Wednesday 9 March 2022
[Caroline Nokes in the Chair]
Bus Service Improvement Plans: North-west England
I beg to move,
That this House has considered funding for bus service improvement plans in the North West.
Thank you for chairing the debate, Ms Nokes.
In Warrington, we are proud of our municipal bus company. It provides connections between our homes and communities, between jobs and opportunities, between healthcare facilities and between our friends and families. For those without cars, like me and thousands of my constituents, buses are essential, and good, reliable bus services are a huge part of the wider picture of reducing carbon emissions and dependence on foreign oil.
Because millions of people across this country rely on buses—they cannot just hop into a car if services are slashed—and they cannot find extra cash if fares rise, bus cuts mean being cut off. Deregulation and a decade of Tory decline have meant that more than 3,000 bus routes and more than 350,000 passenger journeys have been lost. The majority of short trips, under 5 km, are made by car. As a result, our region has a significant air pollution issue. In the Liverpool city region alone, more than 1,000 deaths a year are linked to that silent killer. On public transport, 80% of journeys are taken by bus, yet bus fares have risen by 40% and routes have been mercilessly cut nationally. The millions of people who use buses and the communities who depend on them have been ignored for far too long.
I thank my hon. Friend for opening such a vital debate. One route in my patch that has been or is about to be decommissioned is the No. 62 from Runcorn to her patch, Warrington. That just shows that reregulation is vital. I hope that the judicial review today comes out on the side of those who want to give regulation teeth.
I thank my hon. Friend for that important intervention. As he says, services being cut means communities being cut off from one another. The millions of people who use buses and the communities who depend on them have been ignored for far too long. They have been an afterthought in decisions made far away in Westminster by politicians who have no understanding of them. The shockingly bad services left behind have made public transport increasingly unviable. In Warrington over the last decade, almost 50% of services have been cut. That is absolutely appalling. It means that people in our community—in particular, elderly residents who do not drive—are completely cut off from other parts of the town.
Just a year ago, the Prime Minister and the Transport Secretary launched the “Bus Back Better” strategy and they pledged to provide a great bus service for everyone everywhere. They promised that it would be one of the great acts of levelling up. This was the ambition: £3 billion of transformation funding was supposed to level up buses across England towards London standards, with main road services in towns and cities to run so often that people would not even need a timetable, and better services in the evenings and at weekends; and to provide simple, cheap flat fares that people could pay with a contactless card, and daily and weekly price capping across operators and rail and trams, too.
In Warrington, our Labour-run council has shown real ambition with a plan to increase bus use by between 5% and 15% through excellent council working with partners to make buses more frequent, faster, reliable, cheaper, easier to use and better integrated. This is a local community backing buses.
I want to make a plug if I may, Ms Nokes. The hon. Member for Warrington North (Charlotte Nichols) may be well aware of the advances being made in top-of-the-range buses—for instance, Wrightbus buses in Northern Ireland—hydrogen buses, and the technology that is in use there to make bus travel more environmentally friendly and more environmentally effective. Does the hon. Lady agree that we need to invest in a reliable, frequent bus service like that in order to get people to forgo car journeys in the knowledge that they will get to their destination in time? Hydrogen buses are the buses of the future; they are not hampered by breakdowns.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention and absolutely agree that greening our transport infrastructure is a really important part both of meeting our climate objectives as a country and of ensuring that people have good-quality services they can rely on. I am proud of the fact that in Warrington we have bid to become one of the country’s first all-electric bus towns. Hydrogen for transport also has a really important part to play. With a lot of hydrogen production taking place across the north-west and in the Liverpool city region in particular, it is something that we are very excited about locally. I know that hydrogen trains are being manufactured in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Weaver Vale (Mike Amesbury). We are excited to be leading in the north-west and hope this can be rolled out more widely.
As we await the funding announcement in full, it looks as though Warrington will be one of the lucky places to receive this investment from the Government. Across the length and breadth of the country, particularly in the north-west, many are counting the cost of broken promises, because for all the rhetoric about levelling up, the small print reveals that “Bus Back Better” is in tatters. A letter sent to local transport authority directors by the Department for Transport on 11 January makes it clear that the budget for the transformation of buses—a pot from which local regions can bid for funds—has shrunk from £3 billion to £1.2 billion for the next three years.
The letter that let the cat out of the bag says:
“Prioritisation is inevitable, given the scale of ambition across the country greatly exceeds the amount.”
We know that bids for almost £8 billion have been submitted by local transport authorities, representing a blueprint for transformation up and down the country, but the levelling-up White Paper confirms that communities will see a fraction of that. Despite that, last month the Secretary of State said it was “absolutely incorrect” to say that funding to transform services has been slashed. One of his most senior colleagues, the Conservative Mayor of the West Midlands, directly contradicted him. In a letter he said:
“Funding specifically pledged for transformation has been substantially reduced.”
He concluded that he is “gravely concerned” that, far from seeing transformation, many areas face losing their services altogether.
I mentioned the 50% loss of passenger numbers in Warrington. With the price of labour and fuel currently extremely high, it will be difficult for operators to hold down fares and for routes to continue, particularly those that serve more deprived areas where the profit margins are smaller.
I thank my hon. Friend for giving way and for securing today’s debate. May I give an example of the daily commute of one of my constituents? They get on at Farnworth train station to go to Moses Gate. They get off and take the 521 bus, operated by Vision Bus, for about 20 minutes. They then walk 10 minutes to Ladywood School in Little Lever to drop off their child. To get back into Bolton town centre in time for work, they walk 15 minutes to the bus stop and jump on the 524, operated by Diamond Bus, which takes 25 minutes. Quite often, the buses do not turn up or they are cancelled. People end up being late for work and some have even lost their jobs. Does my hon. Friend recognise that that is a concerning situation for many people in our region?
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention, and I could not agree more, particularly when we look at the deregulation of bus services, with operators in some regions scrabbling for the same fares and most affordable routes rather than what best serves their community, so we end up with a mismatch of multiple operators running the same route.
The Manchester Oxford Road corridor is the busiest bus corridor in Europe, yet people a mile away are left without bus services to get into Manchester city centre. For towns and cities that have multiple operators, it is an even bigger issue. When I lived in Salford, for example, the franchise changed from First to Stagecoach on part of my route. Overnight, my monthly bus pass trebled in cost, because I could no longer buy a First-only bus pass. Because I had to change from First on to Stagecoach, I had to buy one of the much more expensive multi-operator passes. That is an issue across our region. I am glad that the Labour metro Mayors for the Liverpool city region and for the Greater Manchester region are looking to address that within their combined authorities.
From Greater Manchester to Lancaster, places bypassed by good public transport for far too long have been demanding real change. They put forward an ambitious blueprint to use buses to connect people to jobs, families and opportunities, and tackle the climate crisis in the process. Despite the challenges, they have plans to completely overhaul and reregulate the bus network as part of the bus service improvement plan. It was supposed to be about improved accessibility across the network, including level access from train to platform, and it is part of the work that is beginning on networks of cycling and walking routes across our region.
Labour leaders in power in towns and cities nationwide have real ambition to reverse the decline that we have seen under the Tories. We want a London-style system and to make buses quicker, cheaper, greener and more reliable, but we need a Government whose ambition matches our own. It is now becoming clear that, far from matching the ambition of our communities, Ministers have pulled the rug out from underneath them. Will the Minister now own up and admit what the Transport Secretary will not: that many areas will now not see a single penny of the transformation funding? Will she today detail exactly how much local transport authorities are set to see in transformation funding, and come clean that there will be areas in the north-west that will miss out altogether?
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair this morning, Ms Nokes. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington North (Charlotte Nichols) on securing this important debate on funding—or the lack thereof, as we have heard—and on her excellent introduction. As on many other subjects, she is an excellent advocate for her constituents.
I have spoken before about how the proportion of people in Ellesmere Port and Neston who use private motor transport to get to work is much higher than the national average. Perhaps we should not be surprised about that—we build cars in the constituency, and have done for many years—but I believe it is more a reflection of the poor public transport links that we have in the constituency. The threat to bus services and changes to bus routes are common issues that have come up on many occasions since I was elected. The subject is raised regularly with me by constituents, particularly elderly constituents who rely on public transport to get around, and of course those who travel by bus for work or for education.
The situation is a challenge across the whole constituency, but particularly in the Parkgate and Neston areas. On top of existing services being inadequate to meet my constituents’ needs, it is fair to say that over at least the last decade, there has been a battle to save a service probably once every couple of months. We have not even begun to think about what will happen because of the increase in fuel costs over the last few months—indeed, they spiked over the weekend as well.
Sometimes when facing such threats, we have managed to persuade the bus company to keep the route open. Sometimes the service is retained but rerouted, usually to maximise profit rather than convenience for customers, and sometimes we lose the route altogether. When that happens, it has a huge impact on the people who rely on the services to get to school, get to work, and access medical appointments or other public services.
A current example is the proposal by the Cheshire police and crime commissioner to close Ellesmere Port police station to the public. He proposes that those who need to speak to an officer in person will be able to go to Blacon in Chester. When I asked him how those who do not have a car will be able to get there, answer came there none. There is no direct bus route to Blacon from Ellesmere Port—again showing the lack of strategy and of thinking through the consequences of decisions of that nature.
I shall outline a few examples of how my constituents have been affected over the years by changes to bus services to highlight the really inadequate state of affairs at the moment. About four or five years ago, the No. 7 bus service, which catered for a number of retirement bungalows and people with no other option than to get a bus, was rerouted due to parking issues and the Saturday service was removed altogether. The council intervened but could only negotiate an arrangement to keep the Saturday service for 10 months. Unfortunately, the impact of losing a rural bus grant unfortunately was that we the service was not retained thereafter.
In 2019, Stagecoach, one of the main operators in my area, carried out a consultation regarding changes that it was proposing to services, which it sold as meaning better co-ordination and frequency of buses travelling through the constituency between Chester and Liverpool, as well as a Sunday service via Overpool, and more buses for the Hope Farm estate. What resulted, however, was that the 22 bus service, which was a vital route for my constituents in Neston and Parkgate to attend Arrowe Park Hospital in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral West (Margaret Greenwood), was removed altogether due to low passenger numbers. Stagecoach proposed that customers use a different bus service, but the reality of that, one constituent told me, was having to catch three buses, taking more than an hour, just to attend a hospital appointment. That is not the better co-ordination of bus services that was being sold at the start of the consultation.
The proposed changes also left the Groves estate without any bus service at all along Chester Road between the Strawberry Roundabout and the Whitby High School, leaving a number of elderly constituents who use the bus service to get to the town centre and Ellesmere Port Hospital with a lengthy walk just to get to the nearest bus stop. One constituent told me:
“I will be 88 next month and like my friends and neighbours want to remain independent in my own home, but this lack of public transport is not helping”.
That brings home to me just how vital a proper co-ordinated bus service is.
Yes, I agree. At the heart of this, clearly, is a bus service that has been under-resourced for many years. There are two problems: lack of support for operators and lack of strategy, so we keep facing chopping and changing decisions based on commercial considerations that do not necessarily serve the communities. The example of the bus service I have just mentioned means that someone who wants to get to the hospital, even though if it is only a mile from their home, must now take two buses. It is too far for them to walk.
What was also clear from the process was that the consultations were not adequate. Numerous comments were lodged by constituents, but they seemed to make no difference to the results. As I set out, the 22 bus service was not even mentioned as under threat during the consultation. It is hard for people to argue to retain a service when they are not aware that it is threatened. Greater transparency is needed from service providers when they enter such consultations.
The last local change to mention was that, last year, the route of the No. 5, which is an hourly service between Mold and Ellesmere Port calling at Cheshire Oaks—a major employer in the area—was altered, leaving the Stanney Grange estate with reduced access. One constituent who contacted me was distressed about the impact that that would have on her learning-disabled son, who relied on the bus service to get out and about. When we made inquiries, we were advised that Stagecoach had served notice and it intended to reprocure the route and consider costs. Arriva received the contract on a temporary basis and, when there was a further reprocurement, it got an alternative timetable as part of the bid. Some of the routes were retained, but many roads previously served no longer are. Unfortunately, again, constituents lose out.
Those are examples of not only a lack of resources, but a lack of joined-up thinking and strategy on what bus services are for. They are for serving our communities and, clearly, this constant chopping and changing, reducing routes and leaving areas out altogether does not benefit our constituents at all. As my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington North said, 10 years of cuts have left bus coverage at its lowest level in decades. Since 2010, more than 3,000 bus routes and more than 350,000 passenger journeys have been lost, leaving people cut off from friends, family, work and education opportunities, and other public services.
It seems to me that the Prime Minister has no intention of keeping his promise of
“great bus services to everyone, everywhere”,
because, as my hon. Friend said, hidden away in the levelling-up plan is a massive cut to bus funding of £1.8 billion. Figures show that the cost of funding bids submitted by 53 out of 79 local authorities totals more than £7 billion, so it is clear that many areas will miss out. With this Government’s record of picking and choosing winners and losers, I have little confidence that my constituency will benefit from that funding at all.
I am sick of my area missing out on funding for improvements to the community, bus services and other local infrastructure. If we have ambition for the country, it should be for the whole country. We need real ambition; we do not need any more empty promises. We want a real say in the way services are run. We do not want to keep putting in bids for pots of money and then being left at the whim of commercial operators. We want control of our bus services and we want resources to be able to deliver them properly for the benefit of our communities.
Labour leaders in power in cities and towns across the country have the ambition to reverse the decline we have seen over the last decade. We want a London-style system that is run in the public interest, to make buses quicker, cheaper and more reliable for our communities. When I was first elected to this place, I was amazed that I could stand at my local bus stop and wait only a matter of minutes for a bus to turn up, and that I was paying £1.60. I could not get anywhere on a bus in Ellesmere Port for £1.60, never mind across half the city, which is what we can do here in London. It is chalk and cheese. The whole country should have that level of service. It is an ambition that is right for our country, and it is what I want for my community. It is what we deserve, because bus services are a vital part of our community.
How can we level up if we cannot get anywhere on a bus after 6 o’clock at night? How can we level up if bus services are removed at a moment’s notice by operators, without any regard to the effect that will have on the communities they are supposed to serve? How can we level up if we have no power or resources to direct where and when buses go? Let us get on with some delivery. Let us take back control of our buses and serve our communities the way that we want them to be served.
Thank you, Ms Nokes. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this morning.
Since the Conservatives deregulated buses outside of London in the 1980s, services have suffered. That has been felt on Merseyside where, under the current operating model, private bus companies set routes, ticket prices and timetables. It is a system designed around profit, not passengers, in which services can be withdrawn at short notice if they are not profitable enough.
A report last year by the academic Philip Alston, the former United Nations special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, found that the deregulation of buses has
“provided a master class in how not to run an essential public service”,
leaving residents at the mercy of private actors who have total discretion over how to run a bus route or whether to run one at all. That is the Conservative legacy on buses. Since 2010, more than 200 bus services have been lost across the Liverpool city region—a shocking statistic.
A number of my constituents in Wirral West have been in touch with me in recent months about a reduction in the service of the No. 71 bus, which runs from Heswall to Liverpool via Irby. I know from that correspondence just how important these services are to local people. Lost and reduced services can impact on people who need to get to work, to hospital appointments, to school or college or to meet friends.
Public transport is immensely important if we are to tackle climate change and the issue of air quality. It is important that we encourage people to use it, and that will happen only if services are reliable and affordable.
Thanks to the hard work of Metro Mayor Steve Rotheram and local leaders, services in the Liverpool city region are on the way to being publicly controlled again. Last week, members of the Liverpool City Region Combined Authority signed off on proposals for a franchising system to be the preferred method of running bus services. That will bring the system back under local control, allowing the combined authority to specify the network, control fare policy and drastically improve ticketing. I echo the words of Mayor Rotheram, who described the move as “momentous”. He has long advocated a London-style transport system across Merseyside, which is nothing short of what local people deserve.
Transport authorities in the north-west and across the country are waiting to learn their funding allocations for their bus service improvement plans. The Government have said they will announce details on how the funding will be allocated in due course. Authorities have been waiting since October to find out their individual allocations and need to know as soon as possible how much they are getting so that they can put their plans into action.
Analysis by the Confederation of Passenger Transport has suggested that more than £7 billion will be needed to fully deliver the measures that local transport authorities have included in their bus service improvement plans. The Government have set aside £1.2 billion for the plans, creating a huge funding gap between what local authorities want to deliver and the funding that the Government are making available.
Liverpool City Region Combined Authority has asked for £667 million from the Government for its bus service improvement plan. At the heart of the plan are measures to improve affordability, reliability and the environmental impacts of bus services.
The Campaign for Better Transport has said:
“It is doubtful that the current funding available will be sufficient…to achieve real transformation in ambitious authorities.”
When the Minister responds, can she tell us whether she agrees? Will she guarantee that the Government will come forward with the funds that we so desperately need for public transport systems, to make them affordable, reliable, and ensure that they meet the needs of passengers?
It is a pleasure to speak under your chairship, Ms Nokes. We seem to be getting through the debate rather quickly this morning, which means that I can read my whole speech. I am sure you will enjoy it.
I start by thanking my hon. Friends who made the effort to come here this morning to speak on this issue, which is so important—not just to us as MPs but, more importantly, to our constituents. It will, I believe, define the outcome at many seats at the next election; it is that important to many constituents.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington North (Charlotte Nichols) for securing this debate, at a time when bus services across the country are at such a risk from the Government’s over-egged promises, which many constituents, I am afraid, feel have been broken. I also particularly thank my hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders), who mentioned that it has been months since the Prime Minister launched the centrepiece of his levelling-up agenda, the national bus strategy—trumpeting from the hilltops his love for buses and how “Bus Back Better” would address the vast disparities between services in London and the rest of the country.
My hon. Friend the Member for Wirral West (Margaret Greenwood) explained the paucity of funding—I will touch on that later—and how desperately that will affect her constituents. My hon. Friend the Member for Weaver Vale (Mike Amesbury) explained his almost annual campaigning efforts to save bus routes. I think, unfortunately, he must run those campaigns again this year.
My hon. Friend the Member for Bolton South East (Yasmin Qureshi) mentioned the struggles of her constituents over the affordability of fares, and the routes that do not actually meet the needs of local residents. Of course, I also thank the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) for his contribution; buses are an important issue in Northern Ireland as well.
Less than a year on, I am genuinely disappointed about the Government’s ambition. It was limited from the outset but has declined even further now, to a point where funding can only realistically satisfy the ambitions of just two transport authorities. There is such a vast gap between the amount of money bid for and what is available that many parts of the country will be bitterly disappointed that their ambitions are not being met.
Let us be clear: prior to the pandemic, more journeys were made on buses than on any other form of public transport—almost 4.5 billion journeys. However, after 12 years of Conservative cuts, the loss of 134 million miles of bus lanes and an inadequate statutory framework, vital transport links have been left to decay. Bus coverage is now the lowest it has been in decades. The situation has deteriorated to such an extent that the Campaign to Protect Rural England now uses the term “transport deserts” to describe many rural communities.
It is mostly Labour MPs who have turned up today. However, when I talk to colleagues from other parts of the country, they are equally concerned, whether they be Conservative MPs from Cornwall or parts of the home counties. They are also suffering from those transport deserts. Austerity has seen the Government slash public subsidies for buses, with more than 3,000 bus routes cut across the country, leading to passenger numbers slumping by 10%, while fares have increased, in some places, by as much as 32%—well above even the rapidly-increasing rate of inflation.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral West mentioned, underfunding over such a long period by the Government has become so severe that in his report into the privatisation of the bus sector, the former UN special rapporteur, Professor Philip Alston, highlighted a broken and fragmented system, with skyrocketing fares, plummeting service standards and disappearing routes, which often deprived bus users of an essential public service.
My hon. Friend is making an excellent speech. Does he agree that funding for bus services is essential to improve our economy? We have such disparity of income and grotesque levels of inequality in the country. Unless we do something about bus services, those people who are currently left behind will be even further left behind, as it is harder for them to secure and to keep jobs.
I absolutely agree. A proper, fully funded, affordable and accessible bus network that can get people to college, university and jobs is a vital part of rebuilding our economy and of any serious levelling-up agenda for any part of the country. The cost of having an electric vehicle and of fuel—I paid £1.81 for a litre of petrol last week, which was pretty eye-watering—means that many ordinary people will have to rely more on public transport than they do at the moment. My hon. Friend is absolutely right.
On the issue of affordability, I know this does not happen in London, but in my constituency there may be two sets of bus providers on the same route, with one charging a much higher fare than the other. Constituents ask me why they are paying one set of fares in the morning and a different one in the evening.
