Lilian Greenwood

Labour Party Parliamentary candidate for Nottingham South

Lilian's Transport Speech at the Queens Speech Debate

Thank you Mr Speaker.

While we are not discussing the Queen’s Speech that I would have wanted to see, it is fitting that we are starting these debates on transport.

The challenges facing this country’s transport networks are profound, and there are some important cross-party points of agreement for meeting them.

So I welcome the Transport Secretary to his place, but I must point out that his speech was a timely reminder of the need for Ministers to mind the gap between their rhetoric and reality.

 

Let’s look at the real Conservative record.

 

Bus and rail fares – up by a quarter.

Billions cancelled from road investment schemes. New projects under threat.

The hard shoulder – stripped from the motorways.

The wheels falling off the “Cycling Revolution”.

A twelve billion pound maintenance backlog on our local roads.

Rail punctuality at its worst in a decade.

And of course, Mr Speaker, they promised a Northern Powerhouse, but they inflicted a Northern Powercut instead.

That said – we do welcome the Government’s stated intention to introduce new local transport powers, extending to the whole country the ability to introduce the successful models employed in the capital. 

Now, I'm sure the whole House will want to extend its congratulations to Sadiq Khan, the former Member for Tooting, and now the Labour Mayor of London.

It is perhaps a little known fact that the new Mayor is the son of a bus driver.

And the proposal in the Bus Services Bill to extend London-style bus powers to the rest of the country is long overdue.

Of course, these plans could have been made in the last Parliament, but Ministers consistently opposed any proposals for tendering of bus services, to reverse the disastrous consequences of the 1985 Transport Act.

So I welcome the Transport Secretary’s Damascene conversion to the cause of bus regulation – you might call it a screeching u-turn, Mr Speaker.

The devil, as always with this Government, will be in the detail. We are yet to see the text of the Bus Services Bill, and it is a pity that it has not been published in time for today’s debate.

I would remind the Government benches that last year’s Queen’s Speech also promised to introduce a Buses Bill.

Mr Speaker, you wait five years for a Conservative Queen's Speech that mentions buses, and then two come along at once – even if they are running late.

We will subject the Bill to close scrutiny, and it is vital that it provides a legal framework that protects local authorities from eye-watering compensation claims, and safeguards working conditions.

The Bill must address the decline in rural bus services, which have seen some the worst cuts and highest fare rises in the country.

We also need to make sure that the powers are available to any area that wants them.

I do welcome the concession the Transport Secretary has made. The Queen’s Speech briefing, published yesterday, said the Bill will allow communities without a directly elected mayor to apply for contracting powers.

But it is unclear why those powers should remain within the gift of the Department.

Both he and I represent areas that have, so far, not agreed a devolution deal.

So perhaps the Right Honourable Member for Derbyshire Dales can explain why those powers are good enough for Manchester, but they might not be good enough for Matlock.

We also saw the announcement of what the Government calls its Modern Transport Bill – although given that the Minister of State drives a hundred and twenty six year old car and is a noted steam engine enthusiast, perhaps we should check their definition of modern transport.

As ever, the announcement is long on statements of intent, but it is short on details.

The Queen’s Speech briefing said that the law on drones would be reformed, but in answers to my Honourable Friend the Member for Birmingham Northfield, the Government has consistently said that the EU is leading in this area.

It is unacceptable that Ministers seem to be waiting for a serious drone strike to occur before taking action. Mr Speaker, it is vital that we don’t wait for an accident to happen.

Electric cars will play a crucial role in driving down emissions, but we are playing catch-up – because the Government failed to deliver its promise in the Coalition Agreement to establish a national charging network.

We welcome the development of personal autonomous vehicles – which could be a boon for our crucial car manufacturing industry, and I know that they are eagerly anticipated by many disabled people.

Although, given that insurance premiums have risen by twenty per cent over the last year, the Government’s proposal to insure driverless cars on the same basis as existing policies may not offer much reassurance to prospective buyers.

