Oral Transport Questions: 10th July

Oral Transport Questions: 10th July

The Secretary of State was asked—

Mr Speaker: On Question 1, I call Chi Onwurah. Not here.

Congestion: Roads

2. Dr Thérèse Coffey (Suffolk Coastal) (Con): What plans he has to relieve congestion on roads.

9. David Rutley (Macclesfield) (Con): What plans he has to relieve congestion on roads.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Mr Robert Goodwill): Before I answer the question, I should explain that, as you and the Opposition Front Benchers will be aware, Mr Speaker, the Secretary of State is unable to attend Transport questions this morning because of his duties attending on Her Majesty the Queen in Derbyshire.

Road investment is central to our long-term economic plan. We are spending more than £24 billion on strategic roads between 2010 and 2021. A further £7.4 billion will be spent on local roads in the next Parliament, together with £1.5 billion of funding from the local growth fund that was announced on Monday. That will bring forward much needed schemes such as the Bury St Edmunds eastern relief road in Suffolk. All the schemes are designed to relieve congestion and open up growth across the country.

Dr Coffey: I thank my hon. Friend for that answer. I welcome the growth deal for the New Anglia local enterprise partnership, which will help to relieve the congestion on many roads. May I make a bid for support for the A12 in Suffolk Coastal, and particularly for the stretches of the road that will be used heavily by Sizewell C construction traffic? There is the possibility of a four-villages bypass involving Stratford St Andrew and Farnham.

Mr Goodwill: I know that my hon. Friend is disappointed that the four-villages bypass was not included on this occasion, but we are still looking at that possibility. Indeed, I was in Norfolk and Suffolk last week undertaking —dare I say it—a “tour d’East Anglia”. I looked at the A12 and the A47, which are greatly in need of improvement.

David Rutley: I welcome the recent growth deal announcement and the £16.4 million of funding that will be put to good use on the Poynton relief road. Does my hon. Friend agree that that will not only reduce traffic congestion for the residents in Poynton, but enhance the strategic links to Macclesfield’s science community?

Mr Goodwill: Yes, that is very good news for the residents of Poynton, Macclesfield and the whole of east Cheshire. The scheme to link the A6 to the Manchester airport relief road, to which the Government are contributing £165 million, will improve access to the significant employment opportunities that are being developed at the Manchester airport city enterprise zone.

Richard Burden (Birmingham, Northfield) (Lab): Listening to the Minister, one would never guess that the National Audit Office has warned that the Government’s approach is not good enough to fix the pothole epidemic on our local roads, which is aggravating congestion; that the Local Government Association has expressed the concern that the Government’s roads policy will lead to gridlock on local roads; that bus use outside London is down, not up; or that British Cycling has expressed disappointment that the Government are not providing the leadership that is needed to get people out of their cars and to walk or cycle. This is not jam tomorrow; it is traffic jams today. Is it not time that the Minister got a grip?

Mr Goodwill: I am surprised that the hon. Gentleman can keep a straight face as he says that. We are tripling road investment in the Highways Agency’s infrastructure. We have substantially increased the investment for local authorities to address the pothole problem. More money was announced in the Budget and following the bad weather at Christmas. This Government realise that we should be improving our infrastructure and mending our roads. It is not only the roof that the Labour party did not mend in government; it did not mend the roads either.

Mr Simon Burns (Chelmsford) (Con): Does my hon. Friend accept that the A12 through Essex and on to the ports and the hinterland of East Anglia is severely congested, and that the best way to relieve that congestion would be to turn it into a motorway? Will he update the House on what is being done to evaluate that proposition, following the answer that the Secretary of State gave to me two Question Times ago?

Mr Goodwill: The A12 is certainly featuring prominently today. My right hon. Friend is a great exponent of the proposal to upgrade the A12 to motorway status. The last time he raised this matter, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said:

“My right hon. Friend makes an interesting suggestion. No doubt he will pursue that argument with me and the authorities on a number of occasions to come.”—[Official Report, 20 March 2014; Vol. 577, c. 892.]This is just one more of those occasions.

Mr David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): I know the Secretary of State visited the west country a few weeks ago. Did he come back as committed as I have been for 30 years to finally doing something to improve the iconic A303?

Mr Goodwill: I had the pleasure of travelling down the A30-A303 corridor with another colleague who has an interest in that matter. A number of areas along that road were pointed out to me, including the difficult Stonehenge area and the Blackdown hills area, which is more difficult for another reason, and where there is some low-hanging fruit that I hope we can address. That is one of six key routes that we have identified as needing improvement, and I suspect that my hon. Friend will have to wait for the autumn statement to hear further news.

