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Topical Questions

Volume 685: debated on Thursday 3 December 2020

With permission, I will set out briefly to the House the plans for Christmas travel. A lot of families will be getting together for the first time, with a maximum of three households mixing. Christmas journeys are likely to be more difficult than usual this year as a result, and passengers will want to plan their journeys carefully.

To help passengers prepare for travel, we are putting in place a number of different plans, including clearing 778 miles-worth of roadworks; ensuring that 95% of the rail network will be unaffected by engineering works, either by postponing or altering them; lengthening trains and adding additional rail services; trebling the number of coach services available; ensuring that lateral flow testing is available at six different sites for transport workers to ensure that they are available and healthy to work; and many rail companies, including Avanti, LNER, CrossCountry, EMR and others, relaxing their peak fares. I have also appointed Sir Peter Hendy to look after this period of time, to ensure that people can travel as smoothly as possible while it will be exceptionally busy.

The funding announced in the spending review for a feasibility study on improving the South Fylde line was warmly welcomed by commuters in Blackpool. Creating a passing loop on the line will double the number of trains per hour into my constituency, helping to boost tourism and to deliver jobs and growth. Following the outcome of the next stage of the process, will my right hon. Friend meet me to discuss taking the project forward to completion?

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for his relentless campaigning for things like the South Fylde loop. I, or my hon. Friend the Rail Minister, will be delighted to meet him to assist. We are putting in a lot of investment, including £10 million to tackle the Manchester bottleneck and, as the Minister with responsibility for the northern powerhouse, I intend to go much further.

We face a climate emergency and urgent action is clearly needed to tackle greenhouse gas emissions. That is why the Prime Minister promised to invest in 4,000 zero-emission buses. Given the seriousness of the issue and, indeed, the Prime Minister’s promise, why has the Government’s own spending review reduced the number of buses to which they are committed to just 500?

We are absolutely committed to introducing those 4,000 green buses. The hon. Gentleman will have noticed that, because of the pandemic, a large part of the industry has had to come to a standstill while the passenger numbers have not been there. The money in the spending review is a welcome start on that programme. It does not in any way remove the intention to produce all 4,000 buses. To expand, we have to start somewhere, and that is what the new money will do.

Coventry’s plans to run a battery-powered very light rail transit system in the city are progressing well, thanks to the world-beating local skills and expertise. Will the Minister tell me what more the Government can do to support projects like that to ensure our future public transport systems are efficient, affordable and environmentally friendly? (909676)

We are investing record amounts in better battery technology, including the Faraday Centre research, for example, and money to build a gigafactory in this country—£1 billion, including cash to go towards that. I have met recently with all the manufacturers as well, and they are very much signed up to the Government’s new 10-point plan.

I thank my right hon. Friend and his Department for work they have done to date on the localised A595 improvements, which together will improve the lives of constituents in five Cumbrian constituencies. Will he meet the five Cumbrian A595 MPs to discuss a wider Cumbrian transport strategy? (909679)

This Department is always happy to support development in Cumbria and was pleased last month to announce £12 million of funding for the A595 Grizebeck scheme. This is in addition to the £146 million announced at the spending review to accelerate vital dualling work on the A66, slashing construction time from 10 to five years, and I understand that a further business case is in development for the A595. I know that my ministerial colleagues in road and rail would be glad to meet Members to discuss a broader Cumbrian strategy.

Even when we have all had the covid vaccine, the country will still need an economic shot in the arm, and the Bakerloo line extension delivers just that, providing tens of thousands of new jobs and thousands of new homes, on top of all the amazing transport benefits, which is why it is so strongly supported by the public and by businesses and councils. The Prime Minister has said that we are firmly on track to get construction under way by 2024 and have it up and running by 2030, so can the Transport Secretary say what he is doing to ensure that construction begins on time? (909678)

I certainly can. I have just approved the safeguarding of the land to ensure that it can happen.

