Andrew Stephenson – 2022 Speech on Transport

The speech made by Andrew Stephenson, the Minister of State at the Department for Transport, in the House of Commons on 19 May 2022.

I beg to move,

That this House has considered transport.

It gives me great pleasure to open this debate on what the Government are doing to build a world-class transport network. I do not need to remind the House of the vital economic and social role transport plays in our day-to-day lives. The pandemic revealed as much, with rail staff, bus drivers, seafarers and road engineers—to name but a few—continuing to work throughout so that the country could keep moving. It is why this Government have spent billions supporting our transport industry over the past two years, ensuring key workers and essential goods could get to where they needed to be.

While our transport network helped to keep this country going throughout the pandemic, it now, with covid firmly in the rear-view mirror, must help the UK thrive, helping us rise to new challenges such as rebuilding our economy in a way that is fairer and greener, and helping us to level up our cities, towns and villages by giving people the means to get on and improve their lives and livelihoods.

Matt Vickers (Stockton South) (Con)

I am sure my hon. Friend is only too aware of the story of Teesside airport, how it was saved by Ben Houchen and how it has gone from strength to strength. Executives at Heathrow have recently whacked up landing fees by 37%, showing complete disregard for regional connectivity and killing the viability of the Teesside flight. Will he look again at what can be done about that issue?

Andrew Stephenson

I thank my hon. Friend for that question. Of course, I join him in paying tribute to the phenomenal work of Ben Houchen and others in supporting that local airport. I am aware of local concerns on this and I hear what my hon. Friend says. Sadly, as he will know, this is very much a matter for the independent regulator, the Civil Aviation Authority, but I am sure it is something that it will want to take a close look at.

Before I speak to the legislation the Government introduced in last week’s Queen’s Speech, I want to outline just some of the measures that we are already taking to improve transport links across the country. Our levelling-up fund gives local authorities the means to invest in infrastructure that improves the everyday lives of people across the UK, including upgrading local transport. The first round of funding will see 105 projects across the four UK nations benefit from £1.7 billion in funding.

Chi Onwurah (Newcastle upon Tyne Central) (Lab)

Newcastle Tyne bridge is a critical part of our transport infrastructure as well as being an icon of the north-east. It is now peeling and rusting, and my constituents are also facing closures as the council assesses just how much money is needed to repair it. Can the Minister give assurances that all that disruption will not be in vain and that the Government will support the restoration of this icon of our engineering?

Andrew Stephenson

The hon. Lady is a dedicated champion of that bridge, having raised it with me before during Transport oral questions. It is something on which the Government continue to be keen to work with local stakeholders to enable local aspiration to be supported. I know she will continue to champion this at every opportunity, but I am keen to continue to work with her and others on the issue.

Daniel Kawczynski (Shrewsbury and Atcham) (Con)

I am sure my hon. Friend will agree that, as we build transport links, they have to be sustainable and green. I have certainly promised the young electorate in Shrewsbury to campaign to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. We are working very hard to try to secure the electrification of the line between our regional capital of Birmingham and Shrewsbury. Will he please take an interest in the project? It is very important that Shrewsbury is served by trains that are not diesel and that we reduce CO2 emissions.

Andrew Stephenson

My hon. Friend makes a powerful case on behalf of his local rail line. I know that the rail Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Wendy Morton), is looking at that. Of course, we have a programme to increase the amount of lines that are electrified across the UK. We have a good record on electrification over the past 11 years, but we want to go further and faster as we decarbonise the railways across the UK.

We do not underestimate the scale of the challenge that families currently face as part of the cost of living challenges. That is why we recently launched the Great British rail sale, which saw over 1 million tickets sold and saved the public about £7 million. We are taking action on fares, too. Not only did we delay this year’s fare rise, but we kept it far below the current rate of inflation. We are taking action on rail fares, ensuring a fair deal for taxpayers, and ensuring that we can continue to invest in our railways. It is worth reminding the House that rail fares rose on average faster under the last Labour Government than they have under the Conservatives since 2010.

Similarly, we are improving local bus services, spending £2.5 billion on bus priority lanes and cutting fares across 34 local transport authorities in England. Work has started on transforming rail journeys as part of our record £96 billion integrated rail plan. That will deliver 110 miles of new high-speed line, 180 miles of new electrified lines and increased capacity. It means more passengers across the midlands and the north will benefit from faster trains more quickly, and to more places.

Members will soon have the opportunity to scrutinise the first piece of legislation that we intend to deliver—the High Speed Rail (Crewe-Manchester) Bill—which will create the transport spine that will serve towns and cities across the north-west as well as helping trains travel further to Scotland.

John Spellar (Warley) (Lab)

Prior to introducing that Bill, will the Minister assure the House that the Department has examined the change in working patterns with more people working from home, the impact that that has had and is likely to have on demand for inter-city travel, whether that has impacted the core case for High Speed 2 and whether, even with several billion already spent, there is a case for spending another £100 billion in the light of those changes?

Andrew Stephenson

The right hon. Gentleman and I will have to continue to disagree on HS2. I, and people across the House, see it as a long-term investment in the future of our country. Undoubtedly, passenger demand has been impacted by the covid pandemic, but we are confident that it will rebound. Part of the strategic outline business case, which we published when we deposited the Bill in the House, sets out our view that there is still a value-for-money business case behind getting on with investing in HS2, and not just phase 1, which is currently under construction—22,000 people are employed and 340 active construction sites are under way at the moment—but phase 2a to Crewe, taking those trains further and, with the new Bill, from Crewe all the way into Manchester.