Mr Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) (Lab/Co-op): Does the Minister agree that congestion on our roads is the one thing saving our safety record from plunging even further—as he knows, it has now plunged below that of Sweden? Many more young people are being killed on motorcycles under his watch. Does he think it time we went back to targets on reduction so that we can look after people on the roads?

Mr Goodwill: I have only one target for casualties on the road, and that is a target of zero. The UK, along with Sweden, has the safest roads not only in Europe but in the world. Although it was disappointing to see a small increase in the number of motorcycle fatalities last year, in all other areas we have seen improvements owing to a number of factors, not least the investment that we put into better roads in this country.

Mark Pritchard (The Wrekin) (Con): One way of reducing congestion in the west midlands would be the new M6 south link to the M54 in Shropshire. Will the Minister join me in continuing to petition the Treasury to ensure that funds are available for that within the next few years?

Mr Goodwill: My hon. Friend the Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski) has also raised that issue with me on a number of occasions, and I note the aspirations to upgrade that road to having motorway-type status, despite the fact that it does not have a hard shoulder in every location at the moment.

 

Regional Airports

4. Chris Ruane (Vale of Clwyd) (Lab): What assessment he has made of the level of domestic and international connectivity provided by regional airports.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Mr Robert Goodwill): The Government value the domestic and international connectivity that the UK’s regional airports provide. They make a vital contribution to the growth and recovery of regional and local economies, benefiting businesses and passengers alike.

Chris Ruane: The first hovercraft passenger service in the world was from Rhyl to Wirral more than 50 years ago, and currently three hovercraft companies want to restart that. One of them—Hoverlink—wants to establish a link to Liverpool airport from north Wales. Will the Minister meet a delegation of MPs involved in that, and Hoverlink, to establish what could be the first hovercraft link to an airport in the world?

Mr Goodwill: I was expecting to be asked about surface connectivity, but travelling on the surface of the water is a novel idea. That is an exciting idea, and I would be delighted to meet those involved, and possibly even take a ride on one of those vehicles.

Sir Alan Haselhurst (Saffron Walden) (Con): In the light of the Chancellor of the Exchequer’s statement about the importance of a northern hub, should we pay more attention to that having a hub airport? Manchester has the possibility and potential increasingly to become a port of entry to this country, opening up the whole of the north of England and north Wales, as well as easing pressures on connectivity in the south-east.

Mr Goodwill: I am a great fan of Manchester airport, and many of my constituents on the east coast use it because it has such good connectivity by rail. I know that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor is also keen to take pressure off other airports in the south of England, and Manchester airport and other regional airports have a great part to play in relieving pressure on the south-east. Indeed, with more point-to-point destinations being served, such as the one I saw at Newcastle recently, that is the way forward.

Chi Onwurah (Newcastle upon Tyne Central) (Lab): I apologise, Mr Speaker, for missing my earlier slot, as it were.

Newcastle airport grew its freight from £20 million in 2006 to £250 million last year, mainly on the back of the new Dubai route, but because it attracts more than 3 million passengers per year, it cannot have access to the regional connectivity fund, so what is the Minister doing to bring new routes to Newcastle and improve the economy?

Mr Goodwill: I was pleased that the Chancellor announced the regional connectivity fund. When I was at Newcastle airport in February, there was excitement about that. It is also looking to serve further routes. Although the limitation is for airports of fewer than 3 million passengers, there is a provision under exceptional circumstances to allow airports such as Newcastle with fewer than 5 million passengers to participate. We are having conversations with the European Commission to ensure that we can do something and that we do not breach any state aid rules.

Mr David Nuttall (Bury North) (Con): One way of encouraging airlines to establish new routes from regional airports is to allow them to operate free of air passenger duty for, say, the first two years. Will my hon. Friend discuss the possibility of introducing that measure with Treasury Ministers?

Mr Goodwill: I am sure Treasury questions will be along very soon, when my hon. Friend will have an opportunity to ask the Chancellor that very question.

Mr Angus Brendan MacNeil (Na h-Eileanan an Iar) (SNP): The regional airports of Munich and Barcelona have been named as two of the best airports in Europe and the world. Both have direct links to emerging economies throughout the world. The situation in Scotland is very different, with the UK Government imposing the demand-management, London-centred approach of having the highest air passenger duty in the world, which they have no intention to devolve. Could not Scotland do an awful lot better if it had the powers to help its airports to catch up with the likes of Barcelona and Munich?

Mr Goodwill: I suspect that this matter will be decided in September, but I am pleased that the Government have taken the opportunity of offering public service obligation flights to London. Dundee has put a deal together, and I hope other airports will come forward with good proposals to tap into that fund.

