Gavin Newlands – 2022 Speech on Transport

The speech made by Gavin Newlands, the SNP MP for Paisley and Renfrewshire North, in the House of Commons on 19 May 2022.

It is a pleasure to follow the Chair of the Select Committee on which I serve. I agreed with almost everything he said up until the last line of his speech.

Today’s debate is timely. As it is currently outlined, the Government’s transport Bill is a missed opportunity to drive forward a transformational change and set an agenda for the years and decades ahead. At a time when transport initiatives are at the heart of the green industrial revolution, whether that be zero-emission buses on our streets, electrifying our railways, new hydrogen and battery-driven trains, e-bikes and e-scooters fundamentally changing horizons for urban travel or the moves towards 20-minute neighbourhoods to rebalance our economy and promote active travel, the paucity of ambition shown in the Government’s programme is frankly embarrassing. They make no mention of properly ramping up the transition from diesel buses to zero-emission vehicles in our towns and cities, no mention of real high-level investment in active travel that matches the leadership shown by the Scottish Government, and no mention of fully decarbonising the rail network south of the border. A net zero future is also a future less reliant on energy supplies tied up in geopolitics or hostage to the whims of dictators and rogue states.

Europe and the United States are beginning the move away from Russian oil and gas; the UK could be taking the lead and accelerating the move away from oil and gas completely. They could be working with colleagues in Scotland and across these isles and across the continent to decarbonise our transport networks. But that simply is not going to happen any time soon with the limited horizons shown in the planned transport measures. We are in a climate emergency, but the Government’s plans simply do not meet the needs of our times.

On a positive note, I welcome the Government’s move to reform and improve the regulations relating to electric vehicle charging infrastructure and to enforce things like interoperability and minimum service standards. I hope that we will see those regulations promised by the Government in March on the statute book sooner rather than later.

We are just eight years away, as I think the Chair of the Select Committee said, from the Government’s deadline of 2030 for ending sales of new petrol and diesel cars. Electric vehicle infrastructure needs a huge jump-start across these isles, but instead the Department seems intent on continuing its abysmal record in England outside London.

Ian Paisley (North Antrim) (DUP)

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it is difficult to encourage bus operators to move away from diesel transport when their diesel receives direct subsidy? Reducing or removing that subsidy would encourage the purchase of hydrogen or other vehicles.

Gavin Newlands

That may well be the case, but the bus operators to whom I speak would not welcome any decline in the subsidy—far from it. I am lucky in that Renfrewshire has more electric buses or zero-emission buses than anywhere in the UK outside London, but it still has diesel buses as well. I am not convinced that bus operators would welcome the removal of that subsidy at a time when fuel prices are high. When fuel prices come down, the hon. Gentleman’s idea will not be without merit.

As has become the norm in the Department for Transport, we have a glossy booklet for the Secretary of State to plonk on the shelf behind him while he is on camera—at least when he is not flying to New York for location filming in yet another cinematic masterpiece. I hope the folk at BAFTA are taking note of his current videos on Twitter. Behind the gloss, however, the electric vehicle strategy is thin gruel. While the Scottish Government plan to maintain our record as the UK nation with the highest per capita number of public charging points by doubling their numbers by the end of this Parliament, the UK Government are letting England fall even further behind. Already England, outside London, has been left in the slow lane as charging infrastructure is rolled out. That gap will only grow over the coming years, and as always it will be the poorer and more rural areas that will lose out as private investment focuses on high-density, high-capacity locations while intervention from the state is minimal. That ideological direction has to change, and change soon.

The fact that home charging attracts the standard VAT rate for domestic electricity supplies of 5% while public charging points are still subject to the full 20% is not just a disincentive to people thinking of making the switch; it also penalises electric vehicle users who do not have the benefit of a driveway or a space to park a car. I own an electric car, which I can charge at home, making use of the cheaper rates, but people not in that position are having to pay the 20% rate. Anyone living in a flat or shared space is paying a great deal more to charge their car than those with front-door properties. That is essentially a tax on the less well-off. There is no word in the programme for government of any action to tackle this inconsistency. I hope that the Minister will be lobbying her colleagues in the Treasury to address the anomaly and ensure that all those making the switch to electric vehicles are on a level playing field.

The DFT is also miles behind on zero-emission buses. Scotland has ordered nearly three times as many per capita, and since the start of the year those aged 21 and under, as well as those over 60, travel on them free of charge.

Active travel seems not to merit a single mention in the outline of the transport Bill. After two years of low traffic neighbourhoods, Spaces for People, a continued increase in cycling, the move towards 20-minute neighbourhoods and the exponential growth of e-bikes and e-scooters, I find that staggering. Within three years Scotland will be spending 10% of our entire transport budget on active travel, an unprecedented amount across these isles and a genuinely transformational level of spending. The potential waiting to be unlocked in our towns and cities through this spending is huge. Down south, however, the DFT is still stuck in same mindset: a funding scheme here and a bidding process there, dripping out relative crumbs of funding to local government.

By 2024-25, Scotland’s active travel spend will amount to £60 per person per year, adding up to £320 million every year. That is transformational spending, not just because it will reduce emissions and offer alternatives to cars, but because it will give a huge boost to our town and city centres and local neighbourhoods. In England, the DFT plans to spend barely that annual amount over the next five years, which works out at just over £7 per person. That is not simply a lack of ambition; it shows the lack of any kind of lessons learned from the pandemic. I give the UK Government credit for at least having the good sense to put Chris Boardman in charge of Active Travel England. He is backed by a cross-section of stakeholders. However, in the absence of real resources behind his plans and real political commitment from the Government, this is like expecting him to win the Tour de France on a bike with no pedals.

