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Topical Questions

Volume 747: debated on Thursday 21 March 2024

We are getting on with delivering the plan for drivers, with new statutory guidance requiring local support for low-traffic neighbourhoods and strengthened guidance supporting 20 mph limits where they make sense—not in blanket measures, as in Wales. If councils do not listen, they could see their future funding affected. We are consulting on removing the profit motive from council traffic enforcement while speeding up traffic lights across the country.

As I just said, that follows our record funding increase for improving our roads, with £8.3 billion of reallocated HS2 funding—something that Opposition Members have refused to support. There is nothing wrong with driving, and the plan for drivers, which was dismissed as nonsense by the shadow Secretary of State, shows that only the Government are on the side of drivers.

I thank the Minister for buses, the hon. Member for Hexham (Guy Opperman), for sharing with me the list of actions he managed to elicit from north-east bus operators following my debate on real-time bus information. However, no dates were given. This afternoon, our fantastic candidate for North East Mayor, Kim McGuinness, is launching her vision for transport in the north-east. Can the Minister confirm that those actions will be fulfilled to enable her to deliver on her commitment to real-time bus information as soon as possible?

I am pleased to be able to tell the hon. Lady that within a week of her debate in Westminster Hall, my hon. Friend the Minister for buses made sure that those meetings took place, so the actions that are necessary are under way. I am sure that my hon. Friend will be able to update her on the specific timeline in due course.

T2. The Rail Minister is well aware that Network Rail continues to let down disabled residents and visitors and families at Chalkwell station by repeatedly failing to install the much-needed disabled lift. This is the seventh time I have raised this issue in this place. Two years ago, I was promised that the lift would be installed this year. I have now been told it will not even be started until next year. This is a disgrace. What can the Minister do to accelerate this project and address this poor performance? (902114)

There was a retendering at Chalkwell, and Network Rail found that the existing structures would not be suitable to deliver the project as it stood. The design work is going on right now and building will happen next year. My hon. Friend is right that the delay is not acceptable. I will meet her at Chalkwell station and bring the Network Rail team along so that we can talk her through the project and its challenges and, if we can, show how we will speed it up.

If the Secretary of State is not spouting conspiracy theories, he is exuding incompetence. Ashford authorities warned Parliament that 14 hours of queues were a “reasonable worst case” scenario with the implementation of the EU entry/exit system this autumn. Why has he failed to adequately prepare for the queues at our ports and airports?

I just do not recognise the hon. Gentleman’s characterisation. We are working very hard with colleagues across Government. I recently had a very good meeting with colleagues at the port of Dover, and we meet with other operators. There are very good plans in place, work is proceeding at pace, and I am confident that the EES will go very smoothly when introduced. The plans are in place and work is under way.

T5. I thank the Secretary of State and the Rail Minister for their support for my campaign to deliver a direct train service between Cleethorpes and King’s Cross. Will the Rail Minister give an update on when the service is likely to start? (902118)

I thank my hon. Friend. He has been a champion not only for Cleethorpes’ direct rail service, but for the east coast main line timetable change that was announced in the Budget. We are now going through the stages with those who use the lines to ensure we do not have any timetabling issues like those that arose in May 2018. I hope we will come to a position on this in some weeks and that I can give him more detail, but I very much hope to see those direct services to Cleethorpes. This timetable change was designed to bring in great improvements such as the one he has championed.

T9. Three years ago, levelling-up funding for the upgrade of the B714 in my constituency was announced. So far no funds have been forthcoming. If and when the funding is finally allocated, what support can the Secretary of State provide to help ensure that this funding is sufficient to fulfil the upgrade, given that the cost of labour and materials are now much higher than they were three years ago? (902122)

That is a matter for the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities. I will take it up with the Department and make sure that it writes to the hon. Lady.

T6. Residents in Harrogate and Knaresborough often face train cancellations, sometimes at very short notice, causing much frustration and inconvenience. A shortage of drivers and train crew is often the cause of the cancellations, and I have raised that with the train companies involved. What steps is my hon. Friend taking to ensure that vacancies are filled and operational training is prioritised? (902119)

That is a challenge. The shortage of crew is largely down to sickness, the level of which is about 8.5%, which is too high. We are working with the operator to ensure that it is working on that, and with the northern rail partnership, to ensure there is more resilience on that line. The training backlog needs to be cleared, working in co-operation with the unions rather than them going on strike. We should be able to ease that backlog and get a better service for my hon. Friend and his constituents.

Last week, the Prime Minister failed to provide my constituents with any assurance about proposals for a train station in the Somerton and Langport area, but he did state that money was available to invest in local transport across the country. Will my constituents see that money? Once again, when will the Langport Transport Group hear back regarding its strategic business case, which it submitted almost two years ago?