I thank my hon. Friend for making that really good point. I have travelled to parts of the country, including Bolton, and have seen the disparity in fares at different times of the day, having been told to pay £6.50 for a single bus fare. It is no wonder that people are thinking, “I might as well take an Uber rather than get on public transport.”
An issue we have in this country, clearly pointed out in the UN special rapporteur’s report, is that deregulation has led to disastrous disparity in the type of service provided and network across the country. That is why I am hoping for positive news today. Andy Burnham, the Mayor of Greater Manchester, who has been battling for the right to franchise buses in Greater Manchester, is taking the right approach. Although there are some benefits to enhanced partnerships, the reality is that with more direct public control, services can be directed not at the behest of what is commercially viable but at what is economically viable for constituents to get to jobs and colleges. That is something that we all have to reflect hard on as we move forward with the Government’s programme. I hope that Andy Burnham gets a successful result.
Philip Alston’s report also suggested that the UK has failed its human rights obligations by allowing this essential service to deteriorate. The right to physical accessibility, which is the bedrock of many economic, social, civil and political rights is, for many, contingent on access to reliable and affordable public transport. Let us be clear: the deterioration of essential bus networks is not just a transport issue—it is a human rights issue, be it for older citizens, pensioners or people with disabilities unable to use other types of public transport. Buses can be made accessible. It is shameful that we have been singled out globally for such a terrible state of affairs when it comes to our bus network.
Research by the Common Wealth think-tank found that since bus services were deregulated, the real cost of bus and coach fares has risen by 102%. That speaks to the point a number of Members made, and is just unbelievable. Our service standards have dropped off a cliff, which coincides with a dramatic reduction in Government spending on local transport, which has fallen by more than £900 million since 2010. That is nearly £1 billion since 2010. That has clearly been exacerbated by the pandemic—industry revenue has fallen by £250 million, as people stayed at home and did not use public transport.
Now more than ever, bus services need to be bolstered in areas such as the north-west of England. The national bus strategy was an opportune moment for this Government to right the many wrongs since Thatcher privatised the network in the first place. Sadly, the Prime Minister promised just £3 billion of spending to level up buses across England towards London standards. I repeat the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston: as a London MP paying £1.50 fares, I find it astonishing when I go to other parts of the country and see people pay as much as an hour’s wage for an average worker to have one or two bus tickets. It seems unbelievable that people in many parts of the country have to spend their first hour’s wages just to get to work.
Unfortunately, the Prime Minister’s strategy offered nothing to those who were looking for the bold vision that had been promised to reverse the millions of miles of lost bus routes across the country. It was a huge missed opportunity to revolutionise the bus industry and ensure that funds were properly directed to deliver the transition to electric and low emission vehicles that had been promised. We are still waiting for the vast majority of the 4,000 EV, hydrogen and other low and zero emission buses that have been promised. I have spoken to bus manufacturers, and those buses are still not on order.
Another frustration is the fact that the Government are already backtracking on their meagre promises. Leaked documents recently made clear that the budget for the transformation of buses—a pot from which local regions can bid for funds—has now shrunk to just £1.4 billion for the next three years. Sadly, that means cuts are inevitable, with the Department for Transport stating that
“the scale of ambition across the country greatly exceeds the amount”.
This was an opportunity to transform our bus networks for what is not a huge of sum of money, compared with the amount that would be needed for rail projects or aviation. It is scandalous that this money has not been made available and that that promise is now not going to be met.
Figures compiled by colleagues in the shadow Transport team revealed that the total amount in the funding bids made to the extra funding pot by 53 out of 79 local transport authorities—approximately 80% of all bids—adds up to almost £7.5 billion, so they are going to have to fight for the scraps of the £1.4 billion in that funding pot. This indicates that the total amount in the submissions is almost certainly in excess of £9 billion and that the Government are putting forward far too little funding. It is really only a sticking plaster or it could perhaps fund a more transformative programme in one or two parts of the country, while the rest have to stagger on with some of the awful services described by my colleagues today.
As I have said before in this House, the reality is that the Tories promised transformational investment in bus services but in fact millions of passengers have instead seen managed decline. They have dramatically downgraded the ambitions of many local communities, with bus services being slashed nationwide. This is proof that the Government simply will not and cannot deliver for the people who need it most.
As many of my hon. Friends have alluded to, Labour would be far more ambitious in the scale of its plans for buses and many of our metro Mayors are leading the way in doing that. They have empowered and delivered for people right across the country, including in Greater Manchester where Andy Burnham has seized the powers afforded to him in the Bus Services Act 2017 to ensure that a municipal service, or the best that he can achieve under franchising processes, will be in place by 2024.
Labour-run Nottingham City Council has shown what can be done if the right approach is adopted. Indeed, in Nottingham the city’s bus company, founded as a completely council-owned company in 1986, has won UK bus operator of the year five times and has remarkable satisfaction ratings. Last year, Nottingham City Transport won an environmental improvement award for reducing the emissions from its fleet of buses by 90% after a £42 million investment in low emission vehicles.
There are more plans in the combined authorities in the west midlands, the west of England, South Yorkshire, West Yorkshire, Liverpool and the North of Tyne, to name just a few Labour administrations that have ambitious plans to revolutionise bus services. The same is the case in the north-west, and that ambition could be backed by the Government if they chose to do so.
As many colleagues have pointed out, Labour have leaders in power in towns and cities nationwide who have real ambition to reverse the decline. With more than 3,000 services slashed, fares rocketing and passenger numbers down, action needs to be taken and Labour leaders are beginning to take that action where the Government are lacking.
We need a bus service fit for the climate crisis that creates good-quality, reliable jobs across communities that are victims of rural poverty. This is exactly the radical offer on buses that towns and cities across the country so desperately need as we attempt to grow our way out of an economic crisis.
The research that I mentioned before revealed that the true figure for what is required by local authorities to enable them to deliver their bus transformation plans is around £9 billion, six times what is currently on offer by the Government. The Greater Manchester Combined Authority has submitted a bid for £630 million to help improve services across the region and to enable it to deliver its bus service improvement plan up to 2025, including its drive to create the Bee Network, which is an integrated London-style transport system that would join together buses, trams, cycling, walking and other shared-mobility services, making public transport more efficient and, hopefully, much cheaper.
Andy Burnham has led the way on that bus transformation in recent years as the first metro Mayor to use those powers set out in the Bus Services Act 2017. That ambition risks being undermined because of the lack of Government investment. Greater Manchester’s own request for £630 million of bus service improvement plan funding would be almost half of the Government’s allocation for the whole country. It demonstrates how inadequate the current amount is and how empty the “Bus Back Better” slogan is. That is why Andy, alongside seven other metro Mayors, including the Conservative Mayor of the West Midlands, wrote to the Transport Secretary and the Chancellor last month to jointly express their grave concerns about the downgrading to just £1.4 billion of what was originally earmarked for transforming bus services. Quite clearly, the new figure means many areas will now receive no funding at all and almost every region will fail to receive exactly what they have requested.
I finish by urging the Minister to provide assurances to all present that the ambitions of local authorities across the country, including the north-west, to improve bus services will be met by this Government. At present, there are very real fears based on the meagre £1.4 billion that is being proposed that this will be a missed opportunity to level up services once and for all and give our bus services the transformation they need to take us forward over the next 100 years.
Without that long-term investment, there is a real risk that communities will face the prospect of losing their bus services, which would have a detrimental impact on economic prosperity as we attempt to grow our way out of the pandemic. Until the Government match the ambition of local transport authorities, their levelling-up agenda will unfortunately be like the buses we too often have in these places: we wait for them to come, but they do not arrive.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Nokes, and to hear the appreciation of and ambition for buses and public services, particularly in the north-west, which, as I am sure the hon. Member for Warrington North (Charlotte Nichols) understands, is my home region as well.
Like the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders), I too was pleasantly surprised when arriving in London at the complete contrast to my area of West Cumbria in the provision, regularity and ease of payment of bus services in London. That is absolutely what we want to see being rolled out across the country. I congratulate the hon. Member for Warrington North on securing the debate and discussing in depth why we value buses. It is, of course, because buses are the foundation of our public transport network and an efficient bus sector is key to levelling up the country.
It is a shame that the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) is no longer in his place. He mentioned bus manufacturing in Northern Ireland. I had the joy of visiting Wrightbus a few months ago. I went to Ballymena to see the factory. That is just one example of how bus manufacturing is also levelling up the UK. Buses provide access to employment, apprenticeships, training opportunities, leisure, education and crucial connections between friends and family, especially in the more deprived areas where fewer people have access to a car.
We know that covid-19 has knocked people’s confidence to travel on public transport. The patronage of public transport has dropped, and I want to work with hon. Members across the House to increase that patronage, because that is the most important aspect. Others are not travelling at all due to the shift to working from home, which adds to the difficulties that public transport operators now face. We have seen demand reduce to well below pre-pandemic levels. The Government have supported the bus and light rail sector since March 2020 to mitigate the impacts of the pandemic through a variety of emergency and recovery grants, totalling almost £2 billion. We are absolutely committed to supporting bus services, and our spending reflects that.
I have heard reference throughout the debate to the £3 billion of new funding. I will go into detail about exactly how that funding is being spent. It is new funding for buses over the course of this Parliament. It includes £1.2 billion for transformational bus service improvements, more than £500 million for zero-emission buses and more than £500 million for the city region sustainable transport settlements that will directly fund bus infrastructure.
Let me provide some detail on how various funds are improving the bus network in the north-west. First, I am delighted at Warrington’s commitment to transform its entire fleet. Some 120 battery-electric buses will be gracing the streets of Warrington over the next few months. That is brilliant. Through the ultra-low emission bus scheme in Greater Manchester, over £6.9 million will provide 32 electric buses, including the crucial charging infrastructure. In Liverpool city region, the low emission bus scheme is contributing more than £4.9 million, which will bring 12 electric buses, including the charging infrastructure, and 60 hybrid buses.
In the Liverpool city region, the transforming cities fund will award a total of £172.5 million, which will bring 20 hydrogen buses. In Greater Manchester, which we have heard much about today, the city region sustainable transport settlement will contribute over £1 billion. The detail of the final settlement and actual programme is yet to be agreed, but there is over £710 million for Liverpool. In Blackpool, the ZEBRA—zero emission bus regional areas—scheme will contribute to the roll-out of zero-emissions buses, and similarly in Liverpool and Greater Manchester.
We are committed not only to the provision of buses, but also to helping people find out about services, improving the way that they pay and helping them have confidence in the reliability of the service. Most importantly, this is about how we transition from a fossil-fuelled economy to a decarbonised transport system using clean buses—hydrogen, hybrid or battery-electric.
The Minister is giving us lots of detail on Government funding but, as I mentioned, analysis by the Confederation of Passenger Transport suggested that over £7 billion was needed to deliver the measures that local transport authorities have included in bus service improvement plans. The Government have set out a fraction of that—£1.2 billion. What can the Minister do to secure more money for the bus services that we so desperately need?
I thank the hon. Member for her intervention. Over this Parliament there will be over £3 billion of new funding for buses. We are doubling dedicated bus funding from spending review ’21 compared with spending review ’15. It is made up of £1.2 billion of new funding for bus transformation deals to deliver those London-style services that we keep talking about, with the infrastructure and the service improvements.
That is less than half of the £3 billion that is needed. What are the Government going to do to meet the ambition of our authorities, which really want to deliver a modern, reliable transport service? The Minister spoke earlier about the importance of getting people to use buses, but unless they are reliable and affordable, people will not use them. People need to know that they can get to work. It is fundamental that we have that investment. What can the Minister do to make sure that we secure it?
The hon. Lady makes the obvious point, so I will continue. There is £525 million to deliver zero-emission buses over this Parliament, of which £355 million is new funding, announced in the spending review. There is the £1.5 billion of covid support to maintain the service levels during covid until next April, and over £500 million from the city region sustainable transport settlement. There will always be more to do, but the Government, in particular my Department through the transport decarbonisation plan, have set out how we are spending billions in transforming the public transport network.
It is important to say how we can ensure people that get to the places they need to be, using the products they need. It is particularly relevant to the north-west that we recently appointed Chris Boardman as the interim chief executive for Active Travel England. With over £500 million of funding, he will have the ability to increase the infrastructure to encourage and enable people to walk and cycle. That will ensure that those networks that are proposed by our local authorities meet the essential criteria for a safe network. We are working with car clubs, such as Enterprise Car Club and Liftshare. Buses are a very important part of the network in getting people to the places they need to be, but they are not the only way that we will be able to do that in the future. It would be a good to offer a meeting to all of my colleagues across the north-west to discuss that in more detail. I understand that Members in this House are excellent enablers, champions and ambassadors for the way that their constituents can get about.
I was struck that the Minister recognised the surprise that I felt, when I first arrived in the capital, at the ease and affordability of bus services. My constituents want to know when they will no longer be paying twice the fare to get half the distance on their local buses.
I will return to my main points and hopefully address the hon. Gentleman’s queries. As has been said, the national bus strategy will be critical; we believe it is the biggest shake-up in a generation. We are absolutely committed to delivering the transformational changes that have been called for this morning, which passengers throughout the country deserve. Our strategy explains how we will make buses more frequent and reliable, easier to understand and use, better co-ordinated and cheaper. It sets out how we want to see fares, including low flat fares, maximum fares and daily price caps, become the norm in cities and towns.
English local transport authorities outside London have developed bus service improvement plans, setting out local visions for the step change in services that is needed, driven by what passengers and would-be passengers want. The central aim of our bus strategy is to get more people travelling by bus, and we will achieve that only if we make buses a practical and attractive alternative to the car for more people. Strong local plans, delivered through enhanced partnerships between authorities and bus operators or franchising arrangements, are crucial to achieving that. We have been clear that enhanced partnerships or franchising arrangements must deliver more comprehensive services, including those that are socially or economically necessary to drive forward the Government’s levelling-up agenda.
Authorities will submit draft versions of their enhanced partnership plans and schemes to the DFT by the end of April this year. Liverpool city region announced its decision to adopt franchising for local bus services on 4 March. On 2 February the Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities and Minister for Intergovernmental Relations, my right hon. Friend the Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove), unveiled the Government’s levelling-up White Paper, which sets out a plan to transform the UK by spreading opportunity and prosperity to all parts of our country. Local public transport connectivity across the country will be significantly closer to the standards of London, with improved services, simpler fares and integrated ticketing. The Government will fund ambitious plans for bus improvements in areas where that can make the most impact, including the mayoral city regions, Stoke-on-Trent, Derbyshire and Warrington.
We must address the long-term decline in bus patronage; the bus industry cannot do so on its own. We need to develop a much closer collaborative working relationship with the industry; we recognise that this relationship has improved through the pandemic, and it must continue to deepen. The Government have made it clear through the national bus strategy that close partnership working, via enhanced partnerships, will be a condition of Government funding for buses.
We believe that only through such collaboration can the right combination of LTA action—for example, through more bus priority and operator action by improving services on the ground—and targeted Government funding increase overall bus patronage. Of course bus operators should do their part, by making long-term investments in buses and services to ensure that buses are an attractive alternative mode of transport to the car. It is vital that we go further and faster to decarbonise all vehicles, including buses, because they have an essential role to play in transport achieving net zero and driving our green transformation. A double-decker bus can take 75 cars off the road, helping to reduce the impact of transport on the environment. However, we know that we will achieve that only if we can demonstrate to more people that buses are a practical and attractive alternative to the car.
So we remain committed to supporting the introduction of 4,000 zero-emission buses and achieving an all zero-emission bus fleet. I will just repeat how pleased I am that Warrington has taken the lead in transitioning its entire fleet—all 120 buses—to battery-electric vehicles, because such action will support our climate ambitions, improve transport for local communities and support high-quality green jobs. In the spending review 2021, the Government announced £355 million of new funding for zero-emission buses and we are providing £525 million of funding for zero-emission buses in this Parliament.
It is also important to talk about the infrastructure that will be introduced at a brand-new bus depot in Warrington, which is part of the Warrington town deal. Over the past two decades, the bus and coach industry has made tremendous efforts to bring fleets into line with the Public Services Vehicles Accessibility Regulations, revolutionising access to public transport for millions of disabled people.
Significant progress has been made already, with over 99% of buses on local routes meeting the minimum legal accessibility standards and almost every bus operator requiring its drivers to complete disability awareness training. However, just as the nature of transport provision changes, so do the needs of our passengers, which is why, in the national bus strategy published in March 2021, we committed to review the ongoing efficiency of the accessibility regulations by the end of 2023. We have committed to require the provision of audible and visual information on board local services throughout Great Britain, and to consult on regulatory changes to improve access to wheelchair spaces.
The bus strategy also seeks to improve the convenience, integration and value for money of bus ticketing, through the introduction of multi-operator contactless capped fares within each LTA area. Work is under way to ensure that technology is in place to support that aspiration. Locally set fare caps should ensure that passengers making multiple journeys on a pay-as-you-go basis are charged no more than the price of a daily ticket, with little or no premium levied for using more than one operator, effectively converting a bank card and mobile phone into a virtual travelcard.
All enhanced partnerships will be encouraged to consider the development of a multi-operator ticketing scheme, to help make multi-leg journeys feel more joined-up. In turn, these partnerships will help to support the use of public transport to out-of-town employment, education and healthcare sites, among other journey purposes.
We want to improve passengers’ access to accurate journey planning information, including timetables, fares and location data, so that passengers can plan their journeys, find the best value tickets and receive real-time updates on the services they use. The bus open data service is a new digital service provided by the Department for Transport that is transforming the delivery of bus passenger information across England. Using open data and intelligent services, the aim of the service is to enable passengers to plan their journeys easily, find best-value tickets and receive real-time service updates at the touch of a button.
Perhaps now is also a good time to reflect on the work that our safety champions have been doing. Yesterday, which was International Women’s Day, I travelled to Birmingham to meet Laura Shoaf and Anne Shaw, in order to discuss the 13 recommendations that we very much hope will protect the most vulnerable people on our transport network. They are specifically aimed at improving the safety of women and girls across the transport system, but they are particularly relevant to the public transport system. They include, for instance, ensuring that we can design out crime, the natural surveillance that comes from a well-designed—
I appreciate that word of advice, Ms Nokes. My point was that as part of our digital transformation, we will be using data to advise passengers on when their buses are coming, so that there is absolutely no need to linger at the bus stop or the train station. That is an important point, because we are moving to an on-demand and more convenient transport system. Open data will transform how we travel by providing an on-demand service and real-time journey planners, which will empower customers to make the best choices for their travel needs. Regulations will mandate that bus operators must release information to help passengers make better informed and cost-effective travel choices.
The bus strategy recognises the need to address long-term skills deficits and staff shortages in local transport authorities and the bus industry. Some £25 million has been allocated to a range of measures to support an increase in staff capacity and capability; that includes additional funding for LTA resource, and the development of a bus centre of excellence. The centre of excellence will help LTAs and operators to work in partnership more effectively, achieve more with Government funding, and find mechanisms to increase demand and reduce inefficiencies in bus service delivery.
In summary, I hope all this demonstrates that the Government are committed to improving bus services. The Government are clear that ensuring that better bus services are delivered across England will be one of our major acts of levelling up. As we recover from the pandemic, good bus services will be vital in ensuring that communities are connected to family, employment, educational opportunities and much, much more. I thank the hon. Member for Warrington North for the opportunity to speak so positively about buses.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Nokes. I thank my hon. Friends the Members for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders), for Weaver Vale (Mike Amesbury), for Bolton South East (Yasmin Qureshi) and for Wirral West (Margaret Greenwood), and the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), for their contributions to today’s debate. Although we represent very different and diverse communities across north-west England—and even further north-west, in the case of the hon. Member for Strangford —the story for buses is the same.
Having to take multiple bus services for a journey that would be straightforward by car is a daily reality across our region, not least because of a lack of orbital routes, as they tend to be less profitable, but also because of a lack of connecting services between our towns and cities. Levelling up requires the investment to enable integrated, affordable and green public transport. I am glad that the Minister highlighted some of the incredible achievements of Warrington’s Own Buses, but so much of that is possible because we do not have the broken franchise model that causes so many of the problems elsewhere that we have heard about today. I believe that we are now one of only 10 municipal bus companies left, which means that we seek to operate in the public interest, not for private profit.