I hope that Ministers are noting the Scottish Government’s spending plans, because our interests in Scotland are England’s interests too. There is little point in putting out the fire in your house if your neighbours are dousing petrol on theirs. We need the policy makers here, and the Treasury, to understand the importance of active travel in the context of transitioning to zero carbon and boosting local economies to the benefit of both people and small businesses.

On rail, we are promised the establishment of Great British Railways. It has been clear for decades that the fragmented and illogical mess left behind by the Secretary of State’s predecessors back in the Major Government and continued by their successors, both Labour and Tory, must be radically transformed. Reintegration is to be welcomed, and having heard in the Select Committee from the transition team’s lead, Andrew Haines, I know that the will and the experience are there at the operational level, but the hard fact is that building a better railway system across these isles needs political will and ambition. Notwithstanding what the Minister of State said in his opening remarks, one look at the Government’s track record since 2010 would lead anyone to conclude that ambition barely exists. Umpteen electrification schemes have been dumped or hugely scaled down, key parts of HS2 serving the north of England have been scrapped, and Crossrail is £4 billion over budget.

Everyone concerned with transport in the UK isles wants to see Great British Railways succeed, and begin to put an end to the wasted years that have seen the UK left in the sidings while other European countries have quietly got on with bringing their networks into the 21st century. However, if the DFT and the Treasury cannot match that good will with cold hard cash and a change in attitudes, I fear that we will be having these same debates in five, 10 or 20 years’ time. If GBR is established without changes to the way in which rail infrastructure is governed, that will constitute yet another missed opportunity to put full control of our railways where it belongs, with the Scottish Parliament.

Chris Loder (West Dorset) (Con)

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Gavin Newlands

I had a feeling that my colleague on the Select Committee might pipe up at this point, and I am happy to give way to him.

Chris Loder

I thank the hon. Gentleman.

Rail operations in Scotland are, of course, delegated to the Scottish Government. The hon. Gentleman will know full well that there are great difficulties with the Scottish operations at present, not least because of copious strikes. It is clear that the Scottish Government have allowed the unions to run the railways in Scotland, hence the difficulties, particularly at weekends. Given this Government’s commitment to the Union connectivity review and to ensuring that we have excellent connectivity throughout the UK that benefits the economy of the whole UK, does the hon. Gentleman not think that before calling for too much more of what he would like—independence and delegating things away from Westminster—the Scottish Government ought to get their own house in order?

Gavin Newlands

I do not recognise the picture that my colleague paints. The fact is that with its integrated approach to track and train in Scotland, ScotRail provides the rest of the UK with an exemplar of how to run a rail system. As for the union connectivity review, we had backed HS2 to come all the way to the Scottish border and provide high-speed rail in the central belt of Scotland and beyond. I hope that when the Under-Secretary of State winds up the debate, she will be able to tell us when HS2 will actually reach the Scottish border and we can marry up that high-speech connection with Scotland. I should be very interested to hear about that, because the Scottish and UK Governments agreed to it a number of years ago.

As my colleague has pointed out, ScotRail is now in full public ownership, so now is the time to transfer full responsibility, permanently, for the infrastructure currently in the hands of Network Rail to the Scottish Government so that we have a truly integrated rail network. That will also allow for reform of the current track access charge regime, which is sucking resources from Scotland’s railways to be mixed into the Network Rail pot, rather than their being invested directly in Scotland’s track and infrastructure. ScotRail is forking out twice the access charges of Northern, despite a broadly comparable passenger network. West Midlands Trains, with almost exactly the same number of passenger kilometres as ScotRail, pays only one third of the charges paid by our publicly owned train operator. If the transport Bill is going to be mainly about implementing the Williams rail review, it must fundamentally alter the structure and framework of track access charges and provide a level playing field for publicly owned companies such as ScotRail, as opposed to the private concessions that will continue to operate in England under the auspices of GBR.

I welcome any action by any Government who try to put a stop to the shameful behaviour of P&O Ferries. It is still shocking to recollect that the chief executive not only admitted that his company flagrantly broke the law in treating 800 loyal and hard-working staff with the contempt that was shown by him and his colleagues, but said that he would do the same again. However, it is the Government who should be acting, rather than subcontracting their role to others. Palming off responsibility for employment law to port authorities—most of which are now privately owned—is not what workers in our maritime sector need. They need real protections from the likes of P&O, enforced by Government rather than subject to the decision making of port owners.

Privatising employment law must be the ultimate in Tory ideology. Who needs Governments to enforce the laws that they make when private enterprise is there to do their job for them? It also beggars belief that they are happy to transfer responsibility for employment law to the private sector, but still resist transferring it to a democratically elected Parliament in Edinburgh. The Scottish Government have made it clear that they want pernicious employment practices such as fire and rehire to be banned, but Scotland’s workers are still trapped under the current antiquated system. If it is good enough for companies such as Associated British Ports or Peel Ports, it is good enough for our democratically elected Government in Edinburgh.

We know the important role our transport sectors play in our society and our economy. Since the last Queen’s Speech, we have seen chaos at our ports caused by Brexit, huge cutbacks in funding for public transport in England and the continuing evidence from here and elsewhere in the world of the existential threat that climate change poses to us and the rest of humanity. Those threats need radical action to tackle not only the global challenges but those closer to home. Sadly, the Government’s programme on transport falls well short.

No country can provide all the answers or claim perfection, but at least the Scottish Government are putting up a fight and trying to make the necessary changes, some of which are tough and, dare I say it, unpopular. If the UK Government do not want to make those changes, that is regrettable for all of us, but that should not allow them to continue putting up barriers around Scotland’s response. We cannot be hindered by inertia and a lack of ambition any longer. On transport policy, like so much else, it is for the UK to try to show why Scotland should continue to be part of the Union. On the evidence so far, it has an impossible task.