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Topical Questions

Volume 731: debated on Thursday 20 April 2023

Last month I announced measures to decarbonise transport, to help ensure that the UK continues to lead the international fight against climate change. That included the second round of the advanced fuels fund and further measures to progress the 2025 sustainable aviation fuel mandate, to help us fly sustainably. Earlier this week, we published Phil New’s independent report on attracting more sustainable aviation fuel investment to the UK, which I discussed with the industry and academia while chairing the Jet Zero Council on Monday.

The House will also be aware that we announced the zero-emission vehicle mandate, demonstrating how our post-Brexit regulatory freedom allows us to do more and to be more ambitious than our European Union partners. This will enable us to provide the green growth we need to grow the economy and to create better-paid jobs and opportunity across the country.

The establishment of the Cromarty Firth freeport will hopefully mean more freight travels through Invergordon, which has a railhead. Our railway network is one of the UK’s greatest national assets. What are the Government doing to make sure more freight is taken off the roads and on to rail? The establishment of HS2 will surely mean that capacity is freed up on other lines that could be used to move freight.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his question, to which I have two responses. First, HS2, as I frequently say but is not always well understood, is about freeing up capacity on the west coast main line both for passenger services and for freight. In my George Bradshaw address, I made it clear that later this year Great British Railways will set a freight target to get more freight off our roads and on to our railway network to help decarbonise our transport system.

T3. For disabled people, access to public transport is often the difference between having a job and not, between socialising and not, and between living independently and not. In my constituency, in Burnley and Padiham, a brilliant young man called Joe Skinner has made it his mission to improve disabled access on buses, whose current design does not take account of modern wheelchair sizes. So may I ask my right hon. Friend when disabled access requirements were last reviewed, whether he would come to Burnley to meet Joe and talk about this, and whether he would praise Joe for the work he does, not just for disabled people in Burnley, but for people right across the country? (904547)

I thank my hon. Friend for that; he has been a great champion of this cause. I absolutely join him in praising Joe Skinner. Let me also praise Cameron Wood in my constituency, who has been equally hard-working in pressing the case for the improvement of disabled access. I know that my hon. Friend has already met the buses Minister, whom I know is keen to get up to Burnley—I would be very supportive of that.

Last year, the Prime Minister said:

“Smart motorways are unpopular because they are unsafe.”

Yet last week he confirmed that he would leave 400 miles- worth in place. Will the Secretary of State tell the House how many breakdowns were missed by the stationary vehicle detection system on our smart motorway network last year?

It is worth saying to the House that smart motorways remain the safest roads on the strategic road network, which is why the existing smart motorways are going to remain in place and we are finishing the construction of the two that are almost completed. However, it is also worth saying that the public do not have as much confidence in smart motorways as we would hope, which is why the Prime Minister delivered on the promise he made to cancel future smart motorways. That is a sensible, balanced position that we have taken, one that I strongly endorse in the House.

The combination of smart motorways and faulty technology is giving drivers serious cause for concern. Last year, more than 4,000 breakdowns were missed by that faulty technology. That shocking statistic shows that motorists have been left at risk by the Government’s shambolic roll-out of smart motorways. Will the Secretary of State do the right thing and urgently reinstate the hard shoulder?

This is a very good example of why the Labour party is not fit for government. The hon Lady does not want to face up to difficult choices. If she wants to reinstate the hard shoulder and maintain the capacity of the road network, that would mean spending billions of pounds on road improvements and she has no plan to pay for that. If she is not doing that, it means massive congestion on the motorway network, which will force people off that network and on to less safe A roads, and that will lead to more people losing their lives, not fewer. That is a choice she is not willing to face up to.

T4. In recent times, we have had a good number of fatal road accidents in West Dorset: on the A3066, at Mosterton; on the A30 between Sherborne and Yeovil; and on the A35. A year or so ago, I lost one of my best friends from primary school in a fatal car accident between Sherborne and Dorchester. Recently, I have set out and set up my road safety taskforce in West Dorset to address this issue. May I ask the Minister to confirm the standards and conditions he would expect local authorities and indeed National Highways to meet when it comes to white lines, cat’s eyes, signage and the like? (904548)

I thank my hon. Friend for his question. Obviously, my heart goes out to all of those affected, including the family of his friend. My understanding is that there were two incidents in 2021 on the roads in his constituency where a police officer attended and said a contributory factor was a poor or defective road surface. This is up to the local authorities; they have a statutory duty to maintain their roads. There should also be a proper inspection scheme for all of the areas that he talks about. The Department encourages good practice in highway maintenance through our “Well-managed Highway Infrastructure” code of practice. I would be delighted to meet him to discuss road safety further.

The Government had a relative paucity of ambition on Active Travel before slashing the budget. They now plan to spend less than £1 per head in England outside London, compared with £17 per head in Wales and £50 in Scotland—5,000% more. In the Transport Committee yesterday, the Secretary of State spoke of other Active Travel spending not in core funding, but we have that, too, with the Advanced Manufacturing Innovation District Scotland—AMIDS—levelling-up project and the River Cart walking and wheeling bridge city deal project in my constituency. Without the waffle, what will the Government do to deliver transformational change—

Order. I must help Members from all parts of the House. Topical questions must be short and sweet—quick answers, quick questions. Minister, please show us an example.

The Government are spending £3 billion on this area over the current spending period. Active Travel England is making an enormous difference to the quality of schemes throughout England. Significant amounts of money are going in through the levelling-up fund and through City Region Sustainable Transport Settlements and other schemes, so we believe that we are on track to meet our targets.

