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Improving Union Connectivity

Volume 714: debated on Wednesday 18 May 2022

7. What steps he is taking with Cabinet colleagues to improve transport connectivity between Scotland and England. (900006)

8. What recent discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on improving Union connectivity. (900007)

The UK Government are carefully considering the recommendations set out in Sir Peter Hendy’s Union connectivity review. My hon. Friend Baroness Vere, the Minister responsible for Union connectivity, has discussed the UCR recommendations with Graeme Dey MSP, the former Scottish Government Transport Minister. Sadly, Mr Dey has since stepped down for health reasons. In February, we first requested a meeting with his replacement, Jenny Gilruth. We hope to meet Ms Gilruth as soon as her busy diary allows.

It is regrettable that the Scottish Government refuse to engage with the UK connectivity review. It is also notable that serious concerns remain, even now, about the award management and delivery of the Ferguson ferries contract. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the Scottish Government need to up their game in connecting UK residents?

Yes, and to clarify my hon. Friend’s point, the Scottish Government did refuse to engage with the Union connectivity review, in the form of Cabinet Secretary Michael Matheson telling his civil servants not to communicate with Sir Peter Hendy, so my hon. Friend makes a very good point. Scottish National party MPs are only too keen to tell us when the Scottish Government are doing well, how great they are and why the UK Government should follow suit. However, when it comes to ferry contracts, the SNP has shown startling incompetence: they are five years late in delivery and £150 million over budget. Despite the Scottish Government’s incompetence, this Government stand ready to work with them on improving transport links across the United Kingdom, because we believe that that is best for all.

I have taken the west coast main line a couple of times from Preston to Glasgow, which is a wonderful city. It hosted the busy COP26, with its wonderful work, and there is the space industry in Glasgow. However, the train line is absolutely vital. As part of my right hon. Friend’s Union connectivity review, will he make sure that travel from Preston and the other connecting stations to Glasgow is easier and better?

High Speed 2 will transform rail travel in this country. It will build opportunity and boost the economy through national regeneration and the widespread creation of jobs. HS2 will go to Preston from the moment that it opens for operation. That means that facilities at Preston will be upgraded, including a new platform that will also see a direct HS2 service from Birmingham, increasing the frequency of connections to the UK’s major economic centres.

Turning to the east, better connectivity strengthens the economy and strengthens opportunity—Labour’s twin ambitions for Scotland. With York having such a pivotal role on the whole network, what discussions is the Secretary of State having about investing in rail north of York to ensure that connectivity right into the heart of Scotland?

The hon. Lady and I share exactly the same ambition: faster rail to York, which will mean faster rail to Scotland.

Having spent a wonderful weekend in Glasgow and visited the wonderful Rowallan castle in the constituency of the hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Alan Brown) for a wedding, I completely agree that the scenery and tourism in Scotland should be enjoyed by everybody in the United Kingdom. Can my right hon. Friend confirm what discussions he has had with Ministers in the Department for Transport about enacting all the recommendations in Sir Peter’s review? Can he confirm a timeline for when that might be likely to occur?

The Prime Minister has welcomed—indeed, intends to accept—the proposals for the creation of UKNET, a strategic transport network spanning the entire United Kingdom. The funding that the UK Government have set aside will put us on the right path to developing the best infrastructure investment options to strengthen our main transport arteries for people and businesses across the United Kingdom.

The A68 is one of the main arteries for traffic crossing the border of England and Scotland, carrying thousands of vehicles each way every day. Many pass through the small village of Toft Hill in my constituency. In 2021, the Government finally announced that they would be providing funding to finally complete the much-awaited Toft Hill bypass—[Interruption]—improving the safety of roads for all users, including those travelling into England from Scotland. Does the Secretary of State agree that that demonstrates the Government’s commitment to bringing the nations of our UK together by ensuring that the infrastructure works not only for both nations, but for local communities?

I notice that my hon. Friend was being rudely interrupted, but what I think I picked up was that the A68 from Darlington to Midlothian is of great importance to cross-border transport connectivity between England and Scotland. I extend my congratulations to Durham County Council for its success in the levelling-up fund. The rerouting of the A68 at Toft Hill will create a new 1.6 km bypass away from the village centre, which I know my hon. Friend has been campaigning tirelessly for.

Will my right hon. Friend set out his assessment of the impact of devolution on Union connectivity?

Sir Peter Hendy noted in his final report that

“devolution has been good for transport”.

However, he identified that it has none the less led to

“a gap in UK-wide strategic transport planning that has resulted in cross-border schemes…seeming to be a lower priority than other schemes which may provide greater local benefit.”

Through the implementation of UKNET, we are committed to forging and strengthening transport bonds and creating a better-connected United Kingdom.

I do not think the Scottish Government need to take lessons in ferries from a Government who awarded a massive ferry contract to a company that did not even have a boat, but we will leave that to one side just now.

The Secretary of State was kind enough to mention my constituency colleague Jenny Gilruth. Jenny Gilruth has something in common with every single constituency MSP ever elected in Fife: she is not a Conservative. The Conservatives have never won a Scottish Parliament seat in Fife, and its last Conservative Member in this place lost his seat in 1987. In wards entirely within my constituency, the Conservatives managed one councillor, compared with eight from the SNP. Given the very clear expression of anti-Tory sentiment in Fife through the years, what makes the Secretary of State think that he knows Fife’s transport needs better than our local constituency MSP?

The hon. Gentleman misses the very important point that Ms Gilruth is the Transport Minister. We want Scotland’s two Governments to work together, and we believe that if the Scottish Government engage with us, we can work on ways to improve the highways for everyone.

I am here today in the House of Commons, but my heart is in Seville. I thank the Secretary of State for his contribution and wish Rangers, the most successful football club in the world, every success tonight.

In conjunction with his Cabinet colleagues, will he ensure that the connectivity review and levelling up lead to benefits right across the entirety of the United Kingdom?

That is absolutely our intention. I visited Belfast recently to have discussions about connectivity and how we can upgrade the A77 and the A75, and we now want to work with the Scottish Government to achieve that and many other improvements.