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Topical Questions

Volume 693: debated on Thursday 29 April 2021

I know that the House is interested in the updates with regard to travel returning internationally over the coming months, and I want to provide a quick update to say that, although polymerase chain reaction—PCR—tests may be required from the medical and scientific point of view, we have been working with private laboratories, pharmacies, supermarkets and other companies to encourage them to deliver on their logistical expertise, enter the market and drive down the costs. We have seen some success, because, as I mentioned earlier, the cost of a single PCR day-two test from one of the large providers on the Government link site has now come down to £60 and a new entrant at £44.90 is now enabling more people to access PCR tests as international travel returns.

I understand that work on the strategic outline business case for the redevelopment of Chester station, which has been submitted to the Department, has produced a highly positive cost-benefit ratio, and that it is also being proposed as a priority project for the DFT acceleration unit supported by Transport for the North, so can the Secretary of State confirm when Chester station will be included in the rail network enhancement programme and when further development funding will be allocated to take this project forward?

We are continuing to work closely with Cheshire West and Chester Council on its preparation of the strategic outline business case for enhancements at and around Chester station. Having received an initial strategic outline business case from the council last summer, DFT officials undertook to carry out a detailed review of the requested further information for the SOBC, and it is being considered for inclusion in RNEP, which is the—well, the hon. Gentleman knows what RNEP is, so I will not explain.

The active travel grant funding made available to local authorities such as mine was very welcome, but unfortunately the Labour-run council in Southampton has used this funding to halve road capacity on main arterial routes into the city. As lockdown has eased, this has caused congestion and made already poor air quality much worse. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that the active travel funding provided to local authorities did not come with directions on how it should be used, and that the decision to implement any schemes, for good or ill, are the responsibility of the local authority? (914961)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The Department for Transport has made it absolutely clear that local authorities must focus on scheme quality. They must demonstrate that they have carried out appropriate consultation, listened to local communities, and considered access for emergency vehicles and traffic impacts. We recognise that poorly designed, temporary cycling and walking schemes can have negative impacts, but we also recognise that they can be very positive when delivered in the right way.

After much delay, the Transport Secretary has finally published Highways England’s review into smart motorways. The stocktake has revealed that over the last five years 63 people lost their lives, which is a significant increase on the figure given just over a year ago—38. Victims’ families and campaigners are crying out for common sense—and for action from the Secretary of State—recognising that the radar technology does not even capture broken down vehicles 35% of the time. As the legal challenges mount, will he publish the specific data comparing deaths on the hard shoulder of existing motorways with deaths on the lane that was previously a hard shoulder and is now used as a live running lane?

The hon. Gentleman and I, and the whole House, share similar concerns about the safety of our motorways. One of the first things I did as Secretary of State was to introduce the smart motorways stocktake. One factor we have to look at is the level of fatalities on both smart motorways and regular motorways. As I mentioned to the hon. Gentleman previously, from 2015 to 2019 there were 39 fatalities on smart motorways, but there were also 368 fatalities on regular motorways. It is very important that we look at all the questions he asked with regard to the data, which is why I have asked the Office of Rail and Road to analyse the data and provide reassurance that it can be trusted. When those figures are provided we can compare them to make sure we are producing the safest possible roads in the world.

The victims’ families will want to know that action will be taken on lives that are avoidably lost and I am afraid that answer will not satisfy those families at all.

Moving on to our regional economies, the Secretary of State knows how important our regional airports are in providing tens of thousands of important, well-paid, decent jobs in our regions. Will he make sure the Government do far more than the standard schemes on business rates and furlough support to make sure that our regional airports not only survive but can thrive in the future—or does he believe the market will decide their fate?

First, on smart motorways I understand that it is the hon. Gentleman’s and Labour’s policy to close all-running lanes, which would create more traffic. The current estimate is that it would create 25% more traffic on other roads; that in itself would, we think, produce about 25 more fatalities per year. So I urge the hon. Gentleman to follow the work of the Office of Rail and Road to make sure that we do not create more fatalities, rather than fewer.

With regard to regional airports, the hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that we need to support them. We have put £7 billion into protecting and supporting our aviation sector. I am slightly mystified, however, because if I understand it correctly, the hon. Gentleman’s current policy is to quarantine all traffic so that nobody could quarantine at home, which would do further damage to our regional airports.

I am delighted that North Devon is soon to become home to the first rural e-scooter trial. However, what steps is the Department taking to inform the public that e-scooters, already seen in so many public spaces, are not legally permitted unless part of the trial? (914962)

I thank my hon. Friend for her support for this innovative form of transport technology. Trials of rental e-scooters began last July and have been a huge success: over 2 million trips have been taken and 5 million km ridden—the equivalent of six times to the moon and back. But the Department has written to all major retailers of e-scooters in the UK to ask them to make it clear to customers that it is illegal to use e-scooters on public roads. Retailers make this clear online and in their stores, and motoring offences will apply to the private use of e-scooters. The local police are fully engaged and have enforcement powers, and they are expected to use them.