In Warrington, Government covid subsidy funding is now secured through to September 2022, but there could well be a cliff edge after that, particularly if fuel costs continue to skyrocket and the funding spoken about today just keeps us where we are. We need to receive our full funding ask through the BSIP—the bus service improvement plan—including capital and operating expenditure funding streams if we are to be able to improve. My hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston was exactly right to highlight the fact that, for hon. Members who split our week between London and our north-west constituencies, the gulf between the service provision at home and the service provision here is staggering. If it is good enough for London, it is good enough for the north-west. I hope the Minister will take away our concerns and comments to her Department and ensure that the Government’s ambition finally begins to be met in our regions.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered funding for bus service improvement plans in the North West.
Multi-hospital NHS Trusts: Transportation
I beg to move,
That this House has considered transportation between sites in multi-hospital NHS trusts.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Nokes. First, I put on record my huge gratitude for the work of my local trust, and for all who have worked so assiduously and faithfully during these long months and years of the pandemic, and before that. I also pay tribute to those at my hospital trust for their journey from special measures to “good” and “outstanding”. That reflects so well on their determination and commitment to raising standards and providing the best patient care.
Let me give something of the context for my hospital trust. The East Sussex Healthcare Trust consists of three linked hospitals, the Conquest in St Leonards- on-Sea, Eastbourne District General Hospital and, in between those, Bexhill Hospital, which offers additional ophthalmology, rehabilitation and intermediate care services. ESHT has nearly 7,100 dedicated staff, and 74% of them report having to travel between sites for work.
The region has a statistically higher proportion of residents who are more advanced in years, and the road between the main two hospitals is single carriageway and fraught with delay and disruption. It can prove to be quite a challenging journey. Over the past years, however, the hospital story is one of reconfiguration of services; reconfiguration of maternity, paediatrics and, most recently, cardiology and ophthalmology services are under consideration in the name of the pursuit of clinical excellence.
I recognise the value of clinical excellence and specialisms. My little boy has journeyed his way, through the years, from Great Ormond Street to King’s College and St Thomas’s just over the road. I recognise the value of ever-increasing specialist care, but access is at stake. The sorry truth is that for the one in four families in Eastbourne in my constituency who do not have a car, the journey is costly and difficult when services are reconfigured.
For example, none of our hospitals is located next to a train station. They are near bus stops, but there are no direct bus routes between the sites, so those travelling to and from them are heavily reliant on cars. Method No. 1 of travel might be: walk, then get the first bus, for which there is a 43-minute wait, then get the second bus, and then walk. That takes approximately two hours and 36 minutes, but there are commonly delays, and it costs £8 to £10. The second scenario is: walk for one mile, then get a train from Hampden Park to St Leonards Warrior Square, and then get a bus. That takes approximately one hour and 30 minutes, subject to delays, and costs £10 to £20. A taxi or private hire vehicle takes 26 minutes to one hour at peak times, and costs £35 to £50. For the fortunate three in four who drive their own vehicle, the journey takes 26 minutes to one hour at peak times, and costs £3 to £6 in petrol or diesel.
Given those travel options, it is unsurprising that almost everyone attempts to drive between hospital sites, rather than using public transport. Those who do not own a car are substantially disadvantaged, in terms of time, cost and practicality, in accessing healthcare or, importantly, visiting loved ones.
The hospitals recognise the challenge. Their focus is provision for their staff. I quote from their 2019 survey. I humbly recognise that it was published just before the pandemic, which will arguably prove to be the ultimate disruptor of normal work patterns. There will have been an increase in video conferencing and a change in virtual appointments, so all of this must be looked at through that prism. None the less, the trust recognises unique challenges in supporting its staff. A freedom of information request in April 2020 about travel spend in the year ending 2019-20 showed that 2,519,848 miles were claimed. In cost, there was £1,261,327 reimbursed.
Some of those claims, of course, will be community based, and cannot be easily designed out by any more direct bus routes or a shuttle service, but the hospital trust asked its staff whether they would use a shuttle bus service, should that be required. Of the 201 EDGH-based staff, 83% said that they would use a shuttle bus; 91% of Conquest-based staff said they would, too. They cite some positives; first, on productivity, if there was wi-fi and USB charging points on board, they would be able to work on the journey; secondly, there would be a reduction in stress. Unfortunately, although the survey was very comprehensive, and its results were compelling, after the review, the ESHT senior management team agreed not to take forward the project. The financial risk of investing the required funding outweighed the potential benefits. The biggest factor in that decision was that the team could not guarantee that passenger numbers would be sufficient to cover overall travel expenses.
The staff are one, clearly significant, group; but what of the patients, and their carers and visitors? The findings of my own survey work is reflected in these comments from a doctor, a nurse, a patient and a carer. The doctor said:
“Due to car parking problems, changing sites during the day is currently a huge waste of time…Car park ‘rage’ incidents are not unheard of and savvy staff allow as much as half an hour extra to be sure of a place to park.”
“I found myself struggling to attend appointments at the eye hospital in Bexhill, unable to properly see, and unable to rely on public transport…I spent £200 per week on taxis instead.”
One patient’s mother—this was really difficult to read—said:
“It was enough to be dealing with a dying child; I didn’t need to be doing that journey by car every day. I didn’t feel like I was in the right frame of mind to be driving, but I had no choice.”
My office recently conducted a survey that had just 200 responses—a small-scale sample, but none the less representative. The number of missed appointments cited by respondents was 50. That is hugely expensive. Again, some of the commentary was really difficult to read and understand. One respondent said:
“Husband was having lymphoma treatment and consultations. Often very long journey with him in a very poorly state by the time we arrived.”
Even more difficult to read was one who said:
“I have been to Hastings hospital about 5 times in the last 12 months. I’ve gone as a patient as well as with my daughter. We have been lucky; a couple of times I’ve got lifts there but the rest we have had to get a taxi and when we do that we lose our food shopping money to do so.”
Very clearly, there is an impact on patients. There is also an impact on their clinical outcomes. In an October 2019 survey, nurses working in acute hospital settings identified that two fifths of patients without visitors would require additional support from the nursing team. The lack of visitors was felt by nurses to have a detrimental effect on patients’ health and the speed of their recovery. They were likely to be less mobile, less likely to be stimulated through conversation, and less likely to follow medical advice. A considerable number were more likely to have a longer stay in hospital.
There are a number of precedents across the land for hospital trusts providing this kind of shuttle-type service. They are successful, well established and comparable. Ashford and St Peter’s Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust in Surrey carries 110,000 passengers annually on its free inter-site hospital hopper shuttle service. The service was created 20 years ago as a result of a merger. Oxford University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust and Newcastle upon Tyne Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust are just two more examples; there are many others. Manchester University NHS Foundation Trust and the Sheffield Teaching Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust use electric shuttle buses. That is notable at a time when we are considering the impact of transport on the environment and its carbon cost.
The potential benefits are readily understood. One benefit is around road congestion. Road congestion in our part of the world is forecast to increase by 36% to 60%, so there could be a significant benefit to the wider network. There have been 61 deaths in Eastbourne attributable to air quality; parking stress, productivity and greenhouse gas emissions are also issues. A hospital shuttle survey demonstrated that having a shuttle service, instead of a wave of individual cars going to and from hospitals, could bring about a carbon dioxide saving equivalent to 3,800 new trees being planted every year. Then there is the cost; at over £1 million for the trust, it is weighty, and there is the opportunity cost that sits behind that.
Others have mentioned recruitment and retention, which are important dynamics, but for me this is about providing a far better hospital service. Whether we have a fully fledged green hydrogen shuttle bus service, or make improvements to bus providers such as Stagecoach, improvements will end a penalty being paid by those who can least afford to make the journey. Ultimately, this is about access to hospital services and health equalities. When a hospital trust decides on good, clinical grounds that it will reconfigure services, what responsibility does it have towards those who are potentially left behind?
I have a number of asks of the Minister, as he will expect. One is around consultations. When my hospital consults on changes, it asks about ethnicity, race, gender—a host of important characteristics. It does not ask whether people have a car, yet that is the single determinant of whether someone will continue to be able to access services as they should. In consultations, what place does transport have? How important is it in the dynamic around clinical change?
I understand that there is a review of the criteria for patient transport support. I would be interested to know more about when that is coming down the line, and how it might benefit constituents in Eastbourne who are struggling with the costs of travel. Would the Minister join me in urging my hospital trust to revisit its 2019 survey and to, this time, include the patient voice? I know that it cares about its patients first and foremost, but the transport needs and access requirements need to be given far greater prominence when change is considered.
To what extent does the improvement strategy that is coming, and the funding that sits behind it, recognise the strategic significance of access to hospitals? My understanding from engagement with Eastbourne ECO Action Network is that, while there are improvements coming in our local plans, they do not feature inter-hospital transport, only transport from the town to each hospital in isolation.
I end by thanking my hospital teams, who work so hard. I want to thank my local paper and its reporter India Wentworth, whose reporting has reached right across the town. She has uncovered many of the stories that sit behind this issue. I thank the Minister, who, over a long period has been generous with his time and his interest.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Nokes. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne (Caroline Ansell) on securing this important debate. As she alluded to, she has been a regular and persistent—albeit always courteous—campaigner for the NHS in her constituency, for her local hospital and, most importantly, for her constituents and their ability to access the services they need. I am aware of her long-standing interest in the issue. It is fair to say that her constituents are incredibly lucky to be represented by someone with such a passion for Eastbourne.
I join her in paying tribute to her hospital trust and everyone who works there, across the three sites, for what they have done, not just over the past two years in extraordinary circumstances, but what they do every day, year in, year out. I also join her in paying tribute to the Eastbourne Herald, of which I am maybe not as assiduous a reader as I should be. The latest story I read was about disco public lavatories. I have followed the important work undertaken by India Wentworth, since she joined the Herald in 2020, in campaigning on the issue and drawing to public attention the challenges faced by my hon. Friend’s constituents and others in Sussex.
It is rightly the responsibility of clinical commissioning groups—CCGs—or what will soon become integrated care boards and trusts, to plan for reconfigurations of NHS services. It is important that any such plan commands local legitimacy and confidence. I will respond to my hon. Friend’s questions. One was about consultation around reconfigurations, and how public transport and accessibility featured in that. All reconfigurations are subject to four Government tests. The first is strong public and patient engagement. To her point about the 2019 survey, I encourage her trust to continue engaging with that patient voice, including specifically around access. I will come on to access in a moment in the reconfiguration criteria.
Other tests are consistency with current and prospective need for patient choice: a clear clinical evidence base; and support for proposals from clinical commissioners. It is important to hear from as many local people as possible about the practical impacts and concerns. None of the decisions on reconfigurations is easy or straightforward. They are about balancing different needs and benefits. Rightly, in the different reconfigurations my hon. Friend alluded to—ophthalmology and cardiology —as we would expect in any reconfiguration, clinical needs and safety in achieving the best clinical outcome for patients are obviously paramount.
Achieving that sometimes comes with challenging changes to where people may access services, compared with where they previously did so. We would expect, among that consideration of benefits and challenges, patient transport, inequalities and equality of access to feature heavily. I expect my hon. Friend’s trust, in reaching decisions, will have given due weight to such considerations.
I am well aware of the geography of her constituency and that of her near neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Hastings and Rye (Sally-Ann Hart), having grown up on Romney Marsh and having late grandparents who lived in the Icklesham/Winchelsea area of my hon. Friend’s constituency. I know the area well, going across to Hastings and further to Bexhill and Eastbourne. I also know the horror which is the A259, on most days. I was going to say at rush hour, but it is not just at rush hour these days. My hon. Friend’s comments about congestion going up from 36% to 60%, certainly on that road, chime with me; and that is going back 20 to 25 years to when I was last regularly in that part of the world.
The challenges of getting between the three sites are considerable. My hon. Friend alluded to the bus routes. There are bus routes but she is right that, certainly in one case, a change must be made to make the connecting journey. A patient going into hospital wants to minimise the stresses and challenges faced in getting there and back.
My hon. Friend alluded to two specific reconfigurations. With regard to the ophthalmology reconfiguration, the travel analysis summary, included as part of the consultation documents, set out that proposals would affect outpatients and people who come to the Conquest Hospital, in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Hastings and Rye, for procedures but do not stay overnight. That is around 27% of all ophthalmology patients who attend East Sussex Healthcare NHS Trust hospitals for treatment and care. The analysis indicates there will be an increase in travel time for around 21% of patients who would use public transport and for 8% of patients who might travel by car—their own car, taxi or similar.
Were the proposals to go ahead, some people would have a shorter journey and others a longer journey to their appointment. The longer journeys would cost more, but, as the trust pointed out to me, people would, hopefully, have fewer appointments overall, would therefore not have to go to the hospital as often, and would not incur cumulatively the cost for the extra appointments that were no longer required, so they should not pay too much more.
My hon. Friend set out the impact on people on low incomes—the 25% who have no car and for whom a taxi or private hire vehicle might be prohibitively expensive—and she gave a moving example in her remarks about the choices that some people might have to face. I expect the trust to consider that extremely carefully.
My hon. Friend touched on the shuttle bus service and gave an example of where it has worked well in providing a service that works for patients, and it has environmental benefits as well. I encourage her trust to continue looking at such options. If it is helpful to my hon. Friend, I will speak to NHS England’s south-east region to see whether it can convene a meeting to discuss that further with her and her trust to see what options might help fill the gap, even if what was initially put forward might be deemed impractical by the trust.
My hon. Friend focused on patients and the impact on them, but she talked about staff as well, and it is important that in considering services and transport services for people to get to, from and between hospital buildings in the same trust, we do not forget the impact on staff. Although I know that sunny Eastbourne, Hastings and Bexhill are wonderful places to live, work in and visit, I will not tempt my hon. Friend to talk about the challenges of the rail links between her constituency and London. Because of the location of the hospitals and trusts, there is still a degree of temptation or ability for highly qualified professionals to perhaps say, “I will have a longer commute and work in London”, or, “I will go and work in a big London teaching hospital”, so we need to do everything we can to make it attractive and easy for people to make the conscious choice to work in the local hospitals to make sure we have the workforce that we need.
My hon. Friend raised other issues. As well as thanking the team and her local paper, she has talked in the past about getting me down to Eastbourne to visit her local hospital—something I have agreed to—and I will see whether that might be possible during the Easter recess. I hope sunny Eastbourne will be sunny by the time we get to April.
I am sure the Minister will join me in congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne (Caroline Ansell) on her well-presented and organised argument. Will the Minister also consider the community volunteering work that went on during the pandemic at HEART, for example, in Hastings? Perhaps a helping hand could be given there. It took patients to hospital and helped in that way, but sometimes these organisations need a bit more resourcing. Will he look at how we could maximise the potential of the community volunteer groups that have really grown throughout the pandemic to see how best we can utilise them in taking people to hospital for appointments?
Before my hon. Friend’s intervention and although my private secretaries will wince at the logistics, I was about to offer to try to come down to Eastbourne, via Bexhill, and then go to see my hon. Friend in Hastings and visit the Conquest. I may then re-live the experiences of travelling along the A259 and possibly regret doing so. None the less, I will be happy to visit her at the same time. She mentioned, rightly, the hugely important role played throughout the pandemic—and in more normal times—by organisations of volunteers, charities and third-sector organisations to help with patient transport.
My hon. Friend mentioned HEART—I entirely endorse what she says about the value of such organisations. I encourage local authorities and NHS trusts to recognise that value and seek to work collaboratively with such organisations to enable them to continue doing that vital work. In same spirit, I am also an occasional reader of the Hastings and St Leonards Observer. I enjoy my local papers. I tend to find the news I get in local newspapers rather more interesting and accurate than some of what I read in national newspapers. Perhaps when we go down to visit her, we might talk to both local papers if that would be helpful.
My hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne raised a number of points about the bus improvement strategy and the broader approach to improving public transport links in this country. My right hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset (Mr Rees-Mogg) set out recently in the House that the Government are investing more than £5 billion in buses and cycling during the course of this Parliament. Local authorities have published bus improvement plans, which provide an assessment of existing services in the area, including details of current provision for rural and coastal communities. It is right that those plans are driven by local authorities, who know their areas best and have that local engagement. I encourage them to think broadly, about not just links between a town centre and other areas but the broader transport links that might exist in an area and how public transport can help enhance them, reflecting the patterns of travel that individuals have for particular purposes, be it work, going to a hospital appointment or otherwise.
We recognise that for those unable to travel independently, NHS-funded patient transport services are essential. Those services are commissioned locally for eligible patients with a specific need for transport assistance to and from their care provider for planned appointments and treatment. Although most people can travel to treatment independently or with support from family and friends, as my hon. Friend set out, those services play a hugely important role for those whose medical condition, severe mobility constraint or financial circumstances make that challenging. They deliver around 11 million to 12 million patient journeys each year, covering around half a million miles each weekday.
In August 2021, NHS England and NHS Improvement published the outcome of a review into patient transport services. The review’s final report sets out a new national framework for the services, with the aim of ensuring that they are consistently responsive, fair and sustainable. The first component of the new national framework is a commitment to update the national guidance on eligibility. That commitment responds to the concerns raised by patient groups and others during the review process that access to patient transport services is inconsistent between areas.
One of the issues we have seen is reimbursement. It is a hugely bureaucratic process that also involves up-front costs for those who need to access that support. My concern remains that eligibility is still very narrow, yet there is significant movement across the piece, not least from maternity and paediatrics, where transport often involves taking little people. I hope that features in the review.
My hon. Friend is right to highlight the breadth of people and groups who need to be included and reflected in that. We have consulted on the new national eligibility criteria. They have been developed through engagement with a wide range of stakeholders, including patient groups and charities, transport providers, healthcare providers and commissioners. On her question of when, we look forward to publishing them very shortly. If she wishes to make any last-minute representations to the team, she is welcome to write to me.
In the final few seconds I have left, I pay tribute once again to my hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne for securing this debate and to my hon. Friend the Member for Hastings and Rye for speaking in it, and for their work in this place as such vocal champions of their local communities.
Question put and agreed to.
Large Solar Farms
[Sir Charles Walker in the Chair]
Before the debate starts, there are quite a lot of speakers. We have had great co-operation from both Opposition Front-Bench spokespeople, who have kindly agreed not to take their allocated 10 minutes. If you are on the list to speak, I urge you, but I cannot force you, to be restrained in making interventions. We will start with a four minute time limit, but if that proves to be too long I will have to drop it.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered large solar farms.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Charles. I thank colleagues from across the House who are attending this debate, many of whom will be highlighting issues around large solar farms in their own constituencies. I thank the Minister for attending and all those watching at home on Parliament TV.
I will briefly outline the planning process for solar farms. Solar photovoltaic panels, known as solar panels, generate electricity from the sun, and large-scale solar installations are known as solar farms. Planning is a devolved issue, but energy plants that generate more than 100 MW for offshore and 50 MW for onshore generation are treated as nationally significant infrastructure projects and a development consent order must be sought from the Secretary of State for them; solar farms that generate power below that threshold require planning permission only from the local planning authority.
The national planning policy framework provides the framework in which local planning authorities draw up local plans and determine planning applications, and encourages them to promote renewable development and identify appropriate sites for it. The goal, which is admirable, is to meet the challenges of climate change, flooding and coastal change, including our transition to a low-carbon future.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this incredibly important debate and on his excellent speech so far. Does he agree that his assessment of the planning situation so far is the core of the issue? While we all accept that net zero is an important goal and the need for many farmers to find extra subsidies, the problem with the planning framework as it stands is that many large solar farms are being put up that generate just under the 50 MW limit, so they do not require an environmental impact assessment or the level of community input that they so deserve. Does he agree that that would be a welcome addition to the national planning policy framework that the Minister should consider?
I thank the hon. Member for her input. I agree that it is extremely important that we move on and invest in renewables, but having community input and ensuring that we choose the right sites, that people have been consulted properly and that the planning process works for everybody, is incredibly important. That is the key issue. Few people are against renewable energy, and solar farms in general are not the issue; it is very much a planning issue of getting things in the right place at the right time.
There is another point, too. Recent events in particular have shown us that we need more security, including food security, but these solar farms are often sited on grade 1 or grade 2 agricultural land, which should be used for food production. Does my hon. Friend agree that the production of energy should be as close to its consumption as possible, to minimise transmission and distribution costs? Until we have solar on every large building, there should be none in fields at all.
I thank my right hon. Friend for his comments. The threat to agricultural land is the crux of the problem, certainly in my own constituency, as I will describe a little later. With the situation in Ukraine at the moment, we have to look to our wheat supplies, and we want to source more of our food locally, because that contributes to reaching net zero, which is important too. Getting that balance right and making sure that we do not throw the baby out with bath water, so to speak, as we move forward is key. Of course, solar needs to be used in a mix with many other energy sources, so that we have a secure supply of energy, bring less of it from abroad and generate more of our own. I very much agree with my right hon. Friend.
