolved Administration; the fact is that the Government already had a connectivity review under way. A review of regional connectivity announced 14 months ago still has not reported, yet the Prime Minister felt the need to announce a Union connectivity review late last year. He must think we are all buttoned up the back.
The Prime Minister also wants to build a bridge or tunnel next to an unknown number of unexploded bombs, 2 tonnes of nuclear waste, with occasional undersea explosions of decaying ordnance, all sitting at a depth of 1,000 feet. The latest wheeze is to use the Isle of Man as a roundabout. For a Prime Minister who has appointed himself Minister of the Union, the fact that the Manx are not actually part of the Union seems to have passed him by.
We should think big and we should be planning for transformational investment that connects our communities, but that investment should be guided by our communities, not determined by diktat from a refurbished and overpriced briefing room in Downing Street. Thinking big does not mean wasting millions on a feasibility study for a bridge that the dogs in the street know is as likely to happen as the Prime Minister’s doomed garden bridge, which cost the public purse an eye-watering £43 million.
The review might mention HS2 in the same sentence as Scotland and Wales, but it is clear that we will not be seeing a single centimetre of real high-speed rail north of Manchester. We will be left yet again in the sidings, while tens of billions are poured into HS2 and its property acquisitioning. With the UK Government’s track record, we really should not be surprised.
To take one small but important example, it took the UK authorities decades to upgrade a six-mile stretch of the M6 leading to Scotland—the Cumberland Gap—leaving the busiest route between Scotland and England with outdated infrastructure. No one should, therefore, have much faith that their priorities will align with those of Scotland. Contrast that with the many infrastructure improvements made in less than 14 years, as highlighted by my hon. Friend the Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun. Or a costlier failing: the Regional Eurostar and Nightstar trains promised to Scotland, Wales and the north of England when the channel tunnel was conceived, quietly ditched when no longer needed for political cover. That Union dividend cost the taxpayer hundreds of millions of pounds, and as Europe invests in a new generation of long-distance, low carbon international rail, that has been shown to be short-sighted in the extreme. Meanwhile, there are no concrete plans to upgrade the west or east coast main lines to anything approaching high-speed capacity; similarly, there are no plans to improve the west coast main line’s freight capacity, despite recent investment at Grangemouth and Eurocentral, proving demand for Anglo-Scottish rail freight could grow substantially with the right plans.
With that track record, the idea that the UK Government are best placed to decide on what is needed to support Scotland’s connections outside its borders is for the birds. To this litany of failure, add cancelled electrification and privatisation on our railways, their current failure to properly support our aviation industry, and failing to prepare properly for Brexit. If the desire for investment is there, the simple answer is to make sure that Scotland’s fair share is delivered to Scotland, for the transport priorities decided by our democratically elected Parliament, not subject to the whims of No. 10 or pledges to the Democratic Unionist party.
Moreover, this cannot be billed as Westminster’s munificence or spirit of generosity. The hon. Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk spoke of Scottish Government investment. What he failed to mention was that, while the UK’s overall capital spend is up, his Treasury colleagues have cut Scotland’s capital budget by 5%. Therefore, it is Scots themselves who are ultimately paying for this conceited connectivity con. When they have the capital funds to do so, the SNP Scottish Government have proven time and again that they will deliver on Scotland’s infrastructure priorities. It is time for the small and insular minds hanging their hopes on a political scheme to boost support for the Union to realise that the power to think big will soon be accompanied by the political and economic power to match—a power that only Scottish independence will deliver.
I thank the hon. Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk (John Lamont) for bringing forward this important debate. I thank all hon. Members who have spoken eloquently today about ways in which we can improve connectivity throughout the United Kingdom.
The Union connectivity review was announced and the interim report published during the coronavirus crisis—a pandemic that has had a profound impact on the transport network across the UK, with vastly reduced services and varying support across industries. In the wake of the economic impact of the pandemic, it is clear that we must rebuild across the whole UK, working in partnership with our devolved Governments and mayoral regions, ensuring local leaders and communities are heard, and transport priorities are delivered. Decentralisation of powers and resources is essential in preserving our Union and improving connectivity, to collectively boost the UK economy.
Transport has been one of the industries most impacted by the pandemic, with the latest figures showing the air and rail sector operating at minus 94% and minus 79% respectively of their usual activity for this time of year. Much of what has been called for by those consulted —better connectivity, increased capacity and improved journey times—has the potential to achieve this. More convenient rail services to reduce traffic from our roads, connections to airports to stimulate jobs and the local economy, increased capacity and high-speed services, improving opportunities for passengers, businesses and freight—there is endless potential for transport to be a driver for a green and bold economic recovery to meet our net zero commitment by 2050.
I am pleased to see a range of critical transport issues outlined, including improvements to the east coast main line and A1, extended HS2 connections to Scotland and north Wales, faster and higher capacity connections from Belfast to north-west Northern Ireland and to the Republic of Ireland, relief from congestion along the M4 corridor in south Wales, improved transport capacity and journey times east to west, and better air links to and from Northern Ireland and Scotland, including an appropriate rate of air passenger duty for journeys not realistic by rail.
Transport, of course, can be transformational for communities and the opportunities available to them. As the interim report notes:
“Those lacking the resources and transport options required for mobility become deprived from interacting with the whole extent of opportunities offered by society.”
However, I am somewhat sceptical of the Government’s commitment to these plans for an infrastructure revolution. Sadly, the Prime Minister has form for overpromising and underdelivering. There is a litany of failed transport proposals—the failed London garden bridge, at the cost of £53 million to the taxpayer; the mythical Boris estuary airport; rail electrification plans announced only to be scaled back or cancelled; and the continued mismanagement of the spiralling finances of HS2. I fear there may be more victims of the Government’s mishandling of transport projects currently in the pipeline. Just in the past year, 40% of Transport for the North’s core budget has been slashed. The Government failed to outline the timetable for rebuilding the eastern leg of HS2, attempted to avoid proper consultation with local residents and failed properly to support aviation with a sector-specific support package, leaving northern airports in particular to bear the brunt of the crisis.
