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Topical Questions

Volume 733: debated on Thursday 8 June 2023

We know that buses are a social and economic lifeline for millions across the country. That is why we are keeping fares down and keeping vital bus routes open. We have extended our popular £2 bus fare cap until the end of October, followed by a £2.50 cap until November next year. On top of the £2 billion in support we have provided to the sector since the pandemic, we are investing £300 million to support essential services and routes for the next two years. This is giving the sector certainty, helping people with the cost of living and delivering against our priority to halve inflation, as well as protecting the vital role that buses play in growing our economy.

Overcrowding on Chiltern services from stations such as Haddenham and Thame Parkway and Princes Risborough has become beyond unacceptable. That will only get worse if Chiltern is forced to discontinue the Class 68 loco-hauled trains, as expected. Will my right hon. Friend agree to enable the continued use of these trains until Chiltern can complete its full planned fleet renewal?

I am able to tell my hon. Friend that officials in the Department are already working with Chiltern on looking at how we deal with those issues. I know that the rail Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Bexhill and Battle (Huw Merriman), will be delighted to meet him to give him more detail of the work already under way so that we can deliver a better service for his constituents.

Due to the UK’s out-of-date and inefficient airspace, designed in the 1960s, the average flight from Luton to Jersey emits 24% more carbon than necessary. Modernising UK airspace is the quickest and most effective way to save carbon in the UK aviation sector. The process is so slow and bureaucratic that it is going to be the 2060s before this is sorted. Is it not time the Secretary of State stepped up to the plate?

I agree with the hon. Gentleman about the importance of airspace modernisation, which is exactly why we are getting on with it. I have had recent discussions with National Air Traffic Services on the work it is doing and discussions with the Civil Aviation Authority. That work is under way, and we are looking at it in the UK, but also working with our international partners to make sure this plays a part in decarbonisation. It was something I discussed in the US when I co-chaired a summit with the US Transportation Secretary, and we talked about these issues with important players in the aviation sector globally.

T2. As railway ridership returns to pre-pandemic levels, we need an efficient approach to railway finance. Can my hon. Friend say when he intends to reunite cost and revenue, so that that continues to drive up demand and provides an efficient method? (905183)

My hon. Friend is right to point out that we currently view costs as sitting with the DFT and revenue as sitting with the Treasury. This can make it harder to increase services, even when extra revenue can be assured, because costs at the DFT cannot increase. He can be assured that the Chief Secretary to the Treasury and I spoke yesterday about how we can grow services and revenues with one profit and loss statement. I am also working with the train operators to amend their contracts, so they can be the parties that take the risk and get a greater share of the reward.

T5. Current regulations on hydrogen transport and storage are preventing world-leading renewables innovators such as the European Marine Energy Centre in Scotland from using surplus energy from tidal turbines to produce green hydrogen and export it off-island? Will the Department work with the Competition and Markets Authority to review these regulations and ensure that Scotland’s green industrial revolution is not hampered by Westminster’s regulatory dead hand? (905187)

As the hon. Lady will know, I have already outlined the support that we have been giving and the warm interest we take in hydrogen, so I am very interested to hear what she says. If she could bear to send me the details, I will make sure that I or the relevant Minister responds to her.

T3. The cut to air passenger duty was a welcome boost for domestic aviation and for facilitating the growth of regional airports, such as Blackpool. Following this success, will the Government consider introducing public service obligation routes from destinations such as Blackpool to support tourism and economic growth? (905184)

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. We had a Westminster Hall debate on this a few months ago. As he will know, the UK policy on public service obligations is to protect existing routes in danger of being lost, and the DFT jointly funds routes into London from Newquay, Dundee and Derry/Londonderry. Lord Hendy’s independent Union connectivity review has now been lodged. We have welcomed it, and we will continue to consider the ways in which PSOs can help the Government to achieve regional connectivity needs.

British Transport Police highlighted that instances of sexual harassment and sexual offences on public transport have soared by a shocking 175% between 2019 and 2020. We need our women and girls to feel safe to use public transport, and to use it so that we can tackle the climate emergency. Labour is committed to halving violence against women and girls. When will the Government match that commitment and make sure that our women and girls feel safe to use public transport?