Mike Kane (Wythenshawe and Sale East) (Lab): Will the Minister join me in welcoming business leaders from across the globe to the aerotropolis conference in Manchester today—Cottonopolis itself? Does he agree that we must rebalance the economy in this country, and that to do so we must turn our focus away from Heathrow—the Transport Front-Bench team have a rabbit-in-the-glare obsession with Heathrow—and rebalance connectivity to our regional airports such as Manchester?

Mr Goodwill: I represent a constituency in the north of England and my constituents rely on regional airports. In fact, I would rather call them local international airports. Manchester is one of the premier local international airports and I very much enjoy using it. It has exciting plans for further development.

Mr Gordon Marsden (Blackpool South) (Lab): Regional airports fear that the Government are not doing enough for connectivity, not least to London. Those concerns are reflected in the most recent Davies commission report. In his Budget, the Chancellor grandly announced more money for the regional air connectivity fund, but name-checked airports that are not currently eligible. The ones that definitely are eligible still have no guidance on how to apply. In addition, Ministers still have no green light from Europe to say that airports with 3 million to 5 million passengers, such as Newcastle, can apply. Only one airport—Dundee—is confirmed to get any money so far. How can we be sure that airports such as Newcastle, Leeds Bradford and Norwich, or anywhere else for that matter, will get more support from the Government by 2015?

Mr Goodwill: As the hon. Gentleman knows, the Government are very successful in negotiating in Europe when we need to get a deal. Having spent five years in the European Parliament, I know that we are always keen to engage and ensure that like-minded member states can come to an accommodation. We are optimistic that we can have a positive outcome with the European Commission. We will have further information for airports wishing to apply during the autumn when the details have been hammered out, so that we can comply with the state aid rules and ensure that the money goes to important regional airports such as Newcastle, which I know has aspirations to have flights to the United States.

 

A417-A419 (Gloucestershire)

 

10. Mr Laurence Robertson (Tewkesbury) (Con): What recent progress he has made on improving the A417-A419 at Nettleton Bottom and Crickley Hill in Gloucestershire; and if he will make a statement.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Mr Robert Goodwill): The Highways Agency is preparing a route strategy for the midlands to Wales and Gloucester. It covers the section of the A417 that includes Nettleton Bottom and Crickley Hill, known as the “missing link”, which has been identified as a key issue on the route. The next stage will be to assess options, and to produce indicative business cases as a basis on which to prioritise investment from 2015 onwards.

Mr Robertson: The Minister will be aware that the death toll on the road continues to rise, as do the delays experienced by travellers as a result of congestion. He will also be aware of how long my hon. Friend the Member for The Cotswolds (Geoffrey Clifton-Brown) and I, in particular, have continued our campaign to secure improvements to the road. It would be good if he and/or the Secretary of State could visit us in the near future to observe the problems for themselves.

Mr Goodwill: This is a particularly challenging operation from both an environmental and an engineering perspective. The cost of the work has been estimated at about £255 million. It would include two junctions which would be grade separated, and the road is, of course, in an area of outstanding natural beauty. However, I have some good news for my hon. Friend: the Secretary of State plans to visit that part of the road next week.

Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (The Cotswolds) (Con): While we look forward eagerly to the Secretary of State’s visit, we look forward even more eagerly to what my hon. Friend the Minister can do to upgrade the priority of this particular scheme. This is one of the busiest arterial roads in the country: it links the M4 to the M5. Tragically, we have had five deaths since last November. This is a really important priority. What can my hon. Friend do to help?

Mr Goodwill: It was made clear to us when we met my hon. Friend and our hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham) during the winter that dealing with the problem has been in the “too difficult to do” box for too long. The phrase “missing link” is a very good way of describing this piece of road, given the congestion that it causes and, of course, its accident record, which is not good at all.

Mr Mark Harper (Forest of Dean) (Con): May I briefly convey the support of constituents on my side of the river for the campaign that has been run by my hon. Friend the Members for Tewkesbury (Mr Robertson) and for The Cotswolds (Geoffrey Clifton-Brown) over a long period? The improvement is important to us, so let me add our support for anything that the Minister can do to speed it up.

Mr Goodwill: I know that all Members in that part of the world understand the importance of the route, and also understand the need to carry out the work in an environmentally sympathetic way because the road is in an area of outstanding natural beauty.

 

Offshore oil and Gas (Helicopter Safety)

11. Mr Frank Doran (Aberdeen North) (Lab): What recent assessment he has made of the safety of passengers in the offshore oil and gas helicopter transport system.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Stephen Hammond): The Civil Aviation Authority published its review of offshore helicopter safety on 20 February this year. The United Kingdom has a good helicopter safety record, and there is no evidence to suggest that travelling to oil and gas installations by helicopter is any less safe than travelling by any other helicopter operated in the UK. However—like the hon. Gentleman, I am sure—I am pleased that the CAA review has proposed a number of recommendations for further examination of the overall safety for passengers in the offshore oil and gas helicopter transport system. I note that the oil and gas industry has accepted the recommendations. It is working closely with the CAA to implement them and introduce safety improvement measures, and the Department is carefully monitoring the effectiveness of the CAA and the industry in doing so.

