Skip to main content

Local Transport: Levelling Up

Volume 723: debated on Thursday 24 November 2022

6. What recent steps his Department has taken to help level up communities through the transport network. (902383)

Local transport services are crucial to the growth and levelling-up agendas, which is why the Government are investing in our local transport services by providing more than £2 billion to support bus and light rail services throughout England, as well as investing unprecedented sums to enable cycling and walking. We continue to work with local transport authorities and public transport providers to ensure that these vital services reflect the needs of those who rely on them every day.

Can my right hon. Friend update me on the progress towards reopening Golborne and Kenyon Junction stations to reconnect the great constituency of Leigh with the national rail network?

My hon. Friend is a doughty champion for his constituents. My officials continue to work closely with the Greater Manchester Combined Authority on the proposal to open a new rail station at Golborne as part of the £1 billion city region sustainable transport settlement announced earlier this year. Local partners are currently producing an outline business case to support the proposal, which we expect to receive and consider in due course. Bids to open Kenyon Junction station were submitted in the second and third rounds of the ideas fund, but were sadly unsuccessful.

I welcome the Secretary of State to his place. Unfortunately, I have had countless pieces of correspondence from my constituents about buses in my local area of South West Hertfordshire. Services are typically infrequent and consistently late. Can he update the House as to what he is doing to ensure that those services are more reliable so that we can continue to encourage people to use public transport?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that issue and I am sorry to hear about the difficulties that his constituents are facing in accessing bus services. I know from my constituency how vital bus services are for individuals to get to work and to access education and healthcare. We are engaging with bus operators and local authorities to help to resolve the challenges that they face. The national bus strategy sets out our vision for bus services across England to deliver better bus services. To that end, we are investing more than £1 billion to support local authorities to deliver their bus service improvement plans, including £30 million for Hertfordshire County Council, which will support improvements to bus services in his constituency.

Bus routes across Burnley and Padiham are vital to local connectivity and give residents a link to jobs, leisure and essential public services. Too often, however, they are late or cancelled, which has a particular impact on those in rural parts of Burnley, such as Worsthorne and Cliviger. Does the Secretary of State agree that buses are not nice-to-haves but an essential service for local residents? Will he ensure that they are given the priority that they need to continue to improve that service?

I agree with my hon. Friend about the importance of local bus services. We know that the bus sector continues to face a number of challenges, including driver shortages, which are resulting in some services being reduced or cancelled. We are working with the industry to resolve that. As I said in my previous answer, we are investing substantially to improve bus services; he will be pleased to know that £30 million of the funding that we have supplied has been allocated to support improvements to bus services in Lancashire, including in his Burnley constituency.

The taxi and private hire sector provides vital services in many parts of the country, but it now faces the prospect of VAT on fares, which could have a damaging effect. I raised the issue at the last Transport questions and sought a meeting with a Minister, but the industry was offered a 10-minute surgery appointment. Can the Secretary of State ask his diary secretary to look at that again? This is an important issue that deserves proper investigation.

I certainly agree with the hon. Gentleman about the importance of taxi services for constituents. I will speak to the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for North West Durham (Mr Holden), to secure the hon. Gentleman a longer meeting so that he can discuss it in more detail.

The Secretary of State talked about £2 billion of investment in buses, and we know that 4,000 new buses have been promised, but will those new buses all have mandatory provision of audiovisual information? I have long supported the Guide Dogs’ “Talking Buses” campaign to help the blind to navigate their way on public transport. The Government have still not introduced secondary regulations for mandatory provision of audiovisual information on new buses. When will that happen and would he be willing to meet?

I am very familiar with the issues that the hon. Gentleman raises, having served for a period in this House as the Minister for disabled people. I do not have the specific information to hand, so I will write to him and then, if appropriate, a meeting can be secured with the relevant Minister.