The hon. Lady is right to focus on this. That is why the Government published our cross-Government “Tackling violence against women and girls strategy”, which the Department for Transport is fundamentally involved with. Since 2019 the BTP, which the hon. Lady mentioned specifically, has enhanced its approach to combating violence against women and girls, complemented by the BTP chief constable’s personal commitment and drive on this subject.

T4. North Devon’s pothole group recently made national news and, while much work is being done, our roads are still more pothole or patch than road in far too many places. What is my right hon. Friend doing to ensure that local councils are spending their pothole funding effectively and, in particular, that rural road surfaces are improving? (905185)

My hon. Friend might know that I visited Devon in a previous incarnation as roads Minister precisely to look at its innovative work on potholes. She will also be aware that the Government are investing £5 billion in local highways maintenance outside London, with the mayoral combined authorities already receiving CRSTS—city regional sustainable transport settlement—money. It is up to each local highway authority to decide how best to spend that money, but of course we do expect them to be able to account locally and we also think about how roads are surveyed and assessed and how well they are being treated as assets by those authorities.

With Luton Town being promoted to the premier league last week, many fans will be travelling by train, including from London clubs such as Arsenal. However, as the Minister knows, Luton station is sadly not accessible for many people with mobility issues, and while he has confirmed Access for All money is forthcoming to put lifts in the station by next year, what recent conversations has he had with the Sport Minister, the right hon. Member for Pudsey (Stuart Andrew), regarding accessibility of the rail network for travelling sports fans?

I congratulate Luton Town. As the hon. Lady knows, my family are big supporters; they have been there through the bad times and they will be there in the good ones as well. I also thank her for showing me around Luton station. I am committed to ensuring that Access for All is delivered at that station on time; any attempts to push back will not get signed off by me. On her campaign on the leaky roof on platforms 1 and 2, which she showed me, the work will start in August and complete in early 2024—I thank her for that.

T6. I have heard concerns from many constituents who are business users of Heathrow airport that it is now by some margin the most expensive airport in the world. Will my right hon. Friend consider looking at the regulatory model, bringing it more into line with other airports in the United Kingdom to ensure that its charges become much more competitive in future? (905188)

Recognising Heathrow’s significant market power, it is economically regulated by the Civil Aviation Authority, including capping Heathrow’s charges. The CAA published its 2022 to 2026 settlement decision in March. The Competition and Markets Authority is considering appeals against that decision and I hope my hon. Friend will recognise that I cannot comment on that ongoing process. Separately, the Department aims to publish the independent review of the CAA by the summer and will consider any economic regulation-related recommendations at that time.

My constituent Vance applied for a medical driving licence in April 2022; 14 months later, after delays, he has been told he needs to reapply. This is having a direct impact on his job. Why is any constituent experiencing such delays, and can the Minister explain what is being done to address them?

Obviously that specific case should not have happened. If the hon. Lady sends through the details, I will make sure that the roads Minister looks at it in detail. Generally, medical cases are taking longer to get sorted out than general cases following both the pandemic and industrial action, but we are well on our way to getting that on track. I will, however, make sure the roads Minister looks at that specific case.

T7. Junction 11 of the M65 currently only allows traffic to join going eastwards towards Colne, where the motorway ends, and not westwards towards the M6, opening up the whole country. The result is a majorly congested Burnley town centre and a limit to economic opportunity. Could my right hon. Friend set out what funding opportunities are available for a viability study into a westwards slip road? (905189)

In 2021, we asked National Highways to undertake a study looking at possible interventions on or around the M65 at Colne. That study focused on localised congestion pinch points on that road, which is owned and managed by Lancashire County Council. It concluded in 2022, and the findings were handed over to the council and Transport for the North. It is for them to decide what further action they may wish to take as a result, but I know they will, and they certainly should, attend closely to what my hon. Friend said.

I refer the House to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. There is real frustration because the Secretary of State and the rail Minister will not talk and settle the dispute between the trade unions and the operators. No talks have been held since the beginning of the year. When I speak to the rail companies, they say they want to do a deal and they believe that there is a pathway to end the dispute. When I speak to the trade unions—ASLEF and RMT—they say the same. So why will he not get round the table and end the dispute?

As I said, the table, which the hon. Lady refers to, has an offer on it. All it requires is for the RMT—[Interruption.] The hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Louise Haigh) on the Front Bench says that they have not accepted it. The members of those unions—the members—have not been given the opportunity to vote on it. The deal is on the table. The union leaders should put it to their members and ask them what they think.