Given that the national infrastructure bank will be based in Leeds, would it not be highly symbolic to start building phase 2b of the eastern leg of HS2 from Leeds southwards? The Secretary of State was quoted recently as saying that he is looking at bringing forward the start date. Would he consider that idea? (914960)

I actually agree with the right hon. Gentleman; it probably would have been sensible to start the entire project from the north to the south in the first place, but having looked at this in great detail, not least through the Oakervee review, I also know that chopping and changing those plans partway through is the most expensive possible outcome and does not work out. None the less, we are committed to ensuring that the integrated rail plan answers all these questions, and his point has been clearly heard.

The Secretary of State will be aware that almost 50% of UK container freight goes through Felixstowe port, and he will be aware of the importance of improving rail links from that port to the midlands and the north. Can I get his reassurance that the Felixstowe to Nuneaton freight rail link is a priority for this Government and will be delivered on time? (914965)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right about the importance of freight links in our country. Since 2009, more than £200 million has been invested in capacity on the Felixstowe to Nuneaton freight corridor. Through the rail network enhancements pipeline, Network Rail is developing business cases for enhancements at Ely, Hockley and between Ely and Soham to provide additional capacity on this key freight corridor.

Constituents of mine who had travelled for essential medical treatment for their disabled children were required to quarantine at Heathrow in a hotel room that was completely inadequate for their needs. What consideration is being given to the needs of disabled people and those with medical needs in the hotel quarantine scheme? (914963)

The hon. Lady is absolutely right to stand up for her constituents, particularly those who may have special circumstances. There is a process in place for special circumstances to be considered. I would be interested to understand why in the case of her constituent, from her question, it does not look like that was effective. We would be very happy to investigate that particular case, although I understand that would of course be retrospective.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. Representing a constituency in a county that has a large number of commuters to London, the future of flexible rail ticketing is an issue to which many are paying close attention. With the reality of more people enjoying hybrid working arrangements in the future, we need to ensure that is reflected in the structure of rail tickets. Therefore, can the Secretary of State confirm when the Department will be in a position to set out what rail ticketing will look like for passengers in my constituency and across the south-east, and provide an assurance that the new fares will offer genuine flexibility where it is needed? (914967)

May I say on behalf of everybody how fantastic it is to see my hon. Friend back in the House in her rightful place? She is absolutely right about the changes in how people will commute going forward, because the world has of course changed. I am sure that people will come back to the railway, but perhaps in a more flexible way, and I can reassure her that we will be setting out more details of our view about how ticketing should work, not least through the Williams-Shapps review.

Last week, the Government’s sixth carbon budget included aviation emissions for the first time—a welcome step. Can the Secretary of State explain how the Government think they can hit their net zero target without updating the airports national policy statement? Will he finally commit to scrapping Tory plans for a third runway at Heathrow, if he is serious about tackling the climate emergency? (914964)

The hon. Lady will know that the whole House voted for the Heathrow plans, as she stated, but we will shortly be bringing forward our transport decarbonisation plans, which will discuss in full and in detail our ambitious plans to decarbonise the entire transport sector, including the aviation sector. She is right to say that we have increased our ambition on this front, and we are the only major leading nation that will set out such an ambitious set of plans to decarbonise the entire sector.

Hello from Lancashire, Mr Speaker. In South Ribble, there is quite a lot of interest in the Government’s recently announced £3 billion national bus strategy. Speaking to residents, many improvement suggestions have already been received. Joanne, for example, wants a west-east bus between Tarleton, the Hooles, Longton and getting into Leyland. Can my right hon. Friend share how he plans to ensure that the communities’ voices are heard during the planning of this strategy so that their needs are in the mix, and it is not just the ideas from the men in grey suits and the established industry? (914968)

I note your remark, Mr Speaker. I thank my hon. Friend for her point. I am not a man in a grey suit, so I can reassure her fully, and I thank her for the massively constructive way she has engaged with the national bus strategy since its launch. The way she has stood up for her constituents is absolutely exemplary, and I know from the discussions that she and I have had how important that is. By October, local transport authorities are expected to provide bus service improvement plans, which should be developed in collaboration with local people to ensure that they genuinely reflect the area’s needs.

Many of my constituents are concerned that each of the three rail timetabling options put forward by the Manchester recovery taskforce means reduced connectivity between West Lancs and Manchester. Will the Secretary of State assure my constituents that they are not the poor relations of the larger northern cities, and will he intervene to ensure that the supposed levelling-up of services in the north does not leave areas such as West Lancs behind? (914966)

Yes, that is absolutely right. I have been working with Transport for the North and many others in consultation to sort out that fundamental problem, which is the bottleneck around the Castlefield corridor in and out of Manchester, which impacts on the entire northern rail service and beyond. The hon. Lady is absolutely right; we will be taking all those representations into account, and very carefully. Indeed, the rail Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Daventry (Chris Heaton-Harris), would gladly meet her to discuss it further.

