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Topical Questions

Volume 726: debated on Thursday 19 January 2023

Following today’s £2.1-billion levelling-up fund announcement, I would like to briefly update the House about its transport aspect. Through your decision making, Mr Speaker, you have allowed Members the opportunity to range more widely. I am sure that Ministers at the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities are grateful to you for the opportunity they will have to be at the Dispatch Box later today.

Nearly £650 million will be spent across 26 projects to help to create a transport system that is modern, efficient, and accessible to everyone across four nations. As we touched on in earlier questions, that includes more than 15 new electric buses in the north-east and the new metro line in the heart of Cardiff which, as Members know from our earlier exchanges, I will visit later today. Today’s announcement is a vote of confidence in the entire United Kingdom. As the hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty) said, I hope that it is rightly welcomed by both sides of the House.

When there are delays at the port of Dover, whether due to weather, strikes or the French, the impact on local jobs, businesses and residents is absolutely enormous. I welcome the £45-million levelling-up fund investment in our local campaign to keep Dover clear. I thank my right hon. Friend for that. Will he join me in thanking the Conservative leaders of Kent County Council and Dover District Council, and the excellent leadership at the port of Dover?

Order. This is topical questions. Other colleagues want to get in. Tell me who you do not want to get in, because that is who you are depriving.

I will give a pithy answer. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for all her campaigning work. Dover is a strategic port for the United Kingdom. This project will ensure that we can meet our requirements and keep that flow of trade and traffic going. I am pleased that we have been able to get that money to help the port of Dover.

T2. The Law Society of Scotland, the RMT and others have all expressed concerns about the Seafarers’ Wages Bill only covering services that dock in our port 120 times a year. That threshold is so high that several services will not be covered. Why will the Minister not listen to their concerns and reduce that threshold, thereby protecting more seafarers? (903158)

My understanding is that around 98% of services will be covered by the Bill, including the short straits services around which there have been concerns about P&O.

T3. Despite more than £2 billion of support for buses from the Government during the pandemic, my right hon. Friend will be aware that the well-used and popular route 41 has suffered a massive reduction of service across my constituency. The local authority was made aware of plans to reduce the service in May 2022. However, my constituents still do not have a replacement service and are unable to access healthcare, jobs and education. Will my right hon. Friend meet me urgently to work out what more we can do to encourage local authorities to keep those vital bus services going? (903160)

I am always delighted to meet my hon. Friend. He will be aware that under our bus service improvement plans we are ensuring that local authorities and transport providers work more closely together. We provided more than £2 billion during the pandemic, as he says. I would be delighted to meet him and his constituents on this matter.

T4. Cuts to local bus services have left some of the most deprived communities in my constituency, including the Beechwood and Noctorum estates, effectively cut off from the wider Wirral at evenings and weekends. Many constituents now find it almost impossible to reach Arrowe Park Hospital by public transport. Will the Minister commit to increasing funding for local transport authorities so they can guarantee that no one is left behind by cuts to local services? Will he commit to a review of the Bus Service Act 2017, to allow the creation of municipal bus services that serve the needs of local communities? (903161)

My understanding is that talks are already under way about a franchising service in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency. We have already provided an extra £60 million over these three months for the £2 maximum fare cap, which will particularly help low-paid working people who regularly use buses to get to work.

T5. The commitment in the Williams-Shapps plan to reform the structure of rail fares has particular resonance for commuters in Swindon, who have historically endured disproportionately high rail fares for journeys to London compared with those in Didcot, Bath and Bristol. Will my right hon. Friend assure me that, in any forthcoming legislation, those plans will be brought to fruition? Is the Treasury supportive of them? (903162)

I am grateful to my right hon. and learned Friend for his question, particularly his reference to our important plan for rail and the necessary reform. As I said, I will set out those plans in more detail shortly, but he should be reassured that we want to simplify the current complicated ticketing strategy while protecting more affordable tickets. I hope he will be pleased about that.

