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Topical Questions

Volume 728: debated on Thursday 2 March 2023

It may interest the House to know that today the Government are investing £25 million to roll out 170 zero- emission buses on to our streets. They are built in Northern Ireland by Wrightbus, which I visited just a few weeks ago, and these buses will benefit passengers and communities across Yorkshire, Norfolk and Hampshire, showing how we are pulling together as a Union to decarbonise transport. We have had a lot of conversations about buses, so it is also worth noting that we have extended the bus recovery grant and the popular £2 fare cap, renewing our commitment to the bus sector, getting more passengers on board and helping the public with the cost of living.

In Newcastle, we need reliable, affordable and accessible bus services, but all we get is lame excuses and short-term sticking plasters. Will the Secretary of State confirm that the bus recovery grant will be extended past June, and when will he make the much-promised, long overdue payment of £163 million to Transport North East so that it can improve services?

We have extended the bus recovery grant for a further quarter and extended the £2 fare cap, which has been very popular. We are currently working on our plans subsequent to June, but the hon. Member will know that we work very closely with devolved Metro Mayors across the country to devolve central Government funding to them so that they can make the right decisions for their local areas, and we will make further announcements in due course.

T4. Two weeks ago, I met members of Harrogate Youth Council, who are running an anti-harassment campaign focusing on public transport. Will my hon. Friend tell me what steps the Government are taking to keep people, in particular young people, safe on our buses and trains? (903846)

I welcome the work of the Harrogate Youth Council. They should be aware that 95% of buses have CCTV. The trains I mentioned coming up to Tyne and Wear have been designed to contain and reduce antisocial behaviour. What I would really love to do is take the Harrogate Youth Council’s ideas and, when I meet the British Transport police chief constable next week, try to match them and feed back to my hon. Friend.

That would be unfair. Maybe three, even. But they keep offering a meeting to bring together the Welsh Government, the British Government and the local authorities that are interested in the Rhondda tunnel. This has been going on forever and I never, ever get that meeting. When is it going to happen?

I hope I am not the one the hon. Gentleman does not like. I can assure him that if he checks his box, he will find an invitation from the roads Minister, the Minister responsible for this at the Department for Transport, the Under-Secretary of State, my hon. Friend the Member for North West Durham (Mr Holden), to meet him and the team from Wales. I hope that he will then be very happy indeed and that we meet his expectations.

T7. While it is obviously right to develop other forms of transport, does the Secretary of State agree with me that in rural areas in particular the car is here to stay? Is it not therefore very important that we have adequate road infrastructure in place before any sizeable developments are begun? (903849)

I completely agree with my hon. Friend. About 60% of journeys are made by car, and the car remains incredibly important, particularly in rural areas like his and mine in Gloucestershire. Almost half the Government’s budget for investing in the strategic road network is for renewing, maintaining and operating existing network, but he makes a very good point about ensuring that, as we develop communities and businesses, the road infrastructure is adequate for those developments. I have noted his point carefully and will discuss it with the Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities in due course.

T5. I am sure the Secretary of State will agree that the safety of hundreds of primary schoolchildren and parents who are unable to use the demolished footbridge at the Park Lane junction on the dangerous A5036, as a result of a lorry collision, is paramount. Will he therefore instruct National Highways to stop its bureaucratic stalling and replace it as a matter of urgency? (903847)

National Highways has a statutory responsibility in many planning applications, but it seems to be very tardy in coming to conclusions, particularly on the Brocks Pine surf reef application, off the A31, which has now been more than 18 months in indecision. What will be done to ensure that National Highways gets on with it and takes a decision, either yes or no?

National Highways has been working with the applicant and its transport consultants to resolve questions on this development. The applicant has not yet provided National Highways with the information it needs to enable it to provide a recommendation. I will write to him when it does so.

T8. In light of the Windsor framework, which will provide more favourable economic conditions for trading in Northern Ireland, will the Secretary of State consider providing more transport infrastructure in Wales to mitigate that and to help Wales take advantage of more trade into Northern Ireland and into the single market via Ireland or Northern Ireland? (903851)

I am pleased that the hon. Gentleman welcomes the Windsor framework, which is a fantastic agreement with the European Union to resolve the issues that resulted from the Northern Ireland protocol. I hope every Member of this House will welcome it in due course when they have had time to study it. His point about Wales was, I think, answered by the rail Minister, the Minister of State, Department for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Bexhill and Battle (Huw Merriman). We work very closely with the Welsh Government. We are looking at improvements in the rail network enhancement plan and will make announcements in due course.