When direct all-day high-speed services to Martin Mill, Deal and Sandwich were suspended, I received written assurances that they would be fully restored after lockdown. Can my hon. Friend confirm that it remains the intention to fully restore the high-speed services to Deal, Sandwich and the villages as soon as possible? (914970)

Morning and evening peak services to Martin Mill, Kingsdown, Deal and Sandwich are currently operating. Passenger volumes are continually monitored, and all-day service provision will be reviewed in the light of passenger demand as lockdown restrictions are eased.

The Secretary of State will know that the consultation on Manchester’s rail services is considering the removal of the direct link between Sheffield and Manchester airport. Our chamber of commerce is deeply concerned about the damage that axing this service would do to local business and jobs, and our two world-class universities believe that it threatens international student recruitment, which brings more than £200 million into the local economy. Does he recognise those concerns, and will he meet me and other local Members to discuss the issue? (914969)

Yes, I absolutely recognise the concerns. As I mentioned a moment ago, there is a problem with congestion on rail services around Manchester, which needs to be resolved. I am working with all the local partners in order to do that. I have set up a special meeting of the Northern Transport Acceleration Council after the elections, in order to work with the Manchester recovery taskforce and resolve exactly that issue.

Between January and June last year, the Minister of State told the House three times that his Department would shortly publish its research on the level of funding needed to meet the target of doubling cycling and increasing walking by 2025. Will he now publish that missing research, or is he breaking his promise because he knows it confirms that the funding allocated falls woefully short of what is needed? (914971)

Given that we have £2 billion of funding for walking and cycling—the biggest sum ever invested in active travel, as far as we can work out—the idea that there is a lack of investment is, of course, entirely untrue. The hon. Lady will have noticed that last year the coronavirus occupied almost everything we were doing, but it did not prevent us issuing a new cycling strategy, published by the Prime Minister and backed by me. We will be saying a lot more about that, and I welcome the hon. Lady’s enthusiasm.

As chair of the all-party parliamentary environment group, I am incredibly supportive of the Government’s ambition to phase out diesel trains across the entire UK network by 2040. East West Rail is soon to build a railway line in my constituency, due for completion in 2030, but it is not being built as an electrified line, and my constituents are very worried that they might end up with a new diesel railway line. Will my right hon. Friend, or my hon. Friend the Member for Redditch (Rachel Maclean)—I am not sure who is answering—work with me and the Treasury to make sure that East West Rail is aligned with the Government’s ambition to phase out diesel trains? (914975)

I will answer my hon. Friend. East West Rail, the company behind the new line, is aiming to deliver an entirely zero-carbon railway. It will be considering conventional and emerging technology solutions for powering trains, which could be part-electric and part-hydrogen or battery in the future, for example, so that services that operate along the whole length of the route are zero carbon.

Sometimes I forget that I am wearing the mask, Mr Speaker, but I thank you very much for calling me.

Airlines have had a difficult past 12 months. Belfast City airport, Belfast International airport and Londonderry airport are important Northern Ireland regional airports. Can the Minister confirm the Government’s support for them, which I know has been there, and that every effort will be taken to ensure that they can and will be part of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland’s strategy for the future?

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to point out the importance of those links with our Northern Ireland airports. I made sure that we put public service obligations in place during the height of the crisis last year, and we will always look to do everything we can to make sure that connectivity across our great Union continues to exist.

Cutting-edge maritime projects such as the Holyhead hydrogen hub and the proposed Anglesey freeport in my constituency will move forward this Government’s renewable agenda. To take full advantage of these opportunities, excellent transport infrastructure is needed across north Wales. Will the Minister confirm that he will support necessary improvements to the A55, as highlighted in Sir Peter Hendy’s Union connectivity review?

My hon. Friend is a brilliant champion of connectivity for her constituency, and as a result, my right hon. Friend the Transport Secretary was in north Wales early this week, discussing plans to upgrade the A55 with the Welsh Conservative candidate standing in May’s election. We look forward to the final Union connectivity review recommendations ahead of the spending review, in which we will consider funding plans for delivering improved UK-wide connectivity. However, I must say to the hon. Lady that the fastest way for her constituents to secure upgrades to the A55 is to vote for a Welsh Conservative Government, who have pledged to end Labour’s neglect of north Wales.

That brings me on to my final point, which is just to say that I will be pleased when next Thursday is out of the way, but I remind Members who are going into other constituencies, other than for a private, personal visit, to please ensure that they notify the MP. That goes to all sides, because I am getting letters of complaint. Please, I do not need any more letters of complaint: just abide by good practice.