Wendy Morton – 2022 Speech on Rail Connectivity in Leicester, Coventry and Nottingham

The speech made by Wendy Morton, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport, in the House of Commons on 8 February 2022.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Leicester East (Claudia Webbe) on securing this debate about rail connectivity between Leicester, Coventry and Nottingham. The cities of Leicester, Coventry and Nottingham lie at the heart of this country, serving as beacons of productivity and potential, and so understanding the needs of their communities, passengers and businesses is absolutely crucial in delivering a rail network that works for everyone. That is why the Department for Transport set up Midlands Connect to help to develop a pipeline of proposals for the region, informed by local people, businesses and councils that know what is best for their region.

Midlands Connect is a partnership of local authorities, local enterprise partnerships, Network Rail, National Highways and the business community. It published its first transport strategy in 2017 and has spent the past 18 months refreshing its evidence base in order to produce a new strategic transport plan, which will be published in April. I eagerly await the plan, which will then set out Midland Connect’s investment priorities for the next decade.

I am grateful to the hon. Member for her contribution this evening to that broad evidence-gathering effort. I know her advocacy of investment in the local rail network service serves as a valuable representation of the needs of her constituents. I am sure it will be understood that, given the constrained fiscal environment we find ourselves in, competition for funding is stronger than ever and not all proposals will receive funding. However, she is taking the right approach in advocating for rail investment in her region and, along with Midland Connect’s ongoing work to develop proposals, this work is vital in shaping the future of the rail network in the east midlands, even if funding availability proves limiting in the short term.

Lilian Greenwood

I appreciate that our region has to compete with others, but the Minister will know that the east midlands region has the lowest level of transport rail spending in the country and has had for some time. If she is serious about levelling up, do we not have to invest in transport links in the east midlands region? Nottingham and Coventry are 108 minutes apart. They are about the same distance apart as London and Reading, yet the journey times in the south-east are so much faster. Should she not be investing to make that difference?

Wendy Morton

I will come on to some of the investments we have been making, but let us not lose sight of the fact that we are investing a massive £96 billion in the midlands and the north through the integrated rail plan over the next 30 years, which is about delivering benefits for passengers.

Taking a long-term approach to rail investment by developing a pipeline of deliverable proposals is the right way to ensure that the east midlands can receive investment as and when funding becomes available. Midlands Connect has produced a strategic outline business case setting out the case for connecting Coventry, Leicester and Nottingham by rail. This provides a useful overview of how rail connectivity between those three cities could be delivered and the benefits it could yield. Midlands Connect has made strong arguments for the proposal, describing a range of economic, social and environmental benefits that it expects to arise from the implementation of the scheme.

I therefore appreciate the desire of the hon. Member for Leicester East to improve transport links between the three cities. My officials at the Department are currently evaluating the case and will report back to me in due course. It is important that I reiterate that, in the context of an unprecedented economic strain as a result of the covid-19 pandemic, not all proposals we would like to deliver can be funded, but each proposal will be evaluated on its merits and affordability.

I also note that we are considering a number of other schemes proposed for the east midlands through the integrated rail plan. The IRP recommends improved connectivity between the east and west midlands via a new HS2 station at Curzon Street in central Birmingham and via existing stations at Nottingham and East Midlands Parkway. It also suggests that the Department works with Midlands Connect to develop connectivity to the east midlands and Coventry as part of the committed midlands rail hub programme. Although it is important to plan ahead and strive for more, I will take a moment to reflect on some of the excellent work that has already been done in recent years to improve rail transport for the east midlands.

Tom Randall (Gedling) (Con)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Leicester East (Claudia Webbe) on securing the debate. Does the Minister recollect, as I do, that the press described the east midlands as the big winners of the integrated rail plan? Connecting places such as central Nottingham with central Birmingham will massively improve journey times. It will not only improve connectivity between Nottingham, Derby and Birmingham, but open up other cities in the west midlands for onward connections.

Wendy Morton

My hon. Friend is another passionate advocate for rail and he is absolutely right. The IRP has committed a massive £96 billion for the midlands and the north over the next 30 years, which is the biggest investment.

As I was saying, our work to electrify the midland main line represents the biggest improvement to the line since it was built in 1870. Along with the new timetable, the upgrade boosted the number of seats on services across the east midlands and cut travel time between London and Derby, Leicester, Sheffield and Nottingham. Meanwhile, the electric trains introduced between Corby and London are quieter and much better for the environment, because they produce nearly 80% less carbon. That means that people living near the railway will breathe cleaner air and experience less noise pollution.

Additionally, Leicester City Council was recently awarded £17.8 million from the levelling-up fund to make improvements to the station building. Following the Government’s devolution deal with the West Midlands Combined Authority, which allows local authorities to deliver local priorities, Coventry City Council is undertaking an £82-million redevelopment of the city’s station. Working with Midlands Connect and others, the Department will continue to seek opportunities to improve rail transport in Leicester and in other towns and cities across the midlands.

I will touch on a couple of specific questions that the hon. Lady raised. She sought some clarity on whether Coventry, Leicester and Nottingham are part of the midlands rail hub. The Department wants to work with Midlands Connect and other regional stakeholders to consider how we improve connectivity between the cities and towns of the midlands. The recommendations in the integrated rail plan, which will provide a direct high-speed link between Birmingham and Nottingham, will have an impact on the current MRH proposals. Those impacts will need to be considered fully. We look forward to receiving the updated Midlands Connect strategic plan and its recommendations on that area.

The hon. Lady also raised the issue of funding for the next stage, which I believe is the outline business case.

Claudia Webbe indicated assent.

Wendy Morton

The hon. Lady is nodding. The pipeline approach is designed to ensure that future rail projects are properly planned and scrutinised to deliver maximum value and benefit to rail users and taxpayers, and that the portfolio is balanced and affordable. It is important that projects continue to be assessed and prioritised based on their business cases and how they contribute to key Government priorities.

The updated rail network enhancements pipeline is due to be published soon and we will set out our revised programme following the spending review. We will continue to work with stakeholders to develop proposals for future funding rounds should it not be possible to take forward particular proposals at this time.

I want to conclude by thanking the hon. Member for Leicester East.

Lilian Greenwood

Will the Minister give way?

Wendy Morton

I will continue to conclude.

I thank the hon. Member for Leicester East for securing this debate and shining a spotlight on rail connectivity between Leicester, Coventry and Nottingham. She should be assured that a lot of work is ongoing to understand the needs of the region and to plan a pipeline of work to deliver a better rail network for Leicester and the east midlands. I urge her to continue her work with the Department and with Midlands Connect to bolster our understanding of the transport needs of Leicester and the east midlands and to shape future rail investments for the good of her constituents and the wider region.