The planning practice guidance provides more detail on renewable and low-carbon energy. It notes that
“large-scale solar farms can have a negative impact on the rural environment, particularly in undulating landscapes. However, the visual impact of a well-planned and well-screened solar farm can be properly addressed within the landscape if planned sensitively.”
That is key. The guidance also states that solar farms should be focused on
“previously developed and non-agricultural land…that it is not of high environmental value”,
as my right hon. Friend just mentioned.
The Planning Act 2008 introduced a new consent process for nationally significant infrastructure projects in order to speed up the approval process, especially for large-scale developments. A development consent order removes the need to obtain several of the consents that would have otherwise been required, including planning permission, compulsory purchase order and the like, with the idea of speeding up the process that we had before. Applications for DCOs are decided in accordance with national policy statements. In the absence of one, the Secretary of State has the power to make a decision. Although the current NPS argues for more renewable energy, it does not explicitly mention solar energy. However, a revised version is currently being considered, and an inquiry has been undertaken by the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee. The revised draft suggests guiding development away from the “best and most fertile” agricultural land and, where possible, utilising developed brownfield sites, contaminated land, industrial land or agricultural land that is preferably classification 3b, 4 or 5 rather than 1 or 2. Of course, we want to extend that to the underground cabling and access routes that will also be required with such developments. As Bassetlaw has been badly hit by flooding in the past, my constituents would add to the revised draft a requirement to make any development safe without increasing flood risks elsewhere.
Solar installations greater than 5 MW can also bid for competitive Government funding through contracts for difference, and installations up to that level can receive payments from energy companies for the electricity that they export to the grid through the Government-backed smart export guarantee. The energy White Paper refers to solar and wind, including unsubsidised rooftop solar, as part of a low-cost approach to energy generation. It also mentions green skills boot camps, including for solar.
Although many people agree that we need to further increase the supply of green energy, significant concerns have been raised by constituents in Bassetlaw about proposals put forward by West Burton Solar Project Ltd and developed by Island Green Power. They have submitted plans to build a 600-acre solar farm and energy storage infrastructure, which will be one of the largest single solar farm sites in the UK. Many believe that it is disproportionate and not appropriate. The site abuts two special conservation villages, Clayworth and Gringley on the Hill, and many people would emphasise the local landscape, which is rich in wildlife such as badgers, brown hare, deer and a vast array of farm birds, which has been enjoyed for generations. There are also related plans to develop several sites across the border in Lincolnshire, which I am sure we will hear about later.
Many people find it very strange that although they are unable to have solar panels on their roofs because they live in conservation areas, they now face the prospect of a large solar farm effectively connecting both villages. The installation would be visually intrusive for miles around, and any screening would therefore provide very little improvement. I have raised some concerns about the loss of countryside, the environmental impact and the flood risk, and there is also the issue of the water management system in Clayworth, which is a concern for us.
In contrast to similar projects that Members have raised, greenfield developments are supposed to be targeted at poor-quality farmland. From the feedback we have received, it is vital that we retain our countryside for the benefit of those who live there and that we make sure it continues to work for us.
I am sorry to intervene on my hon. Friend again—I know that time is pressing. None the less, he may know that the Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities—and more or less everything else—has made it absolutely clear that beauty should be at the heart of the planning process. Indeed, the planning process was altered by his predecessor and has been confirmed by him to do just that. No solar park of the kind my hon. Friend is describing or industrial wind turbine placed in the middle of the countryside could pass any test of beauty, except the most perverse and corrupted one.
I thank my right hon. Friend again. That is certainly an issue in our green and pleasant land. That is why I find it encouraging that there has been a move to utilising brownfield sites, not just for energy, but for housing and so on, making sure we make full use of brownfield sites before we look at our green fields and develop for the sake of developing.
Feedback from the consultants for Island Green Power claims that the soil quality is grade 3b, which would open it up to the process we have described. There are several questions about that given the high-yield crops that are grown there, including potatoes, which only grow in higher quality soils. We have already mentioned food security and energy. There is a lot of scepticism about the soil quality analysis, which is arguable, and I understand that Bassetlaw District Council is carrying out its own analysis. We need to grow more of our own food locally, not only to cut carbon emissions, but to mitigate wider problems such as the soaring price of wheat resulting from the situation in Ukraine, which is a particular concern at the moment.
I thank my constituents, including the “No Solar Desert” campaign group, who have worked hard to bring the issue to public attention and to engage thoughtfully. I had the pleasure of attending their coffee morning last week. Many are watching the debate today. It is worth emphasising some arguments made about the plans, and why local people believe the proposed site is not suitable.
The site does not meet many of Island Green Power’s selection criteria. It is not low-grade agricultural land or a brownfield site. It is near protected areas, such as the Idle Valley nature reserve. It is not flat or south-facing, and it is not near a viable grid connection, which creates another issue. Questions therefore remain about the efficiency of solar panels on this site, with some estimating it could be a low as 27%. I want to use this opportunity to throw in a reference from “Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves”—I do so regularly, as a Nottinghamshire MP:
“Is there no sun in this cursed country?”
There is, but in many cases there is not enough of it— we could all do with a little sunshine now—and perhaps this site is not the best place to utilise the sunshine most effectively.
Island Green Power is a UK-based developer that specialises in large-scale developments. It has developed projects in Australia, Ireland and so on. It has signed an options agreement with the Henry Smith Charity to explore the potential of the 600-acre site between Clayworth and Gringley—a huge development. I thank Island Green Power for its engagement with me on the issue, which I look forward to continuing. The Henry Smith Charity, which owns the site and other land in the area, along with several properties, has an option agreement with Island Green Power. It is a charitable trust—one of the biggest grant givers in the country—with assets of around £1 billion, and this is one of its investments. The charity is governed by a board of trustees appointed by the Archbishop of Canterbury. I know that many have a desire to protect the British countryside. I encourage them to engage with me and my constituents on this issue, which has not happened so far.
We must not reach a situation where we have a wild-west style gold rush, with developers looking to increase the value of their land and their financial gains—
Ynys Môn is known as energy island, as we have wind, wave, tidal, hydrogen, solar and, I hope, nuclear energy, if I have anything to do with it. My hon. Friend has spoken eloquently about the need for balance and that we are addressing efficiencies. Could he reflect on the number of jobs that solar energy creates locally?
I thank my hon. Friend for raising one of the key points. Solar is important as part of our mix, as are the other forms of energy that she mentioned. I certainly welcome the huge range of energy sources, which I know my hon. Friend campaigned hard for in Ynys Môn. The only thing that I would say to people around the country is, “Please stay away from the fusion project,” because that will happen in Bassetlaw, ideally.
The Government have made an admirable push towards renewables, but we do not want areas that would previously have been off-limits to be taken advantage of. We must cut that off at the pass. Many have also mentioned things such as greenwashing, and have rightly questioned where there is actually any local benefit to some of the schemes.
I believe that sensitive planning has an important role to play in addressing the visual impact of solar farms and, more widely, in the development of low-carbon infrastructure. It should include consideration of the character and beauty of the countryside, and whether the land is best used for solar or agricultural purposes. Thank you, Sir Charles. I look forward to hearing the contributions from colleagues in today’s debate.
Thank you very much, Sir Charles. It is an honour to follow my hon. Friend from across the House, the hon. Member for Bassetlaw (Brendan Clarke-Smith), as a co-sponsor of the debate. I thank him for introducing this important subject so well. Principally, it is about large solar farms here on the British mainland, but we have similar issues challenging us in Northern Ireland. I am all for harvesting our natural resources for energy, but that policy must be consistent with others. We cannot just have carte blanche for one of them.
I will make six points, very briefly. First, solar cannot deliver power output value for land use. Secondly, large-scale solar is useless without battery energy storage plants, which can pose inherent dangers to human health and the environment. Thirdly, large-scale solar developments are a poor use of valuable agricultural land.
Fourthly, there are human rights abuses in the solar supply chain, and the UK taking economic advantage and benefit from those abuses should be called out and challenged. Fifthly, the use of coal-powered electricity in the solar panel supply chain means that we reduce our carbon footprint here at the expense of somewhere else. That is not right. Finally, there is a lack of consideration of end of life recycling of solar panels, or of those subject to being upgraded. That should also be examined.
I will focus on only three of those matters, which you will appreciate, Sir Charles. The first is the value for land use. Take, for example, Sunnica’s proposed solar development in Cambridgeshire. Sunnica claims that it will be a 500 MW solar power station, delivering 23.5 million MWh over 40 years, and it will occupy 11 sq km of valuable arable land. That is impressive. However, when you break down the facts, per year that is 588,000 MWh, which, when divided by 8,760 hours per year, is only 67.2 MW, not 500 MW. That is an important distinction because 67.2 MW is less than one seventh of the rated power of the scheme.
The Sunnica scheme is largely in my West Suffolk constituency, as well as in east Cambridgeshire; it is across the boundary. The hon. Member is quite right to draw attention to that point, but will he comment on the fact that the biggest generator of energy in the proposed scheme is a battery farm rather than a solar farm? It seems absurd that the two must be lumped together. One might almost argue that Sunnica has put a smaller solar farm on a battery project to try to build a battery farm in the middle of the Suffolk countryside.
I think that the right hon. Member has just put his finger on a very important point. That was flagged up in some of our constituencies in Northern Ireland, where it is used as cover for other applications and other things.
The Sunnica solar power station that has been applied for will take up 600 times more land to deliver the same average power as the local gas power station, so the land use is not good value for money. Those figures encapsulate just how problematic it is to expect any significant power from large solar farms.
The second issue I want to touch on briefly is that large-scale solar developments are a poor use of valuable land. In Ukraine, vast harvests of grain are gathered each year, but it is very unlikely there will be a planting season this year because of the war, and there will certainly be a very narrow harvest period at the end of this year. We get some of our grain from there; it is a bread basket for part of the world. As our country did in the last great war, we need to start setting aside vast swathes of our arable countryside and insist that we become food secure and grow our own food. I am very proud of Northern Ireland food production. With fewer than 40,000 farmers, we feed more than 10 million people in the UK. We have to multiply, develop and increase that.
It is essential that we address the key issue of allowing developers to get away with putting vast industrial plants on good, grade 1, arable land that we could grow grain on, or have cattle graze on, to develop our food security. For me, that is an essential point. The war that Russia is illegally conducting in Ukraine should be a warning signal to us all. We should get ahead of that now by ensuring we have the land planted for next year’s harvest, which is a very important point.
Finally, I want to make a point about human rights abuses. A 2021 report by the Helena Kennedy Centre for International Justice at Sheffield Hallam University, entitled “In Broad Daylight: Uyghur Forced Labour and Global Solar Supply Chains”, concluded that the solar panel industry in China has high exposure to supply chain compromise by human rights abuses—in other words, child labour and abuse of people working in those plants. We are buying plant equipment to put in this part of the UK, but allowing the abuse of people’s rights in China to do it. We should not allow China, which now dominates the world in these markets, to dominate our valuable production of—
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw (Brendan Clarke-Smith) for allowing me to co-sponsor this important debate. I am a big advocate of green, clean, renewable energy, and a member of the Conservative Environment Network. I find myself at a difficult crossroads. The people of Rutland want to play our part but are faced with an impossible situation, where our heartfelt determination to go green is being attacked by egregious, cynical and unacceptable proposals that would destroy England’s smallest county.
The current system for nationally significant infrastructure projects bypasses the will of communities. It creates a loophole that gags them, and goes against the Conservative mantra of community ownership and pride of place. This is not a fair situation. We need to take steps to ensure that NSI projects and planning rules are not hijacked into becoming a fast-stream planning approval conveyor belt for big developers. That is why NSI programmes can no longer be assessed on an individual basis but as part of a national solar plan.
In Rutland, we are facing the imposition across Rutland and Lincolnshire, on which my neighbour and right hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh) will speak in a moment, of a solar plant of 2,175 acres. That is 1,400 football pitches—eight times larger than the current biggest solar plant in the country, and bigger than Monaco or the Vatican. I have already made my opposition to that very clear and I plan to fight it, because I will not see that imposed on England’s greatest, smallest and most beautiful county.
I want to touch on Uyghur blood labour and will make two key points, because I think many others will cover agriculture and biodiversity. The Sheffield Hallam report, mentioned earlier, was an in-depth investigation into supply chain links between solar and forced labour in Xinjiang. As we know, the primary material for solar panels and modules is polysilicon: 45% of the world’s polysilicon is produced in Xinjiang. Mallard Pass solar plant is the best example of that. Canadian Solar are a company who are seeking to infiltrate our country with Uyghur blood labour. They are the company proposing to build in Rutland.
Despite their name, Canadian Solar are a de facto Chinese company. The vast majority of their production is in China, with only two small manufacturing facilities in Canada. Their founder, Shawn Qu, lives in China. Since 2019, they have had a supply contract with a company called GCL-Poly, who operate a production facility for solar cells in Jiangsu. But who are GCL-Poly? They are one of the four largest producers of polysilicon in China. An investigation into GCL determined that they actively participate
“in the resettlement of ethnic Uyghurs from…areas of Xinjiang”,
“contribute to and implement re-education programs that impose political and military training on resettled populations.”
They are putting Uyghur people into concentration camps and using them to build solar panels, and I will not see those imposed on Rutland.
The US Government have already seized four shipments from Canadian Solar due to their supply chain links with blood labour and genocide. I call on the Government to sanction Canadian Solar and their supplier GCL-Poly, and absolutely not allow them to build in Rutland. As a member of the Foreign Affairs Committee and as a member of the British public, I do not expect to see blood labour on our soil.
I will not touch on the biodiversity and agriculture points, which will be well made by many colleagues, but that is good agricultural land, graded 2 and 3, and Rutland is the bird capital of the UK, with ospreys, ground-nesting quails, red kites, buzzards and so on.
I thank the Mallard Pass Action Group for all the work that it has done, and I promise the Minister that we will deliver a petition to Parliament that makes clear the opposition from across Rutland. Ultimately, we need a national policy on solar farms. We cannot see this constant competition for the biggest possible solar plant being imposed all across the UK. We need to make sure that we do not have tainted supply chains, and we must protect our natural environment and our ability to feed our people. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw again for calling this important debate.
It is important that we are aware where companies operate in this country that use absolutely unacceptable labour practices in foreign lands, so I echo what the hon. Member for Rutland and Melton (Alicia Kearns) said about the investigation into Canadian Solar, if what she says is true, but nobody in this Chamber will be surprised that I am going to make a strong case for solar.
Global gas prices are soaring to the point where many more families will struggle to heat their homes. We obviously need to wean ourselves off Russian oil and gas, but we need to wean ourselves off all oil and gas. Now is the time for a green energy revolution. Solar farms are an integral part of the UK’s bid to get to net zero and to reduce our reliance on oil and gas, yet there are many myths around solar. The first is that solar is expensive, but that is not true. Solar is the most affordable energy in history, according to the International Energy Agency, and the most affordable energy source in the UK. It is efficient and reliable.
Since 2010, the cost of solar panels has plummeted by 60%. At the same time they have become much more efficient, meaning that solar is a very effective way of reducing spending on energy costs. In 2021, solar provided almost 5% of the UK’s total electricity supply, but there is plenty of room for growth. All UK solar markets are subsidy-free. If the UK can achieve 40 GW of solar capacity by 2030, solar could meet 15% of the UK’s power needs.
Some Members today have outlined their concerns about the environment. In fact, studies indicate that solar farms can be used to boost biodiversity, improve land quality and promote the growth of pollinating species. Under the Environment Act 2021, all new developments are required to demonstrate a biodiversity net gain, and solar farms are no exception. They often go above and beyond that requirement, typically showing a biodiversity net gain of 20% to over 100%.
In terms of community support, polling shows that there is the strongest support for solar farms—over 50%—from those living closest to them, and that those living near them become more supportive over time. Once people have a solar farm in their community, they know what they get and they are supportive.
Solar projects deliver a range of benefits to their local communities, and I pay tribute to Bath and West Community Energy in my constituency, who have used their community fund to provide grants for other environmental projects in the local area. I urge the Government to review and revise Ofgem’s strategy and policy statement as a matter of urgency. The net zero target must become mandatory. It will unlock the potential investment in urgently-needed grid capacity. One of the largest constraints on solar is grid capacity. Every DNO region in the country is affected. Solar Energy UK has identified at least 45 solar projects, equating to over 40 GW of generation capacity and £1.6 billion in capital investment, that are being blocked by a lack of grid infrastructure. Many of those projects accepted offers to connect this year or next, but are now being told that they will not be able to connect until the end of this decade. That is not acceptable. The problem will get worse before it gets better.
We have the capacity to be a world leader in renewable energy, with the right political will. Now is the time for our green energy revolution. There should not be blockage but further support from the Government for the solar energy sector.
It is an honour to take part in this debate introduced by my constituency neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw (Brendan Clarke-Smith). He was talking about the solar farm application in his constituency. That runs over the River Trent into my constituency of Gainsborough, and Gainsborough is going to be ringed by a solar farm of no less than the equivalent of 4,000 football pitches. It is a huge development. The hon. Member for Bath (Wera Hobhouse) represents a lovely city surrounded by beautiful green countryside; I suspect her attitude might be quite different if somebody proposed a solar farm of 4,000 football pitches in the countryside around Bath.
I personally believe that this is, in a way, a cheat on the planning system. The applicants accumulate land just to get it over a certain acreage, so that it becomes a nationally significant infrastructure project and bypasses the local planning process. Nobody is against solar farms because they are against solar farms. The point we are making is that we want a proper planning process and we want local people to be involved. We fear that this will go straight to a Government inspector, who will be working towards national guidelines to create more solar energy, and our concerns will be overridden.
Surely, West Lindsey District Council, representing the good people of the part of Lincolnshire that I represent, should have a right to have its say, and its say should be enforceable. I have done quite a lot of travelling around the proposed site. There could be mitigation in terms of landscaping and the growing of woodland, hedges and so on, but we want to be absolutely assured that that will take place.
Before my time is up, I want to refer to a very good answer that the Minister for Energy, Clean Growth and Climate Change, my right hon. Friend the Member for Chelsea and Fulham (Greg Hands), made to me on 22 February:
“The Government recognise the importance of preserving the most productive farmland. Planning guidance is clear: where possible, large solar farms should use previously developed land, and projects should be designed to avoid, mitigate, and where necessary compensate for impact.”—[Official Report, 22 February 2022; Vol. 709, c. 162.]
That was an impressive answer. I ask the Minister who will reply to this debate, given that wheat prices are going through the roof and that there will be severe constraints on food supplies and wheat production, why are we taking good agricultural land? Why is that in the national interest? Dare I say, before we are too introspective and just talk about ourselves and our interests, that countries like Lebanon and Egypt are almost wholly reliant on Ukrainian wheat. That gives us even more responsibility to plan not just for our own food supplies, but for other parts of the world.
My main point is this. We want a properly enforceable planning process so that we can get real mitigation. We want to be assured by the Minister that when it comes to applications for solar farms, he will agree with his right hon. Friend the Member for Chelsea and Fulham and we will avoid taking good agricultural land and will try to put these developments on brownfield sites. The point made earlier that this is really an opportunity to create a battery farm is very apposite. We are littering the Lincolnshire countryside with not just a solar farm but a battery farm. It is simply not acceptable.
It is a pleasure to speak in this debate, Mr Walker. I thank the hon. Member for Bassetlaw (Brendan Clarke-Smith) for setting the scene so well. It is great to be here to discuss the potential ways that we can advance our solar energy. Although planning provisions are different in the devolved nations, as the hon. Gentleman said, the benefits and the issues surrounding solar farms remain the same. There is much discussion on ways in which we can advance our solar power system with the goal of transitioning to a low-carbon future.
In addition, the invasion of Ukraine by Russia has, as others have said, damaged our fuel provision even further. The impacts are being felt throughout the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, forcing us into self-sufficiency. The Russian invasion of Ukraine has made solar energy a priority. Through our solar farms, we must put more preparations in place for the future, although some elements of planning by devolved nations are needed to approve them.
The Chair of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish), who was at this morning’s meeting of the eggs, pigs and poultry all-party parliamentary group, made an interesting point in his contribution. According to others in the sector, that becomes a real issue. The right hon. Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh) mentioned the price of feedstuffs for cattle and sheep. They can graze for eight months of the year, but for eggs, pigs and poultry, I am afraid it is very different. The price of feedstuffs for the coming year could go through the roof. Some of the other producers who were at the meeting—the pig producers and the poultry men in particular—were telling me that Spain gets 70% of its grain from Ukraine. That will put pressure on everyone else, so we must consider what we can do differently.