John Spellar

I thank the Minister for giving away again. Can I bring him back to the point about whether there has been a long-term sectoral shift in demand for peak hour inter-city travel as a result of working from home and Zoom conferences. Has the Department analysed whether and why it thinks that demand will return to previous levels?

Andrew Stephenson

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his further point. We have done and continue to do the analysis and look at all the evidence. If we look at parts of the world that have been through pandemics before, we have still seen growth in the cities in those countries. We have still seen a desire for people increasingly to live in cities and to commute between those cities. HS2 is an investment in the long term, bringing the cities of this country closer together and, with phase 1 due to open at the earliest between 2029 to 2033, there is sufficient time for passenger demand to recover.

As a country, we have come very late to high-speed rail. Many other countries around the world—France and Italy in particular, along with Japan—have helped to pioneer high-speed rail services. It is long overdue that a Government in this country get on and invest for the long term. That is why I am proud that HS2 continues to have cross-party support in the House. I appreciate that the right hon. Gentleman and I will continue to disagree, but many other Members do see the benefits of us getting on and investing for the long term.

John Spellar

Will the Minister publish that analysis?

Andrew Stephenson

We published a strategic outline business case updating the business case for HS2 when we deposited the Bill. We will continue to publish further analysis whenever investment decisions are made.

I need to make some progress. While there will be differences of opinions across the House on many issues—hopefully not too much on HS2—I hope that the transport Bill announced in the Queen’s Speech last week will receive broad support. After all, I hope that we can all agree that we want a rail service that delivers day in, day out for passengers: one that provides comfortable, affordable services that run on time. I am sure we all agree that the current model is not working. I therefore hope that hon. Members will support our plans to fundamentally reform the rail sector. We will create a new body, Great British Railways, which will act as a single guiding mind for the entire network, get a grip on spiralling costs, replace franchising with passenger service contracts, improve the passenger experience and simplify the ticketing offer.

The Bill also paves the way for the transport of the future, putting the UK at the forefront of new low-carbon technology. It will help the transition to electric vehicles by installing 300,000 public and private charge points across the country by 2030. It will set new safety standards and assign legal responsibilities to introduce self-driving vehicles on to our roads. That market, which is worth tens of billions of pounds and set to create 38,000 jobs, is a matter of when, not if, and UK consumers need to be reassured that the legal protections are in place. Similarly, rules are needed to improve the safe, legal use of smaller, lighter zero-emission vehicles such as e-scooters, which are only growing in popularity.

I hope that hon. Members will recognise that the Government are finally correcting the historic wrong that has long denied seafarers the same rights and protections as workers on land. That was ruthlessly and shamefully exploited by P&O Ferries earlier this year. My right hon. Friend the Secretary for Transport pledged swift action at the Dispatch Box, and I recall that his plans received support from both sides of the House. The harbours seafarers’ renumeration bill will make it a condition of entry for ferry services to pay the equivalent of the national minimum wage to seafarers while in UK waters. It is not right that workers plying their trade in and out of British ports, carrying passengers or vital freight, are denied the rights that the rest of us enjoy.

Fleur Anderson (Putney) (Lab)

I may be pre-empting the Minister in raising the subject of Hammersmith bridge, which has been closed for three years, but Putney residents will really want to know that urgent action is being taken. Will he give a date by which Hammersmith bridge will be reopened for vehicles, freeing up the roads in Putney from the congestion and pollution that they suffer?

Andrew Stephenson

The Government continue to work on that issue with the local authority. Obviously, we have committed funding towards supporting the repairs of the bridge, and I am pleased that the work is under way. I would suggest that the timescale for those works is a matter for the local authority, and I cannot answer that today, but the Government continue to support swiftly bringing that bridge back into use. We have been critical of some of the delays in getting the work under way, but I am pleased to say that it is now happening.

Rachael Maskell (York Central) (Lab/Co-op)

York’s rail supercluster is taking rail into the future. I would like to know whether the transport Bill will see investment in research and development to ensure that we can really build on the success of what has been created in York and go further, faster.

Andrew Stephenson

I am pleased to say that it will. We are keen to support innovation in our railways across the UK—not just in York I should say, before I get criticised. We have great clusters of small and medium-sized enterprises working in the rail sector to drive forward innovation. I thank the hon. Lady for not making a pitch for York to be the headquarters of GBR; I thought that her question was inevitably going there. I am sure that will follow later in the debate.

I want to leave plenty of time for the debate, so I will close by urging hon. Members to recognise that, far from holding back, the Government are fully backing our transport industry to help us build back better, decarbonise our economy, level up this country and give everyone, wherever they live, the tools to realise their talent.

Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP)

On air connectivity, yesterday at a Hospitality Ulster event it became very clear that there is a problem with connectivity between Belfast City Airport and Heathrow, not because the flights are not there but because the staffing is not there. It is trying to recruit, but is unable to do so. Will the Minister have discussions with Heathrow on solving that problem, and therefore increasing and improving air connectivity?

Andrew Stephenson

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. That issue is close to my heart, as someone who frequently flies to Northern Ireland and passes through City airport. Reducing delays at all airports across the UK is something that the aviation Minister, the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Robert Courts), is working on. I will ensure that the hon. Gentleman’s remarks are brought to his attention and we will see what more we can do to ensure that passengers are not unduly inconvenienced when passing through that airport.

We are getting on with investing more money in our railway infrastructure than any Government have invested since they were built and that is why we are making funds available to local decision makers to restore railway lines, introduce cycle lanes and fix potholes. It is why we are carrying out reforms to make our trains and buses deliver consistent value for passengers. And it is why, from self-driving vehicles to micro-mobility to zero-emissions aviation and shipping, we are laying the groundwork and preparing today for the jobs and travel habits of tomorrow.