T6. Barrow and Sileby train stations in my constituency are currently in need of vital improvements to make them more accessible to passengers. Can the Minister please provide me with an update on when the Access for All scheme will reopen for applications and whether there are any other pots of funding available for accessibility improvements in the meantime? (904550)

The Department commissioned station nominations for Access for All in May of last year and is currently assessing more than 300 stations that were put forward. They include Barrow-upon-Soar and Sileby. I hope to be in a position later this year to announce the successful projects.

If the Minister’s Portillo-style tour of the railways takes him north of the border, will he reflect on the eye-watering track access charges paid by ScotRail and the eye-watering disruption caused to ScotRail services by problems with that track? Is it not just common sense that train tracks as well as train services should be fully devolved to Scotland?

The hon. Gentleman I hope knows that the way track access charges are paid for is in two parts. If he looks at the total charges paid for track access by ScotRail, he will see that they are done on the same basis as in the rest of the United Kingdom. It is a very fair deal for ScotRail, and I do not think that there is anything for the hon. Gentleman to complain about.

T7. People in Chelmsford spend too much time in traffic jams. It is hitting our economic growth, and the Army and Navy junction is a notorious pinch point. The outline business case for the new junction has been submitted. Will our excellent team of Transport Ministers help me to get the funds that we need from the Treasury to get the new junction delivered? (904552)

I thank my hon. Friend for welcoming me on my recent visit to her constituency where I saw the Army and Navy roundabout. The outline business case has been submitted by Essex County Council. It is currently proceeding through our assessment and decision-making process, which includes consideration by Ministers in my Department and also in the Treasury. I look forward to a positive announcement before too long.

T5.   What assessment has the Minister made of measures to improve safety on public transport? In particular, does he commend PCC Kim McGuinness and NEXUS for creating an app to keep the public safe when travelling in the Northumbria force area? (904549)

Safety on public transport is a vital matter. Like me, I am sure the hon. Lady is delighted to see the extra money that the Government are making available through our largest bus service improvement plan right across the country, and for the north-east of England, which covers her constituency and mine. Indeed, funds from that will be made available for transport safety in the future.

T8. I welcome the £3 million allocated to Nottinghamshire in the recent Budget to tackle potholes. That is in addition to the extra £50 million that Nottinghamshire County Council is spending on top of the regular budget. When will that extra money become available? Given the widespread severity of the issue and the depth of public concern over it, will he join me in asking the Treasury for further funds in future spending rounds? (904553)

My hon. Friend will never need to encourage me to ask the Treasury for more cash for our road network. Potholes are a menace for all road users. The funding will be available in May. I will also be visiting Nottinghamshire in May, so I may be able to tack on a visit to his wonderful constituency during that time.

In February and March, nearly a quarter of TransPennine Express services were cancelled, continuing a pattern that has been going on for more than a year. In the north, our economy and our residents are suffering as a result of TransPennine’s failures. Surely there cannot be any question of rewarding those failures with a contract extension.

Every week I review the figures and performance related to TransPennine Express. It has been said before that those figures are not good enough; there has been some improvement, but they are still not good enough. As the Prime Minister and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State have informed the House, the contract expires on 28 May 2023. We have made clear that all options are on the table and a decision will be announced in the House shortly.

Recommendation 7 of Sir Peter Hendy’s Union connectivity review says that the north Wales main line should get good connectivity with HS2 and electrification. Given that the massive white elephant of HS2 no longer comes anywhere near north Wales, can the Minister confirm that at least the Government will be proceeding with the electrification of the north Wales main line and give us an idea of when that might happen?

I know how important not only rail connectivity, but road connectivity is to people in north Wales. I urge the hon. Gentleman to work with me and partners across Government to ensure that transport connectivity is a top priority for people across north Wales.

The Minister is forever promising better bus services for tomorrow, but tomorrow never comes—much like the buses—leaving my constituents stranded at bus stops. When will he deliver better buses for Newcastle and when will he hold the bus companies to account for the atrocious services my constituents are experiencing?

I am holding the bus companies to account. In fact, we have seen a reduction of over 80% in the issues with driver shortages locally. I have had two bus meetings in my own constituency with local residents and Go North East—I am sure the hon. Lady has had similar meetings where she has put residents in touch with the bus company—and we are providing over £100 million from central Government to the north-east for that long-term funding that she constantly asks about, but was never delivered under the last Labour Government.

At 410 miles, the A1 is Britain’s longest road, and it is largely free-flowing until it reaches my constituency, where it goes through no fewer than four roundabouts, as the Road Minister saw for himself. That is an absurd situation, but to make National Highways change its views will require intervention by the Secretary of State. Will my right hon. Friend agree to a meeting to discuss that further?

I thank my hon. Friend for those important points. I drive up the A1 myself on a regular basis to my North West Durham constituency, so I am aware of the issues around Sandy and Biggleswade. I will continue to work with National Highways and the Secretary of State to see what more can be done to improve life for my hon. Friend’s constituents.

On a point of order, Mr Speaker, in answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow South West (Chris Stephens), the Minister said, “If we look at the number that have been ordered alone: for zero emission bus regional areas, the ZEBRA scheme, 1,342”, but, as was discussed in the Transport Committee yesterday, that number is not correct. In the ZEBRA scheme, there have been 503 buses ordered, only six of which are on the road, and 792 are funded. The Minister was talking about the total funded, and one of the big issues is that funding is not being delivered. I appreciate that this is not a question for you, Mr Speaker—

Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker, it may be helpful for the House to know that we had a detailed question and answer session on this yesterday when I was giving evidence to the Transport Committee. It is a complicated matter and I committed to write to the Committee to set out the details in full. I will arrange for a copy of that to be placed in the Library of the House for the benefit of all hon. Members so that they can see the facts.