Many people in England pay an additional road tax to cross a river, be it the Humber, the Thames, the Tyne, the Mersey, the Trent, the Itchen or the Tamar. In 2020, a freedom of information request revealed that National Highways is responsible for maintaining 9,392 road bridges already. Will the Department investigate bringing all crossings on main routes under National Highways control?

My hon. Friend is a champion for the people of Cornwall. The Department has no plans to introduce tolls anywhere else on the strategic road network, which is a long-standing Government policy. The provision, upkeep and operation of significant crossings is funded by toll incomes at local level, but as always, I would be happy to meet her to discuss that specific local issue.

T6.   A number of my constituents are sick with stress, trapped in blighted homes with a pressing need to sell, but cannot do so as a result of the East West Rail preferred route announcement three years ago. Every day that the DFT dithers and delays announcing the route is another day of misery for my constituents. Will the Minister stop playing with people’s lives, put a support package in place and get that handful of cases sorted out today? (903848)

I am happy to meet the hon. Member. I recently had a tour around both the options for East West Rail as it comes into Cambridge. I know that he has issues with residents with properties on the line of route, and I am happy to discuss those cases with him so that I can better advise him and his constituents on how they can get help.

Could the rail Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Bexhill and Battle (Huw Merriman), tell me the benefits that my constituents will see with the recent award of the South Western Railway contract to FirstGroup and MTR? I would be particularly keen to understand whether the accessible footbridge for Dorchester South station is contained within it.

On my hon. Friend’s second point, Dorchester South station is one of 300 applications for the Access For All tranche, which will be announced later this year. I assure him that South Western Railway passengers will gain benefits from the continuity of the service provider, including better real-time information to passengers and other changes that we have in mind to improve the passenger experience. I look forward to working with him on this matter.

T9. Will the Secretary of State or one of his Ministers meet me to discuss the increased restrictions on the movement of special types of general orders and abnormal loads, which are having a hugely detrimental effect on companies such as Cadzow Heavy Haulage in Blantyre? (903852)

The Minister and I have spoken almost daily about the Melton bypass. Could he update me on his conversations with the Treasury about that? I also thank the Government for the five upgrades that they have delivered to the A1, where work has now started.

I am delighted that my hon. Friend is pleased with the work that we are doing. She has been a real champion of it and has never failed to bend my ear at every opportunity. I hope to make a further announcement on this matter shortly.

I am worried that the Minister did not listen to concerns about the Southeastern timetable from both sides of the House. I travel from St Johns and every single day there are delays and overcrowding. The timetable changes were not consulted on. It is good that Ministers announced some changes, but why not reverse them all and do the right thing? The service was better before.

I reiterate that when season tickets are reduced by the figures that we have seen—32% compared with pre-covid levels—we have to make changes to add more resilience, to ensure that trains do not have to cross lines, to reduce cancellations and to improve punctuality. I am meeting the hon. Member and her rail service groups because I do listen and, as has been reflected today, I will make changes where they make sense.

My hard-pressed constituents are still suffering a totally unacceptable number of cancelled rail services by TransPennine Express every morning—just yesterday from Huddersfield, the 6.49, the 7.01, the 7.30, and the 7.46. How on earth are my constituents expected to get to work, school, college or university? When will TransPennine Express get a grip and when will we strip them of the franchise?

As the Secretary of State made clear, we should all try to fix the systemic problems that exist on the route. Let me give one example: at the moment, when a driver calls in sick—and there are sickness rates of 14%—another driver will cover it only if they are working under rest day working. However, the unions will not agree to rest day working, so the train gets cancelled. If hon. Members are interested in fixing these issues, they should look at the parties responsible and not just at the operator.

Further to Question 4, the Minister will be aware of plans to significantly increase flights in and out of London City airport over my constituency and many others in east and south London. Can he assure the House that a decision on the matter will not be made while the Civil Aviation Authority’s survey of noise pollution is still being conducted?

I obviously cannot comment on the situation at the moment, but the hon. Gentleman’s point is well made. If he wishes to take the matter up with the aviation Minister, I am sure that she would welcome it.

What is the Minister doing to ensure there is better information sharing among councils to deliver safer taxi and private hire services across the country?

My hon. Friend will know that his local council, Bolton, is one of the best at information sharing with respect to taxi driving licences across the country. I hope that councils such as Birmingham, Manchester, Sefton, Newcastle and Liverpool will get on board with the voluntary scheme before the mandatory element kicks in soon, because we should not leave people at risk on our services.