While the Government are coming up with plans for a multi-billion-pound tunnel to Northern Ireland, complete with an underground roundabout below the Isle of Man, they have completely abandoned those who run the undersea tunnel that we already have. Eurostar is struggling for survival and begging for support, but the Government are silent. I welcome further transport investment plans to address critical areas for connecting the Union better, but they should be developed alongside, not at the cost of, other essential connectivity projects such as Northern Powerhouse Rail, the midlands rail hub and a full commitment to HS2.
With the fallout from coronavirus, a fragile economy, a climate crisis and the Union under strain, there has never been a more urgent need to strengthen the connections and bonds across our United Kingdom. The Opposition support Sir Peter and his team as they conduct their work, but I encourage the Government to grasp the scale of the challenges that we currently face. While this Tory Government fumble from pillar to post on almost every issue, the future of our Union and our prosperity is simply too important for them to get wrong.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms McVey. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk (John Lamont) for securing this vital debate. I thank him for his engagement with Sir Peter Hendy and his team, and for the diligent way in which he has campaigned for the interests of his constituents and highlighted how vital transport connectivity is for their lives.
The debate is a vital one, as many Members have said, about a major piece of work. It is an opportunity for me to set out how we are looking at the opportunities provided to our United Kingdom through the Union connectivity review. I thank all hon. Members for their contributions this afternoon, which were passionate and detailed. Unfortunately I do not have time to address all the individual points that people have made in the debate, but I assure hon. Members that I and my fellow Ministers in the Department, and Sir Peter and his team, have listened to them and heard them.
It has been a great pleasure and honour for me to have learned so much in the past year about the importance of transport connectivity to the people and businesses across our great United Kingdom. Indeed, it was at around this time last year that I began chairing regular meetings with my ministerial colleagues in the devolved Administrations to work through the transport challenges that we all faced as a result of the pandemic. Ensuring that we could enable people and goods to continue moving with minimum disruption was at the forefront of all our minds during those discussions. Now, in our drive to build back better from the pandemic and further level up the country, we must seize the opportunity to implement a suite of measures with the potential to transform the provision of transport connections across the UK.
I am very sorry, but I do not have time to give way, unfortunately.
The measures in question would seek to support economic growth and our ambitious decarbonisation goals, as many Members have highlighted, as well as contributing to the quality of life of people across the entire UK and providing resilience in the face of similar crises.
Last October the Prime Minister appointed Sir Peter Hendy, a respected and experienced figure in the transport landscape, to lead a review independent of Government to establish how the quality and availability of transport infrastructure across the UK could meet the objectives I have set out, and to recommend how best to improve transport connectivity in the longer term.
As well as considering the needs of transport in providing intra-UK travel, the review will consider a variety of other issues that are integral to the aim of connecting the UK better. It will examine key routes, for instance, between Northern Ireland and Great Britain, and how they can be strengthened, and look at how travel between England, Scotland and Wales can be improved through, for example, enhancements to rail and road infrastructure. It will also suggest ways in which infrastructure can support the move to more sustainable forms of transport as we look to harness green technology, and differing working patterns as we emerge from the current pandemic.
I wish I could say that all Governments within the UK took the review as it was intended: a way to improve the lives of our citizens and make life easier for businesses. However, it will surprise nobody that the SNP Government were determined to create wedges that need not otherwise exist and refused to engage constructively with the review despite the obvious benefits it has for people and businesses in Scotland. Never let it be said that the SNP wastes an opportunity to put separatist ideology over sensible policy making.
Sir Peter’s interim report, published last Wednesday, contains his early thoughts on forming a UK strategic transport network. Prior to its publication, Sir Peter met more than 100 stakeholders as well as Ministers from the devolved Administrations, and the call for evidence process received nearly 150 submissions from interested parties. Early meetings with stakeholders suggest broad support for a UK strategic network, and Sir Peter will explore the idea further for the final review. He will need to look closely at the transport projects highlighted by stakeholders, and the Prime Minister has asked him to take into account what will be different in the next 20 to 30 years and consider our ambitious environmental agenda.
The UCR interim report notes that devolution has at times
“led to a certain lack of attention to connectivity between the”
nations of the UK
“due to competing priorities and complex funding.”
The review aims to address that, and Sir Peter will look at further transport priorities based on the wider strategic case for investments.
A couple of hon. Members mentioned aviation, about which I have one reference to make. Hon. Members will be pleased to hear that we have announced a consultation on air passenger duty to consider its impact on domestic flights in particular, as has been called for by colleagues from Northern Ireland.
We welcome Sir Peter’s interim report and have made £20 million of UK Government funding available to assess options on road and rail schemes that have been identified by the review as crucial for cross-border connectivity. That funding will be used to get such projects off the ground. Once the final UCR recommendations are received ahead of the spending review, we will consider and confirm funding plans for delivering the improved connectivity crucial to our United Kingdom.
I thank all right hon. and hon. Members for participating in the debate and the Minister for her response and constructive engagement. I think what my constituents in the Scottish borders—and, indeed, Scots across the nation—will remember about the debate is the SNP MPs arguing against more investment in Scotland and investment in Scotland’s transport network. When they go to the polls in a few weeks, I am sure they will remember that Scottish nationalist MPs were arguing against extension to the borders railway, against improvements to the A1 and A75 roads and against many opportunities to improve employability and opportunity for people in Scotland. That is a great shame.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the Union Connectivity Review.