The last Prime Minister but two—I think I have got the number right—promised we would have London-style bus services in constituencies such as mine. He said people would be able to go to the bus stop and they would not need a timetable as the buses would be that frequent. We do not need a timetable on many routes in Sheffield now because the buses have been scrapped altogether and routes cut, so instead of a bus improvement plan, we now have a disintegration of bus services. Will the Secretary of State confirm that the covid grant, which has been extended to early next year, will be extended for the whole of the next financial year, because that is the only thing now keeping some bus services running in my constituency? Will he also arrange the meeting I asked for during the last Transport questions with Ministers for myself, local MPs and the Mayor?

I am glad the hon. Gentleman mentioned the covid pandemic, because that has caused a number of issues for a range of transport providers. We are still seeing that bus users have not returned to using buses since the covid pandemic, and that puts those bus services under tremendous financial pressure, which is exactly why we put the support in place to deal with the pandemic. We have extended it through to the end of March, as he knows, and we will keep that under review, depending on what the situation requires. I know how important buses are, but the impact of the pandemic on buses and rail services is a challenge, and the important thing is to encourage people back to using buses to grow revenue and make sure the sector is financially sustainable.

There is no point in making promises to level up communities through transport if Ministers announce yet another punishing rail fare rise next month. A 3.8% rise, like this year, would mean £129 more for an annual season ticket between Chester and Manchester, and 8% would mean Swindon to Bristol commuters paying £312 extra. The retail price index figure—the usual figure used for rail fare rises—of 12.3% would burden Dover to London passengers by an additional £909 every year. Given that the rail recovery is fragile and given the Conservative cost of living crisis, does the Secretary of State agree with me that now would be the worst possible time for yet another brutal rail fare rise?

I am glad the hon. Gentleman raises that question because he flags up a very important issue. There are only two places that revenue can come from in the rail sector—the passenger, through the fare box, or the taxpayer. I am very well aware of the challenges facing people with the cost of living and inflation, but we also have to make sure that the cost does not fall on taxpayers, many of whom never use rail services. One of the things we will do as we are making this decision is to weigh up exactly those two things—the pressure on the passenger through the fare box but also the burden that falls on the taxpayer. We will balance those, and when we have made a decision, we will announce it in the usual way.

I welcome the Secretary of State and, indeed, his whole team to their places, particularly the new Rail Minister—the Minister of State, Department for Transport, the hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle (Huw Merriman) —who has gone from a colleague and a friend to an adversary in just a few weeks.

Last week’s Budget slashed funding for the Department for Transport by 30% in cash terms over the next three years. At a time when investment in net zero transport and boosting regional connectivity is more important than ever, to abandon a key part of national investment is reckless and irresponsible, and it will cause further damage to the economy. What representations will he make to his Cabinet colleagues in the Treasury about reversing these cuts and putting transport funding on a proper footing?

I simply do not recognise what the hon. Gentleman is talking about. I thank him for welcoming me to my position, but I was actually very pleased with the settlement in the autumn statement. The Chancellor confirmed that our capital spending remains as it was in the spending review. Yes, I do have to manage inflation pressures, but the Chancellor did not do what Chancellors sometimes in the past have been tempted to do, which is to cut capital funding in the short term. We have sustained that capital funding, and we are going to be spending £600 billion over the next five years on infrastructure spending to make sure we have long-term economic growth. I am very pleased that the Chancellor demonstrated that transport is part of our growth agenda in driving the economy forward.

There was certainly a massive slash in resource funding for the Department for Transport.

Many fear that HS2 is in the firing line for departmental savings. We have already seen the Golborne link ditched, with no replacement in sight, hitting journey times from Scotland and the north-west of England. Rowing back on HS2 again would be another hammer blow for regional connectivity, so what assurances can the Secretary of State give that HS2 will go ahead in its current form and that those of us outside the M25 may see some benefit?

Again, I do not recognise what the hon. Gentleman is saying. Our resource funding was confirmed in cash terms as well, so I do not know what autumn statement he was listening to, but it was not the one that the Chancellor of the Exchequer set out at the Dispatch Box. On his general point, as the Chancellor said, we are committed to the HS2 plans set out in the £96 billion integrated rail plan. We will set out our response to the autumn statement to manage inflation pressure in due course.