Wendy Morton – 2022 Speech on Portishead Railway

The speech made by Wendy Morton, the Minister of State at the Department for Transport, in the House of Commons on 14 June 2022.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for North Somerset (Dr Fox) on securing this debate on the future of Portishead railway. He has been a passionate advocate of reopening the railway from Bristol to Portishead for many years—since long before I became the Rail Minister. I recognise that the project has strong support in his constituency and I am grateful to him for setting out its benefits this evening, as well as some of the challenges.

John Penrose (Weston-super-Mare) (Con)

The Minister is right to congratulate our right hon. Friend, my neighbour and co-MP for north Somerset, but it is not just his constituency that is affected. Right next door in my constituency, many people are in favour of the project, not only because of the reductions in the environmental impact of all those trips to and from Bristol, but because of the levelling-up impact, particularly on less well-off places such as Pill and others in our area.

Wendy Morton

I hear my hon. Friend’s comments and recognise that the project runs beyond the boundaries of the North Somerset constituency.

The proposal is now part of MetroWest, a third-party metropolitan rail programme promoted by West of England Combined Authority and North Somerset Council. The Government have already committed funding support of £31.9 million to close the funding gap for the project to reopen the Portishead line to passengers, and a further request from the joint promoters for £15.6 million of additional funding was recently received. I assure my right hon. Friend the Member for North Somerset that the case is being carefully considered by the Government. The Department will continue to work closely with WECA, NSC and Network Rail counterparts on the approval process for the scheme’s full business case.

I want it to be clear that I fully recognise that the scheme is of great importance to my right hon. Friend’s constituents and to the wider Greater Bristol area. The congestion on the A369 between Bristol and Portishead, with journey times of about an hour in peak periods, is a barrier to travel. Reintroducing a rail connection would bring the communities of Portishead and Bristol closer together, improving work opportunities for local residents and for leisure and tourism. It would also bring people closer to the rest of the country.

The funding is subject to the granting of a development consent order, which is a statutory requirement, and a satisfactory full business case. The full business case will also need to progress through my Department’s rail network enhancement pipeline approval process, a framework by which all publicly funded rail enhancements are considered.

My right hon. Friend will be aware that, with regard to the scheme’s development consent order, the Secretary of State issued a “minded to approve” decision on the 19 April. This sets out that the Secretary of State is minded to make the order, subject to receiving further information and evidence regarding the costs and funding of the project, with the reasons for that set out in the letter. The Secretary of State has requested that this information be provided by 30 November. To allow sufficient time for this information to be provided and for the Secretary of State to consider it, the Under-Secretary of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Robert Courts), issued a written ministerial statement on 19 April extending the deadline for the DCO application to 19 February 2023. Should satisfactory information be provided ahead of November, the Secretary of State will look to issue a final decision on the DCO application as soon as possible and ahead of the February 2023 deadline.

It is important to note that I am not involved in the decision on this application, but I am sure my right hon. Friend will understand that this is still a live application under consideration in my Department. I am therefore unable to take part in any discussion on the pros and cons of the development consent order itself, to ensure that the process is correctly followed and remains fair to all parties.

I must also stress that the development consent order process is a statutory requirement under the Planning Act 2008. The process for considering an application must follow the legislative requirements, and the Secretary of State can request any further information that he considers necessary to allow him to undertake this consideration and to fulfil his statutory duties.

More broadly, with regard to the Government’s commitment to rail schemes, we have committed to levelling up the country, and reconnecting communities to the railway is central to that ambition.

Karin Smyth

I have been a Member of Parliament for only seven years. I do not recall, off the top of my head, how many Ministers I and the right hon. Member for North Somerset (Dr Fox) have appeared before on this very issue. A range of reasons have always been given as to why this is not happening. Last year, we understood that there were some environmental questions to be answered. I gently say to the Minister and her officials that each time a new Conservative Minister comes to the House with a new range of hoops to jump through and a new range of excuses as to why our part of the country does not have this commitment, which we long believed we had, the worse it is for the Conservative party.

