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Covid-19: Transport Industry

Volume 806: debated on Tuesday 6 October 2020


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what additional support they plan to give to the transport industry to enable that industry to address the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic.

My Lords, the pandemic has had a significant impact on the transport industry. The Government recognise the key role that transport plays in supporting economic activity and maintaining social ties, which is why they have stepped in to support the industry where they can, to ensure that public transport is there for those who need it.

Road traffic is back to pre-pandemic levels of congestion, while trains and buses are running almost empty. The Government are reorganising the rail industry but so far have provided only emergency funding for buses. Does the Minister accept that the commercial model for the bus industry was already failing before Covid-19? The Government now have the opportunity to create a green bus revolution. Will they reform subsidies to encourage environmental efficiency and give more powers to local authorities?

The noble Baroness may be interested to know that bus demand is currently running at about 55% of normal, which is encouraging, but she is quite right, and will know that we had always planned to do a bus strategy this year. Of course, we are starting from a very different place from where we had hoped to be, but it will include an awful lot of recovery work, as she so rightly outlined, and set out how we will get 4,000 zero-emission buses on our roads.

Is the Minister aware that the coach industry feels particularly aggrieved, having been excluded from the industry-specific grants that have so benefited buses and trains? Is she also aware that long-standing family companies such as Travel De Courcey, based in Coventry, have already gone to the wall because of the economic situation? Can she offer any comfort to these vital parts of our transport industry, as far as the future is concerned?

I am aware of the very difficult situation that the coach industry finds itself in. It is a very diverse sector with, as the noble Lord points out, a large number of family-run businesses. About 80% of revenue in the coach sector comes from tourism, and we are working very hard with DCMS to ensure that where tourism—particularly domestic tourism—can take place, it does. Much of the remaining 20% is home-to-school transport, and the Government have made available £40 million for the first half of this current term, for local authorities to procure extra vehicles.

My Lords, further to the Question of the noble Baroness, Lady Randerson, in 10 days’ time, the emergency funding that the Government agreed with Transport for London to keep the buses and Tubes running runs out. Can the Minister reassure the House that there will be some agreement thereafter? If the Mayor of London has asked for £5 billion, how will any future burden be shared between the national taxpayer, travellers and London’s council tax payers?

My noble friend mentions the figure of £5 billion: well, the Mayor of London would say that, wouldn’t he? As part of the first bailout, the Government commissioned a government-led review of TfL’s finances and I am afraid that it did not make happy reading, even prior to the pandemic. Multi-year fare freezes are indeed a great vote winner, but eventually one has to make very difficult choices, so the Government will be ensuring that the Mayor of London makes those choices in order to get TfL back on to a financially sustainable footing so that we can protect the interests of the UK taxpayer.

My Lords, to judge by both personal observation and hearsay, not much effort is being made by train operators to collect revenue due to them. Will the Government make sure that they understand that it is a duty to collect fares from passengers?

I thank the noble Lord for his question. This is the first time I have been made aware that some train operating companies are not collecting the amount of revenue that they should. To my mind, having also travelled on trains recently, they seem to be functioning very well and nothing much has changed in respect of revenue collection.

My Lords, it is an honour to speak after the noble Lord, Lord Bradshaw, who was my constituent for 14 years; in spite of being a Liberal Democrat, he was extremely well behaved. The Minister will know that transport policy encompasses such innovations as e-scooters. Will she look at the myriad regulations in different boroughs across London, which are holding back the rollout of public e-scooters? Will she also look at legalising e-scooters for private use and removing pointless regulations such as requiring a driving licence in order to use any scooter?

My Lords, I again remind my noble friend and the whole House that riding an e-scooter off private land is currently illegal unless it is part of a trial. However, the Government have rolled out these trials across the country, the entire purpose of which is to gather evidence, so that we can look at the regulations to which my noble friend refers and make appropriate changes in order to benefit from such developments in micro-mobility.

My Lords, in the wake of the pandemic, the Government have promised new structures and relationships with rail and other providers based on value for money and traveller satisfaction, but will the Minister ensure that the needs of long-suffering, isolated rural communities are also taken into account?

The Government have huge ambitions for the rail industry throughout the country, in both urban and more rural areas. As the noble Lord probably knows, we have entered into emergency measures agreements with the train operating companies to make sure that they can continue to provide those services. With regard to cut-off places— places that no longer have trains—the Restoring Your Railway Fund will support the reopening of railways where possible.

May I return to the question asked by my noble friend Lord Snape? The Minister said that the 20% of the sector involved in school transport was getting support, but what about the other 80%? What additional support will be offered to that 80% of the coach industry, and with what objectives in mind? It includes small operators which, as small businesses, form the backbone of the sector and are really struggling. The Government have yet to tell us what they intend to do to support the great bulk of the coach industry.

The Government have already put in an unprecedented package of financial support, which has recently been extended through the winter economic plan to make sure that support is provided not only to coach companies but to all sorts of companies across the country. As I said to the noble Lord, Lord Snape, we are working with DCMS to try to open up tourism wherever possible, but coach companies are being innovative and getting business where they can. I recently visited York Pullman, in York, and was heartened to see that it is looking to find more innovative ways back into work. I know it is difficult, and we continue to engage with the coach sector as the pandemic progresses.

My Lords, in March the Government announced a fund to improve electric vehicle infrastructure, particularly charging. Does the Minister agree that if post-Covid recovery is to be largely car-based, it is essential to bring forward that fund early so that more people will buy electric vehicles? Can she update the House as to when this money will become available?

The Government do not want the recovery to be mostly car-based. We are keen to encourage passengers back on to buses and trains, and we are clear that people can use public transport and should do so safely. The noble Baroness mentioned electric vehicles. Of course, the Government have a huge commitment to expanding the number of charge points and supporting consumers when they buy their electric vehicles.

My Lords, if we are to become the Saudi Arabia of wind power by 2030, why are we not going to become the world leader in electric cars, looking to the future rather than the past when the Government spend their money?

I reassure the noble Lord that we are already a world leader in the manufacture and design of electric cars and their rollout across the country. The other important element to bear in mind is the Government’s commitment to connected and autonomous vehicles, which, of course, go hand in hand with the development of electric cars.

My Lords, I declare an interest as co-chair of the All-Party Group on General Aviation. General aviation is of course the bedrock of aviation in this country—where young pilots are trained for the future—and has taken a particular hit, along with the rest of aviation, during this Covid-19 crisis. Will the Government consider looking at VAT in respect of general aviation? Will the Minister perhaps consult with the Treasury on this issue?

The Government recognise the important role that general aviation plays in providing the grass-roots element from which so many who go on to the commercial sector come. I reassure my noble friend that the Government are focusing carefully on aviation recovery work, which will include general aviation. It will look at regional connectivity, economic growth, decarbonisation and, perhaps most importantly in the field of general aviation, workforce and skills.

My Lords, the Minister will be aware that many maritime businesses have worked incredibly hard to keep supply chains open and goods flowing during the Covid crisis. However, this has resulted in businesses exhausting their cash reserves, leaving very little funding for them to begin the vital work of decarbonising the maritime industry. Will the Minister confirm that the Government will provide the necessary funding, requested by the maritime industry in recent meetings, to kickstart the urgent process of decarbonisation?

The noble Lord will know that the Government published their Maritime 2050 strategy a little while back. Of course, our commitment to decarbonisation remains extremely strong. There are a number of conversations going on at the moment about maritime decarbonisation, and some ideas have been put forward for the spending review.