Northern Ireland has installed photovoltaic power on a wide range of farms over the last four years. In addition, the businesses of my Strangford constituency have been working actively to distribute more solar farming materials to companies. Just up the road from me in Carrowdore, a local farm produces the vast majority of its electricity through solar energy. Areas such as Comber and Killinchy, which are also in Strangford, also use solar panels for sustainable electricity purposes. Northern Ireland’s most notable solar farm would be that of Belfast International airport, which, in its first 10 months of usage, saved the airport more than £100,000. Some 27% of the airport’s electricity, in cost terms, came from solar farm panels, which highlights that despite the cost, they are a worthwhile investment. Solar energy cannot be ignored.
At the same time, I recognise, like my hon. Friend the Member for North Antrim (Ian Paisley), that there are concerns about the installation of solar farms. As someone who lives in a rural area and on a farm, I want assurances—as do my constituents—that risk assessments are undertaken for solar farms. The national planning framework encourages the promotion of renewable energy and identifies appropriate sites. It aims to assess the sites for risks, such as those posed by climate change, coastal change, flooding and soil. Planning systems should support the transition to a low-carbon future, and will identify probable and possible risks, while increasing plans for the use of sustainable energy.
I put this question to the Minister. Flood-risk consultants have concluded that there is cause for concern in relation to solar farms and flooding, including the location of solar panels, the location of inverters within the flood plain, and the increase of impermeable surfaces. In addition, flooding can also cause some interference. The most common risk is the reflection of the panels, which means that 100% absorption from the sun is not always possible.
With all those things in mind, we need to focus on the use of non-agricultural land. We should not use agricultural land, which will become more important to us in the next 12 months and in the years to come. To conclude, I believe that there must be greater provision for solar energy throughout the UK, but at the same time we must take into account the concerns of the agriculture sector, and I declare an interest as a farmer and a landlord.
I stand as an avowedly pro-solar politician. Indeed, I was the Energy Minister. I am very proud that 99% of the solar on the roofs of houses and buildings in this country has been put on those roofs since 2010. I have supported solar scheme after solar scheme in my constituency, including in Wickhambrook—close to my own house—and elsewhere. The case that I will make today is that solar must be in the right place, with the right engagement and the right technology, and the proposal for the largest solar farm in the country, at 2,500 acres, affecting 16 parishes across east Cambridgeshire and West Suffolk, undermines local support.
There has been much discussion of the food security issue, so I will not go into that detail, but I will make three critical points in the time available to me. First, why is there no requirement for an independent, whole-life carbon assessment to be carried out for all developments? The advice that I have received is that the Sunnica proposal will have a net-positive carbon impact over its lifetime, which would make a mockery of the net zero ambitions and the importance of tackling climate change.
The second point is about battery safety. Although the energy farm will cover 2,500 acres, a very significant chunk of the energy—a much bigger chunk than the solar energy generated—will be from a battery farm. We may need battery farms, but they should be in the right place—they should not be in the middle of the countryside. Furthermore, there are significant safety issues. I was sceptical of the arguments about safety issues until I looked into them in detail; there have been 38 fires at battery energy storage systems across the world in the last three years. There was one in Liverpool in September 2020, and the report into that fire still has not been released. There is a suspicion—and I understand and share this suspicion—that it has not been released because it demonstrates that very large battery installations are inherently dangerous. The battery technology means that water cannot be used to put out fires. As the fire authorities say, once one of those fires starts, there is nothing that can be done to stop it except wait and hope that it does not lead to toxic fumes. In areas of my constituency downwind of this proposed development, there are large areas of homes, such as Red Lodge, where this is a very significant problem.
The final point I will make is about process. The developers are being allowed to pick and choose how they get their developments through; there is minimal public engagement. Sunnica has refused to meet me; it has refused to attend any public meetings. It has had next to no engagement. It has not, as far as I know, set foot in the villages and towns affected to answer residents’ questions since July 2019. As a supporter of solar, I find that the proposal, which will affect areas in and close to my constituency, is actively undermining local support for solar energy. It should be stopped and sent straight back to the drawing board, so that we can have a reasonable conversation about where solar will be welcomed locally. We can put the battery technology where it ought to be—in an industrial area—and we can make sure that we bring the community together with us in support of vital renewable technologies, rather than trying to ram projects through against the wishes of local people.
I want to talk about the proposal to build a 77-acre solar farm off Dolly Lane, near the villages of Buxworth and Furness Vale. The site sits entirely within the green belt and is adjacent to the Peak District national park. It is on the back slope of Chinley Churn, which is best known for its dramatic quarried face, known as Cracken Edge. It is an iconic landscape not just for Chinley, but the whole Peak district. I am a keen walker and it is one of my favourite routes, especially if I can find a way to end the walk at one of the brilliant local pubs, such as The Lamb on Hayfield Road or the Old Hall Inn in Whitehough.
I will come on to my concerns about the proposed solar farm, but before I do, I want to be very clear that I am not a net zero sceptic. Climate change is the greatest long-term challenge we face globally, and I am fully committed to fighting it. I am an enthusiastic supporter of renewable energy. The events in Ukraine in recent weeks, and the subsequent spike in wholesale oil and gas prices, demonstrate the importance of energy security. Clearly, we need to end our reliance on global fossil fuel prices and transition to clean renewable energy sources. We have made very good progress over the last decade, particularly on off-shore wind. The Government are also rightly pushing ahead with modular nuclear reactors. Solar should be a key part of that strategy. However, I have a number of concerns about the proposals on Chinley Churn.
Unlike most proposed solar farms, which sit on relatively low-lying flat sites, this one would sit on the slope of Chinley Churn, in a very elevated position, completely changing the iconic Peak district landscape for miles around. The site would be visible from thousands of homes, particularly those in Furness Vale and New Mills. It would also have significant impact on local wildlife. The Peak District National Park Authority has already made it clear that it is opposed—with good reason. The Peak district is a special place; it is the home of the Kinder trespass, and the first ever national park. We have a responsibility to conserve it for future generations. It is also doubtful that the solar farm would generate enough energy to be economical. High Peak is a very beautiful part of the world, but we are not blessed with an abundance of sunshine.
A full planning application has not yet been submitted, but Kronos Solar has applied for an environmental impact assessment. I understand that it is also in pre-application discussions with High Peak Borough Council. Government guidance encourages local planning authorities to prioritise developed and non-agricultural land for large-scale solar farm developments, so long as the land is not of high environmental value. The national planning policy framework is also clear that when
“located in the Green Belt, elements of many renewable energy projects will comprise inappropriate development.”
Projects can proceed only in “very special circumstances”, which may include
“the wider environmental benefits associated with increased production of energy from renewable sources”,
but the proposal by Kronos Solar for a 77-acre solar farm on the back slope of Chinley Churn in the heart of the Peak district simply does not match those criteria. The cost of development to our local environment will be simply too high.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw (Brendan Clarke-Smith) on calling this debate. For me, the debate is not about whether we need to diversify our energy supplies; of course we do. I want us to reduce our dependence on foreign energy, and to do that, we need renewable infrastructure. For me, it is not about “whether”, but about “how”—how we achieve our energy ambitions in a way that is fair and proportionate and has the support of our constituents, and how we build our renewable energy infrastructure in a way that does not harm the beautiful nature that surrounds us, the farmland that feeds us and the communities that bind us together.
It is a great pleasure to be joined by two right hon. Friends from Lincolnshire: my right hon. Friends the Members for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh), and for South Holland and The Deepings (Sir John Hayes). Lincolnshire has very flat land. It also has a large number of applications pending across the county. Some of the proposed developments are small, but some are extremely large. There is one in particular that I want to mention today: Mallard Pass, which my hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Melton (Alicia Kearns) mentioned. It involves 2,170-odd acres of development land. This is obviously causing tremendous concern to local people.
I want to use the limited time that I have to put on record my thanks to the Mallard Pass Action Group: Keith Busfield, Sue and all the other campaigners, who have put forward to the developer extremely reasonable points, including on the impact on the local ecology and the biodiversity of the site; the loss of agricultural land for 40 years while it is covered in solar panels and the national implications that that might have for food production; and the implications that drawing power from the solar farm will have for energy storage and large lithium battery facilities.
As the local MP, I have taken these concerns of thousands of residents and put them to the developers, and I have to say that the response has been unconvincing. They have done little to directly address the concerns of my constituents, and they are relying on statutory requirements to take measures that would be undertaken regardless of whether there was local concern. The promise that the issues that have been raised will be considered as part of the development consent order submission means little, as that is the final stage of the planning process.
I suggest three things. First, we need to ensure that the Planning Inspectorate fully takes into consideration the concerns of local residents. The fact that all consultations are run by the developers leaves local people disillusioned about their effectiveness. Secondly, it is critical that we have, as my hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Melton said, a national strategy for solar farms. It must encompass both nationally significant and locally approved applications in order to ensure that counties such as Lincolnshire are not dominated by significant developments and small developments that add up to complete domination by solar farms across the county. Above all—I say this to anybody listening in the Grantham and Stamford constituency today—I want you to have a voice, so when there is a consultation, please let your voice be heard. Be part of it; contribute to any consultation; and have your say, because if you do not put your views forward, that makes it a lot harder for MPs like me in debates like this.
It is a great pleasure to speak in this debate. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw (Brendan Clarke-Smith) for bringing it to the House. I concur with him: if we can get fusion right and roll it out economically, that will very much be our energy future.
Sir Charles, you would expect me to talk a little about food security. That issue is being highlighted now. Given the terrible situation with the Russians invading Ukraine and all the destruction going on, not much food will be produced in that breadbasket of the world. We need to stand up to that and produce food and wheat; we can do it. We need to produce poultry and pigs, which need grain. We need this land for grain and food production, so that we can produce really good food and ensure high-quality welfare. Let us ensure that we keep land for food production.
By its very nature, land is finite. At the moment, it is being asked to produce food; however, we are also asking for greater biodiversity, which is highly laudable and right to do, but as we aim for greater biodiversity and more environmental schemes, we will see a reduction in production of food. We do not want to couple that with large solar farms.
We all believe that solar panels have a role to play, and that they produce good-quality electricity, but I would like us to go back to having feed-in tariffs for people’s homes. It does not have to be as high a tariff as it was, because solar panels are very competitively and narrowly priced. Only about 4% of houses have them. Residents in houses that have them love to see the energy coming in and the meter going round, especially when they have high energy bills, as they are being paid for that electricity, rather than paying out for it. This very much involves individual house owners and tenants, and keeps our energy costs down.
From an infrastructure point of view, Western Power Distribution and others have a great deal of difficulty in wiring up and connecting large solar farms. Solar power should therefore be spread across the community, and should be generated on brownfield sites and in industrial buildings. How many industrial buildings do we have in this country? Very few have solar panels on them. We can have both industrial buildings and solar panels, but we must not keep putting the panels on land. We have an opportunity with these large farms.
Another large solar farm of some 200 acres has been proposed near Cullompton. The south-west is God’s own country because of the light, and that makes it popular for solar panels. We have an awful lot of solar panels in Devon and across the west country; we have had our fair share of them. The community needs to be involved when more are proposed.
Solar farms are not beautiful and have industrial-style fencing around them. Why do people come to many of our great constituencies? Because they are beautiful. Tourist love to come to them, but I promise that they do not come looking for solar or wind farms. They come looking for beautiful cattle and sheep grazing peacefully in our countryside. We must be careful how we deal with the situation. As I have emphasised, we are asking our farmers, our landowners and those looking after our countryside to do so much for the environment. We can have energy, but for goodness sake let us put the panels on people’s homes and industrial sites, and not on more good, agricultural land.
I am grateful for your indulgence, Sir Charles, and I will speak briefly as a former energy Minister. Before I do so, I draw the attention of the House to my entry in the Register of Members’ Interests.
The point that my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish) made at the end of his speech is the first salient point that I want to amplify, and that is that of course there is an argument for renewables. It is not an a priori argument, by the way; it has to be legitimised by renewables’ efficiency, their ability to supply productive energy, and by the goods and virtues they displace. Every kind of energy production needs to be measured against those kind of criteria, as does every specific proposal.
There is a case for renewables in an energy mix—an energy mix that allows us to deal with our environmental footprint, as it is known in the modern idiom; that can guarantee steady supply; and that provides the flexibility necessary to ensure that we can deal with the peaks and troughs of demand. But renewables should be measured by their cost effectiveness, too. The point made by the hon. Member for North Antrim (Ian Paisley) about the cost-effectiveness of solar was one that I identified when I was energy Minister, before my right hon. Friend the Member for West Suffolk (Matt Hancock) did the job.
It is critical that energy supply be placed as close as possible to areas of demand. It is absolutely right that we should populate industrial, commercial and domestic buildings with solar panels long before we consider putting them in fields, which are remote from demand and entail all the transmission costs I mentioned.
My second point is about food security, which I mentioned at the outset of the debate and has been raised several times since. It is vital that we protect grade 1 and 2 agricultural land, such as the land in Lincolnshire that is now being suggested for these very large-scale solar parks. They are not being suggested for some rocky outcrop; it is proposed that they be placed on the very land that can grow the food to guarantee the food security that so many in this House have called for. The Minister needs to make it absolutely clear, again, that the Government will not tolerate that, as we move into a future in which we protect our economy to the greatest degree possible, in terms of both food supply and energy provision—as I have always wanted us to do. We are moving happily into the post-liberal age for which I have clamoured so long.
I have also clamoured for the protection of our green and pleasant land—indeed, for our green and pleasant land to become a new Jerusalem, one might say. A Conservative Government should understand the aesthetic argument associated with solar farms—and wind turbines, too, by the way. It is critical that we preserve the character of settlements, and that we believe in the sense of place that helps to deliver our sense of worth and identity. Again, a truly Conservative Government—and I know that the Minister is truly Conservative, so I have high expectations of him—would do just that.
In summary, it is right that we consider renewables as part of the energy mix, but not on any terms or at any cost. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw (Brendan Clarke-Smith) on being such an outstanding servant of the people of his constituency; I am proud to have contributed to a debate sponsored by him. I look forward to the Minister’s response with eager —one might say gleeful—anticipation.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Charles. Like other Members who have spoken, I am in no way, shape or form an opponent of solar energy. However, like others, I believe that solar technology and solar farms would be best placed on our factories and brownfield sites, away from the beautiful Great British countryside. I very much agree with my right hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Sir John Hayes) about preserving and protecting the character of an area.
Planning guidance is already clear: where possible, large solar farms should use previously developed land. Projects should be designed to avoid, mitigate and—where necessary—compensate for impact. However, my constituents have been bombarded with applications for large solar farms across north Buckinghamshire. Since I was elected just over two years ago, I have already opposed five applications for solar farms, including in Little Horwood, the village of Kingsey, on Callie’s Farm and between the villages of Ford and Dinton. All those solar farms would have dominated rural villages and completely changed the character and rural nature of those places; in one case, it would have destroyed ancient farmland.
Most recently, I have objected to two solar farms in the peaceful villages of Leckhampstead and Slapton. My constituents have expressed concerns about the inappropriate scale and nature of the proposals. The solar farms will add no net benefits to the local area and will have a considerable impact on the environment and wildlife. They will fundamentally alter the character of those villages and the surrounding countryside.
The Leckhampstead solar farm site is on rising ground, bounded and clearly visible from the surrounding high and low ground from the west and south. The woodland bordering the northern edge of the site is a prominent feature in the local landscape. Slapton village already has one smaller-scale solar farm, which is ugly and visible from Ivinghoe Beacon. The scale of that application is such that it completely surrounds and overwhelms the northern end of Slapton.
The company behind this development, having seen my objection, tried to make out in a letter to me the other day that it would not be a blight and sent me photos of other schemes as evidence. Yet every single one of the photos it sent me were of ugly masses of grey and black plastic, metal and glass, in place of natural beauty, grass and crops. Let us be absolutely frank: there is no way on earth that replacing our beautiful British countryside with hundreds of thousands of acres of these monstrosities up and down the land could possibly be considered anything other than total vandalism and blight.
With Buckinghamshire facing a tidal wave of these solar farms and of development on greenfield sites and working agricultural land, it is vital, as others have said, that we take a step away and recognise that agricultural land is a finite resource. We need to come up with a new solution that puts solar on brownfield, and on the top of the factories and tall buildings in our cities and towns, and that protects the Great British countryside.
It would be remiss of me not to start by congratulating the hon. Member for Bassetlaw (Brendan Clarke-Smith) on securing this important debate, and all his colleagues on their impassioned views. I am not sure I necessarily agree with everything they said, particularly about some of the planning aspects, but I will leave that to the Minister to address, especially as planning is devolved.
Thankfully, in Scotland—and, indeed, everywhere else—direct sunlight is not required for a solar panel. We are fortunate enough in Scotland to still have daylight, though, which means that solar panels do work—as I am sure the hon. Member for Kensington (Felicity Buchan) will recall from her years in the north-east of Scotland, we are not exactly blessed with sunlight. However, solar panels have a key role to play in the wider energy mix, as the right hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Sir John Hayes) said.
It is my understanding that around 400 MW of installed capacity for solar panels exists in Scotland. Will that be sufficient to supply our needs in the long term? No, of course it will not, which is why we are so fortunate to have a whole host of other renewable sources on our doorstep, be that tidal, offshore wind, onshore wind or hydro pumped storage, or moving into the likes of hydrogen and so on. That energy mix is incredibly important, and I was a little surprised to read that, in 2018, solar panels provided Aberdeen, my own city, with 136% of household electricity demand. I am told that that was during a summer heatwave—I do not quite recall that heatwave, but there was obviously significant supply from solar panels.
One issue on which I am sympathetic to Members’ comments is where solar panels are located. There are plans afoot—they have been talked about for many years—for a fairly significantly sized solar farm in my constituency, but on the site of a former tip, which makes sense, because that land cannot be used for anything else. More importantly, that solar farm will provide the renewable electricity that will hopefully power a hydrogen station nearby, completing the green hydrogen journey that we need to be on. If we can secure renewable electricity that goes right into the hydrogen mix, that has to be the aim, as I am sure the Minister would agree wholeheartedly.
As I said earlier, solar panels are not necessarily the panacea for the UK or Scotland. I touched earlier on some of the other renewable energy sources we have in Scotland. At this moment, in the midst of this energy security situation, which is of concern to us all, we are blessed in Scotland to have the capacity to provide 98% of our electricity from renewable sources alone. That is quite a remarkable feat, considering that we have not even started on the 25 GW that has been approved through the ScotWind round.
I want to pause briefly on the topic of energy security. As I recently said to the Secretary of State when he made his statement in the Chamber on the reduction in oil and gas imports from Russia, what we urgently need now from the UK Government is a plan for how they intend to accelerate renewables at a speed never seen before. It is fair to say that a lot of good has been done—the likes of contracts for difference and so on—but if we are to treat energy security with the seriousness it deserves, we need the Government to buck up their ideas, to invest more and to come forward with a clear and collegiate plan. Solar will not be the bedrock of that plan, but it will play a role in it. Given that the Secretary of State was not able to answer my question on that earlier, I am sure the Minister will be able to do so in due course.
I will attempt to follow the hon. Member for Aberdeen South (Stephen Flynn) in being as brief as possible and finishing within five minutes, but right hon. and hon. Members will understand that we have a large number of issues to discuss.
The first thing to say is that I congratulate the hon. Member for Bassetlaw (Brendan Clarke-Smith) on securing the debate, because it gives rise to all the issues that we have to consider in the development of renewables and particularly solar. He has drawn attention to a particular scheme in his constituency, which is quite right, given his role as a constituency MP. However, I caution against expressing proper and justified concerns about the siting of particular solar farms in particular places while failing to understand just how much we need renewables, especially of the solar variety, over the next period.
I have just come from the statement in the main Chamber, and all sides agreed that our way out of the oil and gas problem, which has been driven by the situation in Ukraine and Russia, is to go very fast on renewables. The point is that if we go fast on renewables, the renewables have to be somewhere, and it is really not sufficient for people to say, “Yes, I’m very much in favour of renewables, but I’m not in favour of them being in any particular place.” I am not saying that that is what right hon. and hon. Members have said this afternoon, and a number of Members were very thoughtful and clear about the circumstances under which solar should be developed. I think that should perhaps be the watchword, and I agree with a number of Members that we need a much more strategic and planned approach to the arrangements. We need to understand what renewables we need, but also where we need them. However, it is not an option to have them nowhere at all.