That said, the focus on driverless cars is perhaps understandable, given this Government's tendency to run on autopilot.

The Minister of State has said that the UK should adopt a ‘light touch’ approach to driverless car development, but we do need to make sure that the risks have been fully analyzed. It is important that Ministers are not moving – to coin a phrase – too far and too fast.

It should be said however that is just about the only area where the Government could be accused of acting too quickly.

There is a reference to supporting the growing space industry by constructing the UK’s first spaceport.

And in fairness to the Transport Secretary, it is impressive that he can put a rocket in space, even though he can't fix our pothole-ridden roads.

But Mr Speaker, we also need to look at the Bills that were not announced yesterday.

The Department has had two years to respond to the Law Commission’s report on taxis and private hire vehicles. The rise of Uber and other app-based services makes the need for reform all the more urgent.

Yesterday, during the debate on the Royal Address, the Right Honourable Member for Meriden said personal safety on transport services was women’s highest priority, and there can be no excuse for the delay in reforming licensing and regulation in this area. 

Ministers have also had almost three years to respond to the Law Commission on reforming level crossings, which are the single greatest cause of risk on the railways.

In the Department’s “Level Crossing Reform Action Plan” legislation was planned for this year, but that too did not make the Queen’s Speech.

It’s extremely disappointing that such safety-critical legislation is not being treated as a priority by the Government.

And turning to the wider Conservative record on transport – time and time again promises are broken, investment is delayed, and the interests of passengers and road users are not put first.

Of course, there was a line to please the Chancellor in the Queen’s Speech. It said that the “Government will continue to support the development of a Northern Powerhouse.”

Mr Speaker, you call tell that the Right Honourable Member for Tatton is a wallpaper salesman: these days he spends most of his time papering over the cracks.

Let’s look at this Government’s real record on transport in the North.

Rail spending in the North West has fallen from £97 per head to £93. In the North East, it has fallen from £59 to £52 – less than half the national average.

Funding for bus services in Yorkshire and Humber is down 31 per cent.

Traffic police numbers have fallen by over 10 per cent across the North.

Shamefully, Ministers hiked rail fares on Northern commuter routes by up to 162 per cent.

And they allowed modern TransPennine trains to be transferred from the North to the South, costing taxpayers £20 million.

The Transport Secretary initially wanted to call his railway pledges the ‘Rail Investment Plan,’ until a civil servant pointed out that it would be shortened to RIP.

And indeed, delays to electrification schemes were shamefully covered up before the election, and only confessed once the ballot boxes had closed.

And there are real concerns that promised road investment could suffer the same fate.

Highways England has publicly discussed, and I quote, the:

‘Challenges on the current RIS construction programme, including the level of uncertainty about projects due to begin in the final year and the potential knock on effect on funding RIS2.’[1]

Those plans include the TransPennine Road Tunnel, spending on existing TransPennine links on the A66 and A69, and on the M60.

It’s clear that you can’t trust the Tories on roads, rail or local transport.

Northern cities are succeeding under Labour leadership in spite of this Government.

Mr Speaker, the North was a Powerhouse long before the Chancellor arrived, and it will be a Powerhouse long after he has gone.

And on HS2, the Government’s delivery has been anything other than high speed.

A decision on the route of Phase Two has been delayed by two years.

And I would like to remind the Ministers opposite of a Conservative Party press release that was issued in Yorkshire on April 21st 2015 – they shouldn’t worry, it’s not about campaign bus expenses.

No questions from the local media were allowed – and it is not difficult to see why. It said:

“Phase Two of HS2 will also start construction from the northern ends, with the Leeds to Sheffield Meadowhall section made a priority to open even before the line as a whole opens.”

Those plans to build HS2 from the North have already been dropped, if they ever existed, and once again, we are faced with a Conservative election promise that is being broken.