I will happily write to the hon. Lady and the Langport Transport Group so that they have a response, if they feel that that is outstanding. The Prime Minister has committed to ensure that the Network North money made available from the cancellation of High Speed 2 is spent where HS2 would have been delivered. That mostly includes the north and the midlands, but there will be other projects in the rest of the country through the recycling of the funding from Euston.

T7. The Secretary of State is well aware of the A12 widening scheme, and the concerns of my constituents about the route and design. They are trying to engage with the Department and National Highways, but a one-person legal challenge is putting the entire project at risk, despite the Government’s financial investment. Will the Secretary of State assure me that those communities will be consulted and engaged with despite the legal challenge, so that we can make progress? (902120)

I assure my right hon. Friend that National Highways works closely with local communities when delivering major projects, and it will continue to do so on the A12 widening scheme. My Department is committed to delivering the scheme, and granted consent for it on 12 January but, as she said, it is subject to an application for judicial review. I therefore cannot add anything further, but I will continue to work with her local residents. If at any time she wants to raise issues with the scheme with me, I will be delighted to meet her.

I thank Ministers for facilitating discussions with the operators of the search and rescue helicopter service based in my constituency about the proposed response times. They have been fairly productive so far, and we will see what the outcome is. It is apparent already that the decisions are made solely on the basis of the number of calls and not the nature of the work undertaken. If the contract conforms to that, can we ensure that future contracts do not leave us exposed in that way?

I know how important the helicopter search and rescue services are in Orkney and Shetland. The right hon. Gentleman has been a big campaigner for them, and has asked various questions and secured various debates on the matter. A review is going on about the recent incident data which will report in the summer, and we expect to publish it by the end of the year. That should include the answers to his questions. We are investing more than £1 billion in the new search and rescue service. The number of bases will go from 10 to 12 overall, and there will be no closure of bases and no change to services in Orkney and Shetland before October 2026.

T8. As my hon. Friend will know, I have serious reservations about the proposed lower Thames crossing and its ability to tackle congestion at the existing Dartford crossing. Many of the arguments were rehearsed as part of the development consent order process, which completed on 20 December. As I understand it, the Planning Inspectorate has three months from then to come up with a recommendation, which by my calculation was yesterday. Can my hon. Friend update the House on whether he has received a recommendation from the Planning Inspectorate and what the process will be, so that I can ensure that the Department understands why many of my constituents and I do not believe that the proposed crossing is the answer to the problem? (902121)

My hon. Friend is right in his estimation of the dates. A decision will be made in a matter of months, and certainly by the summer. I am very happy to sit down and have a discussion. I will be visiting the site very shortly.

People across Chesterfield were delighted when the long-standing campaign for the Staveley regeneration route was given the thumbs up by the Government, but were then sent into despair when Derbyshire County Council said it did not have the funds to provide its small contribution towards it. Will the Secretary of State update us on whether it will be delivered? What concerns does he have about the fact that the poverty of local government sometimes gets in the way of money that his Department has allocated?

I have looked into this particular scheme and met other colleagues in the House about it. I will write to the hon. Gentleman in detail. I am sure we can continue with the project.

My constituents and businesses face an additional tax to cross the River Tamar to our main city and beyond. Taking over such key pieces of infrastructure and funding them through tax measures which they already pay would create a level economic playing field and help level up my part of the country. Will the Minister at least give a contribution towards the maintenance of these facilities, so this tax does not go up again?

My hon. Friend raised this issue with the Prime Minister only yesterday; she is a fantastic campaigner on issues relating to the Tamar bridge. I accept entirely that the Tamar Bridge and Torpoint Ferry joint committee has recently looked at the situation. An application is being considered by the Transport Secretary, and I am happy to meet her again to discuss it further.[Official Report, 26 March 2024, Vol. 747, c. 16MC.] (Correction)

Is the Secretary of State aware that the UK used to be one of the safest countries in the world, along with Sweden, in terms of road accidents? He has campaigned with the Prime Minister to help the driver, but drivers are killing more vulnerable road users and passengers than for a very long time. Is it not time that this Government took road safety and the health and welfare of pedestrians and vulnerable road users more seriously?

I will say two things. First, on Monday we announced a further £35 million for our safer roads fund. Secondly, the hon. Gentleman’s general point simply is not right. I think I am right in saying that out of 38 comparable countries, we are fifth best in the world. We have a very good road safety record and, actually, that position is maintained. We focus on road safety in everything we do, particularly for vulnerable road users. That is at the heart of all our policymaking.