When I met the Minister, he gave me assurances that Southeastern timetables would improve in Erith and Thamesmead. He mentioned this morning that all south-east London MPs had received an update. I am one of the MPs who has not. There is an impact on my constituency, so I would like to know why I have not received that update. My hon. Friend the Member for Eltham (Clive Efford) has kindly shown me the letter, which partially addresses some of the issues with off-peak services on the Bexley line, but does not address over- crowding across the board, most of which occurs during peak times. Will the Minister look into the matter urgently?

The email with the letter will have been sent to four hon. Members; the hon. Lady is one of them. If it has not yet got through, I suspect that that is because of a systems issue rather than anything else, but as soon as I leave the Chamber I will make sure that she gets it. I make the point again that I am a user of Southeastern and of London Bridge, and I am aware of the issues. We will continue to reflect, adapt and change where the case is made—I assure the hon. Lady of that.

The roads Minister is aware of my campaign to upgrade junctions 28 and 29 of the M1. Will he commit to visiting both junctions and meeting local stakeholders?

I would be absolutely delighted: I regularly drive on that road and it almost feels as if I have been meeting them, given the slowness of the traffic, particularly at junction 28. I would be delighted to meet my hon. Friend and other hon. Members in the area to discuss the matter further.

I do not know whether the Minister is aware of the plans being developed at the University of Sheffield’s advanced manufacturing research centre, with Boeing, to research and potentially to manufacture ultra-lightweight materials for planes. If not, would he like to visit Sheffield to meet the relevant parties and better inform himself of a development that could be really exciting not just for Sheffield, but for the whole UK?

I am sure that the aviation Minister in the Lords will be interested. I certainly have an interest, as the former aviation Minister at the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy who was responsible for the Aerospace Technology Institute. Let me assure the hon. Gentleman of my interest in the matter, and let us take it up further outside the House.

I wish Ministers had seen me trying to drag a baby, a toddler and a buggy up and down the steps at Stroud station as part of my campaign for accessibility measures. I am able-bodied, so it is even more difficult for people with disabilities and elderly people. Will the Secretary of State meet me to discuss the Access for All scheme so that I can go back to Great Western Railway and give an update?

I am grateful for that question from my constituency neighbour across the River Severn. We have spent £900 million on Access for All accessibility upgrades. I would be delighted to meet my hon. Friend to discuss her specific proposals for Stroud station.

May I place on the record my thanks and gratitude to the Department, and to the Secretary of State in particular, for his visit to Wrightbus and for this morning’s announcement of more than £25 million of investment in jobs there? Those jobs will create opportunities for transport in Norfolk, Yorkshire, Portsmouth, Hampshire and York. What a fantastic announcement—I congratulate him on that wonderful news. We have the best product being made by the best workers for everyone across the United Kingdom.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his comments. I hugely enjoyed my visit last month to Wrightbus, a very impressive company that has grown tremendously over the last few years and is both developing electric buses and working on hydrogen developments. It is fulfilling part of our wish to decarbonise the transport network, and it is also fantastic to see it demonstrating the importance of our Union in delivering on our net zero commitments.

I thank the Minister for his recent visit to my constituency. Does he agree that the proposal to invest £100 million in a new bus and tram interchange for Bury town centre is an excellent example of the way in which transport investment can level up all parts of the country?

My hon. Friend has made a massive case for investment in his constituency, including Bury market and this new transport infrastructure, which is indeed a great example. I will be meeting officials from Transport for Greater Manchester again in the near future, and will keep my hon. Friend up to date on progress. The excellent work that he does in his constituency does not go unnoticed.

Thanks to the Scottish Government’s help with the cost of living crisis and their promotion of sustainable public transport, about 23 million free bus journeys have been made by people aged under 22 across Scotland. That has undoubtedly benefited not only those young people and their pockets, but the environment. What plans does the Minister have to replicate this successful Scottish Government policy in England?

All the bus service investment plans across the country contain individual plans tailored for the regions, and that includes the provision of youth services. The British Government are doing it on a tailored basis in accordance with local need. That is where I think those decisions should be taken.

Yes, Mr Speaker. In his answer to me, the Minister of State, Department for Transport, the hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle (Huw Merriman) mentioned that he was sending a letter to Members who were affected by the changes that he had announced. When I looked at my emails later, I noted that that communication had been sent at the exact moment I sat down after asking my question, which denied me the opportunity to quiz the Minister further about his announcement. While the off-peak services to Charing Cross are welcome, he has not dealt with the overcrowding at peak times. I do not know how I can obtain redress for this, Mr Speaker, but at least I have put it on the record.

Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. I have heard what the hon. Member has said, and I shall be happy to meet him if he wants to discuss the matter further. However, I feel pleased that I have been able both to write to him and to address his concerns in the Chamber.