Over the last fortnight it has been reported that Phase Two is under review, and that prominent critics of HS2 have been invited into the Treasury to set out the case against the project.

That stations at Sheffield and Manchester Airport could be dropped, along with the Handsacre link that will allow high speed trains to run to Stoke and Stafford, even though the Secretary of State has given specific assurances in this House on the link’s future.

And there are specific questions that the Government must answer:

  • And if those reports have no basis, then why did the Business Minister, the Right Honourable Member for Broxtowe, say on Sunday that ‘we need to … sort this out or Sheffield might miss’ out on HS2?
  • And has what the Government calls the ‘appropriate third party funding contribution’ – which the Transport Secretary said Manchester Airport Station was dependent on – been agreed?

Mr Speaker, two months ago this House this House voted overwhelmingly in favour of HS2 on a specific understanding of the project.

Of course costs must be kept under control, but it would be totally unacceptable if the plans for high speed rail in the Midlands and the North were downgraded by some unaccountable and secretive review.

And let’s not forget this Government’s record – if it can be called that – on aviation.

In 2009 the Prime Minister famously said that “the third runway at Heathrow is not going ahead, no ifs, no buts.”

By last July, this had morphed into:

“The guarantee that I can give … is that a decision will be made by the end of the year.”

It is difficult to take the latest pledge to report by this Summer seriously, but perhaps the benches opposite will surprise us.

And while Ministers are failing to deliver on national transport schemes, local services are being severely squeezed.

More than 2,400 bus routes have been downgraded, or cut altogether.

The Rail Minister said at Christmas that ‘our plan for passengers is improving journeys for everyone’ – but the reality is that commuters are being priced off buses and trains, and some season tickets cost £2,000 more than in 2010.

Punctuality is at its worst in a decade – worse than when the network was still recovering from the Hatfield disaster – and Ministers are considering further cuts to Network Rail’s maintenance plans.

The pothole crisis on local roads gets worse by the day, after local upkeep budgets fell by 27% in real terms.

And even on cycling and walking – an area where the Prime Minister has a personal interest – I'm worried that the Ministers might have misinterpreted their brief.

That can be the only explanation for publishing a cycling and walking investment strategy that is so utterly pedestrian.

Targets for increasing walking journeys have been inexplicably dropped, and I hope the Secretary of State will take advantage of National Walking Month to reverse that decision.

A year ago, the Prime Minister said that it was his ‘aim to increase spending [on cycling] further to £10 a head.’

However, analysis of spending figures obtained by My Honourable Friend the Member for Cambridge shows that Government funding for cycling is due to fall to just 72 pence per head outside London.

Mr Speaker, it’s clear that the Government has produced a Cycling and Walking Investment Strategy with no investment, and the promise to raise spending on cycling has been broken.

Across the country, this Government is failing to deliver the investment we need, and it is failing to support local, sustainable transport.

But there can be no doubt that the situation would be made even worse if we left the European Union.

Mr Speaker, we are on the verge of making a decision that will affect countless generations.

Europe has made real improvements to the quality of journeys within the UK, and from it to the continent and beyond.

Although we need to urgently move to real world testing, overall emissions from new vehicles have been reduced by up to 95 per cent in the last few years alone, thanks to European standards.

The EU is a vital source of funding for national and local projects. Whether it’s Crossrail, new IEP trains, or major ports upgrades, there is often European funding behind the transport improvements we desperately need.

But if we did vote to leave, airlines would lose their current rights to access the American market, spelling chaos for jobs in the aviation industry.

And some of our largest car and train manufacturers have made it clear that inward investment and jobs depend on access to the single market.

So I will close by saying that the transport case for staying in the EU is overwhelming, as it is in other policy areas, and I hope that when we plan transport services over the coming decades, it is on the basis of a renewed mandate for our membership of the European Union.

 



[1] Jim O’Sullivan, presentation to ORR Board, September 2015

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