In that context, we know that solar has already been a considerable success in the UK. It is being developed at the moment on no subsidies. We have 14 GW installed across the country, and 65% of that is ground-mounted solar. Frankly, it is a fantasy to believe that we can get to the sorts of targets we now need on solar—perhaps 40 GW by 2030, which is what the Climate Change Committee says—by simply installing them in small numbers on roofs in cities and towns. Of course we should go with that, and we ought to have a lot more imagination about how we put solar in towns and cities or alongside motorways and various things such as that.
I agree with everybody that not engaging with communities is simply not on, and it is important that those who want to install renewable energy installations and solar farms need to engage with their communities. What does the hon. Gentleman think should be done to improve community engagement?
The hon. Member is quite right. Any form of renewable power—indeed, any form of power—ought to be based on extensive community consultation and the community being on board with the idea of that particular power source coming to their area. Hon. Members have raised a number of issues about agricultural land and its quality, the visual aspects of particular solar farms, and various other things, which need to be discussed in great detail at the local level by communities faced with these proposals.
Solar farms, and particularly the West Burton solar farm, which was the subject of the concerns raised by the hon. Member for Bassetlaw, actually have quite a good grid connection. That solar farm would potentially be based around the West Burton A power station, which as I am sure the hon. Member will be aware is going offline in 2022, as is the Cottam power station just down the road. However, if we had had a discussion when someone decided to build the West Burton A power station and the Cottam power station in the middle of the countryside—which is where they are—a number of years ago, we probably would have had exactly this sort of debate in the Chamber.
That underlines the fact that, although we are transferring what we do as far as power stations and power are concerned, the issue remains just the same: where we put those power stations and renewables into operation, not whether we put them into operation. It is imperative that we have this amount of renewable energy across our country for the future. Be it offshore wind or onshore wind, city-based solar or field-based solar—all of those have to be considered as imperative for delivering our renewable power supplies. Solar happens to be the cheapest power available, and it is one of the quickest to introduce if we are thinking about a dash for renewables in the future.
The hon. Gentleman and I have been debating these issues for longer than either of us care to remember. I am sure he will acknowledge that against that backdrop—the objective he set out—it is important to measure the environmental cost of renewables. The manufacture, siting and anchoring, for example, of wind turbines bring an environmental payback period. The same applies to solar. We need to test these things on a specific basis against the very criteria he set out.
The right hon. Member is absolutely right that we need to test these things and take the environmental benefits as a whole, but these tests have pretty much been carried out, and there is an overwhelming environmental benefit to solar, which is a cheap and reliable power source. By the way, the batteries associated with it that make it more reliable do not need to be sited in the same place as solar farms, so things can be designed in such a way that the environmental disbenefits are not all concentrated in one place.
In the case of the Sunnica proposal, the battery farm is much bigger than the power that would come from the solar that is part of the same proposal. That being the case, and the argument he is making being important and thoughtful, would the hon. Member not agree that keeping the public onside with the development of solar and its location is an incredibly important part of meeting the very environmental objectives he so cherishes?
Yes, the right hon. Member is absolutely right. The public should be on board with any development that is going on anywhere concerned with anything. That is a starting point as far as the developments are concerned. It is worth reflecting on the Government’s onshore wind policy. Despite the fact that the public in many areas of England and Wales were in favour of hosting onshore wind, the Government put a moratorium on it. We do not want to go in the other direction as far as public support and renewables are concerned.
I have indulged myself by taking interventions and have gone a little over my time. I hope that Members will understand, however, that my comments are founded on the imperative of solar for the future. Solar needs public support, and a sensible approach must be taken to its deployment if it is to take its desired place in our future renewable firmament.
Do feel free to remind me at two minutes to 3, Sir Charles.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship. May I start by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw (Brendan Clarke-Smith)? The scale of attendance and the passion with which colleagues have spoken speaks to the importance of his advocacy and the issue.
I am standing in today for my right hon. Friend the Minister for Energy, Clean Growth and Climate Change, but I am absolutely delighted to be doing so, for a number of reasons. First, I come from a rural, agricultural constituency that is itself facing the introduction of substantial, industrial-scale infrastructure connected to offshore wind energy. The industrialisation of rural constituencies in pursuit of the noble aims of net zero is a local issue. It is very important and we have to get that planning process right. I have seen that for myself. I also drive through the Cambridgeshire-Suffolk border on my way to my constituency and see the Sunnica proposal, the signs in every field around the area and the concern locally.
As the former Minister for agritech, I am passionate about the importance of this country leading the world in net zero farming and showing how we can pioneer the technologies for and approaches to net zero agriculture. Nobody in this Chamber needs to be reminded that agriculture is the next dirty industry on the block. We are cleaning the energy system, but we will then have to decarbonise agriculture and transport globally. That is a big opportunity for this country.
As the Minister for Science, Research and Innovation, including for fusion, I see it as fundamental to my role to ensure that we turbocharge our drive towards the technological solutions that will allow the planet to grow and develop sustainably in the longer term. I am also committed to the science of the data metrics of sustainable development, by which I mean both agrimetrics, so that when consumers pick up a pint of milk or a piece of British food they are clear about its environmental footprint—that is the best way to reward advanced, progressive farming—and carbon metrics, so that consumers can be harnessed on the journey to net zero, confident that they are making enlightened choices. That requires good science, which a number of colleagues have touched on.
I know that my hon. Friend the Minister is a strong advocate of human rights. He mentions enlightened consumers wanting to know what they are purchasing and what is in their community. Does he agree that we should not install solar panels when we know for a fact that they are being produced in genocidal camps where people are being exterminated? I am talking about the Uyghur in China.
My hon. Friend makes her point powerfully. I absolutely agree that we should not be supplying to consumers and citizens goods whose production involves torture and illegal practices. I am not the consumer affairs Minister, but I will raise that point with those who have that responsibility.
In the time available, I will set out the Government’s policy on solar, acknowledge the 16 very important points made today by colleagues from across the House, summarise the process in terms of disapplication and more broadly, and then make what I hope will be some important and helpful undertakings.
It is striking that, for all the concerns raised today, there is unanimity in the Chamber about the urgency of tackling the climate emergency. I think that everyone present supports the commitment, as enshrined at COP26, to reduce global temperature increase to 1.5°. There is good science behind that, and I think that many comments were made in that spirit. That is why the Government have adopted carbon budget 6, which is the world’s most ambitious climate change goal, to reduce emissions by 77% by 2035—that might sound a long way away, but it is rapidly drawing near—compared with 1990 levels. With limited time until that date, the UK’s electricity supply is in urgent need of decarbonisation. That is why, in the net zero strategy that was published in 2021, the Government committed that all UK electricity will be from low-carbon sources by 2035, subject to security of supply. At the end of my comments, I will come back to some of the changes relating to the global markets, the Ukraine emergency and the Prime Minister’s announcement of a review of energy policy.
I want to touch on the benefits of solar, which merit highlighting. It is a very flexible technology. As my right hon. Friend the Member for West Suffolk (Matt Hancock) has pointed out, we can be proud that we have deployed 99% of solar at huge scale, quite small scale and high scale across the country. Solar generates large amounts of electricity even on cloudy days, and from indirect sunlight. Solar also works at cooler temperatures, so its carbon footprint is normally much lower than that of coal or gas. Most solar panel components can be recycled.
Solar can complement other variable generation sources, such as wind, to balance the grid on summer days when wind speeds tend to be lower. We see solar as key to the Government’s strategy for low-cost energy and decarbonisation, and large-scale solar is one of the UK’s cheapest renewable generation technologies; I will come in my closing comments to where the externalities of cost may lie. That is why in the net zero strategy, the Government committed to a sustained increase in deploying solar in the 2020s and beyond, embedded through the contract for difference scheme.
I want to pick up the points that several colleagues have made, because those points are hugely important and need to be acknowledged seriously. The first was about the scale of what is being proposed. As the equivalent of 4,000 football pitches, this is not a small-scale development or even, by most people’s standards, a medium-scale one. This is huge, industrial-scale development in the countryside. There were fears about a wild west and a solar rush, and about precedent in the planning system—if one of these developments gets approved, it may be a signal that we are locked into precedent. There were concerns, which I share, about the use of good agricultural land and, particularly in the light of the Ukraine situation, about food security.
Concerns were raised about the solar supply chain—both the human rights point that my hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Melton (Alicia Kearns) made, and the carbon footprint point. There were concerns about the lack of metrics of sustainability, and about taking into account the full externalities of the carbon footprint of developments. There were concerns about the abuse of the local planning system. I have been very struck in my constituency by the fact that because this is critical national infrastructure, the views of local people and local MPs—frankly, anybody locally—are very downgraded. The planning advice states that those local views are important, so I think that there is a real issue there.
There were specific concerns about Rutland and habitat impact, and calls for a clearer national policy on tackling these policy tensions. Points were made about the impact of the Ukraine emergency on food supplies, food security and food prices. Points were also made about the link to surreptitious approvals of, effectively, battery farms in inappropriate locations, about fire risk, about the impact on rural tourism and about the need for better co-location of generation, where possible, with use. My right hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Sir John Hayes) made a point about beauty, identity and character, which is not just a magnificent ethereal concept; it also underpins tourism in the countryside. Some very important points have been made, and they deserve to be repeated and acknowledged. Forgive me; I am not going to list everybody, but Hansard will report what has been set out.
I am grateful to the Minister for giving way, because I have made several interventions. On the point about fire safety, will he take on board, and comment on, the need for transparency about past fires? I should also have mentioned in my speech that the Financial Secretary to the Treasury, my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for South East Cambridgeshire (Lucy Frazer), cannot speak because she is a member of the Government, but she wholeheartedly endorses my views and is a great campaigner for her constituency when it comes to the Sunnica plant—and more broadly.
I will happily pick that point up. My right hon. Friend invites me—wisely, perhaps, given the time—to clarify that at the end of this debate, I will raise all the points that have been made today with the relevant Ministers, including, perhaps, the Minister for fire safety. When such a number of colleagues meet in the Chamber, their points deserve to be heard and passed through.
I want to pick up on the planning point. Colleagues will be aware, but those listening may not be, that planning applications for projects below 50 MW are determined by the local planning system. Many hundreds of them around the country have been approved satisfactorily. Projects up to 350 MW in Wales are devolved, with decisions made either by local authorities or the Welsh Government. Planning in Scotland and Northern Ireland is fully devolved. For projects over 50 MW in England and over 350 MW in Wales, planning decisions are made by the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy.
Local authorities’ declaration of a climate emergency seems to be overriding the requirement to avoid developments on best and most versatile land. Should there not be an absolute prohibition of solar farm developments on BMVL?
My hon. Friend makes his point well. Let me come to the point I was going to make about planning, which tries to deal with that.
In 2021, the Government set up a national infrastructure planning reform programme, bringing several Government Departments together with the aim of refreshing how the nationally significant infrastructure project regime works to make it faster, better and greener. The Government will shortly consult on reform proposals—we will do so later this year. As a part of that, the Government are reviewing the national policy statements for energy. It seems to me that quite a lot of what has been said today is a call for a clearer national policy statement, and colleagues might want to raise that with the Minister for Energy and the Planning Minister. The draft revised national policy statement for renewables includes a new section on solar projects, providing clear and specific guidance to decision makers on the impact on, for example, local amenities, biodiversity, landscape, wildlife and land use, which must be considered when assessing planning applications. The Government plan to publish a response to the consultation on the revised national policy statement shortly.
Under both local and NSIP planning systems, developers must complete proper community engagement as part of the application process. Communities should and must be able to participate in the formal examination process run by the Planning Inspectorate. All large solar developers under the NSIP must complete an environmental statement for any application, to consider all potential impacts. Planning guidance is also clear that the effective use of land should be prioritised by focusing large-scale solar farms on previously developed and non-greenfield land. It seeks to minimise the impact on the best and most versatile agricultural land. It requires developers to justify using any such land and to design their projects to avoid, mitigate and, where necessary, compensate for impacts.
I am conscious of the time—I think I have one minute left—but I want to highlight that in relation to the planning process colleagues will understand that I cannot comment on the specifics of this individual case, because I do not want to prejudice it in any way. However, we anticipate that once an application is submitted to the planning inspector, it will be 15 to 18 months before it comes back to the Secretary of State after all the various consultations. Interestingly, in terms of precedent —all-important in planning—only one large-scale solar application has been approved, in Kent. One in Wales, Strawberry Hill—devolved, of course—was turned down on the agricultural land use point. I understand that one in Scunthorpe is imminent, and that Sunnica and one or two others are in the pipeline. The point about precedent is important: we all know that when a big decision is made it can trigger a wave of subsequent applications.
Let me close by congratulating and thanking colleagues for coming today. They have raised important points that I will undertake to pass on to Ministers who have responsibility for energy, planning, farming, tourism and fire safety. Colleagues have made a very important case for a stronger and clearer national policy statement, reflecting the situation in Ukraine and the Prime Minister’s emphasis on food and energy security. I will undertake to make sure that the points raised today are picked up by all the relevant Ministers.
I thank everybody for their outstanding contributions—there are too many to name individually in the time—on energy security, the move to renewables, our energy mix, protecting our countryside, our agriculture, where we get our food from and the importance of solar, while ensuring it is used in the most sensible locations, including brownfield sites. Once again, I thank the Minister, and the Opposition spokesmen, the hon. Members for Aberdeen South (Stephen Flynn) and for Southampton, Test (Dr Whitehead). And I thank you, Sir Charles, for your excellent chairmanship.
Allergy Research and Treatments: Government Support
[Relevant document: e-petition 589716, Appoint an Allergy Tsar as a champion for people living with allergies.]
Order. I will call on Christian Matheson to move the motion, then on the Minister to respond. As is the convention for 30-minute debates, there will not be an opportunity for the Member in charge to wind up. However, I understand that there might be interventions from a couple of colleagues, which I shall take during Mr Matheson’s speech.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered Government support for allergy research and treatments.
It is a great pleasure to see you in the Chair today, Sir Charles. I was at the Chester gang show not long ago, and was looked after very well on an excellent evening by a gentleman called Tim McLachlan. Tim, it turns out, runs the Natasha Allergy Research Foundation, a memorial foundation that campaigns on allergy research. The House will remember that Natasha Ednan-Laperouse was the victim of an allergy. She ate a sandwich with sesame in it and died on an aircraft. It was an utter tragedy. In memory of her, her parents set up the charity that Mr McLachlan now runs, which really caught my imagination.
I thank my hon. Friend for giving way, and for securing the debate. He referred to a young lady called Natasha; I want to refer to my own niece who, because of her allergy, ended up on a ventilator machine three times in the space of three years.
That is an awful situation. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend’s family. That three times in three years is a shocking statistic, which we will come back to because there is a burgeoning rise in allergic disease in the UK. It is an issue of great importance to people across the country, as the recent parliamentary petition demonstrated. Indeed, I thank the Petitions Committee for incorporating that petition into the debate.
It is estimated that here in the UK one in three people are living with allergies and 3 million with food allergies. It is not only about food allergies. I was contacted today by a lady called Sue. She, her daughter and her grandson have a latex allergy. Her daughter has had to write, on behalf of her son—Sue’s grandson—to all the manufacturers of school sportswear equipment to find out whether their equipment contains latex, because of that allergy. Her daughter has lost 3½ stone in two years because of her allergies and has finally, after about two and a half to three years, got a treatment. However, it should not take that long.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate. My second son was born with allergies, and has just the one now—I am thankful that he managed to grow out of some of them. Does the hon. Member agree that as one in four people suffer from some type of basic allergy, and have to live their lives with medication to deal with the symptoms, we must see extra investment into research on the varied multitude of allergies that people are suffering from throughout the UK?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. I absolutely agree. Research shows that in the 20 years to 2012, there was a 615% increase in hospital admissions in the UK for anaphylaxis, a potentially life-threatening allergic reaction mainly caused by food allergies.
Members may be familiar with a tragic list of recent fatalities, mostly of young people, from anaphylaxis: Sadie Bristow, aged nine; Shanté Turay-Thomas, 18; Karanbir Cheema, 13; Ava-Grace Stevens, nine; James Atkinson, 23; Owen Carey, 18; Ellen Raffell, 16; and, of course, Natasha Ednan-Laperouse, 15. Those are just some of the entirely avoidable deaths we have witnessed in recent years.
Thankfully, because of the powerful campaign run by Nadim and Tanya Ednan-Laperouse, Natasha’s parents, we now have a new allergen and ingredient-labelling law in the UK, known as Natasha’s law. It will save lives and prevent others from suffering the terrible grief that those families will always bear. I pay tribute to the Government in this case for their swift response in ending the loophole in the law that Natasha’s death—caused by sesame seeds hidden in a baguette—exposed. I am sure that the Government’s actions on that are welcomed throughout the House.
Much more needs to be done. I will highlight two areas where I challenge Ministers, in this time of great need, to rise up and offer real hope to hundreds of thousands of families who live daily with the fear of a loved one suffering a severe—or worse, fatal—anaphylactic reaction: research and treatment. Turning to the latter, for too long allergy services have been the Cinderella services in our healthcare system. There is a national postcode lottery, and too many patients take too long to get specialist appointments, as we heard from Sue who emailed me. There are too few specialist allergy clinics, too few specialist allergy doctors and consultants and too little training for GPs. The pathway between GP and hospital allergy services is deeply disjointed. No specific treatment for allergies is readily available in the UK, and an individualised avoidance strategy with an adrenaline auto-injector is the only practical advice offered. That negatively affects quality of life.
The care that people with allergies receive is at best patchy, and at worst has led to avoidable deaths. Without greater priority given to allergies, those problems will continue and sadly more lives might be lost unnecessarily. Those are just a few of the reasons why colleagues on the all-party parliamentary group for allergy recently published their excellent report calling for the appointment of a national lead on allergy. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Dagenham and Rainham (Jon Cruddas) for his dedicated work and leadership on the matter—he may seek to intervene later in the debate.
That is also the view of the Ednan-Laperouses’ charity, the Natasha Allergy Research Foundation, which has ran an excellent campaign calling for an allergy tsar. That was also the topic of the petition considered in this debate —someone to work across Government to tackle those issues. It is fair to say that the allergy community—patients, families, charities and the clinicians—are united as one in believing that there is an urgent need for a national lead to be appointed. I know that the Minister of State recently met members of the APPG and the national strategy group. I ask the Minister what plans the Government have on the appointment of a national lead on allergies. I hope that the Minister can provide the leadership and drive that the allergy community has called for.
Turning now to the matter of research, I urge the Minister to respond to the request from the Natasha Allergy Research Foundation for a meeting, sent in early January. There is a strong belief in the scientific community that, given the right amount of research funding, in the next couple of decades treatments can be found that could potentially eradicate allergies. I am aware that the Natasha Allergy Research Foundation intends to be a lead player in the research field and in its mission to make allergy history. I take the opportunity to thank everyone at the foundation for all the crucial work they have already done in the field. I understand that they will shortly announce their first research project, a £2.2 million study across five university hospital sites in England. That investment is roughly the same as the Government have donated as a whole to allergy research funding over the last five years.
If I may quote the Minister, on 29 October, she stated:
“Over the past five years, the Department of Health and Social Care has awarded the National Institute for Health Research over £2 million for research into food allergies.”—[Official Report, 29 October 2021; Vol. 702, c. 597.]
I am fearful that this is not sufficient. Without enough funding, there is not enough research. Without research, there is no treatment. Without treatment there is no change for the millions of people and families affected. I ask the Minister why, given the acknowledged growing epidemic of allergies in this country, research funding is not being given a significantly higher priority? Why is research into food allergic disease so underfunded compared with other diseases? Will the Minister consider other areas of allergy such as, for example, the case of latex that I mentioned earlier?
I am aware that the Food Standards Agency is undertaking a research programme into food allergy and intolerance, but it is not researching cause and prevention or developing treatments. I am also aware that the Department for Education is currently running a food standards pilot. However, flying in the face of the evidence from staff in our schools of a food allergy epidemic, it has not even bothered to include food allergy in its remit. That is another example of how individuals with food allergies are being forgotten and excluded. That is another reason why, as the petition states, we need an allergy tsar to work across all the Departments and Government agencies.
The Natasha Allergy Research Foundation is heavily leveraging the major food companies to help fund and play their part. They cannot do that work alone. I, and many others, believe that the Government now need to show direction and deliver investment into food allergy research, including cause, prevention and treatments. We need to be moving, and at pace. We should not be waiting for other young lives to be tragically lost before we step up to the mark.
I rise to make a couple of quick points.
I commend my hon. Friend the Member for City of Chester (Christian Matheson) on his outstanding speech. He mentioned the scale of allergic disease and the epidemic that we are witnessing across the country, and he listed some of the tragic deaths from anaphylaxis. While welcoming Natasha’s law, he acknowledged how much more needs to be done on research and treatment.