Wendy Morton

As I set out earlier, I can assure the hon. Lady and my right hon. Friend that the Department —this Government—will continue to work closely with the West of England Combined Authority, with North Somerset Council and with Network Rail counterparts on the approval process for the scheme’s full business case. I give that commitment this evening.

Dr Fox

As Secretary of State, I was rather too fond of saying to my officials that the difference between a doctor and a civil servant was that, for a doctor, a good outcome was that the patient got better, and for a civil servant, a good outcome was that the patient was treated for a very long time. It seems to me that we are in one of these examples where the process is almost becoming an end in itself. We actually need results. I entirely understand the point that my hon. Friend is making about the DCO and the fact that she cannot comment on it, but what we need is a decision to be brought to a conclusion as soon as possible. We need a real railway for real jobs and for real environmental benefits. I understand the financial constraints and would not be calling for greater overall spending, but within the budget that exists in the Department for Transport we must have movement, because the delay that we are facing is becoming intolerable.

Wendy Morton

I appreciate what my right hon. Friend is saying, but obviously there is a process that I and the Department must go through.

When it comes to the Government’s commitment to rail, I gently remind colleagues in the Chamber that, as part of our levelling-up agenda, in January 2020 the Government pledged £500 million for the restoring your railway programme, to deliver on our manifesto commitment to start reopening lines and stations. That investment is about reconnecting communities across the country, regenerating local economies and improving access to jobs, homes and education.

We reopened the Dartmoor line in November last year, restoring passenger services between Exeter and Okehampton for the first time in 50 years. That has been a great success, with passenger journeys double the anticipated level. In May this year the service frequency on the Dartmoor line was doubled so that passengers now have an hourly service. That followed further infrastructure work that has delivered an improved journey time of around 35 minutes between Okehampton and Exeter St David’s. The line opened two years ahead of schedule and significantly under its approved budget.

The Government also announced, in January 2021, £34 million of funding to progress plans to reopen the Northumberland line to passenger services between Ashington and Newcastle, with six new stations and a service of two trains an hour by the end of 2023. I gently say to the hon. Member for Bristol South (Karin Smyth) that those are some strong examples of this Government’s commitment to investing in the railways.

The Government also recognise the importance of the Greater Bristol area as one of the UK’s most productive and fastest growing city regions, which is why we continue to make significant investments there. For example, on Friday 10 June funding of £95 million for phase 1 of the Bristol Temple quarter regeneration programme was announced. That investment will transform access to Bristol Temple Meads station, delivering new and improved station entrances to the north, south and east, with related transport interchange and active travel provision. The new entrances will make it much easier to reach the station from the city centre and surrounding neighbourhoods, and the eastern entrance will connect to the Temple quarter—one of the largest urban regeneration sites in Europe and soon to be home to the University of Bristol’s enterprise campus.

That project will complement wider investment in the regional and national rail network already being made, and the Temple Meads station upgrade will unlock transport to south Wales and the south-west of England, significantly increasing passenger capacity and improving connectivity between Bristol, Cardiff and London. This work is complemented by the recent refurbishment work at Bristol Temple Meads station, which will provide better passenger facilities and improved accessibility.

The Government also invested £132 million in the remodelling of the railway in the Temple Meads area, which was the largest enhancement project on the Great Western route in 2021. That work will mean more regular and reliable trains with more seats coming through the station. The new railway layout is also a key enabler of the MetroWest scheme, which is allowing new local services that improve connectivity between Bristol and its neighbouring communities, enabling people across the south-west and south Wales to benefit. A new parkway station at Portway on the MetroWest line towards Severn Beach, which received £1.7 million of backing from my Department’s new stations fund, is also being built. The station will serve both the adjacent park-and-ride site and local residents, and is expected to open in December this year.

To conclude, the Government are committed to improving rail in the wider Bristol area as part of the levelling up of the west of England. I listened carefully to what my right hon. Friend the Member for North Somerset set out this evening, and we will continue to support the West of England Combined Authority and North Somerset Council to develop their business case for the reopening of the railway between Bristol and Portishead. We fully acknowledge and appreciate the importance of this project to his constituency.