Over the summer, I carried out a survey in Ravenswood, and by far the No. 1 issue was access. In fact, there is only one access point, at the Thrasher’s roundabout on Nacton Road. Suffolk County Council has put in a bid to the pinch point fund and is currently awaiting an outcome. Would the Secretary of State look favourably upon this application, which could be a game changer with regard to this issue? Will he also meet me to discuss a solution to this, to make life better for Ravenswood residents who currently have to put up with unacceptable levels of congestion every day when they leave their community to go to work, drop off their kids at school or whatever else it is? (909680)

I know just how difficult the traffic is at the Thrasher’s roundabout on Nacton Road and how hard my hon. Friend has campaigned on this. The pinch point fund or, more likely, the levelling-up fund, would be the way to proceed with this. That is the new £4 billion fund to resolve problems exactly like the Thrasher’s roundabout.

Three months ago, the Secretary of State said that he would take control of the repairs to Hammersmith bridge, and he set up a taskforce chaired by the Roads Minister. Yesterday, she boasted that the Government would commit £4 million, which is less than 3% of the total cost and a fifth of what Transport for London and Hammersmith and Fulham Council have already spent. The Secretary of State knows that only the Government can fund the reopening of what he calls this “key artery”, and anywhere else in the country they would have already done so. Why not in London? (909681)

This bridge belongs to Hammersmith and Fulham Council. It is the council’s responsibility. Secondly, it is TfL’s responsibility. But the hon. Gentleman is absolutely right: I had become fed up waiting for something to happen between the council and TfL, and when nothing was happening I wrote into the agreement with TfL for funding the other week that it must spend money both getting the ferry service going and starting the actual work. I am pleased to say that, despite the inactivity of his local authority, something is now happening thanks to our taskforce.

Redcar train station has a fantastic old grade II listed station building that sits empty and in a dilapidated state. Alongside the council, I am working to see its renovation as a key gateway to our town centre. Will the Secretary of State meet me and council representatives to unlock the necessary funding for its renovation and help us to gain the access required to revive Redcar station? (909683)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise the case of Redcar train station. Stations such as Redcar are often at the heart of communities, and I encourage him to keep working, as he is, with the council and with industry to develop this idea. I would direct him to the new stations fund. We hope to open a new round of this within the next few months, and I am sure that the rail Minister would be pleased to meet him to discuss possibilities.

2002 Will the Minister confirm that the Government’s forthcoming consumer experience of public electric vehicle charging consultation will propose full roaming across public EV charging networks, to ensure that consumers can readily access these charge points anywhere across the UK? (909682)

Yes, absolutely. It is crazy, the number of different cards people have to carry around and the membership schemes they have to join. It makes it very difficult. We have more charging locations than petrol stations, as I often say at this Dispatch Box, but people have to be able to drive up to any of them and use them. Contactless will be the way to do that, and we are acting on exactly that proposal.

My right hon. Friend will be familiar with the benefits, both environmental and economic, of warm mix asphalt. What are the Government doing to ensure that the use of such asphalt on our roads is the norm rather than the exception? It is the norm in north America and increasingly in parts of Europe, but not here. The reason it is not the norm here yet is bureaucratic red tape. Will he take action to cut that red tape? (909684)

I thank my hon. Friend for raising this important point. The Department recognises that warm mix asphalt may provide environmental benefits, through energy saving, lowered emissions and providing increased durability. Authorities should use what they think is best to ensure that their roads are maintained and safe, while also addressing climate commitments.

With the mothballing of Crossrail 2, the four-tracking of routes out of London, through the innovation corridor, up to Stansted and Cambridge is at risk. Will the Minister look at separating out some of those schemes to ensure that we get the kind of reliability we need on those lines? (909685)

We are happy to look at any scheme in detail in order to be assured that it is delivered in the safest, speediest and most practical way possible.

The county all- jparty group is shortly to a publish a report on rural bus services, which will highlight both the vital importance of buses for those living and working in rural areas, and the fact that real-terms funding has fallen by 30% in the 10 years to 2019. Will the Minister assure the House that the needs of rural communities will be prioritised in the forthcoming national bus strategy? (909686)

This issue is of enormous importance to all rural communities. I represent a rural area, so I understand the points my hon. Friend makes. The Government entirely understand the importance of sustainability of rural transport for communities across the UK. The national bus strategy we are developing will set out how national and local government, and the private sector, together, will meet the needs of these communities.