T6. The impact assessment for the anti-strikes Bill stated that on a strike day last year, 20% of rail services were still operational. Clearly, the Tories think that 20% is too low, but to a layman, that is a minimum service. What minimum service will they impose on workers under threat of sack? (903163)

We have already written to our stakeholders and we will be launching a consultation. The results of that consultation, in terms of how the Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Bill would work across the network and whether we would look at a proportion of the timetable or parts of the network, will be determined only when it has been completed. That is the right way to take the process forward.

T8. Thank you, Mr Speaker—I could not imagine being anywhere more joyful than in the Chamber. The Liberal Democrat and Labour authorities in Cambridgeshire are introducing the country’s most draconian congestion charge, but they claim that they are being forced to do that by the Department for Transport, which supposedly rejected Cambridgeshire’s bid for bus funding because they were not committed to road charging. Can my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State confirm that that is untrue and that the Department did not require Cambridgeshire to commit to congestion charging to secure bus funding? (903165)

I am happy to confirm that bus funding has never been linked to road charging. A disagreeable pattern seems to be emerging where Labour politicians, backed by the Liberal Democrats, are not being entirely straightforward with the people they represent about road pricing schemes. I am pleased that my hon. Friend is holding them to account, even on his birthday.

T7. The north has one third of the levelling-up funding, yet train and bus services are a fraction of what they were. Every train service between Barnsley and Manchester is cancelled or delayed today and it takes two buses to get from neighbouring Rotherham to Elsecar. Can the Minister explain to my constituents, who simply cannot rely on public transport, how he can possibly think that the Government are levelling up? (903164)

Today’s announcement demonstrates that the Government are levelling up. If one looks at it from a per-population perspective, one will see that the areas are not London or the south-east, but further north and in Wales. We are proud to level up all areas. Many of the amounts that are going to areas involve transport, and we in the Department for Transport are all proud to play our part to ensure that those projects are delivered and work for communities across the United Kingdom.

T9. In thanking the roads Minister for visiting Kettering in December to promote the £2 bus fare scheme, I ask him when National Highways will complete its planning development work on the proposed junction 10A on the A14 at Kettering so that it can be submitted for potential inclusion in road investment strategy 3? (903166)

I was delighted to visit Kettering—in fact, it was the same day that I visited Gateshead—and to see such great coverage in the Northamptonshire Telegraph, which is Northamptonshire’s paper of record. My hon. Friend is an ever-passionate advocate for his constituency and for the proposals to improve the A14. I can confirm that National Highways is considering proposals for junction 10A of the A14 as part of the RIS3 pipeline. Those proposals will be considered alongside a further 30 schemes in the pipeline this year as candidates for potential inclusion in the scheme.

This week, there were media reports that an 87-year-old south London resident has been unable to attend her hospital appointments since Southeastern made changes and cuts to its timetable. My social media is inundated with complaints of overcrowding, cancellations and continual delays on Southeastern services. What assessment has the Minister made of the impact of the new timetable on reliability?

I welcome, and I congratulate the hon. Member on, the £19 million that has been provided by the levelling-up fund to Lewisham. I am looking forward to visiting her to talk to her and her community groups about the issues she raises. Southeastern has had considerable issues with weather-related matters, industrial action and Network Rail asset improvements. [Interruption.] I know that, unlike the Members talking to me, because I am on a Southeastern line.

Tomorrow, I will be meeting Nottingham City Transport to discuss the new £2 single bus fare. Does my hon. Friend agree with me that—coupled with the recent £11.4 million grant to Nottingham to support bus services, including the Lime Line services and 53 and 39 buses that run through my constituency—there is no better time for Gedling residents to take the bus for work and leisure?

I completely agree with my hon. Friend. The £2 bus fare cap is not only innovative in helping people save money on their regular transport costs, but helping to take 2 million car journeys off our roads. There are 4,600 routes across England in the scheme, including the 44 bus from Nottingham and the 53 and 39 buses. I look forward to visiting my hon. Friend very soon.