Mr Doran: I am sorry that the Minister did not mention the Transport Committee’s report on the serious problem of helicopter transport in the offshore industry, which was published on Tuesday this week. I hope that, when the Secretary of State sees the report, he will focus on the part that deals with the survivors of the last fatal crash in August last year, so that he can fully understand what the work force in the North sea have to put up with every day, and why those workers and their families support the demand for a full public inquiry into helicopter safety.

Mr Hammond: We have obviously seen the Select Committee’s report, and, as the hon. Gentleman will know, we are considering our response carefully. We will respond by 28 August, and we will certainly read and respond to the section about the impact on the lives of the survivors. As for the question of a full public inquiry, the CAA has conducted a thorough review and has made important recommendations. We need to give the organisations involved time to implement those recommendations, and we are making sure that they address the concerns of the industry.

 

Topical Questions

T1. Tom Greatrex (Rutherglen and Hamilton West) (Lab/Co-op): If he will make a statement on his departmental responsibilities.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Stephen Hammond): May I update the House on a few matters my Department has been involved in since the last Topical Questions? The announcement of the first £6 billion of growth deal projects on Monday included a raft of transport schemes across the country, with money being spent on schemes determined by local priorities to boost local economic growth. This landmark investment comes after our allocation in June of an extra £200 million to local authorities to fix potholes. Since the last Transport questions, the Department has also signed a contract with Virgin Trains for rail services on the west coast main line providing an extra 1,000 seats, and at the beginning of the week we announced £53 million to be spent on improving wi-fi access on trains, enabling passengers to receive seamless mobile broadband connections.

Tom Greatrex: I thank the Minister for that reply. I am sure he will be aware that it is very important, particularly cross-border, that we maximise the use of rail freight in this country, but I note that the east coast invitation to tender document states that

“there is no requirement to protect capacity for freight” on what is a key section of that line. Will he confirm that that is the case and that, as part of this rushed privatisation of the east coast main line, he is making it much harder for freight to access this network?

Stephen Hammond: The hon. Gentleman has unfortunately failed to mention the upgrades on the other part of the freight line, which will ensure that all of those freight services still operate and there will be no diminution of service for freight operators north-south.

Mary Creagh (Wakefield) (Lab): The press announced last Wednesday that aviation security in the UK was being stepped up, yet it was Tuesday evening, a full six days later, before this Department issued a statement to MPs. There is confusion among passengers about what they can and cannot take through security, and different airlines appear to have different policies on the checks and on returning confiscated items to travellers. Nobody is arguing with the need to protect passengers, but can the Minister reassure the House that he and his Department will work with airlines to give passengers the clear information they need to prepare before they travel, ensure that airports have adequate charging points for electronic gadgets, and guarantee that Members of this House will be kept fully informed?

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Mr Robert Goodwill): The Secretary of State was on breakfast television today making it quite clear what the new rules will be, and making it clear that passengers travelling to and from the UK may be required to demonstrate at the departure gate that their electronic devices can be powered up. I know that airlines are taking steps to ensure that this can be addressed in a number of ways, for example people can be reunited with their devices or charging facilities could be made available, but it is important that we react to this new security threat in a way that continues to protect the travelling public.

T2. Mr Nicholas Brown (Newcastle upon Tyne East) (Lab): What study has the Minister made of the potential for open access operators to reduce journey times between Newcastle and London on the east coast main line? What competition policy is he operating with regard to that matter?

Stephen Hammond: The right hon. Gentleman will know from the prospectus that we have welcomed the possibility of open access operators opening up new markets on the east coast main line. There is scope for that within the proposals, and we are looking at the bids very carefully. We recognise the benefits that open access has already brought for a number of people in a number of markets from the north of England, and I look forward to any other costed proposals.

Philip Davies (Shipley) (Con): Aldi is ready to go ahead with the development of a new supermarket in Bingley that commands great public support. To go ahead, the development needs a land transfer from the Highways Agency via Bradford metropolitan district council. Will the Minister ensure that the Highways Agency pulls its finger out as soon as possible to make that happen so that that essential regeneration can take place in Bingley?

Mr Goodwill: In my experience, the Highways Agency is very good at pulling its finger out when Ministers raise issues, so I will raise this issue with the Highways Agency myself.

 

Information available on the parliamentary website

 

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