T8. I thank the Minister for coming to Sheringham and seeing the A148-Holway road junction for himself, the congestion at that important junction into Sheringham, which is a key tourist destination in my constituency, and the rat-running in the neighbouring towns and villages. May I ask the Secretary of State to squeeze the Transport Department’s coffers just one last time to find some important money to try to improve that junction? (905190)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for what he has said. I am sure that the roads Minister will be happy to meet him to discuss that further. I understand that Norfolk County Council has completed the feasibility study into the improvements at that junction and has committed funds to continue the development of the scheme. That puts Norfolk in a strong position to submit a bid, should funding opportunities arise. I know that he will press that case strongly.

A simple question for the Transport Secretary: are the Government committed to building a third runway at Heathrow—yes or no?

As the hon. Lady knows, the decision about whether to build a third runway is one for Heathrow. The funding has to come from Heathrow. She knows that if, at some point in the future, it wants to proceed with that, a significant process has to get under way. She would not expect me to express an opinion on it because there is obviously a clear judicial process to follow, but it is up to Heathrow to make the first move and we wait with interest to see whether it does so.

T9. National Highways has already done a lot of research into a safety package on the A38 from Carkeel to Trerulefoot in my constituency. I thank it for that. I saw the aftermath of one of the frequent accidents just one month ago. We need this urgently. Please can the Secretary of State look again at this? (905191)

I thank my hon. Friend very much for her question. She knows, and I have already said, how important the safety of all road users is to the Government. This part of the A38 has a high collision rate and we want to address that with local authorities. A package of safety measures between Carkeel and Trerulefoot was announced as a pipeline scheme in the second road investment strategy for delivery in the future RIS. National Highways consulted on proposed safety improvements and continues to develop its plans in the light of feedback received. We will encourage it to accelerate that work.

Is the Secretary of State aware of the anecdotally large number of learner drivers who deliver pizzas and that sort of stuff? They have learner plates. They have had no training. Is he worried? We have all heard anecdotally that there are lots of casualties and deaths. Has he any hard facts on that?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising that issue and it is very good to see him back in his place. It is difficult to make policy based on anecdote. If he has specific examples and evidence, I would be delighted if he wrote to me or the roads Minister, and we will of course look into the serious matters he raises in the House.

Roadworks that continually reappear on the same stretch of road at multiple locations are a major cause of congestion across the towns and villages in Erewash, particularly in Long Eaton and Sawley. What steps is my right hon. Friend taking, in conjunction with colleagues in the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, to ensure that utility companies better co-ordinate their work schedules to minimise disruption to road users?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right that that can be a complete pest. Over the last few years, the Government have taken some action to address that. Utility companies have a right of access to highways to install and repair apparatus, and we rely on them to do so in many ways. The Government introduced a number of initiatives, including the development of Street Manager and regulatory changes, which are all designed to improve the efficiency of how such works are carried out and co-ordinated.

As chair of the all-party parliamentary group on Malawi, I often hear from stakeholders, both business and civil society, about their frustration over the lack of direct flights between the UK and Malawi. I appreciate that that is largely a commercial decision for operators, but what role can the Department for Transport play in bringing together interested parties to discuss what options might be available?

The hon. Gentleman put his finger on it: it is largely a commercial decision. If regulatory issues or other issues are preventing that from happening, I would be delighted to look into those. If he raises them on behalf of the APPG, I would be delighted to hear from him, but those are largely commercial decisions for airlines and airports to take.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that road congestion is bad for the economy, bad for the environment and bad for the mental health of motorists? To that extent, why are the Government pursuing policies that are making road congestion worse rather than better?

There are a range of independent estimates of the impact of road congestion financially. They range between hundreds of millions of pounds and billions of pounds; my hon. Friend is absolutely right. The Government are not taking any action to increase congestion. Many schemes, for example active travel schemes, which are regarded by some—by some—as schemes that increase congestion, actually reduce it. He will notice, however, that some schemes put in place under the emergency active travel fund two or three years ago during the pandemic have been revised. I think local authorities are coming to realise that those were somewhat inexpeditiously put in place and we hope they will continue to do so.