In this regard, the recent report, “Meeting the challenges of the National Allergy Crisis”, made four general recommendations on treatment: first, as my hon. Friend mentioned, a national plan for allergy, led by a designated civil servant or NHS lead; secondly, an expanded specialist workforce to ensure training programmes that prioritise allergy; thirdly, to ensure all GPs and healthcare professionals in primary care have adequate knowledge and training about allergic issues; and fourthly, ways for local commissioners to understand and address the allergy needs of their local populations.
My hon. Friend touched on all those points, but he also opened up new ground in this debate on the question of research, which I welcome. We could eradicate allergies with appropriate financial support and Government backing. The £2.2 million from the Natasha Allergy Research Foundation is vital. I commend the family on everything they have done over the last few years. They are literally matching total Government research spend. As my hon. Friend said, surely we can do better than that and become a global leader in research to overcome this epidemic.
I have spent many years engaging with Ministers from different Governments on this subject, Sir Charles, but the present Minister has already demonstrated real commitment to this agenda. Consequently, we have a work programme and an ongoing dialogue between civil servants and representatives from the National Allergy Strategy Group. I commend the Minister for this, but I urge her to go further and faster, and positively respond to the comments made by my hon. Friend the Member for City of Chester on research expenditure. Lives depend on that, as well as the quality of life of many millions of our fellow citizens.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Charles. I thank the hon. Member for City of Chester (Christian Matheson) for securing this debate on this important issue and the hon. Member for Dagenham and Rainham (Jon Cruddas) for his comments. In my short few months in this role, we have already talked about this important topic on a number of occasions. I take it very seriously and I appreciate the tone in which this debate is taking place.
Allergies affect around 20 million people in the UK. Thankfully, most allergic reactions are mild and people can manage their symptoms effectively. However, for some people, as we heard from the hon. Member for Bolton South East (Yasmin Qureshi) when she spoke about her niece, management of allergies can be complex and reactions to allergens can be severe and cause much distress, and can even, sadly, be fatal on some occasions.
For people living with allergies, everyday activities can be challenging and navigating the world can be an anxious experience. The Government recognise the challenges faced by people with allergies and are committed to ensuring that all children and adults living with allergies are well supported.
As has been mentioned, investing in research is a key component in supporting people living with allergies. It plays a vital role in providing those working in the NHS, public health and social care with the evidence they need to better support parents and families, and supports access to pioneering treatment, diagnostics and services.
The Department of Health and Social Care funds research through the National Institute for Health Research. In the past five years we have provided the NIHR with over £14.1 million in funding for research into allergies. We would welcome funding applications for research into allergies, including potentially into more unusual types of allergies, as more funding is available but on an application basis. There has been a wide breadth of research across the life course on a range of allergic conditions, from hay fever, eczema and allergic or atopic asthma, to food and drug allergies, which can cause severe anaphylaxis, as has been mentioned.
In addition to directly funded projects into allergies, the NIHR clinical research network also supported the recruitment of participants into 79 studies of allergies over the past five years. In 2020-21 alone, the NIHR biomedical research centres had 56 active projects related to allergies, and those projects can make a real difference to people’s lives.
One trial of a new peanut oral immunotherapy treatment in children showed a high rate of desensitisation, with many of the participants able to consume a very small quantity of peanuts following the treatment. The families involved in the trial said that oral immunotherapy had transformed their lives, reducing anxiety and allowing them more freedom in terms of food choice.
Further research is being carried out into the effectiveness and safety of immunotherapy to see whether it can be used to help others. For example, there is a project looking at peanut oral immunotherapy in adults and another investigating cow’s milk oral immunotherapy in babies. I know those will be welcomed by many people. I am very much struck by the stories of Monty and Arlo, which I took to heart, and by the anxiety felt by the children having to deal with this on a daily basis. I am also struck by the maturity with which they both approached it.
In terms of new treatments, in December last year NHS England announced that children in England will be the first in Europe to receive Palforzia, a life-changing treatment for peanut allergies, after NHS England secured the first deal of its kind in Europe. The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence published its final guidance on Palforzia in February 2022, so it is very recent. Up to 600 children aged four to 17 are expected to benefit from the treatment this year, with that number rising to as many as 2,000 in 2023.
It is important that, while we continue to look for treatments, we also consider how best we can support families living with allergies.
My hon. Friend is right to highlight the advances in allergy treatment. I congratulate the hon. Member for City of Chester (Christian Matheson) on securing this debate and the hon. Member for Dagenham and Rainham (Jon Cruddas) on his work in this area over a number of years.
May I push the Minister on one point? The key challenge for many families is access to diagnostics and the link between primary and secondary care. As well as highlighting many of the successes, will she outline what more can be done to improve timely access to diagnostics for families?
I appreciate my hon. Friend’s intervention and will go directly to that point. General practitioners are responsible for ensuring that their own clinical knowledge remains up to date and for identifying learning needs as part of their continuing professional development. I am sure he is aware of that. That activity should include taking into account new research and developments in guidance. All doctors are expected to meet those standards, and the Royal College of General Practitioners has developed an allergy e-learning online resource to support continuing professional development and revalidation, which aims to educate GPs about the various presentations of allergic disease to aid with diagnosis. We appreciate that that has to go through a large number of GPs.
I was talking about families living with allergies. Other NIHR-funded research at the University of East Anglia is developing a psychological toolkit that aims to help parents to learn skills to manage their own anxiety around their child’s food allergy, as well as addressing children’s anxiety. We know that people with allergies are often advised to avoid the substance that they are allergic to, but we also know that that is not always easy or practical, and we have seen tragic examples of where that has not been the case—indeed, Natasha was mentioned. The Government are taking steps to protect those with allergies and intolerances. That includes the introduction of Natasha’s law, named after that sad case, which came into force on 1 October 2021, making it a legal requirement for all food retailers and operators to display full ingredient and allergen labelling information on every food item they sell that is pre-packed for direct sale.
Additionally, food hypersensitivity, which includes food allergies, is a strategic priority for the Food Standards Agency. As an evidence-based organisation, the FSA has been at the forefront of world-leading research, which has had a significant impact on our understanding of food. The FSA is currently undertaking a programme of work to improve the quality of life for people living with food hypersensitivity and provide support to make safe, informed food choices to effectively manage risk. The Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency is also planning next steps to support the wider availability of adrenalin auto-injectors in public spaces. We have had debates on that here as well. That is a medicine used for the emergency treatment of severe acute allergic reactions. We know there is more to consider about how we might protect people further.
I know that this issue matters to many Members, and to many constituents. I thank all hon. Members for the points they have made and the continued discussion we have had on this topic. I hope they will accept that real progress is being made. I hope I have been able to assure them that we will continue to support people living with allergies through NIHR research and exploring and investing in new treatments. With the engagement and involvement of patients and the public across the country, I hope we can improve the lives and outcomes for everyone living with allergies and their families.
Question put and agreed to.
Smart Road Pricing
[Relevant document: Fourth Report of the Transport Committee, Road pricing, HC 789.]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered smart road pricing.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Charles. I thank the House of Commons Library, the Transport Committee, whose report is tagged on to the debate, members of the Greater London Authority, and many others who helped with the research ahead of the debate. I also thank Members of all parties who have shown an interest in speaking in today’s debate, and I look forward to hearing everyone’s contributions.
Before I bite into some of the meat of this policy, I want to briefly set out some of the constituency context in Carshalton and Wallington. The London borough of Sutton is ranked 29th out of the 33 London boroughs for transport infrastructure, and that includes the City of London. Sutton is the only borough in London that does not have access to a London Underground station, a London Overground station or Crossrail, nor it is not on the map for Crossrail 2. According to a report from City Hall, Sutton is the least-funded transport borough in the entire city. As we might expect, given that it is on the geographical fringes of London, Sutton has some of the highest private car ownership and usage rates in the capital. Put bluntly, Carshalton and Wallington residents rely heavily on cars for their work and personal life, and any policy that impacts on road transportation impacts on my constituency and constituents. As we work towards achieving our net zero ambitions, we must ensure that we strike the right balance for our constituents in order to create truly sustainable alternatives to high-emission modes of transport.
Road pricing—or road charging, as it is sometimes known—essentially involves making a direct charge for the use of a road or network of roads. Sometimes that charge is based on certain factors, such as the distance travelled, the time at which one is travelling, or the environmental impact of the journey, which relates to the vehicle itself. Of course, road pricing is not a brand-new concept. Much of the modern road network in my constituency of Carshalton and Wallington—I feel like I am going back to my maiden speech here, but I hope the House will indulge me—was built around historic toll roads. The Carshalton to Ewell turnpike was built in the 1750s and is still an arterial route going through my constituency today. It is known better as the A232, Carshalton Road, Croydon Road or the high street, which is an historic road that passes between the picturesque Carshalton ponds and All Saints Church, which has been in situ for over 1,000 years.
Thankfully, the toll road, like so many others, has been consigned to the dustbin of history. However, we are seeing calls for a resurrection of road charging across not just London but much of the UK. Londoners will know very well about the congestion charge and the ultra low emission zones, which I get regular complaints about from constituents, who describe the impact that such zones have on their journeys in and out of the capital. We have also recently heard about potential plans for a Greater London boundary charge, which would mean that those living just outside London, rather than Londoners specifically, would pay between £3.50 and £5.50 to enter the capital. That was heavily lobbied against and has now been taken off the table as a potential option.
As part of the consultation, however, Londoners are now being asked to share their views on extending the ultra low emission zone from the North and South Circulars, to which it has recently been expanded, to the whole of Greater London by the end of next year. However, it does not stop there. Plans were also announced in a report commissioned by the Mayor of London, which recommended the introduction of smart road pricing in London as early as mid-2020. That was further reinforced by an exchange that took place between the Mayor of London and Assembly members during a question time session about Transport for London’s finances.
In order for us to have a comprehensive debate on this issue, it is important to distinguish between road pricing in its broadest form and smart road pricing specifically. Smart road pricing uses technology to charge users based on the following factors: the distance driven; vehicle characteristics, such as the type, its emissions, the weight, the axles and so on; the time of day, day of the week or even time of the year that the car is being driven; and the segment of the road being used. In very simplistic terms, smart road pricing could take a number of forms. It could look like a taximeter fitted into private vehicles, with a charge sent directly to City Hall, or other regional authority, every time it is used. More likely in the early stages of this technology, it could look like a smartphone app, which allows the car to be started when someone wants to use it.
Smart road pricing has become an area of interest in discussions around net zero, although at City Hall discussions have predominantly focused on its potential for TfL finances. The main sources of revenue that fund roads and other Government spending are vehicle excise duty and fuel duty, which are predicted to decline due to decarbonisation, essentially the replacement of the internal combustion with electric vehicles. That revenue represents about 1.5% of UK GDP, and zero-emission transport has the potential to wipe out that funding. I appreciate that that presents a dilemma. How do we decarbonise transportation while continuing to raise money and invest in roads and other public spending commitments?
I can see why the Select Committee on Transport has already done work in this area. I will not dive into every detail of its report, but I want to highlight its findings. The Committee made a number of recommendations, including that smart road pricing must be a national project, not a regional one. It concluded that we must wait for technology to be ready to implement such a project. It stressed that there must be no additional costs to drivers, compared with current fuel and vehicle excise duty. Most importantly, for my constituents at least, it must be subject to public consultation. That is serious for my constituents, because they have experienced so many examples of schemes being implemented when they have said no in a consultation. If we want to have faith that the public’s views will be listened to, that simply must not be allowed to happen.
We are presented with a glaring problem. If we price people out of their vehicles, without potential alternatives available, we will not just be hitting people’s pockets by charging them more to use private vehicles; we could be costing them their livelihoods. They might no longer be able to afford to use their private cars, with no alternative available. Rather than looking into this scheme, I urge the Government and regional authorities to revisit their public transport offer. I hope the Minister can tell us how the Government will address the dilemma and future-proof our road networks in a way that is fair to all road users.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Charles. I welcome this debate and congratulate the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Elliot Colburn) on securing it. He will be interested to know that the Liberal Democrat leader of Sutton Borough Council would agree with many of the points he has raised. She wrote to the Mayor recently about this issue, highlighting the points raised by the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington about the lack of public transport in Sutton and how that needs to be addressed before further plans for road pricing can be progressed.
The hon. Gentleman’s constituency and mine face many of the same issues. My constituency also lies in the suburban outskirts of London and has relatively high car usage. I certainly sympathise with some of his remarks and concerns about taxes imposed on car users. My constituents also have reservations about the ultra low emission zone, which has been in place since late October and cuts right through the middle of my constituency. I welcome any move to improve air quality, but it has created issues by cutting people off from essential services such as Mortlake crematorium and Townmead recycling centre.
Despite my reservations about the arbitrary boundary divisions of the ULEZ, I firmly believe that action needs to be taken to dissuade car usage. I am strong advocate for the implementation of a simpler, fairer and more sustainable road pricing solution. London is extremely congested, our air quality is poor, and current levels of car usage cannot be maintained if we are to achieve our net zero goals. A report published by the Greater London Authority earlier this year found that car traffic must reduce by at least 27% across the capital, in order to achieve net zero by 2030.
There is a cross-party consensus that some kind of road pricing scheme that charges motorists on a per-mile basis would be beneficial, especially in London. It now seems inevitable that such a scheme will be implemented in due course. Current taxes on fuel and vehicle ownership will raise nearly £37 billion this year, but those revenues will dwindle as fossil fuels are replaced by zero-emission alternatives. The need for change is pressing if the Government are to retain current levels of tax revenue while also reducing toxic air pollution and cutting congestion.
The majority of road users would be set to benefit financially from smart road pricing. Those who are not high mileage users would bear only a small cost if other road charges and vehicle excise duty were removed.
The hon. Member is making some good points about London, but I urge her to think about the solution recommended by the Transport Committee that this should be at national level. Certainly, those people who live in rural communities and counties outside metropolitan areas could be very adversely affected by per-mile road pricing. It could, in fact, put people out of work; it could affect the ability of families to take their children to school and all sorts of other issues. I urge her to look at that and consider it in the suggestions and remarks she makes to the Minister.
The hon. Member raises an important point. What we are trying to achieve is a certain amount of equity. He is absolutely right about the contrast between rural and urban car usage and ownership. Although my remarks focus on what might be best for my constituents, I accept that it would be an entirely different matter in his part of the country. Per-mile road usage charging may not be the most equitable solution across the country. Certainly, for my constituents, a per-mile scheme would mean less cost than now in terms of the taxes they pay on petrol and vehicle excise duty.
Polling undertaken by YouGov for the Institution of Civil Engineers in 2019 suggested that a pay-as-you-go model of road pricing has popular support—47% of British adults stated that they would support a pay-as-you-go model if it replaced both vehicle excise duty and fuel duty, and just 23% opposed. For those living in urban areas, the first means of transport should automatically be public transport but, presently, in constituencies such as Richmond Park, and Carshalton and Wallington, public transport is both underfunded and unreliable.
It is not right that those who use cars simply because they have no other practical way of getting around should face large increases in taxes. Any new road pricing scheme must also be matched with adequate investment in public transport. In London, that begins with a long-term funding settlement for Transport for London. Constituencies on the outskirts of London require a central London-style public transport system that allows my constituents and others to travel across the borough and between neighbouring boroughs easily and quickly, in order to decrease car usage.
In addition to public transport options being made available, they must also be accessible and affordable. This month, the Government have increased rail fares by 3.8%, with another increase set for July. The Liberal Democrats have proposed to scrap this rail fare increase and to further implement a five-year freeze on fares to encourage people in urban areas out of cars and on to trains. If residents in urban areas are properly supported to reduce car usage through increased availability of affordable public transport, a smart road pricing scheme can offer a fair alternative to current vehicle and fuel duties. Such a scheme will be coming in some form. In principle, I think we can all agree it is necessary.
The conversation must now focus on how we can best support our constituents to reduce car usage and to ensure that the design of any road pricing scheme is given adequate consideration. Consultation must be undertaken with key stakeholders to avoid unfairly disadvantaging car users with no other practical means of transportation.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Charles. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Elliot Colburn) for securing this important and increasingly topical debate.
Finding new ways to justify charging motorists to drive their cars is becoming increasingly fashionable among certain politicians in this country, especially in London. Just last week, the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, announced a consultation on expanding the ultra low emission zone to the Greater London boundary. He claims, of course, that it is to do with air quality and congestion, but it is not.
I am holding up a map taken from Transport for London’s website at the time when it was investigating setting up the ultra low emission zone. There is a colour code. Yellow is the legal limit for air pollution in London. The worse the air gets, the redder or more orange the map gets; the better the air gets, the bluer or greener it gets. As hon. Members can see, bad air quality is located in central London, around Heathrow airport and on some of the trunk roads into and out of those areas. There is not bad air quality outside the North and South Circulars or in outer London.
The expansion of the zone is actually about raising revenue—not surprising, given the financial mess that Transport for London is in. It is true, of course, that the pandemic hurt Transport for London grievously, and it would not be sensible to deny that. However, a catalogue of blunders preceded the pandemic, such as the unaffordable fares freeze, which, by its own calculation, cost Transport for London at least £640 million although likely much more. There was the failure to maximise the commercial revenue for Transport for London and of course the complete mess that Sadiq Khan made on the oversight of Crossrail. The Mayor’s TfL business plan was predicated and extremely reliant on the revenue that Crossrail was going to deliver if it was on time and on budget. But thanks to the Mayor’s failure to adequately scrutinise Crossrail despite his role as chairman of Transport for London, which is the overseeing body, TfL is now short of billions of pounds of fares revenue that it would otherwise have raised.
Expanding the ultra low emission zone to the Greater London boundary will have shattering consequences for people living in outer London. It will cost the owner of an older vehicle who uses it every day £4,500, even before they have paid for fuel or road tax. That will hit everybody, of course, but the poorest Londoners—those less able to replace their vehicles—will be hit hardest.
I just want to challenge the hon. Gentleman on the point that the charge will hit everybody. Obviously, I have experience of ULEZ coming into my constituency. It applies only to diesel vehicles and petrol vehicles over a certain age. I was worried about the impact, but I have to say that the number of people actually affected has been much less than I thought.
The hon. Lady is correct. The charge will hit petrol vehicles registered in 2006 or before; as I just said, poorer Londoners will own those. It will hit diesel vehicles registered in 2014 or before. A car registered in 2014 is not particularly old. I had a diesel vehicle that was registered in 2012, which I got rid of the minute Sadiq Khan was elected Mayor of London. I knew that the charge was coming, that it would be unaffordable and that there would soon be no second-hand market for the vehicle. I was fortunate enough to be able to afford a newer car, but many people in London will not be able to, and the charge will hit them. The point that I have made using the map in my hand is that the charge will be hitting them completely unnecessarily.
There will be a devastating hit on an economy struggling to recover from the pandemic—for no reason. This is the thin end of the wedge. We know that Sadiq Khan’s ultimate ambition is to introduce road pricing in London. He has not hidden that. The letter to every London MP accompanying the announcement of the ultra low emission zone actually said that his ultimate objective was to replace all forms of charge in London with a road pricing scheme. The Mayor’s transport strategy of 2018 says that he will give consideration to the development of
“the next generation of road user charging systems. These could replace schemes such as the Congestion Charge, Low Emission Zone and Ultra Low Emission Zone. More sophisticated road user charging…could be used to contribute to the achievement of the policies and proposals in this strategy…to help reduce congestion on the road network and support efficient traffic movement. In doing so, the Mayor will consider the appropriate technology for any future schemes, and the potential for a future scheme that reflects distance, time, emissions, road danger and other factors in an integrated way.”
In the same document, which is revealing of the Mayor’s thinking, he says that people need to address
“the fundamentally inadequate and unfair way in which road use is paid for in London, with motorists paying too little, and in effect being subsidised by public transport fare payers. Measures such as road user charging (where appropriate), land value capture and the devolution of financial powers to local level are essential to delivering an efficient and fair funding system.”
I want to concentrate on the claim that motorists are subsidised by public transport users. That claim simply does not stack up. Setting aside the fact that most Londoners use a mixture of travel modes and cannot easily be categorised as motorist, pedestrian or cyclist, it is notable that at the time at which the strategy was launched, the Transport for London annual bus subsidy amounted to £722 million and, in addition, Transport for London provided in excess of £318 million for concessionary travel across its network, taking the level of publicly funded subsidy to well over £1 billion per annum. By contrast, London’s 2.6 million drivers were collectively paying £1.9 billion in motoring taxes, so I do not see how the Mayor can make the claim that motorists are being subsidised by public transport users. It is actually very much the reverse.