Following criticism from the Office for Budget Responsibility of Treasury calculations and assumptions, and at a time when the aviation sector is on its knees, what concerns does the Secretary of State have about the scrapping of the airside extra-statutory concession and VAT retail export scheme, given that it supports hundreds of jobs at Scottish airports and helps smaller airports maintain and attract new routes, through cross-subsidy? (909691)

Taxation matters are, of course, a matter for the Treasury. We have encouraged the sector to keep feeding in the data and its experiences, because all taxation matters are always kept under review.

The Secretary of State may know that last month, unfortunately, the bridge in Hinckley won the accolade of the most bashed bridge in Britain, having been hit 25 times in a year. This causes a huge problem, with delays of more than six hours, on average. Colleagues and I have raised this issue, and we are pleased to have received £20 million in road investment strategy 2—RIS2—funding in March. What can he do to expedite the improvements on the A5, solve problems such as the bridge and make sure that we jolly well do not win that accolade next year?

I am sorry that my hon. Friend has the most bashed bridge in Britain, and the Government want to take that accolade away from him. That bridge at Hinckley has benefited from the £20 million that he mentions. The office of the traffic commissioner has also written to all goods vehicle and public service vehicle operators warning them of regulatory action that will be taken if they fail to stop bashing into the bridge. I can also assure him that Highways England is working on measures to reduce the number of strikes to the most bashed bridge in Britain.

The Clockfields estate in my constituency has long suffered from poorly maintained roads, owing to a complicated legal situation. Will my right hon. Friend join me in encouraging all parties involved to work harder and faster to bring a conclusion to this matter, which has caused my constituents to live with such poor road surfaces for so many years?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise this issue. I am not sure whether this is one of those situations where the road has not yet been adopted and that is part of the problem.

My hon. Friend is nodding her head. I have had a similar constituency experience of that, where roads for estates built 15 years ago still have not been adopted. I do think that it is an issue, and I undertake to work on this complex legal issue with my right hon. Friend the Housing Secretary, because it is a joint transport and housing problem, and I have seen how much difficulty it can create for all of our constituents.

Aylesbury has recently begun a trial of e-scooters, and I have been lucky enough to try one myself. However, at the same time that I was sticking to my cycle lane, others were trying to pull wheelies in the middle of the road, which is quite a feat, let me tell you. Will the Secretary of State consider requiring registration plates on all scooters, if legislation is introduced to permit them, so that irresponsible riders can be identified and punished?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right; while we are very keen to see the roll-out of e-scooters, and about 20 communities are already enjoying the benefits, it is also the case that we want to ensure that the regulation is right and that every single e-scooter is properly insured and built to the proper standards. That is why we are carrying out a very careful and cautious programme to roll them out, thanks to the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Redditch (Rachel Maclean), and we will be reporting back to the House what we learn from those trials and ensuring that the problems that my hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury (Rob Butler) raises are not experienced elsewhere.

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. We have had—not for the first time—a statement being offered during topical questions on a matter that should have been brought forward as a statement to allow proper scrutiny, in particular on the plan for Christmas. Although it nods to many proposals that Labour has put forward, we have not seen the detail and we have not been given the opportunity to scrutinise. May I have your advice, Mr Speaker? Is it not more appropriate for the Government to bring forward a statement that we can have a proper debate around?

On a point of order, Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. The hon. Member for Oldham West and Royton (Jim McMahon) will be pleased to hear that I am writing in considerable detail to all Members of the House. The letter should be released, but I did not want to release until I had made comments about it at the Dispatch Box.

We will leave it at that for today. In order to allow the safe exit of hon. Members participating in this item of business and the safe arrival of those participating in the next, I am suspending the House for three minutes.

Sitting suspended.