The A338/A346, which runs north-south through Marlborough, is regularly choked nose to tail with heavy goods traffic. The villages of the Ogbournes and the Collingbournes are particularly affected, including Collingbourne Ducis, where a little girl was killed three years ago by a heavy goods vehicle. That traffic should really be on the A34 and the A36 to the east and the west. We have been waiting many months now for the results of the north-south connectivity review. Will the Minister tell us when that will happen, so that we can have a better system for managing heavy goods traffic through Wiltshire?

As my hon. Friend knows, I grew up in Wexcombe and I know that particular area of Collingbourne very well. I pass on my condolences to the individual family. He knows that there are powers under the Road Traffic Regulation Act 1984. I will write to him in detail with the powers that local authorities have to address that particular point. On the specifics of the review, that will be contained in road investment strategy 3, which will be published very shortly.

I listened to the Minister’s response earlier, on why Avanti should continue to provide rail services. It sounded like he was reading from one of its press releases. The litany of excuses was very long, blaming everyone but itself. When will he listen to the leaders of the north? When will he listen to the people of the north and get rid of Avanti?

The point I was making is that if the operator changes, the contracts between operator and the unions will remain unless the unions are willing to release. There cannot be a unilateral change. The courts would not allow it. As I say, that was put in place in 1997. It was supposed to end in 2002, but continued. It is now, effectively, a part of a term and condition. A change of operator will not make any difference to that. I do listen to those in the north and I am delighted that I will be listening to the leader of ASLEF, because he has agreed to sit down with me so we can discuss those terms. I hope I can work with all Members of the House to make that happen.

My Highways Act 1980 (Amendment) Bill, which is due to have its Second Reading tomorrow, would make it easier for motorists to make claims against local authorities for damage caused to their cars by neglect of road maintenance and by potholes. Why are the Government not supporting my Bill?

The Government have been promising action on pavement parking for a decade, but despite a consultation in 2020, we are still no further forward. Will the Minister finally listen to disabled people, parents, children and local councils who overwhelmingly support a ban, and act to curb this dangerous problem?

That particular issue is on my desk, and we are considering it at present. I can assure the hon. Lady that the results of the consultation will be published in the summer.

For nearly half a century the people of Romford, and those of wider Essex and east London, have been waiting for the Gallows Corner A12/A127 junction to be reconstructed. Is it not time we had some investment for the people of Romford? It seems to go everywhere else; let us have some in the London borough of Havering, please.

As my hon. Friend knows, the Government are passionately committed to improving the A12. Only recently it was the subject of litigation brought by one individual. I will happily sit down with my hon. Friend, who for many a year has been a doughty campaigner for Romford. I entirely agree with him that this needs to be addressed.

Sadly, Marks & Spencer announced yesterday that it would be closing its store in Doncaster, but would be expanding its operation to a retail outlet where there is free parking. Will the Secretary of State come to Doncaster to see how poor planning in connection with pedestrianisation, cycle lanes and expensive parking is driving customers out of Doncaster and turning my city into a ghost town? Hopefully, with his help we can reverse this trend.

I was delighted to visit my hon. Friend recently, engage with him and deal with the individual points that he raised, but I would be happy to sit down and talk to him again. It seems to me that there is a way forward with buses and other forms of transport to help local residents to travel to the shopping centre that he has mentioned: surely the integrated, multimodal approach is the way ahead.

Following many conversations and much engagement, the Secretary of State and the Ministers are well aware that companies in the railway rolling stock supply chain, such as Hitachi Newton Aycliffe, face significant short-term challenges. Next year we will celebrate the 200th anniversary of the first passenger railway in the world, which runs past a Hitachi factory. Can the Secretary of State update me on what he is doing to ensure that companies such as Hitachi have a long-term future in the UK to build the next generation of north-east trains?

My hon. Friend has been a doughty campaigner for his constituents. He has already raised this issue with me on a number of occasions, and I am glad that he has raised it again.

I have had frequent meetings with Hitachi’s management in both the UK and Japan, and we are working very hard to deal with the situation. Hitachi’s HS2 order was confirmed on the original terms, and I am working with its representatives. The Rail Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Bexhill and Battle (Huw Merriman), recently published the details of the future rolling stock that is in the pipeline, and Hitachi is very competitively placed to win orders for much of that. I hope we will be able to reach a successful conclusion in the very near future.

Before we come to business questions, I have to inform the House that there is an error in the Future Business section of the Order Paper. The Hunting Trophies (Import Prohibition) Bill, introduced by the right hon. Member for Warley (John Spellar), should appear as the first item of business tomorrow. It has been corrected in the online version, and will appear correctly on tomorrow’s Order Paper.

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. May I thank you, and indeed the Clerks, for your speedy action in resolving this? The test of an organisation is not whether mistakes happen—they do— but how quickly they are corrected. I hope that your statement will also make clear to Members who were thinking of attending tomorrow that my Bill will be No. 1 on the Order Paper, and that they will be here to speed it on its way to the statute book.