For many people, driving represents freedom. We should not be sanguine about the state seeking to undermine people’s ability to get into their own car and drive directly to wherever they want to go. Owning or having access to a car can significantly increase an individual’s travel opportunities, but road pricing is a policy that seeks to curb, undermine or remove that.
I would like to make a further point regarding freedom and it touches on a point that my hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton and Wallington made in his introductory remarks. The technology required to make this form of road pricing work would almost inevitably have to include some form of global navigation satellite system technology. In other words, there would have to be in every vehicle a black box that would be capable of identifying exactly where each car had been located at any given time. That creates both practical and civil liberties considerations.
In practical terms, there is the question of how the technology would be imposed on those driving in London—if indeed we are talking about road pricing solely in London. Currently, some British motorists choose to install a black box in order to get cheaper car insurance, but a situation in which the technology was mandatory would be very different. How would the Mayor ensure that anyone who wished to drive in London had a black box in their car? Londoners drive around London, but people from outside London also drive across the Greater London boundary, so how would that work? Trying to introduce road pricing in Greater London alone, rather than in the whole of the UK, would be, as has been touched on by colleagues, fraught with difficulties for that very reason. In terms of civil liberties, many people would be very uncomfortable with the idea that the state might be able to track their every move via their car. As yet, that issue has not been addressed by anyone advocating any form of road pricing.
Therefore there are significant economic, practical and civil liberties problems with this idea, but it is the impact on people’s everyday lives that merits the highest consideration. If Sadiq Khan tries to force Londoners out of their cars by increasing the cost of driving, he will inevitably catch those who have little choice but to drive. Even if there are exemptions for specific individuals —for example, blue badge holders—there will still be ordinary Londoners who need to drive but can no longer afford to do so. For a great many of my constituents, in common with those of the hon. Member for Richmond Park (Sarah Olney) and of my hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton and Wallington, a car is an essential feature of their everyday lives, not least because there are few genuine alternatives for many journeys. In much of outer London and particularly in south London, the choice for those using public transport is the train or the bus. Trains are mostly a radial option; they are very useful for travelling into central London, but they are of little use if people want to make an orbital journey. Buses are much more useful for orbital journeys, but by their very nature, they are both relatively slow and often indirect. Many Londoners feel that their car is their best option for journeying outside London. That is particularly the case when the public transport alternative would involve travelling into central London and then out again. Road pricing, even if applied only to the London-based section of a journey, would increase the cost of those journeys without doing anything to improve them.
In conclusion, it is not a surprise that the current Mayor of London would prefer to squeeze more money out of Londoners and, ideally, outer Londoners, who are less likely to vote for him. Nor is it a surprise that he should seek to dress this cash grab up with high-minded justifications about air quality and emissions. Such a policy is fraught with difficulties and has so many downsides that it should be a non-starter, but if the Mayor of London decides to proceed with expanding the ultra low emission zone or, worse, introduce per-mile road charging, the Government should step in and stop him.
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair once again, Sir Charles. I congratulate the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Elliot Colburn) on securing the debate. He started by making a strong point—I am not sure whether it was about his constituency or whether it was about Sutton being the only London borough without a tube station. I have sympathy with that, growing up and living for most of my life in Renfrew, which is the largest town in Scotland without a train station. I thought that he made a powerful contribution at the start of the debate.
The hon. Member for Richmond Park (Sarah Olney) said that the case for change was pressing, if we are to maintain taxation levels and reduce road transport’s carbon footprint; Members will hear from my speech that that is something I wholeheartedly agree with. She also referenced the report by the Institution of Civil Engineers, which means I do not have to; for the purposes of time, I am grateful for that.
The hon. Member for Central Suffolk and North Ipswich (Dr Poulter), who is no longer in his place, made an important point about the difference between rural and urban. Any scheme that came in would have to take that difference into account, and there would have to be variations or exceptions for those in rural areas for that very reason.
The hon. Member for Orpington (Gareth Bacon) clearly had issues with TfL and the Mayor of London, but he made a very stark point about the £4,500 cost before running costs of any other expansions of ULEZ. I should declare that I am a member of the Transport Committee, which the hon. Member referenced in terms of road pricing. It is true: we said recently that there is no viable alternative to road pricing moving forward—certainly that we can see at the moment. The hon. Member for Central Suffolk and North Ipswich also reiterated the point that the scheme must be national. Unless he meant Scotland having a national scheme, that is something I have a slight disagreement with, but I will come on to that later.
If road pricing is to be workable, it needs to be part of a wholesale review and replacement of our complex taxation system. The current arrangements are increasingly not fit for purpose in the 21st century, with a system that—apart from some tweaks and amendments over the decades—is, at its core, the same system that has been in place for nearly a century.
Net zero and reducing carbon emissions are obviously policies that go far beyond transport. They straddle all aspects of our society. Reducing car usage, improving public transport and developing active travel as a real alternative to private transport will have a huge impact on us all and on how we live our lives. Getting people out of cars is intrinsically linked to improvements in public transport, which, in turn, helps to support our town and city centres; again, in turn, that helps to develop local economies and provide better employment in our communities.
With private cars accounting for around 40% of transport-related emissions, bringing down levels of car usage is a key strand in the Scottish Government’s drive towards a net zero society. Their target—which, I admit, is hugely ambitious—is to reduce overall car kilometres by 20% by the end of this decade. There is no doubt that it is a tough target, but it will result in huge gains in carbon reduction if it can be met.
To salami slice road pricing as something that can be leveraged to promote those reductions while leaving other policy levers in the hands of the DFT and Treasury —as we have seen with buses, aviation and, notably, trains, for the last 20 years or so—is a recipe for delay and the danger that our large-scale ambitions will not be met. To have a situation where portions of charging and taxation policy are devolved while some remain at Westminster is a recipe for confusion and, above all, being unable to fully realise the potential that could be unleashed with the full devolution of powers over motoring taxes to the Scottish Parliament—the Minister probably did not expect me to say anything less.
Sales of electric vehicles are at record levels, despite—I would say—the UK Government’s policy at times. While we have some way to go to match the astonishing progress in countries such as Norway, the trend is clear: EVs are replacing internal combustion engines and, by 2032, every car sold will have to be zero-emission. As that switch happens, the revenues from fuel duties will drop at an ever-increasing pace; as overall emissions from private vehicles drop, so too will revenue from vehicle excise duty based on CO2 emissions without further reform. The Transport Committee heard evidence that, without action, taxation revenues from motoring will drop to zero by 2040 if UK targets for net zero are met. Clearly, that is neither sustainable nor healthy for road users or our wider economy.
I do not pretend that the transition to a modern taxation regime will not involve a real and sometimes difficult national debate and conversation about vehicle taxation and its impact on motorists and other road users; one has only to look at the debate around a workplace parking levy in Scotland at the moment. However, the alternative is a long-term disaster on our roads, for our environment and for our wider economy. The transition must include: as I said, the full devolution of power over motoring taxation—all taxation, if in the Minister’s power, but certainly motoring taxation—to the Scottish Parliament.
The enhanced incentivisation of the extra grants for home chargers, a scheme whose scope the UK is inexplicably slashing in April, and interest-free loans, along with significant investment in much more comprehensive electric vehicle charging infrastructure in Scotland, compared with most of England, serve to highlight the differences in policy and, more importantly, the urgency with which it is delivered. Without the taxation powers to tie together the changes in duty revenue, however, along with the wider policy objectives of the move to net zero, the Scottish Government are fighting with one hand tied behind their back. Yet still, over the past 10 or 20 years, they have outperformed the UK Government on all those metrics.
Transferring full control over vehicle and motoring taxation to the devolved Administrations will allow policy to reflect the different pace at which things are moving. On nearly all indices, Scotland is outstripping the rest of the UK in the transition to net zero, and yet the fiscal and financial framework in which the Scottish Government have to operate is stuck in the last century. It takes little to no account of the different priorities of the respective Governments.
To conclude, the Chancellor has made a commitment in writing to the Scottish Government to engage with Scottish and other devolved Governments on motoring taxation. I hope that the Minister will get the ball rolling for colleagues as quickly as possible, to ensure that serious discussions can take place with the devolved Administrations on how and when those powers can be transferred to Holyrood, Cardiff and Stormont as timeously as possible. What might work for Greater London—Greater London has been mentioned a lot in this debate—cannot be copied and pasted into Scotland or Wales. To sum up, I hope that the Minister will provide us with an update on that proposed engagement.
Today alone, we have seen action by the Irish Government, temporarily cutting fuel duty by 15 cents and 20 cents for petrol and diesel, respectively—to help the haulage industry and to keep the cost of living down. Whether that should happen here is a debate for another day, but it shows how a Government with the will and the power to act quickly in the face of changing circumstances can take real action on motoring and haulage costs. Road pricing and the renewal of modern motoring taxation will give Governments here in Westminster and in Edinburgh the opportunity to respond and react far more nimbly and responsively to such challenges and to provide the kind of support needed by road users and industry alike. I urge the Minister to speed her colleagues along in delivering the road taxation system of the future.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Charles.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Elliot Colburn) on securing this important debate. It comes at an extremely important time, following the COP26 conference and a renewal of global efforts to reduce our reliance on the use of fossil fuels. I also take this opportunity to thank the much respected Transport Committee for its work exploring the issue and its recommendations. Some hon. Members have concentrated their remarks on London—rightly so, as they are fighting on behalf of their constituents. However, the problem is a much wider national one, and the solution required must also be national.
The Labour party welcomed the Government commitment to ban the sale of new petrol and diesel vehicles by 2030, for which we had been calling for some time. As electric vehicles become more accessible to consumers and charging infrastructure improves, the prevalence of electric cars and vans on our roads will increase sharply, in particular as we approach 2030, thereby impacting on tax revenue. We need to look carefully at funding shortfalls because of the increase in electric vehicles, but we must ensure that grants and support schemes are available for those making the change.
Grants for electric vehicles were cut twice last year, falling by half. The upper price limit for eligible models also fell twice, first to £35,000 and then to £32,000. That is down from £50,000 in March. Similar grants for small vans also fell. As someone who made the transition to an electric car a couple of years ago, I personally attest to the benefit, both environmentally and financially. Serious concerns, however, remain on the lack of charging points, with only a fifth of what will be needed by 2025 currently installed. Manufacturers, planners and council officials have all been critical about the slow progress in providing charging points. Last year, a survey conducted by the Local Government Association of 84 local authorities found a lack of coherent strategic direction at the national level and no vision of clarity on the role that local authorities play in delivering charging points.
The Competition and Markets Authority has determined that a third of households will rely on public infrastructure—those without access to a drive or a garage, where installation of a charging point is more difficult. It has criticised the roll-out as too slow and said that it has resulted in a postcode lottery. The analysis shows that of the 5,700 charging points, only 1,000 are outside London. For example, the total number of charging points per head in Yorkshire and the Humber is a quarter of those in London.
I want to draw attention to several aspects of the report, which the Labour party welcomes. We welcome the recommendations, mentioned by the hon. Member for Central Suffolk and North Ipswich (Dr Poulter), who is no longer in his place, to consider the impact on vulnerable groups and those in rural areas who are more reliant on their own personal vehicles. We also welcome the report’s inclusion of the need to encourage people to use active travel or public transport options.
There are some aspects of smart road pricing that I ask the Minister to address in her remarks. Smart road pricing would rely on the installation of a telematics device in vehicles. As the hon. Member for Orpington (Gareth Bacon) mentioned, people may not actually wish for one to be installed as they are fearful of a Big Brother society. How will the Government address this balance of privacy and data collection? In implementing a new scheme, it is important that motorists are part of a conversation and do not feel that a new scheme costs them more. The Government must ensure that any proposals do not add to the already desperate cost of living crisis faced by people across our country. Will the Minister commit to ensuring that any proposals brought forward are part of a wider conversation?
Finally, another consideration is that some schemes around the world have higher rates for driving during peak times or when using arterial routes. No conversation on the future of clean transport and road pricing can be had without considering public transport, as hon. Members have rightly mentioned. Just a year ago, the Prime Minister and the Transport Secretary launched the “Bus Back Better” strategy. They pledged a great bus service for everyone, everywhere. They promised it would be one of the great acts of levelling up. That was the ambition. The £3 billion of transformation funding was supposed to
“level up buses across England towards London standards”
“main road services in cities and towns to run so often that you don’t need a timetable”.
There would be
“better services in the evenings and weekends”
“simple, cheap flat fares that you can pay with a contactless card, with daily and weekly price capping across operators, rail and tram too.”
In reality, across the length and breadth of our country and particularly in the north-west, many are counting the cost of broken promises. A letter sent to local transport authority directors by the Department for Transport on 11 January made clear that the budget for the transformation of buses—a pot from which local regions can bid for funds—has now shrunk from £3 billion to just £1.2 billion for the next three years. Towns and cities across the country have put forward an ambitious blueprint to use buses and rail to connect people to jobs, families and opportunity, and to tackle the climate crisis in the process. They have plans, despite the challenges, to completely overhaul and reregulate the bus network as part of the bus service improvement plan.
Labour leaders in power in towns and cities nationwide have real ambition to reverse the decline we have seen under the Tories. They want to build a London-style system and make buses quicker, cheaper, greener and more reliable, but they need a Government that matches their ambition. Now it is becoming clear that, far from matching the ambition of our communities, the Government have pulled the rug from under them. Will the Minister own up and admit what the Transport Secretary will not—that many areas will now not see a single penny of this transformation funding?
Will she detail exactly how much local transport authorities are set to see in transformation funding and will she come clean that there will be areas that will miss out altogether? Will she also commit to building a public transport system that helps our transition to a cleaner, greener economy?
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Charles. Despite having the title “Smart Road Pricing”, the debate has been wide-ranging. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Elliot Colburn). I know that he has now mentioned his constituency in Parliament well over 100 times; he is an excellent champion for the area, which was clear in the way that he described the challenges it has faced.
I turn to some of the measures that were raised, almost in reverse order. The shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Slough (Mr Dhesi), veered on to the subject of electric vehicle charging. That is not strictly the subject of the debate, but with your permission, Sir Charles, I will briefly explain that we have 27,000 public chargers in the UK, of which 5,200 are rapid chargers. Project Rapid would see a minimum of six rapid chargers of 150 kW or more at all 170 motorway service areas in England.
We know that we need 10 times the charging infrastructure that we have at the moment. I am pleased that the hon. Gentleman welcomed the Government’s decision to phase out the sale of new petrol and diesel cars. I would like to clarify that that is not a ban on the sale of petrol and diesel cars; it is a phasing out of their sale from 2030. I accept that the sale of second-hand petrol and diesel cars will continue for many years.
On the subject of road pricing and how we rely on our roads, my hon. Friend the Member for Orpington (Gareth Bacon) expressed the challenges faced by people who cannot afford to upgrade their car but who desperately need to use it, whether because of their job, their shifts, the route they need to take or where they live in the country. I represent a rural area in the Lake district and my four daughters would not be able to do the jobs they do if they depended on public transport alone, so I have incredible sympathy for people’s need to continue to use cars, whether privately, via car clubs or through other ways that enable people to travel when they need to.
We rely on the roads for journeys not just in cars but on buses. The shadow Minister said that our spending has reduced from £3 billion to £1.2 billion. If he had listened to the debate that I responded to earlier, he would have heard me set out quite clearly how that £3 billion is being used. That was another debate, so I will let him look at that this evening.
I will not, because time does not allow.
There is significant public interest in road pricing and its potential to either enhance or interfere with the way we live our lives. Any proposal must not just be smart about how people really live; it will be about technology too, but the priority is how people get to the places they need to get to.
London already has several road-user charging schemes in operation, introduced by Mayors past and present. These schemes deliver against policy objectives to reduce congestion and tackle air pollution in the capital. Before speaking to the current Mayor’s plans to extend those charges, I will say something about road pricing in local areas more generally.
I thank the Scottish National party spokesperson, the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North (Gavin Newlands), for the work that he has done on the Transport Committee, which I look forward to speaking to next week. Once again, the Committee has provided a comprehensive report. We certainly appreciated the work that the Committee did on smart motorways, and we really value the time, effort and dedication of its members.
Road pricing is a broad term. It can be applied to any charge levied directly for the use of roads, as opposed to more indirect duties based on vehicle ownership or fuel. Examples of road pricing include tolls for using a specific road, bridge or tunnel; charges designed to reduce congestion or to discourage the use of the most polluting vehicles in a defined area; and methods of charging vehicles according to how far they are driven, at what time and on which road. That includes the smart road pricing we are discussing. To come back to the comments made by my hon. Friend the Member for Orpington, road pricing must be done in a way that is fair and does not discriminate against people because they have to travel further due to where they live or the job they do, or because of their ability to upgrade to a cleaner vehicle.
In England, the Department for Transport has policy responsibility for tolls and charging zones, although in most cases such charges are applied and managed by others, such as local highways authorities or private companies. Transport in London is of course devolved to the Mayor of London and Transport for London. That includes decisions on road user charging in the capital. General motoring taxation across the United Kingdom is the responsibility of Her Majesty’s Treasury. As with other taxes, any changes are considered and announced by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor. Consequently, I will discuss the position on road pricing only at local level in England, including in London, rather than any potential to apply road pricing nationally.
Road pricing in the UK has taken the form of tolls, congestion charging and low-emission zones. All the tolling operations continue to use toll booths and barriers, which force vehicles to slow or stop to pay with money or an electronic tag in the windscreen. In contrast, charging zones introduced over the last 20 years have relied on cameras and automatic numberplate recognition to record when vehicles enter the zone. Motorists are required to pay online, through an app, by phone or in person at a participating outlet.
A local smart road pricing scheme would involve going a step further, making use of the latest technology to set, administer and enforce a more targeted charging structure. That does not necessarily mean the use of black boxes. As the mother of four daughters who taught them all to drive, I understand some of the challenges of black boxes, or telematics more generally. However, one option—it is not the only option—would be to use in-vehicle technology to record aspects of a vehicle’s use. For example, the time, distance or place of the journeys made could be recorded and used to calculate the cost of each specific journey. However, that would not be straightforward to implement locally, and not only from the technical and administrative perspective, which alone would be significant.
It would also be important to ensure proper balance between simplicity of use and understanding by motorists, and effective detailed design to unlock the greatest potential traffic management benefits. Any design would need to reflect people’s interests in ensuring fairness, freedom and privacy, and account for issues around the cost of living, supporting small businesses, and helping people.
Last Friday, the Mayor of London confirmed that he has asked TfL to consult on expanding the existing ultra low emission zone London-wide, aiming to move London towards a greener future and net zero carbon emissions by 2030. TfL and the Mayor will need to progress that through public consultation, and I heard what my hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton and Wallington said about his disappointment in those consultations seemingly not taking notice of his constituents. I very much hope that they will be listened to.
Back in January, the Mayor of London also said that he is looking at a new kind of road-user charging scheme to implement in London by the end of the decade at the latest. The scheme would look to charge drivers per mile, with different rates depending on how polluting vehicles are, the level of congestion in the area, and access to public transport. The Mayor has said that such a scheme could replace all existing road-user charges, such as the congestion charge and the ULEZ. The technology required for such a scheme means that the earliest date that it could be implemented would be 2025 to 2026. As I have said, transport in London is devolved to the Mayor of London and TfL. That includes decisions on road-user charging.
I conclude by thanking hon. Friends present, and in particular my hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton and Wallington for bringing forward the debate. This is a complex matter, and we do not have answers to the questions at the moment, but I appreciate the willingness of Members present to think about the future of taxation and how the transition from a fossil fuel transport system to a decarbonised economy will work in practice. We are all interested in understanding what new technology can offer to improve traffic management and reduce the impact of road use on the places in which people live and the environment that they love; however, technological capability is certainly not the whole picture, and any proposal for road pricing needs to help people to live their lives and run their businesses well.
I thank all Members for taking part in today’s discussion, which has centred on London. I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Orpington (Gareth Bacon) and the hon. Member for Richmond Park (Sarah Olney) would agree that we do not get to talk about London very often in this place, so it makes a nice change.
There has been a lot of talk throughout the debate about the environmental benefits of a potential smart road pricing scheme, but to come back to a point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Orpington, the discussion in London is centred very heavily, if not prominently, on TfL’s finances and not on air quality or the environmental impact. The Lib Dem Assembly member who has been pushing for this measure in City Hall did so on a question around TfL’s finances, but I welcome the fact that the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Slough (Mr Dhesi), said that he agreed with the Transport Committee that it should be national. I therefore look forward to him telling the Mayor of London that the Labour party does not support his efforts to try to introduce the measure in London alone.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered smart road pricing.