The Conservatives’ promise of great bus services for everyone everywhere is clearly another empty promise. The Minister was right that the only way to solve this is through the devolution of powers and funds to places such as Chester. Will he therefore urge the Secretary of State to take seriously the devolution bid put forward by Cheshire and Warrington, so that we can get buses going where Cestrians need them?

We always look forward to working with local authorities on whatever plans they bring forward, but I remind the hon. Lady that this Government put in over £2 billion of support during the pandemic. We are trying to drive the crucial ridership that will ensure services are sustainable in the long term via the £2 bus fare scheme, which I am sure she will be promoting in her constituency. It has been really good news to see Cheshire West and Chester Council getting an extra £13.3 million today from the levelling-up fund.

I am working with the Stonehouse company BorgWarner in Stroud to raise the profile of hydrogen combustion engines and the need to ensure that they are considered compliant with the upcoming zero-emission vehicle mandate and vehicle requirements from 2035. Will my right hon. Friend agree to visit this important local provider of hundreds of skilled jobs and apprenticeships to learn more about its world-leading work?

I thank my hon. Friend very much for her question. She is absolutely right that hydrogen is a key component of the full decarbonisation of transport—not just heavier transport, but aviation and maritime. I would be delighted to come and visit her.

The levelling-up fund bid for Pencoed level crossing was rejected this morning on the grounds that the spend could not be done in this year. Rail Minister after Rail Minister have promised me and my borough council that this was the key way to get that level crossing closed and unleash the potential of increased services. Will the Rail Minister meet me so that we can resolve this and get the much-needed funding for my constituency?

I would be absolutely delighted to meet the hon. Member. I am sorry for the disappointment he receives on behalf of his community, and I will do everything I can to work with him to make sure that the level crossing is safer.

Building on the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Gedling (Tom Randall) about the £2 bus fare, I am delighted to see it. However, for my Cornforth constituents, the bus no longer exists to Spennymoor, where the supermarket is, so they actually have to take two buses, changing at Ferryhill. What can be done to help such constituents, and will the Minister meet me to discuss this in more detail?

I am always delighted to meet my hon. Friend and constituency neighbour. He will be aware that the enhanced partnership put forward by the Labour North East Joint Transport Committee is currently looking at the BSIP as well. I hope to work with him not only on that, but on the broader regional transport issues of which I know he has been a major champion since he was elected in 2019.

Reddish South and Denton stations are served by just one train a week. This line is the subject of a restoring your railway business case, but it is all coming down to the crossover with the west coast main line at Heaton Norris junction, just north of Stockport. Can I have a meeting with the Rail Minister so we can highlight the case of this line for growth in south-east Manchester and get train services to Denton and Reddish South?

The answer to that is yes, and may I thank all Members I have met who have come up with great ideas of simple timetable changes that can benefit communities and rail patronage? The hon. Gentleman’s idea may be one good example and I will be happy to meet him.

As my hon. Friend will know, National Highways has now submitted a development consent order on the construction of the lower Thames crossing. Who will be assessing the accuracy across Government of the benefit-cost ratio, and who will make the final decision on whether the £10 billion-plus-plus-plus budget still represents value for money?

My hon. Friend will understand that I cannot comment further while the DCO process is ongoing. The LTC is a major transport infrastructure project and I am happy to meet with him and other hon. Members interested in this, as is the Secretary of State; it is a major piece of infrastructure investment and we need to get it right.

When will the Secretary of State sort out the Rhondda tunnel, in particular the money for it? When is he going to come to the Rhondda—it is not very far from the Forest of Dean—so that I can dangle him down my hole?

This is my first opportunity to congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his recently announced honour in the new year’s honours list for his long service in this House. He has raised this specific question on the tunnel with me before; either I or the rail Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Bexhill and Battle (Huw Merriman), will meet him to look at what we can do to bring that forward.